How people talk in online qual – it’s all about the moves!

Qual research is all about talk

The debate about online bulletin board qual and face to face qual usually focusses on the technology – whether it is available, and whether or not the target market is comfortable with the method. Some are and some aren’t is the short answer. 

 

What is more interesting to me is how to moderate with each method so we get the right result. Since so much of moderating, especially online, is talk, I have had a look at what we know about differences in how people talk online and how people talk face to face. And not just how they talk, but how they talk to each other.

 

Talk is all about ‘moves’ 

There are two linguistic theories - discourse analysis (DA) and discursive psychology (DP) - which teach us about how people use language in social interaction. One really useful concept they both use is that conversations are a sequences of ‘moves’. In any conversation: 

 

·         One person says something,

·         Someone may respond directly

·         Someone else may say nothing at all

·         Others may try to side-step the issue, by changing the conversation

 

You need to look at the whole ‘move’ – the original comment and how people respond to it or ignore or sidestep it – to understand what is going on. 

 

Are online and face to face qual moves the same? 

The question is, are conversations different online, and does that make them better or worse for research? Answering that question involves us busting a bit of a myth about face to face groups which is that face to face moderators ask a question and then participants discuss the issue in some kind of lively and productive way, each person expressing their opinion more or less in turn and more or less equally.  

 

OK that happens sometimes!  But in fact if you break a typical face to face group conversation into ‘moves’ you can see that there are lots of other patterns of talk in a face to face group, such as the one below. 

 

Move 1

The moderator asks a question.

Move 2

Participant 1 responds to the moderator.

Move 3

Participant 2 responds to participant 1.

Move 4

Participant 3 agrees with participant 2.

Move 5

Moderator probes for further information or asks the question again

Move 6

Participant 4 makes an unrelated point

 

This kind of thing happens all the time. Face to face group participants do talk to each other, sometimes to agree or disagree with others, and sometimes to elaborate a point. They also quite often talk directly to the moderator not about what the moderator said, but what another participant said. Sometimes, to the moderator’s frustration, someone will interrupt another group member and start to take the conversation into another direction. It can then take some time for the moderator to bring the conversation back on topic. In short, one of the tasks of the face to face group moderator as we all know is to keep the discussion on topic.

 

The ‘moves’ in an online bulletin board group conversation are different.  A typical conversation could be:

 

Move 1

The moderator asks a question.

Move 2

Participant 1 responds to the moderator.

Move 3

Participant 2 responds to the moderator.

Move 4

Participant 3 responds to the moderator.

Move 5

Participant 3 responds to participant 2.

Move 6

Participant 4 responds to the moderator

 

Participants typically respond individually to the moderator’s question first. They do respond to other people’s posts but usually only after they have answered the moderator. I am talking about moderated group discussions here, not unmoderated online forums where debates escalate easily. I am also talking about stand-alone bulletin boards where each person has been recruited individually to the board and group members do not know each other. Actually, the ‘moves’ in any kind of affinity group are different from the pattern I have described.

 

Staying on topic – and probing

So what does this imply?  First, it shows that online conversations are more likely to stay on topic than face to face conversations.  The role of the moderator online though is different because online is harder to probe.

 

Face to face the moderator is in control, and is always there as a presence, to clarify questions, restate them or re-explain activities, or deal with group dynamics. Moderators use gesture, voice and direct questions to get the attention of people they need to ask a follow-up probe question. 

 

In an online asynchronous discussion you can’t do that, because that person may have logged off for the day already. In fact, moderators need to be online or at least accessible from dawn until dusk ready to probe a point when someone is online. Some people will tell you that an online moderator can be moderator in absentia, just posting questions in the morning and leaving for the day, but this is a myth. There are certainly times in the day when no participants are active, so you don’t need to sit and stare at your device all day.  I find it’s best to use two moderators to do whatever probing, clarifying or activity-stimulating that you need. 

 

Challenges for analysis

As I have suggested already, it is also not just about ‘what people said’. As an example, imagine a scenario where one person has said something shocking or outrageous. If participants in a face to face group have already bonded well, and this provocative statement seems to threaten the group, other group members will usually respond to defend the group position. If they argue their point with sufficient force, the original speaker may then soften their argument the next time they speak; or choose to strengthen it. The analysis and interpretation needs to take into account that whole ‘move’  It is not good practice to pull out one or two choice quotes in isolation.

 

In an online group, participants can just ignore provocative statements. There is nothing as easy as ignoring someone else’s post.  Similarly, moderators in online groups need to focus on what was ignored or never repeated, as well as what was said.

 

So that brings me to the end of my ‘move’ 

If we are linguistically attuned, we can see how the flow of discussion occurs in different types of conversation. The ‘moves’ made by participants and the moderator help keep the conversation flowing. These ‘moves’ can be enlightening for the moderator, as it becomes clear what participants regards as ‘sayable’ or ‘not sayable.’  Moderators need to moderate online conversations differently, because in one the moderator needs to put strategies in place to keep people on topic, while online the strategies need to be there for probing and clarifying.  Finally, thinking about conversations as ‘moves’ highlights how the task of qual analysis is more than just describing ‘what people said’. 

Tags: Market Research, Surveys , Qualitative Research , online qualitative, Making sense

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