Visual Cues & Bias in Qualitative Research

The Darshan Mehta (iResearch) and Lynda Maddox article “Focus Groups: Traditional vs. Online” in the March 2011 issue of Survey Magazine reminded me of the “visual biases” moderators, clients, and participants bring to the face-to-face research discussion.  While there are downsides to opting for Internet-based qualitative research, the ability to actually control for potential error stemming from visual cues – ranging from demographic characteristics (e.g., age, race, ethnicity, gender) to “clothing and facial expressions” – is a clear advantage to the online (non-Webcam) environment.   Anyone who  has conducted, viewed, or participated in a face-to-face focus group can tell you that judgments are easily made without a word being spoken.

An understanding or at least an appreciation for this inherent bias in our in-person qualitative designs is important to the quality of the interviewing and subsequent analysis as well as the research environment itself.  How does the interviewer change his/her type and format of questioning from one interviewee to another based on nothing more than the differences or contrasts the interviewer perceives between the two of them?  How do the visual aspects of one or more group participants elicit more or less participation among the other members of the group?  How do group discussants and interviewees respond and comment differently depending on their vision of the moderator, other participants, and the research environment?

The potential negative effect from the unwitting bias moderators/interviewers absorb in the research experience has been addressed to some degree.  Mel Prince (along with others) has discussed the idea of “moderator teams” as well as the “serial moderating technique.”  And Sean Jordan states that “moderator bias” simply needs to be “controlled for by careful behavior.”

There is clearly much more effort that needs to be made on this issue.  Creating teams of interviewers may mitigate but may also exasperate the bias effect (e.g., How do we sort out the confounding impact of multiple prejudices from the team?), and instilling “careful behavior” can actually result in an unproductive research session (e.g., Does the controlled, unemotional, sterile behavior of the moderator/interviewer elicit unemotional, sterile, unreal responses from research participants?).

How we conduct and interpret our qualitative research – whether we (consciously or unconsciously) choose to impose barriers to our questioning and analysis in order to proceed with caution through the intersection of not knowing and insight, or go full steam ahead – rests in great measure with our ability to confront the potential prejudice in the researcher, the client, and our research participants.


  1. Great article, and definitely a strength of online. In hybrid projects that start with online and then have a F2F component, it’s always interesting to see who arrives, and what they are like in person.
    They always recognize me, from my profile picture on the discussion forum, but I am usually seeing them for the first time. And so is the client.


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