What is Qualitative Research: Your Guide to Methods, Questions, Analysis & More

We all know that greater access to high-quality data can help you make better decisions. But which kinds of data are most appropriate for a given project? Being a good researcher means being able to quickly identify the best approach for collecting data and gaining insights.

There are two predominant approaches you can take: qualitative or quantitative research. While there are advantages to both research methods, this article is focused on qualitative research—specifically, when, where, why, and how to use qualitative research.

What is qualitative research?

To begin, let’s start with a definition. Wikipedia defines qualitative research as “a scientific method of observation to gather non-numerical data.”

Qualitative research is exploratory in nature and employs open-ended questions and a conversational approach. It allows the researcher to gain rich, nuanced insight into any given topic, issue, group of people, product, and/or service. It’s useful for understanding the ‘why’ behind people’s opinions, behaviors, and attitudes.

Qualitative research is often used in academia to understand the social reality of individuals, groups, and cultures. The academic researcher gets as close as possible to the true experiences of its subject and may even choose to observe, and not interact with, participants to achieve more objective results. Academic projects usually have a long-term view and are more immersive in nature.

In addition, industry projects relating to marketing and user experience (UX) can also benefit from qualitative research methods.

The visual below shares four of the most common ways that qualitative research is used in these professional industries:

Product Marketing Lifecycle As an initial stage of research, qualitative research can help build an in-depth understanding of any topic or situation. As an exploratory stage, the focus is typically on attitudes, motivations, barriers, and core equities of a brand or product Exploratory A common objective of research is to identify distinct user/ consumer groups based on attitudes, behaviors, and/or demographics. Qualitative research may precede quantitative to help build hypotheses, or it may follow to get a deeper understanding of segments. Segmentation Prior to developing a new product, qualitative research can identify opportunities, unmet needs, and underlying motivations within a target market. Qualitative approaches can also be used to test concepts/prototypes. Product Development In journey research, qualitative observation is critical to identifying the various components and steps in the journey and also to understanding the ‘why’ behind each action within the journey. User Journey

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

To develop an even more complete understanding of this area of investigation, it’s useful to consider the differences between qualitative vs. quantitative research methods as well as the way the distinct benefits of each can work together.

Quantitative research and qualitative research are, respectively, the back and palm of a hand. You can’t really tell where one starts and the other ends when you look at the back and palm of your own hand. Both are needed to make a complete hand, and both are equally powerful. And a good client makes use of both forms to help support decision-making.

- Naomi Henderson, CEO, RIVA Market Research & Training Institute

Qualitative Research is non-statistical and often used to gather an initial understanding of a product, service, or group of people. The researcher goes into each research session with an objective perspective and seeks to develop hypotheses, link together themes, and create a narrative that helps them better understand what’s going on in the participant’s life and why they do the things they do.

Here are some high-level things to keep in mind about qualitative research:

  • Format: It’s a loosely guided discussion between researcher and participant where probes (‘why is that?’) are used to clarify and dig deeper into responses.
  • Type of data: It seeks to tap into people’s emotional responses; more about how they think, feel, and approach the choices they make rather than more rational accounts of actions and behaviors.
  • Sample size: It typically has a small sample size, which enables qualitative researchers to probe deeper and focus more on ‘quality’ vs. ‘quantity’ of results.
  • How the data is used: The anecdotes, stories, and descriptions that come to light during qualitative research are particularly powerful and can be used to humanize and add an emotional dimension to other insights gathered.

Alternatively, quantitative research is more focused on the incidences of behaviors, attitudes, and opinions. It is used to study relationships between disparate phenomena and make statistically viable comparisons between sub-groups of people.

  • Type of data: The results collected through quantitative research are more rational in nature and ask for people to recollect what, how, and when certain actions and events occurred.
  • Sample size: Sample sizes in quantitative research are significantly larger, and data is usually collected via surveys with close-ended responses.
  • How the data is used: Given the robust, statistical viability of quantitative data, researchers can create predictive models and employ other advanced analytical methods to create data-driven insights into the current state of a given population or category.

Qualitative research typically precedes quantitative research, which incorporates broader statistical analysis. This allows the insights and hypotheses generated from the qualitative research to be tested and, ultimately, validated or refuted. However, qualitative research can also be undertaken after quantitative research in order to help bring data to life and give deeper understanding to numbers.

Let’s look at qualitative and quantitative methods side by side to better illustrate the benefits of each:

Qualitative Research Quantitative Research
What It Does Instinctual/Emotional in Nature Uncover how people feel and think about a particular subject Rational in Nature Understand what people do, when they do it, and how it’s done
How It’s Done Engage with fewer people but spend more time with each person Engage with lots of people, often through a 15 to 30-minute online survey
Unique Benefit Ability to probe and dig deeper into particular responses Adds a human element to findings, rich with stories and anecdotes Ability for more robust data analytics to create complex models

Qualitative Research Methods: 5 Types to Know

Now that we have a better understanding of what qualitative research is and when to use it, let’s look at a few different qualitative approaches. This list contains the most common qualitative research methods, but it is by no means exhaustive: In fact, qualitative research methods are highly adaptable and constantly evolving.

