Top Qualitative Research Methods and Applications to Optimize Outcomes

Qualitative research collects and analyzes non-numerical data to understand concepts, opinions, or experiences by using a moderator to interview respondents. While quantitative research is focused on the ‘what’ of consumer behavior, qualitative research is focused on the ‘why.’ Qualitative studies allow you to hear directly from the consumer in more depth to better understand their decisions, behaviors and thought processes.

There are several different methods to evaluate when considering qualitative research. While there are similarities, the various methodologies give you the opportunity to tailor your study to your needs and optimize your outcomes.


Qualitative Market Research Methods

The way you conduct your qualitative research will vary based on your goals, budget, timeline, and what information it is you’re trying to collect. Let’s dig into the top three styles of qualitative research that our team sees as most effective and things to consider for each method.

1- In-Depth Interviews (IDIs)

The most common qualitative method, in-depth interviews (IDIs), are conducted by an experienced moderator one-on-one, in dyads, or even in triads. If you are fielding interviewees in dyads or triads, it’s important that the people you’re speaking to have some familiarity with each other, or some type of connection. IDIs are considered semi-structured which means that there will be a discussion guide to drive the conversation. This guide will ensure that you ask questions to meet your objectives, but gives you flexibility to probe more or less about certain topics based on how the conversation is going.

The kind of data collected in these in-depth interviews are a moderator’s own notes, physical recordings (either in person or online), and transcripts. Transcripts are really common and popular. They’re a great tool, but seeing the person being interviewed, whether that be via Zoom or in person, can be helpful to analyze things like body language. For this reason, we recommend having a video component when possible.

Because there are not many people involved, IDIs tend to be easy to schedule. Video conferencing allows these interviews to be conducted across the globe, extending your reach to respondents. This qualitative method also allows you to use a variety of tactics like product stimuli, whiteboarding, and A/B testing during discussion, and gives you the flexibility to change your questions as the conversation evolves.

When using this type of data, it’s important to remember that, due to the low n, qualitative outcomes are directional in nature, and we recommend at least an n of 7 for IDIs to ensure your results aren’t just a fluke or outlier.

2- Focus Groups

Another great addition to your qualitative toolbox, focus groups, allow you to group 6-12 respondents together and ask them questions about your topic of interest. Whether you’re conducting the focus group in person or using a virtual platform, these tend to emulate real-world decision-making scenarios in which many people are involved and influence one another’s thoughts and opinions.  We don’t operate in a vacuum in our day-to-day life, so observations about the group’s dynamic, answers, and relationship can help answer important research questions. Data collection for focus groups can vary. Clients can participate or watch from backrooms, sessions can be recorded, and transcripts can be ordered.

With a larger number of participants at once, focus groups help you gain multiple points of view quickly, and the group dynamic allows participants to mention points they might have glossed over or forgotten if they were in an IDI format without hearing the thoughts and opinions of those around them.

It’s important to consider how the group dynamic can impact your data. Participants can be wary of delving into sensitive topics around other people and the group setting means respondents might be hesitant to express their true feelings, especially if it’s in opposition to someone else in the group.

3- Ethnographies

Ethnographies are a study where researchers observe and/or interact with participants in their real-life environment. There can be both unobtrusive or direct observation methods. Unobtrusive methods are things like looking at social media postings or archival work. Direct observation methods mean you are observing the consumer in their work setting. For example you might watch a scientist work at their lab. Because this method is about understanding what a person is doing rather than what they say they’re doing, optimal data collection would include recordings. After initial observations a guide can be developed help you codify, or structure, your notes.

Let’s talk through an example. A life-science company sent out a new consumable kit to respondents who then opened and unboxed the reagents while on video with a moderator. This allowed the company to see how scientists were interacting with their product packaging in the laboratory environment.  What did they take out first? Is it easy for them to determine. Do they understand what goes where If things need to go in separate fridges or freezers? How do they look at the packaging? How easy is it for them to figure out how to start?

This qualitative method is especially good at identifying bottlenecks and issues in workflows, is helpful for UI/UX testing, and a valuable resource for early project development or improvements to existing product lines, but you need to be mindful of best practices to avoid observation bias and potential confidentiality challenges.

4- Mixed Methods

Mixed method studies describe quantitative and qualitative data collection working in tandem to achieve greater insights

You can approach this by starting with a quantitative phase and then moving to a qualitative phase, but we also see the inverse where you begin with qualitative research and then move into quantitative research. For example, we worked with a biotech company that wanted to better understand why physicians were not ordering their diagnostic test. First, a small qualitative study interviewed clinicians who were current and potential customers. The qual was able to hypothesize several personas (early adopters, needs CME to adopt, hesitant to change, etc.). A quantitative study was designed to confirm these personas and identify best areas to focus new marketing.

This methodology is a great tool to help you better define your research objectives for a more focused quantitative study. They also can help add more voice of the customer style context and provide good follow up to quantitative studies. As you might have expected, mixed method studies take longer than an individual qualitative or quantitative study. It’s also important to keep in mind that not every respondent who agrees to participate in one will agree to participant in the other, so plan for that when it comes to study design and recruitment efforts.


When to Choose Qualitative Research

Both qualitative and quantitative research can be applied to a variety of scenarios. To name a few:

  • New product idea generation and development
  • Investigating current or potential products, services, brand positioning, and marketing strategy
  • Understanding dynamics of purchase decision dynamics
  • Exploring market segments, such as demographic and customer groups
  • Assessing the usability of websites or other interactive products or services
  • Understanding perceptions of a company, brand, category, and product

When you’re trying to choose between the two methodologies, you have to keep your needs and goals in mind. Is the purpose of your research to test an existing hypothesis or to explore perceptions? Do you want to measure opinions or understand the why behind the customer opinions? Do you need to use this data to extrapolate for a larger population or are directional trends sufficient? Are you choosing methods and designing studies based on best practices? Are your budget and time constraints influencing your research method? How will you use the data? These questions will help you decide the best path forward.

Qualitative research is a great tool when subject matter is unfamiliar and for exploratory research when relevant concepts are unknown, or definitions are unclear. It’s especially valuable when meaning rather than frequencies are sought, when flexibility of approach is needed to allow for discovery of unexpected feedback, and when you need to study selected issues, cases, or events in detail.

To learn more about how qualitative methods could help you achieve your market research goals contact us today. Our team of market research experts look forward to discussing how we can partner with you to get you the in-depth information you need to drive your business forward!