Eight months after starting my career in qualitative market research, I got to experience in-person fieldwork for the first time. We are a “boots on the ground” team here at KNow Research, but, as I started out in the field during the pandemic, those boots were the slippers I wore at my desk in my home office as I assisted our virtual research projects. Conducting interviews in-person seemed almost mythical to me.
However, with a vaccinated team and the demand for in-person product testing, I recently got the opportunity to go on my first work trip to Chicago. After confirming that I did, in fact, own boots and not just slippers, I got those boots on a plane. Here is what stuck with me:
The troubleshooting I’m used to often involves helping participants set up their Zoom or messaging people with background noise to either mute themselves or let their dog outside. It’s a lot of “I can hear you, Jim, I just can’t see you yet. Would you please try your camera again?” Setting up participants in person bypassed the tech check, but there were plenty of moments that made me pause and think “Oh, that’s something you don’t need to think about from your computer.” Things like…there’s a fly in the room. Wait, now there are a dozen. Ah! Should we close the door? But it’s too hot out! Should we change rooms? Setting up the interview room, figuring out who is going to sit where, or even making sure we had enough power outlets were all things I’d never had to consider working from my computer. They added pieces to a puzzle we had to solve together to create a comfortable research space for ourselves and the participants taking the time to come to an unfamiliar location. Tackling these in-person obstacles—however irrelevant they may have been to the final insights—made me feel closer to my team members and provided a sense of camaraderie. (Oh, and we finally banished the flies, clearing the room for insights!)
There was one crucial element to the research itself made me take an even further step back and realize I’m not on my computer: the participants get to touch things now?! Watching participants interact with a tangible product was very new to me. Participants formulate additional thoughts, and sometimes change their minds, about the product while testing it out. There are insights to gain from just watching participants wordlessly turn something in their hands. This seems obvious now, but I had never witnessed this sensory element to qualitative research, and I look forward to experiencing it more.
I loved meeting our participants face to face. After a year of sticking to stricter social circles, meeting new people anywhere is still somewhat of a novelty. This sentiment was shared by the participants I met and the client who was in the field with us as well. We were all just happy for the opportunity to go somewhere new and engage with different people!
Though we encourage our clients to respond in real-time to our online fieldwork with our Virtual Back Room, I found I was able to form a genuine connection with the client working closely with them over the course of the project. Between sessions, we could turn to each other to discuss the findings and identify the best quotes. We could also better maintain everyone’s excitement about the research as we were all in the same room, experiencing it together.
More than that, I left the two-day project feeling like I’d made strong professional connections that will be far easier to maintain. We’d shared more than just the deliverables. We’d shared an Uber where we got to discuss our lives and careers. We’d shared a plate of insanely good garlic scalloped potatoes at a restaurant where the waiter told bad jokes. I know that all client interactions are different and strong connections can be made on Zoom meetings, but this experience made me feel like I could reach out in the future and say “Remember that time in Chicago…”
It’s fun to be in a new place! I’ve always loved staying in hotels and exploring new cities. That said, it’s also super convenient that I can set up my home office and support our online fieldwork from wherever I happen to be. That versatility and adaptability to the work are what I love. Qualitative research can be done anywhere, and sometimes that means a specific market that requires you to take a trip. In a year when most researchers had to make mental and methodological adjustments to online research, I familiarized myself with online research as the only form I knew. Being out in the field for the first time, I experienced not necessarily what qualitative research used to look like, but what it can look like going forward.