1. Focus Group

The original technique, employed for decades. It is a group discussion, usually in person, and typically includes a small sample size of 4 to 10 participants. It efficiently and effectively gathers diverse and in-depth opinions. Depending on the purpose of the project, the participants may be recruited to share similar characteristics (e.g. demographics, attitudes, behavior) or have little in common. Focus groups are excellent to use when the project timeline is short and the objective is to get an overall read on something rather than an in-depth understanding on a personal level.

2. Ethnography

This is an immersive method, wherein the researcher spends more time (usually at least half a day) with one participant. In more academic projects, ethnographic studies can even last for years. This approach is a mix of interview and observation, and it is usually conducted at a place of meaning for the participant (e.g. their home). The researcher is interested in understanding multiple aspects of the participant’s life, such as family, food, work and/or friends. This approach gives rich insight into ‘who’ someone is and ‘why’ they do the things they do; it can even include using photographs and video to create a window into the participant’s environment. Ethnographies are best used for gaining deep understanding of a small group of people.

3. In-depth Interview

This method also uses a one-on-one approach but is often less in-depth than an ethnography. In-depth-interviews (or IDIs) are typically 1 to 2 hours. IDIs are often used to understand the participant’s experience in a specific situation or context. Examples include ‘ride-alongs’ (researcher joins participant in their vehicle) and ‘shop-alongs’ (researcher joins participant at a retail location). The data collected is contextual, situationally focused, and based on a specific experience or product. IDIs are helpful for journey or customer experience research, as specific, contextual stimuli and triggers can be probed.

4. Dyad/Triad

This is an interview comprised of two (dyad) or three (triad) participants, who may or may not be acquainted. By sharing a personal connection, participants often more openly and honestly share their perspectives on themselves and on one another. Additionally, participants can ‘keep each other honest’ to a certain extent, as there is more comfort to challenge each other’s opinions amongst friends (vs. a group of strangers). Dyads or triads are often used to get a deeper understanding of a topic, and the personal connection between participants can be leveraged to probe into deeper or more emotional territory. A smaller group, whether acquainted or not, allows for more discussion and collection of multiple views in a short time.

5. Online Communities

In more recent years, qualitative research has been leveraging the use of online platforms and communities to gain insight. This method often saves time and cost by eliminating the need for researchers to travel to a central location. Online community platforms are user-friendly, custom-designed (in terms of tasks/activities for the participants), and are convenient. Online communities are useful for gaining in-depth, nuanced feedback quickly and from a wide base of participants (i.e. range of geographic locations, consumer or demographic segments).

Though these methods have been listed apart from each other, it’s worth noting that qualitative research programs often use several of these methods together. It’s helpful to consider the elements of each method that would best suit your project and objectives.

Focus Group Ethnography In-Depth Interview Dyad/Triad Online Collection
Time-Intensiveness Low High Moderate Moderate Low
Cost-Intensiveness Moderate High Moderate Moderate Low
Nature of Data Collected Varied opinions and insight from a larger group of people Immersive and thorough insights on small group of people Contextual and situationally focused insights In-depth insight into moderately sized group Online interactions with large group of people
Unique Benefit Discussion benefits from group dynamics Comprehensive understanding and rich, colorful details Gain access to in-the-moment experiences and reactions Emulates natural conversation and honesty Multimedia content and user-generated content

Typical Qualitative Research Questions

The process of writing questions is paramount to the success of your project, as this is your chief mode of data collection. Poorly written questions will yield low-quality responses, as respondents won’t understand how to answer, or what you’re asking.

The questions that are best suited for qualitative research are exploratory in nature. They are open-ended, descriptive, and avoid leading the participant. A qualitative research question usually begin with ‘how’, ‘why’, or ‘describe for me’.  

I approach qualitative research as a tool for understanding the subtle kinds of meaning making in which individuals engage every day and that shape how they see and interact with the people and things around them. By beginning with ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, qualitative research can facilitate a uniquely sympathetic investigation of human behavior, reorienting us to the worlds of the people in which we are interested in ways that open our eyes to new possibilities for innovation and problem solving.

- Aimee Douglas, Senior Specialist, Bain & Company

In addition to these types of questions, qualitative research also leverages activities to generate more emotional, spontaneous, and subconscious responses. Here is a chart explaining a few of the more commonly used exercises or activities:

Personification Alien Activity Deprivation Exercise
What It Is Imagine that a product, brand, or other inanimate object is a person. Imagine an alien just landed on Earth and has never encountered _____ (the product, activity). Imagine a product is completely unavailable and no longer exists.
Key Questions
  • What kind of person would they be?
  • What sort of clothes would they wear?
  • Would you be friends with this person?
  • Why would someone do/use this?
  • What would the alien need in order to enjoy/complete/use?
  • What can the alien expect from the experience?
  • What would you miss most about ____?
  • To what extent would your life be different without ____?
  • What would you do/use instead of _____?
Unique Benefit Switches participant’s thinking from rational to more instinctual. Describing a relationship to something becomes easier when the task is grounded in relatability (e.g. describing a person). Through this exercise, a participant’s inherent biases or assumptions are revealed. This would be a difficult to thing ask outright (e.g. ‘what do you assume about xyz’). Allows the researcher to better understand the role of the activity/product in the participant’s life. Enables the participant to tap into instinctive reasons why they love something.

