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  • Writer's pictureJani de Kock

Should this study be conducted in-person?

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

Current: Southern Hemisphere Spring of 2021


A few practical considerations with the return to in-person research methodologies



First, we need to ask - Why do we want to do face-to-face? If it is possible to achieve close to the same result remotely, then that should be prioritised.


Reasons that justify face-to-face:

  • Are there some consumer segments important to the study that can not be reached remotely? And excluding them would skew the results?

  • Do we have stimulus material that participants have to interact with in-person e.g. taste tests or complicated material that would best be presented in person?

  • Setting requirements - are we studying a process or environment that would be better served by breathing the same air, spending time shoulder-to-shoulder doing certain tasks (e.g. using a product / mystery shopping etc.)

If the conclusion is that some components of the study necessitate in-person, face-to-face methods then common sense and covid-best practice should prevail e.g.:

  • IDI's and smaller groups over large groups that allow social distancing in-doors

  • Covid symptom and recent exposure to known positive cases, screening telephonically the day of the fieldwork and then again when the participant arrives at the venue

  • Ethically, we need to think carefully about the incentive we offer - it should be worth the time investment required but not extravagant to motivate risk-taking behaviour

  • We should be intentional about how we disqualify a participant on symptoms / possible exposure and if an incentive will still be paid when they arrive at the venue and we decide not to let them in

  • Temperature screening, hand sanitiser, catering individually packed i.e. group not sharing a platter of finger food or a jug of water etc. - and better to send them home with a meal voucher or something to eat than eating at the table.

  • Moderator vaccinated

  • Participants to arrive with masks but then face shields to be provided to the group/participant to allow better non-verbal communication and rapport - but only with permission from all (obtained during recruitment)

  • Pre-group exercises completed electronically so that it is not necessary for participants to touch clipboards and pens etc. Or if the latter is necessary, then these objects have to be sanitized.

  • If stimulus material is presented, each participant should have his/her own set which should be sanitised between groups

  • Standard techniques such as brand sorts should be adapted to ensure that there is no need for participants to touch products previously touched by other participants

  • Same logic in the viewing room...where possible extended client-team to view remotely. Only essential team members to attend in person and then we need to ensure the same symptom screening, social distancing and catering protocols in the viewing room


Other considerations:

  • We have to allow sufficient time for recruitment. It may be more difficult to find participants who fit recruitment criteria and who are willing to participate in in-person research

  • Recruitment fees may be inflated if the study requires in-person recruitment


I have however learned over the last year and a half that much more is possible remotely than I ever thought before. Out of necessity since March last year, I have had to be creative e.g.

  • We reached rural (Eastern Cape, Free-State, North-West South Africa) low-income participants by setting up a Zoom station at guest houses. Participants were transported to the guest house and sat down at the station set up by the guest house.

  • There are free wifi-hotspots in key township locations where low-income participants can join

  • I have however had great success simply buying mobile data for participants and conducting mini-groups on Zoom which they can join from their mobile. The key thing here is to do a pre-group onboarding i.e. each individual respondent to be helped and everything rehearsed and tried before the group - this is now a standard component in our recruitment process.

  • This is not without its challenges e.g.:

    • We can not assume a participant has a quiet, private space. Communal living means that topics such as personal income are sensitive when other household members may be listening from the next room

    • Even when screened and on-boarded prior to the call, technology is not foolproof and we have to know that sometimes participants are not able to join at the last minute. Loadshedding has also had an impact on signal availability

With middle- to high-income consumer profiles I have had great success this last year remotely. They are generally able to join from a reliable internet source whether at work or home and are so used to this way of work.

In this case, I have found:

  • Online whiteboards like Mural (or Miro) are very effective to do creative work e.g. required for ideation. And giving introverts an equal voice at the table.

  • Zoom / Teams interviews are a very convenient window into participant's real lives. With the right preparation, we can ask them to take us around their home, do certain activities etc and we have instant video footage

  • Smaller groups are better than big groups (waiting time ...while someone else answers the question can feel very long.) 4 participants work well.


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