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  • Suzanne Lugthart

Qualitative research: Is It All Over for Big Data?

I was reminded recently of a wonderful project Rightmove did with the talented Mary Coyne of Hope & Anchor and which was presented at the Market Research Summit.

The research involved spending the best part of a day in peoples’ homes, the aim to elicit the anecdotes and memories that make up the DNA of profound happiness people feel living in those homes . The debrief was delivered using just their voices, allowing us to immerse ourselves in their stories whilst filling in the pictures for ourselves. I’ve been doing this research thing for a while and I can honestly say it was a piece of genius.

In a fascinating conference agenda covering everything from ethnography and communities to neuroscience and AI, this was purely and simply a piece of traditional qualitative research done brilliantly. And it stood out like a sore thumb (although, if the comments from people afterwards were anything to go by, in a good way).

So what was it about this research that brought a room full of hard nosed stakeholders to tears when it was debriefed whilst delivering exactly what we needed as a business? For me it was the quality of those conversations. As clientside researchers we make decisions all the time about qual or quant, and whether to do depths, focus groups, ethnography or communities etc. And there’s often an implicit assumption when making those choices that all qualitative conversations are equal. But they absolutely aren’t. Digital conversations and human conversations are fundamentally different. When I briefed this project originally I was fully expecting to be recommended a community. I now know that a community, whilst wonderful for many things, would never have given us what we needed.

Mark Ritson the Marketing Week columnist talks about “marketers having a long and illustrious track record of being inanely attracted to the latest flashing knobs of technology which will change everything for marketers". Few of them ever do. And I worry that market researchers are falling into some of the same traps. We’re still debating really stupid questions like “Will big data kill research?” This isn’t a battle to the death to declare one discipline’s superiority over another. It’s a just a challenge, a challenge for client side researchers to make the right choices and it’s getting harder because there are just so many more to choose from. Technology gives us a myriad of interesting new ways to elicit insights and we’re constantly tempted by shiny new techniques which promise to do things faster, cheaper, more innovatively. But, in my view, technology or innovation is only any good if it does the thing it’s replacing better.

So before we all rush off and commission our award winning, virtual reality research project, I wanted to make a stand for reality, and simple human conversations. I love that there’s so much innovation in our industry: I’ve embraced plenty of it in the past and will continue to do so. But there’ll always be room in my heart for the craft of beautifully executed, good old fashioned, flashing-light-and-technology-free qualitative research too.


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