The Role of Bias in Qualitative Research

Much of the insights gleaned through qualitative research are generated through human analysis. The researcher’s role is to explore, understand, and link together what they are learning—in an objective way.

But, it’s impossible to interact and analyze free of subjectivity. When a researcher’s subjective beliefs, assumptions, and perspectives on something is drawn into the research project, we call this bias.

I always tell students that they should act as if they are an old-school camera. Record but do not add filters. It’s incredibly difficult to not add your own personal narrative to a set of observations. Particularly as you get trapped in the vortex of a fast moving project.  Good qualitative work should uncover the same insight regardless of which individual moderator is assigned to the case. We often work in teams so that we can argue with each other about what we’re observing along the way. You have to question everything and each other.

- Daniel Berkal, SVP Research & Innovation, The Palmerston Group

When it comes to analysis, bias can impact the results you report and the conclusions you draw. And while there may be no ‘silver bullet’ for avoiding bias, the first and most important step to battling it is acknowledging it exists.

Ask yourself, what is the unique context that you bring to each research session, and what assumptions are built into that context? By recognizing your assumptions, you’re better able to notice when your mind draws conclusions that are reinforcing what you already believe to be true – and you are better equipped to challenge your thinking.

The next step is designing questions that help you keep bias out of the conversation. The qualitative research questions you write should not be ‘leading’ the participant to respond in a particular way.

  • A Leading Question: What aspects of global warming make you feel saddest?
  • A Neutral Question: What thoughts, feelings and associations come to mind first when you think about global warming?

What’s more, teamwork and analytical discussions with other researchers are hugely useful in identifying bias. In addition to challenging your own assumptions during analysis, you should be ready to challenge those of your colleagues as well.

Finally, revisit your notes, recorded transcripts, photographs, and video footage to remind yourself of what you objectively heard versus what you remember (or think you remember) hearing.

Qualitative Analysis: Strategies for Digging into the Data

Up until this point, we’ve covered why and how you would leverage qualitative research. But, what happens after you have spoken to everyone and you’re holding onto piles of transcripts, stacks of notebooks, and hours of video footage?

Collecting & Recording Your Qualitative Data

The data you collect during the qualitative research process is detailed and descriptive. It can be messy and overwhelming, and there’s often vast quantities of it. For that reason, collecting, organizing, and maintaining what you’ve learned from your participants should be treated as an ongoing process done throughout the research project.

For starters, throughout the fieldwork process, it’s critical to properly record each research session (whether through written notes/transcripts, audio or video recordings) for a couple of reasons:

  1. To ensure that during your analysis phase you can draw on the total sample of information you gathered (and not just whatever you manage to remember)
  2. To help you begin to generate hypotheses and identify themes during the fieldwork, and adapt your approach and lines of questioning accordingly

Strategies for Analysis & Reporting

Apart from being inferential and subjective in nature, the process of analysis is iterative and can be time-intensive. Here are some simple strategies for effectively and efficiently conducting good qualitative research analysis.

  • Work as a pair or on a team when developing your key insights.
  • Work in one dedicated space, where it’s easy to collaboratively reflect on findings and brainstorm on implications (what it all means).
  • Reference transcripts and audio/video recordings throughout the analysis stage, as it’s likely the most objective information available in qualitative research.
  • Consider using a text analytics tool to quantify large volumes of qualitative research data from transcripts and direct where analysis should be focused.

Final Thoughts on Qualitative Research

We’ve covered a lot of information about Qualitative Research but, above all, you should keep the following in mind:

  • Why Use Qualitative Research: It’s exploratory, open-ended, and ideal if you need to gain rich insight from a small group of people.
  • How to Choose a Qualitative Research Method: Consider your objective, budget, and the time you have available to conduct research.
  • How to Ask Qualitative Research Questions: Keep your questions open-ended, non-leading, and as simple as possible.
  • How to Mitigate Bias: Acknowledge your assumptions, work in teams, revisit your fieldwork notes/transcripts/video, and don’t rely solely on your memory.
  • How to Analyze: Analyze and develop your schemas and frameworks as soon as possible following your research fieldwork. Don’t be afraid to get creative (and a little messy) with your analytical approaches.

The best way to get below the surface of an initial response is to harness your curiosity and see where that leads. This is true between a skilled qualitative researcher and her subjects, and even between researcher and clients; being curious about what drives their behaviors and what fuels their beliefs yields great output. If curiosity is your superpower, use it!

- Susan Sweet, Founder, Sweet Insight Group

The final thing to keep in mind is how human-centric qualitative research is. It’s a research method that is uniquely suited to uncovering emotional drivers and responses from participants. The researchers who get the most out of it are often those who can strike up a rapport and create a meaningful connection quickly with someone they’ve never met before. Be yourself, be friendly and, above everything, stay curious.

Related articles

Dino Insights is build for you.

Try it Free

$59 a month after 14 day trial expires.
Special early adopters pricing, normally $99 a month