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Qualitative Research: A Comprehensive Guide

In today’s competitive landscape, organisations know they need to be data-driven. Data can teach you about your customers, their needs and behaviours, how your services or products stack up and what impact your marketing efforts are having. And yet few organisations have truly taken advantage of big data.

This means that data can be a differentiator. If you’re able to collect it at key points and, crucially, analyse and act on it, data can provide you with the information you need to minimise threats, maximise opportunities and get ahead of the competition.

Qualitative research, which focuses on impressions and opinions, can give you a wealth of insights to help your organisation thrive. Read on for a definition of qualitative research and to learn how you can use qualitative research and analysis to perform at your peak.

Qualitative research is the process of gathering descriptive data. Rather than numerical data and hard facts, which result from quantitative research, qualitative research deals with more subjective topics like views, attitudes and motivations. It seeks to answer why people believe certain things or act in certain ways.

Because it’s less structured and prescriptive, qualitative research can be quite broad in focus and can help you unearth findings you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. This makes it a particularly rich source of insights, meaning it’s great for coming up with new ideas and understanding your target audience.

There are four main ways of carrying out your own qualitative research: interviews, focus groups, observations and qualitative survey questions. It’s also possible to conduct qualitative research using data, such as recordings or transcriptions, that is gathered by another person, organisation or institution. This is known as secondary research.

Interviews can be an excellent source of in-depth qualitative data. Typically carried out one on one and verbally, interviewers are able to investigate interesting comments as they come up, ask follow-up questions and request clarification if the interviewee’s answer is ambiguous.

There are three main types of interviews: structured, unstructured and semi-structured. Structured interviews are fixed in terms of the questions asked and the order in which they’re asked, and in fact, often result in quantitative data. Meanwhile, semi-structured and unstructured interviews are more common forms of qualitative research. They’re both relatively flexible and give the interviewer the possibility of shaping the flow of conversation to some extent, meaning they can provide great depth to your research.

Focus groups bring together small groups of fewer than 10 people to discuss a particular topic, either online or in person. The people chosen are representative of the researcher’s target audience. Focus groups are normally moderated by at least one person who guides the discussion and asks participants a series of predefined questions. The moderator can also ask additional questions or ask people to provide more details if needed.

Focus groups are typically recorded and then transcribed afterwards, but moderators, facilitators or other observers may take notes during the sessions, for example notes on nonverbal cues or body language, to supplement the transcriptions.

Focus groups are useful for market and product research and for understanding consumer behaviours and thoughts, as they provide more unfiltered, spontaneous feedback.

Observational research involves watching people perform a particular activity or going about their day-to-day life. Observational research is often conducted in person, but it can also be carried out online or via a video recording.

Observational researchers don’t interfere with the people they’re observing or influence what they’re doing as they do it. They may observe people in a natural setting, a research technique referred to as naturalistic observation. Or they may observe people in a controlled environment, where they may need to gain their permission to observe and record them, and ask them to perform a particular activity. This is known as controlled or structured observation. It’s worth bearing in mind that in this form of research, people may behave slightly differently to how they would normally because they know they’re being observed.

The aim of observational research is to see how someone acts and reacts in a specific situation. This makes it a useful tool for understanding the customer journey and consumer behaviour.

You might think of surveys as types of quantitative research, with multiple choice and yes/no questions. But while closed-ended questions like this do feature heavily in surveys, qualitative questions are also great to include, and the two can work very well together. For example, you might ask your customers the following quantitative question:

When choosing a hair salon to go to, which of the following influences your choice?

  • Location
  • Opening hours
  • Price
  • Customer service
  • Quality of the cut
  • Other (please specify below)

You could follow this up with a qualitative question like:

What did you most enjoy about your recent experience at Amy’s Fabulous Cuts?

