What is qualitative research?

In market research, qualitative studies collect, analyze, and interpret data that is non-numerical (for example, textual, auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic, etc.) in an attempt to comprehend concepts, theories, experiences, perceptions, and perspectives. It seeks to understand a certain phenomenon, behavior, or idea from the informant’s point of view. These opinions and observations may be elicited through open-ended questions and conversations which may or may not be structured or organized. Like Keith Punch puts it,  qualitative research is ”empirical research where data are not in the form of numbers”.

The breadth and depth of its scope make qualitative research suitable for fields in the social sciences, the liberal arts, and humanities like sociology, public policy, anthropology, history, religion, literature, etc.

Background to qualitative research

The word qualitative stems from its Latin roots ‘qualitas’ which means a characteristic, attribute, or property as opposed to the quantity of something.  For centuries, humans have been contributing to first-hand information that serves as a start to conversation, research, and discourse. And qualitative research has wide relevance in philosophical fields of study that have investigated human life, culture, values, morals, imagination, and invention. 

In the 19th and 20th centuries, cultural anthropologists conducted several observational studies in non-literate societies. For example, Freudian theories were solely based on case study accounts of elite Viennese women whose experience of the world was limited to their context. The same with Piaget’s theories, which were based on his observations of human development in the childhood years. While observational techniques were gaining currency through the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1980s the term ‘qualitative research’ became popular.

More recently, in market research, qualitative research has sought to understand customer psychology via face-to-face interviews, focus groups, case studies, and expert opinions that can offer valuable insights into market demand and customer behavior.

Key elements to qualitative research in the MR world

Qualitative research is a great way to understand nuanced and complex information which has point black answers. At the same time, it is still a scientific process that needs to be carried out systematically and efficiently. The 6 keys that make or break qualitative research.

1. Content

Your research questions need to observe quantifiable behavior instead of intentions and motives. At the same time, you will need to have had independent proof elsewhere to make sure the responses you’re getting are well-dimensioned and focused.

2. Format

Keep the design seamless, without too many page breaks. Order the form, structure, and rhythm with your brand in mind. It helps register questions better and answer.

3. Language

Stay away from biases, play with words meaningfully, and cover one topic at a time. Avoid terms that have strong associations.

4. Measurement

Measure responses if you can But avoid representing what you find as quantifiable data. You cannot afford to make big business decisions based on a few responses.

5. Administration & Distribution

Before you administer or conduct your research, you need to make sure the respondents are in a comfortable frame of mind and physical space. Make it time-friendly and contour it to their schedule and way of life. If it’s an online event, make sure you pick the right software.

6. Incentive

Incentivize your research for your target audience. Random drawings, pay-per-session, and in-app/in-store rewards are essential to successful research.

Possible objectives of qualitative research

The objective of qualitative studies may be either inductive and iterative. Inductive research collects, analyzes, and looks for patterns in the data while drawing theories of explanation around them. And Iterative research refers to a systematic series of inquiry into a subject that approaches a refined and improved interpretation of the subject at the end. Some things to remember:

  • Explore a hypothesis with semi-structured questions
  • Be flexible to elicit more answers
  • Appreciate contextual variables
  • Are open-ended
  • May evolve during the course of the study and be subject to iterations
  • Theories and findings may be data-informed rather than data-driven

Approaches to qualitative research

Qualitative research may be carried out in a number of ways based on the nature and context of the study. These options give researchers the opportunity to remain flexible while collecting and interpreting data. Some common approaches.

  • Grounded theory

According to Charmaz, “Grounded theory refers to a set of systematic inductive methods for conducting qualitative research aimed toward theory development. One arrives at a grounded theory through repeated reviews of the data, refining questions, and iterating through the course of the study. For example, it may be used to monitor best management practices during volatile situations.

  • Ethnography

This approach compiles relevant primary sources of information like interviews, documentaries, observations, and anecdotes to produce detailed and comprehensive accounts of a social phenomenon. In market research, ethnographic research may be carried out in-house, in-store, online, mobile, and in many other such use cases.

  • Action research

Also known as participatory action research, it progressively investigates solutions to a problem with critical reflection and action simultaneously. Professor at MIT, Kurt Lewin (1944) described it as “research leading to social action… composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action. For example, action research bears a significant impact on marketing in digital media. You monitor consumer behavior in real-time and course-correct campaigns based on data-driven insights.

  • Phenomenological research

It is a systematic inquiry into an individual’s experiences within a context. In market research, it evaluates the connotative and subjective value of a brand or product. Not simply denotative. German philosopher Husserl once said we’d be in a nasty position if empirical science were the only kind of science possible.” Phenomenological research makes market research more meaningful. Imagine not being able to gauge a patient’s holistic response to a treatment course, or a student’s interest and willingness to pursue a subject.

  • Narrative inquiry

A mode of inquiry into personal or master accounts of lived experiences and subjectivity capturing rich data from feelings, beliefs, values, images, and time. It is immensely useful in histories, journals, photographs, and other artifacts of literature and documentation.

Qualitative research methods

Any research approach needs to involve one or more of the data collection methods. Multiple methods add a more realistic dimensionality to the research problem, which helps drive better insights into data. Types of qualitative research methods:

1. Observations

A market research method that employs researchers to study how consumers behave in market conditions under different sets of variables and non-variables. This may also be done by tracking consumer behavior online, offline, or on in-store “shop-alongs”.

2. Interviews

Guided or semi-structured techniques that investigate the consumer’s response to a product or brand. They may be in-depth, open-ended, close-ended, targeted, focused, theme-based, etc.

3. Focus groups

Composed of a group of 6 – 12 consumers gathered in an online or offline space based on their predetermined criteria like demographics, behavior, and location to identify their perception, likes, dislikes, needs, and behavior in relation to market demand and supply. 

4. Surveys

A series of semi-structured questions that investigated customer inclinations, reviews, requirements, characteristics, or expectations. They have many use cases from getting customer feedback to making critical business decisions.

5. Secondary research

Secondary research employs information that has already been compiled by other entities. Reports and studies by the government, trade associations, and other companies in the industry are a few examples.

Limitations to qualitative research

  • Ethics

 Ethical concerns may arise as qualitative research is best conducted in the “natural setting” of the subjects.

  • Bias

The relationship between researchers and respondents needs to be free of bias, objective and focused.

  • Consent

The problem of consent may arise due to the sensitive nature of opinions, experiences, feelings, and personal information.

Summing up

It is important to use a wide range of research methods when you are conducting qualitative research. List out potential biases that may arise through the lifecycle of your study and be careful to avoid them. Follow up with the research. And make sure you make the most of your research and moderation efforts and spends.