This past week I attended a Webinar concerning online bulletin boards sponsored by an online research provider. The focus of the presentation was on their fairly new bulletin board platform that incorporates several novel bells and whistles from their earlier version. I was quite impressed by the degree of flexibility and richness the technology offers, with features that enhance not only participant engagement but also that of the moderator and virtual backroom client viewers – e.g., the ability to embed multimedia stimuli and activities, enable participant-generated content (think, personal ethnographies), and easily multi-task between responding to participants’ posts on the one hand while managing the backroom on the other.
Of course, it is not surprising that a technology as rich as this has the capability of going way beyond run-of-the-mill facilitation and can offer researchers new tools in question formatting and analysis. No longer must the moderator settle for open-ended questions fostering unwieldy responses that are difficult to analyze. The current bulletin board platforms allow moderators to create very quantitative-like multiple-choice questions – “How satisfied are you with paying bills online? Would you say: very, somewhat, not too, not at all satisfied?” – as well as force participants to answer by making a question response mandatory. From there, moderators can choose to label participants by their forced responses which they can then use to segment the group by type. With this segmentation, the moderator can go on to modify discussion probes by type of participant and ultimately analyze research findings by segment with (gulp) the visual help of charts and graphs.
Nifty in some ways – How many moderators have lost track of who within the group loves paying bills online and the person who constantly has problems? – but what kind of research are we doing here? Bulletin board research is a useful qualitative method resulting in virtual reams of in-depth content, just the stuff that is the fabric of qualitative research. What is not qualitative research, however, is the restriction imposed by close-ended questions and the subsequent packaging of participants into tidy categories that fit nicely in a pie chart. The reason that qualitative research is such a wonderful counterpoint to quantitative is that it acknowledges that people are immersed in complicated lives that are frequently impossible to typecast. Qualitative rejoices in the nuances that differentiates us all.
So, I’m left embracing online bulletin boards as a qualitative method. But I would encourage researchers and end-users alike to design their bulletin boards in the open, free spirit of qualitative research. I encourage all of us to use this forum as we would the face-to-face format; that is, to gain an understanding and appreciation for the messiness of human existence, and resist giving up the richness of qualitative for the absoluteness of compartmentalization formed from structured interviewing. Online technology has brought researchers to a new realm of responsibility, one that requires a concerted focus on the (qualitative or quantitative) objective of our designs and the tools we use to achieve them.