Conversion Rate Optimization, User Research

Qualitative Research: Definition, Methodology, Limitation, Examples

There is a fundamental distinction between data types: qualitative and quantitative. Typically, we call data ‘quantitative’ if it is in numerical form, and ‘qualitative’ if it’s not.

Marketers love to get into customers’ mind. But for that, they need to do a qualitative research. Face-to-face interviews, focus groups, or qualitative observations can provide valuable insights about your products, your market, and your customers’ opinions and motivations.

What is qualitative research

Qualitative research is a market research method that focuses on obtaining data through open-ended and conversational communication. This method focuses on the “why” rather than the “what” people think about you.

Let’s say you have an online shop that addresses a general audience. You do a demographic analysis and you find out that most of your customers are male. Naturally, you will want to find out why women are not buying from you. And that’s what a qualitative research will help you find out.

Quantitative vs. qualitative research

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Quantitative research is concerned with measurement and numbers, while qualitative research is concerned with understanding and words.

Quantitative research is used to quantify the problem. Its main goal is to generate numerical data or data that can be turned into statistics. It uses measurable data to formulate facts and uncover patterns in research. Quantitative data collection methods include various forms of surveys (online surveys, paper surveys, mobile surveys, kiosk surveys, etc.), face-to-face interviews, telephone interviews, longitudinal studies, website interceptors, online polls, and systematic observations.

On the other hand, qualitative research is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. It provides insights into the problem or helps to develop ideas or hypotheses for potential quantitative research. Qualitative data collection methods include focus groups (group discussions), individual interviews, and participation/observation.

The statistical data of quantitative methods obtained from many people reveal a broad, generalizable set of findings. In contrast, qualitative methods produce a large amount of detailed information about a smaller number of people that results in rich understanding but reduces generalizability.

Qualitative research methodology

Once the marketer has decided that their research questions will provide data that is qualitative in nature, the next step is to choose the appropriate qualitative approach. The approach chosen will take into account the purpose of the research, the role of the researcher, the data collected, method of data analysis and how the results will be presented. The most common approaches include:

  • Narrative: explores the life of an individual, tells their story;
  • Phenomenology: attempts to understand or explain life experiences or phenomena;
  • Grounded theory: investigates the process, action, or interaction with the goal of developing a theory “grounded” in observations;
  • Ethnography: describes and interprets an ethnic, cultural, or social group;
  • Case study: examines episodic events in a definable framework, develops in-depth analyses of single or multiple cases, generally explains “how”.

Types of qualitative research methods

Qualitative research methods are designed in a manner that they help reveal the behavior and perception of a target audience regarding a particular topic. The most frequently used qualitative research methods are one-on-one interviews, focus groups, ethnographic research, case study research, record keeping, and qualitative observation.

1. One-on-one interviews

Conducting one-on-one interviews is one of the most common qualitative research methods. One of the advantages of this method is that it provides a great opportunity to gather precise data about what people think and their motivations.

Spending time talking to customers not only helps marketers understand who their clients are, but it also helps with customer care: clients love hearing from brands. This strengthens the relationship between a brand and its clients and paves the way for customer testimonials.

These interviews can be performed face-to-face or on the phone and usually last between half an hour and two hours or more. When a one-on-one interview is conducted face-to-face, it also gives the marketer the opportunity to read the body language of the respondent and match the responses.

2. Focus groups

Focus groups are another commonly used qualitative research method. The ideal size of a focus group is usually between five and eight participants. If the topic is of minor concern to participants, and if they have little experience with the topic, then a group size of 10 could be productive. But, as the topic becomes more important, if people have more expertise on the topic, or if they are likely to have strong feelings about the topic, then the group size should be restricted to five or six people.

The main goal of a focus group is to find answers to the “why”, “what”, and “how” questions. One advantage that focus groups have is that the marketer doesn’t necessarily have to interact with the group in person. Nowadays focus groups can be sent as online surveys on various devices.

Focus groups are an expensive option compared to the other qualitative research methods, which is why they are typically used to explain complex processes. Focus groups are especially useful when it comes to market research on new products and testing new concepts.

3. Ethnographic research

Ethnographic research is the most in-depth observational method that studies individuals in their naturally occurring environment. This method aims at understanding the cultures, challenges, motivations, and settings that occur. Ethnographic research requires the marketer to adapt to the target audiences’ environments (a different organization, a different city, or even a remote location), which is why geographical constraints can be an issue while collecting data.

This type of research can last from a few days to a few years. It’s challenging and time-consuming and solely depends on the expertise of the marketer to be able to analyze, observe, and infer the data.

4. Case study research

The case study method has grown into a valuable qualitative research method. This type of research method is usually used in education or social sciences. Case study research may seem difficult to operate, but it’s actually one of the simplest ways of conducting research as it involves a deep dive and thorough understanding of the data collection methods and inferring the data.

