Having read an article from the November issue of In Brief titled ‘Five reasons why qual is here to stay’, I was keen to pick the brains of its author Nick Southgate during his webinar on the same subject. I therefore signed on to the half-hour broadcast during my lunch break, after double-checking that my webcam wasn’t transmitting back a live-stream of my messy fajitas. What I learned was reassuring; qualitative researchers are not easily replaceable by our Numbers Nemeses, such as Big Data, behavioural economics, and AI. The value of qual lies in its capacity for storytelling and ‘story-reading’.

The latter is an innately human skill. Robot researchers may be able to analyse words, but they will likely miss the stories that respondents tell via body language and unspoken communication. Nick describes this as “the feel in the room”, which human moderators can sense but which AI cannot. He uses the example from the ESOMAR paper ‘(Wo)man vs. Machine: from Competition to Collaboration’: having been programmed to identify a lie as a delay between the question and the answer, machine moderators can mistakenly denounce a whole focus group as liars when in actuality they are pausing to think.

Similarly, storytelling might be the umbrella over the “five reasons why qual is here to stay” despite technological advances. Indeed, Nick notes that the multiple ways of making digital recordings may have lulled clients into a false sense of security by overprivileging the verbatim, rather than the conclusion that follows.

Qual must do more than simple reportage. That is, we can prove our worth by avoiding DRIP debriefs (‘data rich, insight poor’). At this point, Nick casually says a line which I plan to write up, print out and stick to my desk: information is good, but inspiration is better. Indeed, he hypothesises that, given the choice between trawling the length and breadth of Twitter or sitting down for a two-hour conversation with a few respondents, clever clients will choose the latter over the former. They will choose humans over hashtags… they will choose inspiration, stories, and people.

I highly recommend a visit to the webinar archives to watch this conversation in full. You might find yourself with a ‘Southgate Saying’ on your desk as well.