Some twenty years ago, I sat before a committee of scholars to defend my thesis. It was on the concept of intertextuality, or layered meaning meant for different audiences, in The Simpsons. It was serious. It was also a qualitative research study. I ran focus groups and spent hours observing different groups of people watching the show in their own environments. I was studying the concept under the guidance of Everett Rogers, the father of Diffusion of Innovations Theory. I went to the University of New Mexico to get a Master's degree with Ev as my mentor. He and I were on the same page about the method. We both believed in the power of qualitative, natural setting research. But no one else did.
This was 1993. Observational research - even in a graduate Communication program - was an aside in the curriculum, if mentioned at all. Sitting in the company of someone's living room watching them watch TV wasn't considered real research. That was appropriate for monkey and bird behavior or market research brand teams - not a human scholarly endeavor. Where's the rigor, other committee members asked? What can you conclude from this? How do you know these people aren't acting differently because there's a stranger in their den? I was defending this process in 1993, and I defend it today, after 16 years as a qualitative [only] researcher.
Turns out I've made an enormously fulfilling, impactful career out of this type of evidence. I love what I do. I've been called a People Whisperer - a title I revere. For clients struggling to make an internal case for natural setting research, here are some highlights of its magical powers:
Rigor: There is nothing more essential to rigor than providing a safe, comfortable environment in which to hope people tell you the truth. I believe we will look back one day (I already am) at the innards of a focus group facility room as a dusty science museum. Yes, it's convenient and cushy to have a staff full of amazing people to fetch post-its, projectors and flip charts. It's nice to have air-conditioned rooms with wine and gourmet food to keep your sleepy (can you blame them?) clients happy sitting in the dark for 8+ hours a day. But if we stop for a moment to ask what is rigorous about this, where do we arrive? The focus group is the limbo spot between natural setting and quantitative (i.e., not face-to-face) research. It is the easy way out of messy (i.e., human-centered) research. But individuals are complex. The least we can do to understand each other is to stop expecting authenticity from artificial environments.
There is nothing more essential to rigor than providing a safe, comfortable environment in which to hope people tell you the truth.
Conclusions: Used correctly, good qualitative data doesn't only direct you toward decisions. Roughly half of what is learned in qualitative answers the business questions at hand. The other half brings up areas of inquiry that we hadn't thought of before we got into real environments with real people. The true gains in attitudinal and behavioral research come when a combination of natural setting, observational research informs a large-scale quantitive study. Even then, we are one step nearer to validation, but must always remember that social science is not neat. Human motivation and decision-making come with variance. Today, this is even more true as technology allows for constant peer review (ratings/stars/likes) and connection. We can see how other people feel about products/services/movements/ideas, and this factors into our decisions. Researchers must not leave this piece out. To get at what's behind motivation and action, we must at least go to Step 1 in creating an environment conducive to truth.
Social science is not neat. Human motivation and decision-making come with variance.
Big business has been getting close to its customers for years. But we're just now starting to blur the boundaries to view these groups as one. Humankind, not customers. No more Me Client, You Customer. This polarity gets us nowhere, except poor decision making. We engage with people not as buyers, but as fellow humans. This is a huge leap toward the embrace of observational research. As we enter more people's homes, workplaces or recreational time we get practice leaving our roles and titles at the door. We jump into the arms of rich, real-life and experience things with them. And therein lies the rigor. How much more precise can we get than being there? Truth is the essence of rigor.
Welcome to the tipping point. We are realizing that numbers and averages are only part of the story, and that artificiality begets the same. Now we talk about Emotional Intelligence and the Curiosity Quotient as measures of intellect! Without observational research and acceptance of human complexity, we couldn't have arrived at a point where we realize that someone's inquisitiveness could be an indicator of intelligence. The next wave in measurement and research is going to put the individual front and center. We will need to think about what constitutes data differently. Qualitative research of the future will be more immersive and idiosyncratic than ever before - an exciting shift for the people whisperers.