Back to the Future: Qual at Scale… 30 Years in the Making

Quester was founded by a Drake University professor who studied the rhetoric of language. Dr. Charles Cleveland opened the doors to Quester in 1973, conducting one-on-one interviews either face-to-face or over the phone. Even before 1973 legend has it that Cleveland, sitting in his dorm room, would tell people about how computers would someday interview people for the sake of research. It would make qualitative more reliable, faster, and less expensive.

Before Siri and before Watson, there was Cleveland dreaming about artificial intelligence.

Fast forward almost 30 years to 2001 when Quester’s software-based moderator was born. The software, grounded in psychiatric interviewing and computation linguistics, could ask people questions and follow-up with them based on their own natural language.

Our first paid conversation that leveraged our proprietary AI was in 2002; we had 103 one-on-one online conversations that averaged 60 minutes in length.

Before Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, there was Quester, leveraging AI that could have text-based conversations with respondents by interpreting written text and probing for greater detail on the fly.

Those conversations were analyzed by Quester’s staff of trained linguists (one of whom – Andrea Joss – oversees the daily research operation today as Vice President of Research) using natural language processing software that was developed in the 80’s.

Key themes and ideas from qualitative conversations started being quantified. Language was analyzed for differences between genders and ages. People from all over the country, all over the world, could participate, voicing their valuable and individual experiences about a brand or a product.

In 2005, under the renewed leadership of Robert Lewis, Quester’s current owner, we moved all of our research online.

Today, Quester has conducted over 5 million one-on-one online interviews. That’s more than any other company in the world.

We certainly do qualitative research at scale very well. We’ve been doing it for some time. But, we heard of your need for those qualitative conversations to be integrated into your quantitative surveys. In fact, you were the reason we expanded our services to include quantitative services, led by Ilene Lanin-Kettering, Ph.D., an award-winning researcher who has over 35 years of quantitative research experience. Both Joss & Lanin-Kettering design studies that reflect a natural conversation, weaving between open-ended conversation and close-ended metrics to address the questions that need to be answered in whatever format makes the most sense.

By seamlessly integrating conversations for every person into their quantitative designs, our clients report deeper, more meaningful research than traditional research is capable; they can tie qualitative explanation to hard data… from just a single phase of research. More detail and color enrich the research so marketers can disrupt market behavior in their organization’s favor. By fluidly integrating multiple phases of research, we are often able cut research expenses and timelines in half.

If there’s anything to know about Quester, it’s that we’re proud. We’re proud because challenging tradition is not easy nor for the light-hearted. It takes a strong team comfortable with risk, activating on imagination, and having a vision. We have a smart and hardworking team who actively work to advance this field every single day. As researchers, we know better than anyone that changing perceptions and habits is hard. With great thanks our incredible team, to our early-adopters, our friends, and even our challengers, marketing research as we know it is changing. In fact, we’re being asked to push the boundaries of research further than ever.

So… when you hear that another company is pioneering qualitative research, just smile and nod, like we do, knowing that qual at scale is a means to an end, and that a pioneer is only a pioneer when they’re the first to have explored and settled. And, while we may have been first, we never settle. Ever.

Art courtesy of Deeage


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