What Is Qualitative Research?

Summary: Qualitative research is one type of exploratory market research methodology whose primary outcome is to develop an understanding, not recommend a final course of action. It important to know its strengths and weaknesses to harness its power.

9 minutes to read. By author Michaela Mora on February 23, 2022
Topics: Market Research, Qualitative Research

What is Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is one type of exploratory market research methodology based on semi-structured or unstructured data collection and a small sample of participants.

The distinction between qualitative and quantitative research is similar to the difference between exploratory and conclusive research.

In Exploratory research, we define our information needs somewhat loosely. The research process is flexible, and the participant samples are small and nonrepresentative. The findings are tentative, requiring further exploratory or conclusive research.

On the other hand, Conclusive research is typically more formal and structured, tends to be based on large, representative samples, and is subject to quantitative analysis.

This doesn’t mean that all quantitative research is conclusive. We also use many quantitative studies for exploratory purposes.

Reasons for Using Qualitative Research

At its core, qualitative research is intended to understand underlying reasons and motivations that drive behaviors of interest (e.g., awareness, consideration, purchase, use).

Under this broad goal, qualitative research is often undertaken to:

  • Uncover and formulate a problem or define a problem more precisely
  • Gain insights to develop research approaches
  • Establish research priorities
  • Develop hypotheses about key variables and relationships that need further exploration
  • Understand the language used to discuss topics and support survey design
  • Explain findings from quantitative research

Qualitative Research Main Advantage

Qualitative research is really powerful when it is impossible or undesirable to use structured forms to obtain information. This may be due to:

  • Unwillingness to answer questions: Questions that invade people’s privacy can lead to feelings of embarrassment or hurt. The instinct to protect one’s self-image, ego, or status is a powerful motivator behind the refusal to answer specific direct questions.
  • Inability to answer questions: Questions that require memory retrieval related to behaviors, feelings, and events that happened long ago or sporadically or caused an emotional upheaval that people are trying to forget are often hard to remember and produce inaccurate answers. They can also be subject to desirability bias (known socially acceptable answers) and saliency bias (attention to the more noticeable elements of an experience).

There are many qualitative research techniques for asking questions and observing behaviors that excel at unearthing the underlying drivers behind behavioral patterns and bringing them to the surface when people cannot articulate them in structured survey questions.

Qualitative Research Methods

The research methods used in primary qualitative research can be classified as either direct or indirect depending on whether the participants know the study’s true purpose.

Direct Methods

In these approaches, the project’s objectives are disclosed to participants, or it may be evident from the questions we ask them. These approaches include Focus Groups and In-Depth-Interviews (IDIs).

Focus Group

This is an interview with a small group of respondents (4 to 10), online or in-person, conducted by a trained moderator using a discussion guide with various levels of structure. This interviewing technique has its origin in psychotherapy and was adapted to market research since the 1940s. For many decades, this technique was synonymous with qualitative research.

The primary purpose of a Focus Group is to gain insights by listening to a group of people talk about topics of interest to the research. The value of focus groups lies in the potential unexpected findings we can discover through a group discussion under the guidance of an experienced moderator.

Focus groups have their place in the research toolbox. Like any other research method, they have advantages and disadvantages. As a result., they are not a good fit for every research need. For more on the advantages and disadvantages of focus groups, check the article When Using Focus Groups Makes Sense.

We can conduct Focus Groups in person, via online chat, or video calls.

In-Depth Interviews (IDIs)

This is another interview research technique we use to obtain information in an unstructured and direct way, but unlike focus groups, we conduct them one-on-one.

We can conduct IDIs in person, over the phone, via online chat, or through video calls.

In-Depth Interviews, a highly skilled interviewer (preferably) ask probing questions to a single respondent to uncover underlying motivations, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings on the topics of interest.

This interviewing technique was also adapted from the psychotherapy toolbox by market researchers. UX research practitioners have also adopted it under new names such as “User Interviews” to understand the behaviors and needs of digital product users. Another increasingly popular label for IDIs in the UX community is “Jobs-to-Be-Done” (JTBD) interviews, which try to go deeper into understanding user needs.

Moderated and Unmoderated Usability Tests using the Think-Out-Loud approach are also adaptations of In-Depth Interviews trying to elicit mental models and expectations behind user behaviors during their interactions with digital products.

In-Depth Interviews can uncover a greater depth of insights than focus groups when interviewers use probing techniques to go beyond apparent answers. They also can be attributed to the individual, which can be more challenging in group discussions. The risk of group influence is also eliminated in IDIs.

