Qualitative Market Research and COVID-19

M&M’s are out. Purell is In.

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D.

As a supplier of face-to-face qualitative research for more than three decades, we have yet to see anything make owners and managers of focus group facilities and UX labs cringe as much as COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Some of our clients are nervous, too. During these times, businesses are doing double duty helping their employees and clients remain reasonably safe while still remaining productive.  

To help one of our clients, we put together a remote interviewing readiness plan that essentially addresses the pros and cons of conducting research in-person versus on the phone. We decided to share it, in hopes that others find it as useful as our client did.

Staying Prepared During COVID-19

While many of you may already know about remote qualitative interviewing solutions, we wanted to share this with those who may be wondering how research can be conducted in times like these. Fortunately, there is much that can be done to save or start projects that involve face-to-face interviewing. Investments in qualitative research such as new product development, strategic communications, and countless other objectives can be salvaged or initiated with these approaches. More on that later, but first a look at the COVID-19 readiness of our go-to recruiters across the country.

We called upon or heard from a variety of US focus group facilities and UX labs to assess their COVID-19 readiness in an informal poll. While the facilities we work with have always been good about sanitization after face-to-face sessions—they have doubled down on making sure their facilities are super sanitized. Here are a few of their efforts:

  • Heightened sanitization practices and associated facility/lab staff training per CDC recommendations
  • Increased participant incentives to help stave off cancellations
  • Hospital gloves used when cleaning and handling food
  • Serving only food that is individually wrapped—nothing communal like bowls of M&M’s
  • Masks provided for clients upon request


While most facilities and labs report business as usual, exceptions are typically due to travel bans. When these bans impact clients, the result is often postponement of research sessions.  At this point, travel bans have impacted clients based in Asia more than those in Europe. And when travel bans impact moderators, local moderators have been stepping in to conduct sessions while their grounded counterparts observe via video conferencing.

What we’re seeing at Merrill Research, is that facilities and their clients are pivoting to other forms of data collection. Most notably: telephone interviews/audits/surveys, virtual/remote focus groups or online bulletin boards, and online surveys.

Still Gathering Quality Information Even if it’s not In-Person

As a body language master and qualitative moderator, I can tell you that in-person interviewing yields significantly more information than remote methods, but phone and video are excellent alternatives for collecting many types of data—especially now.

So, what can you learn from a person’s voice alone? Plenty.

  1. Tone of voice can indicate anger, frustration, surprise or happiness
  2. Audible sounds such as gasps can signal fear or exhaling can signal stress
  3. Pregnant pauses can indicate uncertainty or deception (depending on context)
  4. When a person’s voice becomes high-pitched it can signal discomfort, anger or deception (again, depending on context)
  5. Uptalk (ending sentences as though they are questions), can signal lack of confidence or uncertainty


Download our PDF for an overview of remote/virtual methods of collecting information remotely in the current environment.

Meanwhile, let’s all hope the worst thing that happens to the state of in-person qualitative research is that millions of M&Ms go stale. For additional information on COVID-19 visit the CDC Site.

Merrill Research.