National Trade Conversation: ‘Tarrific’ Tips for online deliberation 

For last summer’s ‘National Trade Conversation’ research, Hopkins Van Mil (HVM, specialists in public deliberation) worked in partnership with consumer charity Which? to understand what matters to people about the consumer aspects of trade deals. In this blog Senior Associate at HVM, Suzannah Kinsella, describes how they met the challenges of switching from face-to-face workshops to online deliberation and adapting quickly as trade deals were signed, and stalled...

The National Trade Conversation was commissioned at the beginning of 2020 as a collaboration between Which? and HVM. The purpose of the research was to get an in-depth understanding of consumers’ priorities for trade deals and to represent their voice to government, business and third sector organisations involved in the UK’s trade negotiations. You can read the inside story of how the research partnership worked in this companion blog by Which? Senior Policy Researcher George Holt.

The UK hasn’t made its own trade deals for over 40 years, so it’s a pretty abstract topic for most people in the UK. For this reason, and the complexity of the topic, Which? chose to use a deliberative approach to ensure participants could interact meaningfully with the evidence and draw concrete conclusions. Deliberative approaches typically allow more time (e.g. than focus groups) for participants to explore information and hear different perspectives before considered decisions are sought. 

Our research question was to understand what matters to people about the consumer aspects of trade deals.  Our focus was on new trade deals with the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. 

The plan, when we started out in January 2020, was to run two-and-a-half-day face to face workshops in locations across the UK in May 2020 with a total of 100 participants (20 in each location).  When the COVID-19 lockdown hit in March, we postponed the workshops until the autumn, in the hope that our face-to-face work could go ahead then. 

However, two factors made us change our approach: Firstly, the realisation that COVID-19 would be with us for a while, so face to face would not be an option anytime soon. Secondly, the upping of the tempo of the political mood music around trade deals, particularly with the US and Japan, meant acting earlier so that the negotiations could be infused with the considered views of UK consumers.

Other blogs have covered how to ensure the accessibility of online research. In this piece, we focus on the methods we used to create connections between the topic of trade, the participants and the researchers; how we adapted when the trade context shifted and how we brought our findings to life in an online environment.

How to be together, when apart

When moving our design and stimulus from weekend face-to-face workshops to a series of four online sessions, we wanted to make sure that our participants could express themselves through a range of formats and, importantly, feel part of a united endeavour. Here are three of the things we did…

  1. A physical workshop pack for each participant
    We created a pack that was posted out to every participant. This included information on research purpose, tips on using Zoom, the timetable of workshops, and workshop activity packs - five sealed envelopes containing fact sheets, infographics and feedback templates pertinent to each of the workshops. Each envelope was opened as a group on the day of the relevant workshop, so creating a moment of anticipation followed by collective endeavour.  The packs also served as a physical presence of the National Trade Conversation in people’s homes - a place to keep their notes and something to share with others in their household.
  2. Express yourself: Zoom, Mentimeter, Recollective
    We wanted participants to have a range of ways to express themselves online. Deliberation involves various modes of individual, paired, small and wider group input, so we created a range of spaces for participants. On Zoom our discussions were mostly in small groups of six or seven, but we also made use of the live polling tool Mentimeter to share views among groups of 20 in each of five locations. A question we came back to throughout the series of workshops was: ‘What three words do you associate with trade?’ As a group we could see how participants’ views on trade evolved.
    To thread together involvement between workshops, we used Recollective, the online research platform. Workshop materials such as videos and presentations were shared for participants to return to and comment on. Original materials were also uploaded, such as summary notes from the small group discussions, so that participants could get a feel for other small groups’ thoughts. Expert responses to questions raised during the workshops were also shared. When writing the report on the National Trade Conversation, we found the deeply considered feedback many participants provided here made a significant contribution to our findings.
  3. Interaction with specialists
    We involved trade specialists during the Zoom workshops through video presentations, live Q&A sessions and as rapid respondents offline.  We sent questions raised in each workshop to trade experts whose responses were shared them on Recollective before the next workshop.  Participants really appreciated this interactivity, saying it helped build their confidence to discuss trade in the context of their lives.

