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There is a growing range of approaches for conducting online qualitative research; from online focus groups, to depth interviews, to forum discussions, to video enabled options. Each of these requires complementary, but subtly different sets of strengths.

Of all of these approaches, the one that is perhaps most accessible to the non-research is the online forum discussion. However, accessible does not mean that it should be used without some thought to how it should be used and how to get the most from an online forum discussion. I thought it might be useful to share a description of where this technique fits in the wider picture and five key tips for using an online discussion forum.

Asynchronous Groups
An online discussion forum is an example of an asynchronous group and uses approaches similar to those used for discussions in social media or on bulletin boards. By asynchronous we mean that members do not need to be online at the same time as the moderator, or as each other. The opposite of asynchronous is synchronous, for example a focus group, where everybody takes part at the same time.

The word "group" is in contrast to something like a depth interview, where each exchange is just between one participant and the moderator. The purpose of a group is to explore interaction and to facilitate group dynamics.

Five Tips for Online Discussion Forums

  • Have a forum plan. Write down and agree with your client, what are the objectives for the forum, how many days will it last, what topics are going to be covered, and what stimulus material will be used? For a project that is only going to last a few days you should write down all the questions you expect to ask - although you will modify these as the discussion evolves.
  • When recruiting people, when inviting them, and periodically throughout the project, remind people of the 'rules'. For example, how are they supposed to access the discussion, how frequently should they be posting, is there an incentive and if so what is the incentive and what do they have to do to qualify for the incentive, and what sort of behaviour is unacceptable?
  • Start with easy questions. For example ask people to introduce themselves, or show them something and ask what they like about it and what they don't like. Do not start with embarrassing questions about their own behaviour or by asking them to co-create some new product design.
  • Have some tricks ready to keep the conversation going or move it on. Asking people to create lists is a good way of stimulating activity, and it can be a good first step into co-creation. Asking people, "Who else has had the same experience?" can help flesh out a description or story.
  • Remember, the analysis starts at the beginning. Do not wait until the end to start working with the text. Add notes, tags, and memos as the discussion unfolds. Develop hypotheses as the discussion progresses and then test these hypotheses via questions and problems.

So, in the spirit of co-creation and lists, if you were adding a 6th recommendation or tip to this list, what would it be?


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