I have a confession to make: I am a bonafide, card-carrying qualie. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this term, it’s a (nerdy) colloquialism to define people who are really into qualitative research. I swear, it’s a thing.

So yes, I am a qualie. I have been involved in conducting qualitative, ethnographic research in some way or another throughout the course of my sinuous career. I get jazzed by learning about people’s lived experiences—the barriers they encounter when attempting to improve their health and well being; the things that make changing behavior a snap; all of it. Throw some neuroscience in there to understand what’s happening in the brain and the ways in which emotional responses catalyze behavior change? Yes. Yes, please. I am in heaven.

Fairly recently, I transitioned into the world of digital. Sure, I’ve been using digital tools for years to conduct and analyze both qualitative and quantitative research. But this burgeoning field of digital tool development to solve urgent global challenges and the concomitant rise in internet penetration and smartphone usage worldwide—albeit unequally—more than ever begs the need for qualitative research. Why do some tools take off while others flounders? What do people really want and need—does developing a digital tool for a specific community even make sense, for example? How can we best gather this information? I have so many questions.

I’m also a true believer in the value of thinking outside the box and applying insights from other, parallel fields in problem solving. Naturally, when the opportunity arose to attend the Qual360 conference—the leading global conference focusing on qualitative research and insight, predominantly in the market research space (and possibly the originators of the term “qualie”…unclear)—I jumped at the chance. Below are three of the themes that arose over the course of the two days it was held here in Washington, D.C.

1. Agile Research is the Name of the Game…But Does It Come at a Cost?

Traditional, more rigorous qualitative research takes time. Yes more and more, companies are looking for quick insights to drive solutions to problems. Research needs to be timely, flexible, and adaptive because the problem is not necessarily static and, frankly, time is of the essence. This is absolutely true in international development, where the solutions we design can literally mean life or death and the environment in which they are applied is ever-changing.

Cue the trend of taking an iterative approach—which seems to be what we mean when we say “agile,” although this isn’t always the case. Companies such as Expedia have adopted a “1 percent better philosophy,” where the goal is to make constant, incremental improvements to the user experience over time that, at aggregate, lead to significant improvements to a larger problem. They employ the RITE method, for example, to test and evaluate products. Unsurprisingly, research firms are using smaller and smaller sample sizes to better allow for agility, but I wonder: Is there such a thing as too agile? Are we sacrificing research depth and rigor by touting “agile” and does that even matter if we’re getting results? Could we be more iterative as we design tools to solve international development problems, or does the sensitive nature of what we do demand more rigor?

Qual360Rach.jpgQual360 Conference in Washington, D.C. Photo: Rachel Clad.

2. Discrete, Passive Data Collection Yields More Accurate—And Thus Actionable—Insights

The Hawthorn effect can be a killer in qualitative research. People make assertions about their behavior in a focus group or on surveys, yet act completely differently when observed in the field. This has a direct, often negative impact on the way a tool is developed and its efficacy in changing behavior and quelling various societal ills.

Market research firms are moving toward passive data collection to overcome this challenge. New tech is springing up to fill this gap—Adrich and QualSights being great examples—allowing users to engage with products and tools in their natural environment without the presence of researchers who make them feel uncomfortable or unnatural. Smartphones and smart glasses are being used to record a consumer’s journey throughout the productsphere (it’s possible I just made up that term, although I’m sure someone beat me to it) and provide an opportunity for researchers to ask questions to clarify the motivations behind behavior via text, for example. Amazing.

And yet. Pause the excitement. My mind goes immediately to the issue of privacy. DAI has written extensively on the issue of data privacy and trust (see here, here and here). Is it OK for a person to record their surroundings and everyday activities and have another person look in from the other side? Many stores don’t allow outside video recording for a reason. And in the international development space, recording sensitive information—on health behaviors, for example—could potentially be used to discriminate or shame unless those data are protected. Could passive data collection have the unintended consequence of putting a person or community in danger?

3. Big Data and AI: Saviors or Harbinger of the Demise of This Field?

OK, so that’s a little dramatic, but this topic merits debate. Big data and artificial intelligence are becoming more prevalent in development. The potential benefits are endless—they are being used to predict future crime rates, provide disaster relief, and have the potential to revolutionize our healthcare industry. But does big data and its translation into AI threaten the status of the qualitative researcher? If so much information is readily available, is there any need to delve deeper? And what about research analysis? AI is starting to become more and more common in this space. For example, it’s used to transcribe qualitative research and aids in text/speech translation and keyword and topic generation.

Participants at Qual360 wanted to know, is big data substituting for true curiosity about consumers? Maybe everything we need to know has already been recorded. I—and many others—say no. More precision and prediction still don’t tell us the “why.” Big data reveals past behaviors and can predict future ones, to be sure, but it doesn’t provide the deep humanistic knowledge that results from well-designed and well-implemented qualitative research. Qual’s role is strategic and forward-looking; it unlocks cultural truths that will often make or break digital tool design and provides direction for implementation and scale up. In other words, qualies are here to stay.

So what’s next, you ask? Good question. I think that in international development, we sometimes forget that we are indeed selling a brand. Market research provides some great insight into consumers’ needs and preferences, and its approach to getting at this information could be useful in the international development space, with caveats. In true researcher fashion, I’d say this warrants…well, more research. Stay tuned for more on Digital@DAI.