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The difference between quantitative and qualitative research

Learn the benefits of both qualitative and quantitative data

Qualitative and quantitative. They’re widely used terms, but often not fully understood. So what exactly is the difference between quantitative and qualitative research? How do qualitative and quantitative research methods differ? And what are the pros and cons of each? In this article, we answer each of these questions and provide concrete examples to help you get to grips with each method. You’ll also learn how to combine the two to get in-depth, quantifiable data.

What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?

The characteristics of qualitative vs quantitative research

Quantitative researchQualitative research
Surveys and questionnaires with closed-ended questions:
- Categorical questions (i.e. yes/no, checkbox or multiple choice)
- Questions with intervals or ratios (i.e. choosing from 1-5)
Surveys and questionnaires with open-ended questions (i.e. describe in your own words). Also:
- Focus groups
- Interviews
- Observation (watching people as they go about their work or life)
Narrow in focusBroad in focus
Facts and numbersImpressions, opinions and views

Quantitative research: a definition

Quantitative research involves collecting cold, hard facts. Numbers. Quantitative data is structured and statistical.

Qualitative research: a definition

Qualitative research seeks to describe a topic more than measure it. Impressions, opinions and views are prime examples. A qualitative survey is less structured. It delves deep into a specific topic to learn about people’s motivations, thinking and attitudes.

When to use qualitative vs quantitative research

To know which type to use and when, you first need to understand the benefits of both qualitative and quantitative data.

The benefits of quantitative and qualitative research

Quantitative research Qualitative research
More responses (they’re quicker to fill out, and respondents can be based anywhere)Excellent for generating new ideas
Easy to analyse and draw conclusions fromHelps with understanding people’s motivations, thoughts or behaviour
Highly detailed

When is quantitative research useful?

This approach is useful for drawing overall conclusions. It can help confirm or disprove hypotheses. It’s easy to analyse and it allows you to see the big picture. Results from quantitative questions can easily be converted into graphs or charts. And because quantitative questions are easier and faster to answer, you’ll get more responses.

When is qualitative research useful?

This type of research delves into the details and gives you insight into the motivations or perceptions behind the facts. While qualitative feedback brings depth of understanding to your research findings, it also makes the results harder to analyse. Qualitative survey questions can run the risk of being too vague.

How to choose between qualitative and quantitative research

The approach you choose, whether to gather qualitative or quantitative data, will determine the results you get and the conclusions you can draw from them.

Let’s imagine you’re BT and you’re surveying customers about your fibre broadband package. Using a qualitative, open-ended question along the lines of “What do you think about our internet service?” will lead to a wide variety of responses. You customers will use different words and are likely to focus on different aspects, such as price, speed and reliability.

If you instead asked a closed-ended, quantitative question (or a series of them) like the following, you’ll get quantifiable answers from which you can easily draw conclusions.

The internet service is reliable:

  • Always
  • Most of the time
  • About half the time
  • Once in a while
  • Never

Now, let’s consider the example of a research project. Both qualitative and quantitative research methods can be used at different stages within a single project.

  • Formulating hypotheses: use quantitative research to discover the problems or opportunities people are thinking about. Turn some of these into hypotheses.
  • Validating your hypotheses: quantitative research gives you the data to validate or disprove your hypotheses, objectively.
  • Answering broad questions: use quantitative research and its high response rate to answer general questions like, “do people prefer you over your competitors?”
  • Incorporating the human touch: qualitative research can also help in the final stages of your project. Answers to open-ended questions can be turned into quotes to put a human voice to the objective numbers and trends in your results. Plus, often it helps to hear your customers describe your company in their own words in order to uncover your blind spots.

How to combine qualitative and quantitative research

Most of the time though, it’s not really a case of qualitative vs quantitative. Both have different advantages and applications, but often, they’re best used together.

In a world of Big Data, there’s a wealth of statistics and figures out there. And these are a strong foundation to base your decisions on. But to fully understand the significance behind the numbers and to give them meaning, you need to look at motivations and perceptions. That’s where qualitative data comes in.

So how do you combine both qualitative and quantitative data?

When you’re looking to discover new opportunities or identify potential problems, qualitative research is often the best place to start. Follow this with quantitative data to measure and track those problems and opportunities.

Examples of qualitative and quantitative research, combined

Let’s say you held a conference and wanted feedback from your attendees. Quantitative research can help you measure things like attendance rate, overall satisfaction, quality of speakers and the value of information given.

But you might want to also include some open-ended, qualitative research questions to find out what you may have overlooked. You could use questions such as:

  • What did you enjoy most about the conference?
  • How could we improve your experience?
  • Is there any feedback on the conference you think we should be aware of?

This can help with bringing up issues you might not have been aware of. Or giving ideas you might not have thought of before. And if you discover any common themes, you can choose to investigate them in more detail, make changes for the next event and add quantitative questions about these topics after the next conference.

For instance, say several attendees feedback that the conference location was tricky to get to. Taking this on board, you might choose to change the location for next time. Then you could ask how satisfied people were with the new location or allow them to choose from a list of potential locations they would prefer.

Open-ended vs close-ended questions

A good way of recognising when you want to switch from one method to the other is to look at your open-ended questions and ask yourself why you are using them.

For example, if you asked, “What do you think of our ice cream prices?”, people would respond in their own words and you’ll probably get some left-field answers.

If that’s not what you’re after, then you’d be better off using an easily quantifiable, closed-ended question, for example:

Relative to our competitors, do you think our ice cream prices are:

  • Higher
  • About the same
  • Lower

This kind of question will make things much clearer for your survey respondents and give you consistent data that’s easy to analyse.

How to gather qualitative feedback

There are many different methods for conducting qualitative research that will give you very detailed information on your chosen topic.

  • Interviews. One-on-one conversations that can delve deep into a chosen topic.
  • Case studies. Collections of client stories based on in-depth interviews.
  • Expert opinions. High-quality information from well-informed sources.
  • Focus groups. In-person or online conversations among small groups of people to listen to their views on a product or topic.
  • Open-ended survey questions. A text box in a survey that lets the respondent freely express their thoughts on a specific matter.
  • Observational research. Observing people as they go about their day-to-day life, for instance, to understand how they interact with a product.

However, some of these research methods are incredibly time intensive.

Analysing qualitative data is also less straightforward than quantitative data. That said, SurveyMonkey offers tagging and sentiment analysis functions that can help you understand the emotions behind qualitative responses, so you can draw conclusions more easily.

Qualitative and quantitative questions in practice

Our customer satisfaction survey template includes some good examples of how qualitative and quantitative questions can work together to provide you with a complete view of how your business is doing.

Quantitative questions:

How long have you been a customer of our company?

  • This is my first purchase
  • Less than six months
  • Six months to a year
  • 1-2 years
  • 3 or more years
  • I haven’t made a purchase yet

How likely are you to purchase any of our products again?

  • Extremely likely
  • Very likely
  • Somewhat likely
  • Not so likely
  • Not at all likely

Qualitative follow-up question:

  • Do you have any other comments, questions, or concerns?

The following is another example from our employee engagement survey.

Quantitative questions:

When you make a mistake, how often does your supervisor respond constructively?

  • Always
  • Most of the time
  • About half of the time
  • Once in a while
  • Never

Qualitative question:

  • What does your line manager need to do to improve their performance?

Now that you understand the difference between these methods and have seen some examples of qualitative and quantitative research, you’ll be best placed to choose the most appropriate approach for each situation. Make the most of both types in your next survey by using one of our templates, written by expert survey methodologists.

We’ve got templates for all types of questions. Check out our library of expert-designed survey templates.

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