5. Record keeping

Record keeping is similar to going to the library: you go over books or any other reference material to collect relevant data. This method uses already existing reliable documents and similar sources of information as a data source.

6. Qualitative observation

Qualitative observation is a method that uses subjective methodologies to gather systematic information or data. This method deals with the five major sensory organs and their functioning, sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Qualitative observation doesn’t involve measurements or numbers but instead characteristics.

Examples of qualitative research

1. Online grocery shop with a predominantly male audience

Let’s go back to the previous example. You have an online grocery shop. By nature, it addresses a general audience, but after you do a demographic analysis you find out that most of your customers are male.

One good method to determine why women are not buying from you is to hold one-on-one interviews with potential customers in the category. Interviewing a sample of potential female customers should reveal why they don’t find your store appealing. The reasons could range from not stocking enough products for women to the fact that you also sell sex toys for example.

Tapping into different market segments will have a positive impact on your revenue.

2. Software company launching a new product

Focus groups are great for establishing product-market fit.

Let’s assume you are a software company who wants to launch a new product and you hold a focus group with 12 people. Although getting their feedback regarding users’ experience with the product is a good thing, this sample is too small to define how the entire market will react to your product.

So what you can do instead is holding multiple focus groups in 20 different geographic regions. Each region should be hosting a group of 12 for each market segment; you can even segment your audience based on age. This would be a better way to establish credibility in the feedback you receive.

3. Alan Peshkin’s “God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School”

Moving from a fictional example to a real-life one, let’s analyze Alan Peshkin’s 1986 book “God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School”. Peshkin studied the culture of Bethany Baptist Academy by interviewing the students, parents, teachers, and members of the community alike, and spending eighteen months observing them to provide a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of Christian schooling as an alternative to public education.

Peshkin described Bethany Baptist Academy as having institutional unity of purpose, a dedicated faculty, an administration that backs teachers in enforcing classroom disciplines, cheerful students, rigorous homework, committed parents, and above all grounded in positive moral values and a character building environment. However, it lacked cultural diversity, which meant that students were trained in one-dimensional thought, entirely cut off from viewpoints that differ with their teacher’s biblical interpretations, and a heavily censored library.

Even after discovering all this, Peshkin still presented the school in a positive light and stated that public schools have much to learn from such schools.

Peshkin’s in-depth study represents a qualitative research that uses observations and unstructured interviews, without any assumptions or hypothesis. He utilizes descriptive or non-quantifiable data on Bethany Baptist Academy specifically, without attempting to generalize the findings to other Christian schools.

4. Understanding buyers’ trends

Another way marketers can use quality research is to understand buyers’ trends. To do this, marketers need to look at historical data for both their company and their industry and identify where buyers are purchasing items in higher volumes. For example, electronics distributors know that the holiday season is a peak market for sales while life insurance agents find that spring and summer wedding months are good seasons for targeting new clients.

5. Determining products/services missing from the market

Conducting your own research isn’t always necessary. If there are significant breakthroughs in your industry, you can use industry data and adapt it to your marketing needs. The influx of hacking and hijacking of cloud-based information has made Internet security a topic of many industry reports lately. A software company could use these reports to better understand the problems his clients are facing. As a result, the company can provide solutions prospects already know they need.

Limitations of qualitative research

The disadvantages of qualitative research are quite unique. The techniques of the data collector and their own unique observations can alter the information in subtle ways. That being said, these are the qualitative research’ limitations:

1. It’s a time-consuming process

The main drawback of qualitative research is that the process is time-consuming. Another problem is that the interpretations are limited. Personal experience and knowledge influence observations and conclusions.

Thus, a qualitative research might take several weeks or months. Also, since this process delves into personal interaction for data collection, discussions often tend to deviate from the main issue to be studied.

2. You can’t verify the results of qualitative research

Because qualitative research is open-ended, participants have more control over the content of the data collected. So the marketer is not able to verify the results objectively against the scenarios stated by the respondents.

3. It’s a labor-intensive approach

Qualitative research requires a labor-intensive analysis process such as categorization, recoding, etc. Similarly, qualitative research requires well-experienced marketers to obtain the needed data from a group of respondents.

4. It’s difficult to investigate causality

Qualitative research requires thoughtful planning to ensure the obtained results are accurate. There is no way to analyze qualitative data mathematically. This type of research is based more on opinion and judgment rather than results. Because all qualitative studies are unique they are difficult to replicate.

5. Qualitative research is not statistically representative

Because qualitative research is a perspective-based method of research, the responses given are not measured. Comparisons can be made and this can lead toward duplication, but for the most part, quantitative data is required for circumstances which need statistical representation and that is not part of the qualitative research process.

While doing a qualitative research, it’s important to cross-reference the data obtained with the quantitative data. By continuously surveying prospects and customers marketers can build a stronger database of useful information.