Good questions, great answers: Choosing the right research methodology


There has never been a more exciting time to be doing market research. Only a few decades ago, researchers essentially had two options to choose from in methodology: qual or quant? Nowadays we are constantly inundated with new and creative methods for gathering insights. Whether it’s big data, social media, or mobile research, these inventions promise to bring you the best of both worlds of qual and quant projects: offering depth and breadth of insight. And all at a fraction of the cost. But is it too good to be true?Our take on it is that there is a time and a place for everything, and it’s all about matching the right method to meet the individual objective of each project. If you’re having a hard time choosing your methodology, here are some tips to guide you in your decision:

In-Person vs. Remote Methods: In-person methods like IDIs or Focus Groups are useful primarily when you have a highly complex stimulus. They’re also useful when the research involves emotional exploration or laddering. Also keep in mind that in-person methods usually mean opportunity for backroom discussion. If this engagement is important, facility research may be helpful. However, in-person methods are typically not ideal for small budgets or if key stakeholders cannot observe live. Also, if you’re seeking to target low incidence audiences, you may not want to constrain yourself to a small geographic area. Specific examples include:

  • Focus Groups: Focus groups are great when a project calls for an exploratory or brainstorming objective. However, take care to avoid them when you want to glean individual decision making processes as group members with stronger personalities tend to bias other respondents.
  • Mini-groups: In some ways combining the best aspects of IDIs and focus groups, mini-groups are good for hybrid exploratory/individual decision research.
  • In-Depth Interviews: IDIs are perfect for when you want to know the details of someone’s individual decision process. Also, when you have a more emotional objective, you don’t run the risk of others biasing someone’s response. The only thing about IDIs is that they are incredible time and resource intensive, so make sure to be cognizant of that investment.
  • Ethnography: When your objective is more behavioral than exploratory or decision-related, ethnographies can be an extremely useful tool. However, they tend to take large amounts of time and money, so if your budget is limited, consider a less intensive method.

Remote methods can include bulletin board focus groups, webcam interviews, and telephone interviews, or TDIs. These methodologies are ideal for small budgets or quick turnaround projects where timing is necessary. Unlike in-person methods, remote research is also useful when seeking to target a low incidence audience. Examples of remote methods include:

  • Telephone Interviews (TDIs): TDIs tend to give you relatively deep insights without breaking the budget. They are also perfect for low incidence target respondents. But things can get a little hairy if you have lots of stimuli, or when there is an emotional objective where facial expressions and body language are just as important as the words being said.
  • Bulletin Board Focus Groups (BBFGs): Although these are often sold as equal to in-person focus groups, bulletin boards typically are only appropriate for basic ‘stimulus-response’ objectives, or when you have extremely low incidence targets. However, if your research requires exploration and deep probing, you may want to steer clear of BBFGs.
  • Webcam Interviews: Webcam interviews are great tools for when you have an emotional or projective project, but for whatever reason the research cannot be done in-person. You have the benefit of seeing the respondent’s expressions and body language without having to be there. Stakeholders are usually able to stay engaged on these platforms virtually. Keep in mind, however, that for some less tech-savvy respondents, webcams can be a little complicated. Make sure you build a contingency plan for technical difficulties.
  • Online Ethnography: When an in-person ethnographic is too costly or time consuming, but you still have a behavioral objective, online ethnography tools can come in handy. That being said, you always have less control over the process remotely, so make sure that you take into account any privacy concerns or respondent fatigue.

So next time you’re feeling stumped as to what methodology to use, keep in mind that there’s probably a methodology out there that is tailored just for your needs.

Ellen Hart is a Director at Vivisum Partners. She specializes in in-depth qualitative research in healthcare and nonprofit fields. Email Ellen at ellen.hart@vivisumpartners.com