Indirect Methods

Indirect qualitative research techniques don’t disclose the true purpose of the research project. In this category, we find projective techniques. These are every more unstructured, indirect forms of asking questions that encourage respondents to “project” their underlying motivations, beliefs, attitudes, or feelings regarding issues we are researching. These include:

  • Association: Respondents respond with the first thing that comes to mind (e.g., word association) when presented with a stimulus (e.g., words, pictures, etc.)
  • Completion: Participants complete an incomplete stimulus situation (e.g., a sentence, a story, etc.)
  • Construction: Participants construct a response in the format of stories, dialogues, pictures, drawings.
  • Expressive: Participants describe the feelings or attitudes of someone in situations described verbally or through visual elements. These can be done through role-playing or explaining the problem from a third-person’s perspective.

These techniques are often embedded as exercises in Focus Group and IDI sessions, in-person or online.

Qualitative Research Techniques

Hybrid Qualitative Research

Since the 2010s, qualitative research has evolved significantly, thanks to technology. We can combine several qualitative methods and integrate them with quantitative approaches seamlessly in the same study to capture different types of data and perspectives.

Hybrid approaches initially started with the opportunity to do a few chat-based IDIs with survey participants on the fly. They kept evolving to do large-scale AI, chat-based focus groups, with platforms like Remesh.ai.

During this time of evolution, Online Bulletin Board Discussions also became popular.

Online Bulletin Board Discussions

These are asynchronous online focus group discussions with many participants that can go for days and weeks.

In this approach, depending on the platform, we can ask many types of questions (open-ended, survey questions, video questions, picture-based questions, etc.).

Activities may include diaries and journaling with an ethnographic quality combined with group discussions. Questions, activities, and discussions are managed by a skilled group moderator guided by the study objectives.

This methodology can be a hybrid of direct and indirect techniques depending on how we ask the questions and the included activities.

Running these multiple-day discussions is a time-consuming endeavor during the project’s planning, execution, and analysis phases. They yield rich and large amounts of data even with a few participants.

Online Community Research

Online communities have been the next evolutionary step from online bulletin board discussions. These have become a way to conduct ongoing research faster and cheaper, assuming the research volume is large enough to justify the cost. Establishing and maintaining an online research community is resource-intensive, in time and money.

These communities include a group of customers who want to stay in touch with a brand and are willing to participate in their ongoing studies. Their sizes can range from a few hundred to thousands of members.

While you can do it yourself, it is a lot of work. For many brands, it is better to use research suppliers that can provide the platform, recruitment services, and community management services.

Community members are invited to participate in surveys, focus groups, IDIs, diary studies, etc., to provide feedback on product design, customer experience, brand perceptions, product development, etc.

Research communities are great to ask follow-up questions to get more details. Their answers can be connected to their demographic profile information, providing context to those answers. Most importantly, we can see what they want to talk about. Even when there are many moderator-generated questions, most of the conversations are generated by members.

At the same time, despite the ability to combine quantitative and qualitative data collection in a research community, research communities may not be as representative of the population of interest as some balanced sampling plans used for surveys outside the community.

Research communities typically don’t include non-customers and mostly give voice to the loudest members of the brand’s customer base.

Digital Ethnography

The growing interest in customer experience and user experience has led to a revival of ethnographic research methods. Observation has always been part of the protocol in many qualitative research studies interested in understanding why and how people buy products and services and use them in their natural environments.

In-home product use and “shop-along” studies are the most common ethnography approaches used by market researchers, in which we combine observation and interviewing. In UX research, these on-site studies are known as Contextual Inquiry. However, these studies can be prohibitively expensive when done in person.

Again, thanks to technology, we can now “employ” participants as self-ethnographers to conduct digital ethnography.

Digital ethnography is observation research enabled by online tools rather than by in-person observation. It is a convenient way for participants to share how they interact with products and services in their natural environment. For more information on this approach, check the article Digital Ethnography.

How to Use Qualitative Research

Overall, qualitative research has grown in popularity among research users, both in market research and UX research. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of its digital modalities when all in-person research came to a halt.

Regardless of the modality, the primary outcome of qualitative research is to develop an understanding, not recommend a final course of action.

Why? It is difficult to project its results to a larger population affected by a particular course of action due to the unstructured nature of the data it produces and the inability to work with representative samples resulting from small sample sizes and sample recruitment methods it uses.

Moreover, many qualitative research techniques are affected by two key disadvantages:

  • Skilled interviewers and moderators, often more expensive, are needed to do them right. The quality of the results depends heavily on the moderators’ skills.
  • The unstructured nature of the data resulting from these techniques makes the analysis susceptible to biases from the analysts.

In short, it is a sound principle in market research to view qualitative and quantitative research as complementary rather than competition.

In our practice, we often recommend using qualitative research in combination with quantitative research if budget and timelines allow it. At a minimum, when qualitative research is considered, quantitative research should be used to validate qualitative research results if important go/no-go decisions will have a significant impact on the business.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each approach allows researchers to select fit-for-purpose methodologies to find the answers we need to solve the business problems at hand.

To learn more about the work of market researchers who specialize in qualitative research visit the Qualitative Research Consultant Association (QRCA).