Qualitative research examines motivations, opinions and impressions. Rather than looking at how someone behaved, it focuses on why. It is descriptive, in-depth and unstructured. And it can lead to all sorts of unexpected findings.
Qualitative research can come in various guises, from an interview, focus group or observation, through to a qualitative research questionnaire that uses open-ended questions. Below we’ll look at a few qualitative research types, including surveys that combine qualitative with quantitative methods.
Let’s consider some situations where qualitative research can be particularly helpful.
You can use qualitative research to come up with a hypothesis which you then test with quantitative research. For example, if you don’t know much about a topic you’re investigating, you can use qualitative research methods such as interviews or focus groups as a first port of call. It can provide you with an overview of your target audience’s issues, concerns and thoughts. Plus, you’ll hear how they speak about a topic, as opposed to the industry-speak or terminology you might normally use. This way, you’ll have a sense of what’s important to your target audience and understand the language they use. You’ll know what questions to ask and how to ask them. And this means you’re better placed for the quantitative stage.
Qualitative research also has the advantage of being less structured. This means you can uncover perceptions, challenges or opportunities you might not have been aware of. So it’s great for generating new ideas. Because it’s flexible, you can also explore themes or topics that arise in more detail. And it helps you ensure that you’re not missing something major simply because you didn’t think to list as a potential option.
But that’s not all. A nice bonus is that because you’re asking people to answer questions or describe something in their own words, you can even use it as a source of customer quotes.
When people think of qualitative research, they tend to think of interviews and focus groups. But that’s not where it ends. Let’s consider the main types of qualitative research and look at some examples so you can understand how they work in practice.
Interviews collect in-depth information in a one-on-one setting to better understand a topic or issue. Let’s say you’re planning on sending out a survey on employee satisfaction within your company. Rather than starting with the survey straight off, it might be helpful to begin by understanding the culture, working conditions and other concerns, and how they might differ across the organisation. Interviews are ideal for this. Plus, you can ask follow-up questions, read body language and pick up on other subtle cues. You can even use interviews as a basis for case studies and gathering expert opinions.
Expert opinions are ideal if you’re researching a topic you don’t know a great deal about. Conducting some one-to-one interviews with those in the know can be an efficient way of identifying relevant challenges and opportunities to investigate further.
Focus groups are discussions in small groups on a given subject. They can be done either online or in person. A focus group allows you to gauge the reactions of a small number of your target audience in a controlled but free-flowing discussion. This form of research is an excellent way of testing the waters. Let’s say you’re planning on launching a new online shopping app. Explore how your target audience would feel about it, what might encourage them to use it and what might put them off.
Observational research is where you watch people as they go about their daily life. For instance, if you’re a facilities manager thinking about the workplace layout, it’s essential you understand how employees use the office space. Seeing things in action can really help.
Or maybe you manage a supermarket chain like Waitrose and you want to gain a better understanding of how and when customers interact with your staff. Real-world observations can provide a wealth of information. And because you’re watching people as they go about their day-to-day business, you can pick up on elements some might think unimportant or forget to mention.
Wait—is a questionnaire qualitative or quantitative? It’s a common misconception that questionnaires or surveys are only ever quantitative. Generally, they’re a bit of both. Let’s look at an example.
You run a glamping business, offering luxury camping options in the Lake District. After each stay, you gather customer feedback using a questionnaire. You might ask:
What did you enjoy most about your stay with us? ➡️ Quantitative question
Other ➡️ Qualitative question
This survey incorporates both qualitative and quantitative research methods. By giving people the option to add their own answer in a text box, you limit the risk of missing valuable information. For instance, maybe what your customers loved most of all was the comfortable beds and premium bedding. Or maybe it was access to a kettle. Never underestimate the value of making a cuppa with the flick of a switch!
Another common qualitative survey question is:
What else could we do to improve your experience?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Broad questions like this allow people to mention aspects that haven’t already been covered in a survey. It provides people with the opportunity to give their two pennies’ worth. And it can lead to some interesting insights.