How to facilitate, through the screen
Facilitating a small group gathered around a table requires a different approach to facilitating a group of people in small boxes on the screen in front of you.  The lack of physical presence, the limited and altered body language, the off-centre eye contact of the camera/screen set up all challenge face-to-face facilitation styles. To help create connections between the researcher and the participants and the topic of trade, we used the following approaches:

  • Adapted ground rules: how you frame the process in advance to participants is vital. The ground rules for a physical workshop no longer apply, and it’s important to set out how the groups will work with reference to people joining from home. We found we needed to include points about not driving whilst Zoom-ing and making jokes about avoiding eating a big bowl of spaghetti in front of the group helped to gain a group understanding of the focus needed despite joining from their kitchens, bedrooms and sitting rooms.  
  • Care in set-up: Creating a warm and welcoming online space from the moment people join the Zoom. We used the time before the workshop began to do the practical checking that mics and videos were working, and - more importantly, using inconsequential chat to settle people in, create an environment in which facilitators become trusted and the group relationship is cemented  
  • Visible note taking: in some sessions, the researcher shared their screen and typed summary notes so that participants could see the key points, build on them or give different views
  • Dedicated discussions: in other sessions, the researcher let Zoom’s record function do the work of capturing views and focused purely on the participants and engaging with them, particularly when reflecting on more complex aspects of trade such as what you would trade off to achieve goals. This approach allowed researchers to pay particular attention to participant body language and to adjust their own, such as leaning in and looking around the Zoom to create a sense of connection
  • Reducing the small group size from the standard face to face 8-10 to 6-7 participants, meaning better visibility for everyone
  • Paying really focused attention to participant faces – even more than in a face-to-face workshop where you have other physical clues as to how people are. In Zoom, the faces are all you have to go on (which is why it’s so important that people join with their videos on). Facilitators need to note when people are zoning out, looking confused or tired and address the issue overtly in a statement or question to the group; or inject a different tone of voice or facilitator movement, to energise the group. A group stretch is not out of place in a Zoom workshop! 

Each workshop is a concentrated effort by facilitators and the energy and focus required should not be underestimated.  

How to adapt when the research context shifts

During the course of our research, a trade deal with Japan was agreed in principle. Japan was one of the four countries we were exploring in our workshops. We still thought it important to consider our dealings with Japan, but we shifted the content from the workshop discussions to the Recollective platform and in its place brought in discussions on trade with Australia and New Zealand. 

The introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol meant Northern Ireland would retain EU food and product standards (in line with the Republic of Ireland). This meant their trade issues were about availability, competition and risks of exclusion for UK trade deal benefits.  We adapted many of our materials to include NI specialists to encourage debate on their specific situation. 

The need for researchers to be flexible and adaptable, whilst staying true to the research question, was really brought to the fore in this shifting context. 

How we brought the findings to life in an online environment

Which? commissioned this research to gain an in-depth understanding of consumers’ priorities for trade deals and to represent their voice to government, business and third sector organisations involved in the UK’s trade negotiations.  So how to do this when face to face meetings couldn’t happen?


  • Zoom event: presentation, panel and Q&A: Which? invited stakeholders to a Zoom webinar to hear the key findings, hear reflections from and put questions to panellists including the research team, leading academic Sir John Curtice and Greg Hands, Minister for Trade. 
  • Social Media: Which? and HVM led up to the launch with Tweets, including polling asking for which of the four priorities identified in the research people ranked highest
  • Visual Priorities: Visual note takers More than Minutes created individual summaries of each UK country / region’s priorities and these were used extensively in social media and as briefing tools for the devolved nations. 

Trading places: face to face and online

To conclude, we achieved far richer debate and involvement through our online deliberations than we had expected when we first made the switch. Our initial period of mourning for the loss of our face-to-face workshops, was replaced with an enthusiasm for playing with the mix of interactions we could have through Zoom, Recollective and Mentimeter. Two elements of face-to-face workshops we have yet to find how to replicate online are the breaktime informal interactions and paired working…we’d love to read your comments on achieving them…over to you!

Author Bios: Hopkins Van Mil: Creating Connections (HVM) are specialists in public deliberation. The team create safe, impartial, and productive spaces to explore and understand people’s views. Suzannah has worked with HVM for five years: other public dialogue projects include for the Royal Society on uses of genetic technologies; for DEFRA/National Food Strategy on the future of our food system and for the Ada Lovelace Institute on uses of biometric technologies.  Before working with HVM, Suzannah headed up public engagement at Traverse and held a similar role when part of the Strategic Consultancy team at the former Cabinet Office body, the Central Office of Information. Her research career first started when she worked in advertising for Ogilvy and FCB in London and Toronto.