The organisers of this year’s conference tried to provide a little something for everyone, and the feedback afterwards showed that they’d achieved their aim. The day opened with introductions from Sarah Jenkins…and then we were off.

Packed schedule

The day as a whole produced “a sense of changing trends,” says Judith Comyn, “from the respondent to the participant.” And this is, after all, what this conference has always been designed to do. Sessions that stuck in her mind include the Apprentice papers, one that presented research as entertainment, and several on online communities (one carrying out Skype interviews with young people and even un-moderated groups).

Andy Dexter ‘s paper on Brexit — a session chaired by Peter Totman — won the award for best contribution on the day, and he gained so many plaudits he gave us another tour of his slides recently on Facebook Live. Chatting to delegates afterwards, this was some of the feedback: “I thought his session was absolutely brilliant,” says Sarah O’Brien. “What a good presenter: it was really challenging, and he put it over in such an interesting way. It took a couple of weeks before I asked myself why we were given a quant paper in a qualitative conference.”

Asking the big questions

Richard Gush found this session (on fear and loathing in Brexit land) particularly interesting. “Dr Marie-Claude Gervais and Andy both raised excellent questions about the future of research,” he says. “These were not only in terms of who we speak to, but also how our insight is then used to influence decision making. These big questions are really what these conferences are about, and we don’t speak about them enough.”

The morning also included a session on recruitment, chaired by Ken Parker and featuring Becki Harrison, Charlotte Neild, James Diggle and Ia Croxton, and another on mentoring with Lydia Fuller and Keisha Herbert, before we emerged — ravenous after all that brain activity — to a well-deserved and delicious lunch. The one note to organisers: more places to sit next time, please.

The afternoon kicked off with the ever popular Qualitative Apprentice, chaired by Caroline Hayter. We had three worthy contestants: Oliver Barker from Razor Research, Hannah Mills, Ipsos ECE and Dub’s Dr John Joseph Whittle. In Niall Smith’s eyes, the key session, in many ways, was that of the winner: Hannah Mills’ presentation about reciprocity — about giving more of yourself to your participants. “This presentation encapsulated what felt like the overarching theme of the conference, that of humanising research and treating participants, researchers and clients, as people first,” he says.

Richard Gush was equally impressed: “Her humility and enthusiasm was truly inspiring and captures the essence of what it means, to me, to be a quallie. It was a pleasant reminder of the privileged position we occupy as researchers — where people reveal their deepest secrets to us. It’s an honour we should acknowledge and cherish, and be careful not to exploit.”

Then we were back into workshops, with one room swiftly de-stressing thanks to the expert tuition of Nicole Hermann and Sarah Jin, and the other using laughter to find new brand stories.

Laughter and revolution

The laughter workshop quickly amassed fans, and was seen as “really refreshing, different from sitting through a traditional workshop, by bringing actors in.” There was some debate about how it applied to brands, but it scored a hit by harnessing people differently. It was led by Stephanie Rowley and Steve Hales using a new approach called Consumer Theatre. Sadly, the panel session which followed, on ‘Qualitative Research: Happy and glorious, or ready for a revolt?’, chaired by Judy Taylor and featuring Felicity Adkins, Peter Dann and Daryl Fielding, was hit by time constraints (and a bit of over-running previously)…it was just getting going when it was time to stop — but that’s a lesson for the future.

The last paper session was on engaging participants, billed as ‘New ways to make research engaging for participants but still insightful for clients’. It was chaired by Monique Drummond and featured Helen Bailey and Ella Fryer-Smith, Nicki Karet, Rhiannon Price, Daniel Tralman, and James Livingstone. It’s a hot topic, particularly given the current research by the GRBN. It was swiftly followed by an engaging keynote from magician Lee Warren, chaired by Katie Slater, which brought the curtain down on a day that burnished AQR’s reputation.

“I was impressed by the diversity of themes covered on the day (an eclectic mix including lawn tennis, history course material, modern art, and health) — but also by the great cross-section of researchers to be seen on the platform (representing the full spectrum of age and experience),” says Caroline Thompson.

“The papers prompted me to really think about how we do qualitative research today. The breadth and diversity of methods is amazing. What struck me is that even the simplest approaches, employed in a clever way, can challenge the norm and lead to the best insight.

“The conference presented highly innovative approaches that break new territory — for example, showing how a ‘reality TV’ approach could be integrated into the research method to improve story telling of the findings and engagement of the stakeholders in the results; and how Orange used 360° Go Pros to film family groups watching World Championship football games and understand more about how their sponsorship strategy should be developed (this was an ‘Embracing technology’ session featuring Alistair Vince, Claire Emes and Darren Hanson, chaired by Stephen Cribbett).

Analysis still key

“And finally, there was also a sober reminder that no matter which qualitative research approach is pursued, it’s the upfront planning and interpretation of the findings that are all important, and while some of the newer methods may seem more glamorous and fun, it is a serious business. So, it could be said that while diversity increases, the core drivers of what make great qualitative research remain the same.”

The conference wasn’t just truly inspirational, delegates also found exciting the presenters’ willingness to innovate, how open they were about their experience, and how willing to take risks. And of course it wouldn’t have been complete without our sponsors, Dub, iView London, Roots Research, Take Note, Reflections Manchester, See Research, Saros Research and Babble. Now we have two years to plan for the next one — albeit with the AQR/QRCA 9th Biennial Worldwide Conference on Qualitative Research scheduled for the interim next May. Probably best to start preparing the programme now.