Online qualitative bulletin boards

Online qualitative research is less well known in New Zealand than its face-to-face counterparts, although it has been used successfully internationally (e.g. USA, Europe) for many years.

After considerable research into the various qualitative online approaches, Karin began offering discussion boards in 2005. This approach maximises the benefits of an online methodology while minimising the drawbacks. A summary of what discussion boards are and how they work appears below.

Please let us know should you wish to discuss them in more depth or if you would like to see some example outputs from previous boards.

So what is a Qualitative Bulletin Board?

  • A discussion board is a secure online space for questions, answers and discussion.

  • Our bulletin boards typically operate with between 8-30 participants. The choice of board size depends on the research need. Larger boards can be compared to extended depth interviews while smaller boards more closely resemble focus groups in dynamics.

  • Respondents are recruited in exactly the same way that they would be for groups or depths – specialist qualitative recruiting agencies use a screening guide developed by the researcher in consultation with the client to ensure the right people are included.

  • Boards are set up to operate for a certain time, usually three to seven days.

  • Participants are expected to log in every day for up to 30 minutes to read and respond to questions and comments by the researcher and other participants (for smaller boards). Use of a seven day bulletin board typically provides us with around two-three contact hours with each participant.

  • Additional questions (usually two to four cluster or 5-7 simple ones) are posted on the website regularly as a topic evolves.

  • A discussion board is not an open-ended questionnaire that is put in front of respondents and then reeled back a week later (although this can be appropriate in some instances). It requires considerable moderator interaction with participants to truly take advantage of the medium.
The key strengths of bulletin boards are:

  • Convenience. The physical location and schedules of participants, clients and facilitators/researchers are almost irrelevant. All that is required is a computer with internet access. Participants can take part at times that suit them, without having to worry about travel or interference with work or family life. They can go online throughout the day for a few minutes each time, sit down for one big long session, or anything in between – whatever they want, whenever they want. This aspect is particularly relevant for busy management and healthcare professionals.

  • Balanced participation. Even the most quiet and thoughtful people have the same opportunity to “speak” online. Assertive individuals with a lot to say have minimal impact on an online bulletin board, unlike in a face-to-face focus group where they can dominate the discussion. Board participants do not have to worry about being polite in terms of letting everyone have a turn – everyone has the same chance and ‘talks’ at the same volume. This protects minority opinions and those held by less assertive people as it’s not a race to speak.

  • Reduced social inhibitions. Without the immediate physical presence of others, people are more likely to be brutally honest about what they think and feel. They are less prone to holding back potentially embarrassing confidences or restraining themselves from saying something that might be controversial. This honesty is enhanced by the fact that participants are in a familiar, safe environment, e.g. at home. This also ensures that responses truly are the individual’s own, uncoloured by what they’ve heard others say, until they have a chance to read other posts.

  • More robust and reliable information. Participants have much more time to think about concepts than in in-depth interviews or focus groups. We do not need to hope that the participants remember everything relevant during the hour or two of the interview or group, because they interact with us for a much longer period of time. We take advantage of the prompts of different times of day, different days of the week, various events and other triggers that cause people to think of relevant issues, and to react in different ways. A bulletin board exploration of a topic can be far more thorough, considered, and relevant than a traditional face-to-face approach.

  • Deeper and more meaningful information. Responses may be better thought out, more complete and more accurate. Bulletin boards contain a mix of ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks and carefully considered analyses and opinions. Traditional in-depth interviews and focus groups only capture the very immediate responses, and give little indication about how ideas will age and opinions change.

  • Better documentation. Transcripts from bulletin boards are available immediately and are totally error-free – no breaks in the record of conversation where someone was mumbling, many people were talking at once or the background noise was too high to hear. In addition, the transcript identifies the source of each comment and observation, which allows us to analyse the progression of thoughts and beliefs in individuals over the life of a bulletin board.

  • More information from each respondent. Individuals have more chance to be heard. Instead of 120-150 minutes being divided among 5-8 people in a traditional focus group, each online participant has the potential for virtually unlimited ‘floor time’. This is especially useful when topics are lively and prompt much debate and discussion. It is also helpful for those participants who are not as comfortable about asserting themselves. Each participant generally contributes 2-3 hours.

  • Transcript contains all communication. Because respondents know that their intent can only be judged by they words they type, they generally try harder to ensure their words convey the right message. In face-to-face interactions, people know they can use their tones of voice and facial expressions and so on to convey significant additional information, so they can be sloppy with their actual verbal language – and when we work from transcripts of those interviews and groups much of that additional non-verbal information can be lost. A transcript from a bulletin board reflects the complete attempt of the person to communicate their meaning.

  • Dynamic management of stimuli. Concepts can evolve in response to the discussion, with any refined concepts and ideas being submitted for further evaluation. This is especially useful for new product development or advertising/ communications evaluation.

  • Improved viewing. Clients and other researchers can easily and invisibly view the boards with passwords specific to them. Like respondents, they can log in any time is convenient for them and spend as little or as long as they like reading the posts. This is much less intrusive than video cameras, closed circuit viewing or one-way mirrors.

  • Increased client involvement. It is much easier in an online methodology for the facilitator/researcher to contact the client during the group to ask for clarification of a topic or direction if something unexpected comes up. Similarly, clients can ask additional questions of the facilitator/researcher, and furnish new information or test material for the facilitator/researcher to post in response to what participants say on the board.
Primary limitations

The key limitations of bulletin boards revolve around two issues: internet access and the lack of face-to-face interaction and the resulting inability to assess non-verbal cues. The impact and importance of these issues need to be taken into account when considering online research.

  • Internet access. Obviously an online forum requires respondents to have access to the internet, ideally at home. Currently around 70% of households in NZ have internet access, but there will be times that the target market will not have enough internet penetration to reasonably ensure a moderately representative online sample. Elderly or very low SES populations may not be suitable.

  • Lack of non-verbal cues. Because all interactions are via keyboard, the researcher is unable to evaluate for him or herself the tone of voice, hesitations in speech, facial expressions, body language and other non-verbal cues. Although many people will try to compensate through words, emoticons and special acronyms (LOL, etc) that have evolved through email, online communities and chat rooms, the lack of face-to-face interaction can be a critical limitation in some situations.

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Karin has successfully used bulletin boards with a diverse audience, including:

  • Main household shoppers

  • GPs

  • Medical specialists (psychiatrists)

  • Senior management

  • Employees

  • Mothers of young children