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Applying Your Skills to Online Qualitative. A First Look at Bulletin Board Focus Groups. Special Olympic Session. Purpose. Help transition face-to-face moderators to the BBFG environment

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Applying your skills to online qualitative

Applying Your Skills to Online Qualitative

A First Look at Bulletin Board Focus Groups


  • Help transition face-to-face moderators to the BBFG environment

  • Provide a forum for providing those contemplating a BBFG project in the near future with some hands-on advice

  • Based in part on my recent experience in coaching a moderator on her first BBFG

What is a bbfg
What is a BBFG?

  • A Bulletin Board Focus Group

  • Using a bulletin board or forum software for research purposes

  • Bulletin Boards (“message boards”) were one of the first online applications, preceeding even the birth of the Internet (think CompuServe or AOL)

  • Bulletin Boards also used extensively for support purposes

How bbfgs work
How BBFGs Work…

  • At its simplest…

    • Moderator releases a series of questions on Day 1

    • Participants log in, during the next 24 hours, read the questions (and the answers of others, possibly) & answer them

    • Moderator monitors and reads new posts, probes as required

    • Process is repeated for the duration of the bulletin board

A quick look at the interface
A quick look at the interface…

  • Let’s see the interface…

Bbfgs are
BBFGs are…

  • Asynchronous: participants log in at a time & place convenient to them to answer questions previously posted by the moderator; moderator & participants are typically NOT logged on at the same time

  • Text-mainly

  • Unlimited length of post (non-twittered!)

  • Time-limited (often 3-4 days)

  • No need for participants to have high bandwidth or speed, more universal

The moderator s 2 main tools
The Moderator’s 2 Main Tools…

  • The questions and their modalities (“uninfluenced”, “interview”, “sequential”)

  • The whiteboard and its contents

What about recruiting
What about recruiting?

  • It’s possible to recruit via traditional recruiters

  • Alternatively, there exist many trustworthy panels

  • Costs are similar to the real world

Some implications of these characteristics
Some implications of these characteristics

  • Since there is no real-time "companionship" or immediate feedback, questions and the process have to engage participants

  • There is limited opportunity to probe (since participants usually sign in only once per day over the course of 3-4 days)

  • It is sometimes difficult to promote interaction between participants

  • BBFGs tend to generate a lot of textual material, compared to chat or even face-to-face… think early about how you will analyze this material (Excel is your friend, as are tags & annotations)

Bbfgs are good for
BBFGs are good for…

  • Topics that benefit from reflection

  • Detailed explanations and rationales

  • Policy issues and their implications

  • “Big Picture” thinking

  • “Homework” and “assignments”

Bbfgs are also good for participants
BBFGs are also good for participants…

  • With little Internet experience

  • With low-speed connections

  • With only average keyboarding skills

  • Who are geographically dispersed across many time zones

Bbfgs are ideal for
BBFGs are ideal for…

  • Channel research (i.e., distributors, retailers)

  • Employee research

  • Enterprise-wide research

  • World-wide research

  • Cross-cultural research

Major do s 1
Major Do's - 1

  • BBFG = self-administered open-ended questionnaire

    • Questions must be clear, unambiguous, and must not need a real-time interviewer to clarify

    • Some opportunity for probing

Major do s 2
Major Do's - 2

  • Aim to make BBFG a Powerpoint slideshow

  • Liberal use of clip art in whiteboard to

    • enliven

    • illuminate

    • help explain the questions and topics.

  • Powerpoint itself is the simplest way to generate whiteboard images (PNG or GIF)

Major do s 3
Major Do's - 3

  • Encourage participants to feed off each other, by

    • constructing questions that do so ("Debate the future of hybrid cars”)

    • specifically instructing participants that they can fulfill their obligations by piggy-backing

    • re-framing probes as questions to everyone

    • re-directing statements to the group for comment (“John wrote ….; what do the rest of you feel about this?”)

  • Use the uninfluenced mode or subgroups judiciously as these reduce participant interaction

Major don ts
Major Don'ts

  • Don't over-layer questions (“How would you describe an ‘Ideal’ relationship with a real estate broker? What would constitute going “above and beyond the call of duty”? What would added value be? What would create a “neat” factor?”)

  • Don't over-probe; a bulletin board allows for probing, but two factors mitigate against its extensive use:

    • Participants only see the probe when they log on next time, so there is a loss of immediacy and interest

    • Every probe interjects the moderator into the group, reducing interaction

  • Don’t over-indulge in questions on awareness or top-of-mind questions, or questions that only require yes/no answers

Minor issues but still important
Minor issues (but still important)

  • Greet everyone as they log into the bulletin board: it is essential that the moderator devote the first day of the board to ensuring that everyone feels there is a presence “out there”

  • "Probe" everyone at least once to help set expectations & make participants feel valued

  • Make the probes “learning lessons” in how you want the participants to respond


  • Invest in infrastructure. You need a decent computer and high-speed Internet access

  • Consider hooking up with a more experienced online researcher who can, for love or money, provide a safety net from beginning to end of your first online qualitative project

  • If the project and your client allow it, try to include both an online and a real-world component in your project. This will allow you to validate the online experience and to contrast the different lessons from each mode

Budget adequately for
Budget adequately for…

  • Direct costs (recruiting, incentives, and facilities), which in the virtual world are roughly comparable to those in the real

  • Your clerical time, which will include tasks like adding participants to the facility roster, sending out invitations and reminders to them, cutting and pasting the discussion guide into the facility, uploading whiteboards, etc.

  • Your moderating: you will be doing little else but monitoring the bulletin board for its duration

  • Your analysis: you will be both overjoyed and dismayed at the depth and quantity of information that participants will share with you using that methodology

  • Remember: the savings to the client derive primarily from doing fewer sessions in different cities, and from traveling virtually.

Just do it
Just Do It

  • The least of your concerns is the actual moderating… you will find that your real-world moderating skills translate amazingly well to the online world, whether real-time or asynchronous

Recommended reading
Recommended Reading:

  • Qualitative Research Online, by Miller & Walkowski

  • Other Source: my blog,