Researchers have never had more ways to understand consumers. At Qual360, Brian Carruthers hears how shiny new things are being checked out, but, for the qual community, empathy and the personal touch remain essential.

The qualitative research sector has long moved beyond a reliance on in-person focus groups to make greater use of digital technology. But it still felt the impact of pandemic lockdowns, which accelerated a shift online where it was already using methodologies such as mobile ethnology. And, three years after it last convened in person, the Qual360 Europe conference heard how the sector is responding to a new wave of digital technology, from AI to metaverse, that will affect how it goes about its business in future. At the same time, however, empathy in face-fo-face interactions remains a powerful way to deliver deeper insights and ultimately to fuel business growth.

Jasmeet Sethi of Ericsson charted the development of the use of technology in market research over the past couple of decades, moving from from PC to mobile and now shifting into an area he terms “spatial computing”. This embraces a collection of technologies – AR, VR, MR, 5G, AI – and devices (smart glasses will be back in vogue), all of which will have an effect on how market research is conducted. 

To give just some examples: ChatGPT can already be instructed to come up with a set of questions to guide a conversation; AI can be used to bring personas to life; surveys could be carried out within an AR experience; eye tracking studies could be carried out by people wearing smart glasses. 

Ericsson is diving into this world to keep its insights team abreast of the new tech, with everyone now having Meta Quest devices and work meetings being conducted in VR settings in order to both get first-hand experience of what customers are increasingly experiencing and to understand the potential impact on market research; at the same time it’s engaging with a startup ecosystem to better understand the role Ericsson has to play in improving the user experience. 

Sethi quoted ice-hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who famously said “I don't think about where the puck is, I think about where the puck is going to be”. That’s the approach that market researchers need to adopt in a fast-changing world. 

One of the perennial problems facing qualitative research is that what people say they do, often some time after they did it, is frequently not what they have actually done. Mobile ethnography has changed that but it’s still a big ask of someone to record everything while they’re in the act of doing it.

A solution advanced by Nihal Advani, the founder of US-based QualSights, is a smart coaster. This can track in real time when a product is being used, how much and for how long. He added that longitudinal communities can help researchers understand changes over time, including how macro trends such as inflation are affecting behaviour,

One macro-trend that has very definitely got people thinking about their actions is the surge in energy prices. But it’s not the price so much as the perception of price, suggested E.ON’s Christopher Rastin. People know how much they pay but they don’t know how much energy they consume – it’s that behaviour that needs to change and communications have to be tailored accordingly.

“We use top-of-the-line, cutting-edge qualitative research to do this,” said Rastin. “It's called talking to people.” His audience cheered. For all the inroads that tech is making, qualitative researchers remain at heart people-based. 

An example of how important that personal touch is came from IKEA, which has recently set up Open House, an internal platform to store and share data from the thousands of home visits the retailer carries out annually in all its markets and which feed into store design and improving market relevance (Fun fact: every store has to undertake 20 mandatory home visits every year.) 

Home visits are something IKEA’s founder was doing back in the 1970s. His advice to qual researchers then remains pertinent today: “You can’t act like a tourist with a camera round your neck; you have to take part with your heart.”

Introducing six principles of facilitation, Joyshree Reinelt of Innate Motion put that idea in different words: “We need to open up the soul,” she said, and embrace vulnerability. Empathy is something that’s needed more than ever in the current stressful environment many consumers find themselves living in – and something AI isn’t about to deliver. 

“Empathy is a skill that can be trained,” she said, “and empathy has the power to unlock business growth.”