The first question will tell you which criteria influence your customers’ choice of hair salon, while the second will give you a whole range of potential answers that can provide useful insights into customer motivation, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

Qualitative data is less straightforward than quantitative data to analyse, but it’s certainly possible. Here’s how to go about it:

First, you need to carry out your research and gather your data based on your central research question – in other words, what you’re aiming to find out. This includes conducting interviews, focus groups and perhaps observational research, as well as making and storing any notes that could provide additional context to the raw data.

Next, you need to get all your data in a usable format. This includes transcribing audio or video recordings of interviews or focus groups so that you can analyse the text rather than having to watch or listen to the recording over and over. You may also need to tidy up any notes you took during the research phase.

Once you’ve got your data in text form, you need to review a sample to identify recurring themes. Create codes or categories that describe these themes or patterns, and assign categories to each piece of data.

For qualitative survey questions, this would include adding useful categories for each response, such as “poor customer service” or “good price”, and tagging based on sentiment, such as “positive”, “negative” or “neutral”. But if you use SurveyMonkey, your text responses are all analysed for you automatically, saving you a whole heap of time.

Now that you’ve coded your findings, you can zoom out. Take a macro look to see if there are any patterns emerging from the data. For instance, perhaps “good customer service” is often mentioned, or maybe waiting times are a common complaint. SurveyMonkey creates automatic charts and summaries to help you understand your survey results quickly.

Review all your data and reflect on your findings to draw overall conclusions and answer your research questions. This is where you’ll see the fruits of your labour.

The final step is to determine what you’re going to do in response to your research findings. What action will you take? And how will you communicate what you’re doing?

Qualitative research is a valuable tool for investigating certain topics, especially those you don’t know all that much about. It allows you to:

  • understand perceptions and motivations
  • generate new ideas or hypotheses
  • discover issues you weren’t aware of
  • ask follow-up questions
  • explore subjects as they come up
  • build a rapport with research participants
  • record the language your target audience uses

From focus groups to interviews to open-ended survey questions, qualitative research gives you the opportunity to hear feedback straight from the horse’s mouth. Understand not only what your target audience thinks and why, but also how they talk about a specific topic. This can even inform your messaging, branding and marketing efforts.

On the flipside, qualitative research has some disadvantages. While it provides useful background information concerning thoughts and motivations, it’s also:

  • time-intensive
  • smaller in terms of responses and sample size
  • more difficult to analyse
  • subjective
  • easy to influence respondents with leading questions

Qualitative research may be time and resource-intensive, giving you a smaller sample size to work from, but it has its place, especially when it comes to understanding why people act or think a certain way.

Still unsure about what’s best for your project? Find out more about when to use qualitative vs quantitative research.

Below are some examples that demonstrate qualitative research really coming into its own.

Qualitative research brings valuable deep insights to market research. Let’s imagine you want to launch a new service. Holding a few focus groups with people representative of your target market would be an excellent way to determine:

  • whether there’s a market and a need for this service
  • what competition already exists in this area
  • what factors influence people to choose one provider over another
  • how people refer to this type of service – do people use the industry lingo or more everyday terms?

If you manage a brick-and-mortar store, watching customers as they walk around your shop can prove incredibly insightful. You could use naturalistic observation to help you:

  • map the customer journey: what touchpoints do they encounter?
  • understand the influence of product positioning: end caps? Eye-height? The best place to put items on offer?
  • record how much time customers spend choosing their purchases, and how many products in a category they appear to consider

Let’s say you’re looking to measure employee satisfaction. A survey is an ideal way to do this, allowing you to gather opinions from a large number of people, and do so anonymously to encourage uptake and honesty.

We recommend using a mixed-method approach, combining closed-ended questions for information like which team they belong to and how long they’ve been with the organisation, with broad, open-ended questions such as:

  • How meaningful is your work?
  • How challenging is your work?
  • In a typical week, how often do you feel stressed at work?
  • How well are you paid for the work you do?
  • How much do your opinions about work matter to your colleagues?

Questions like this will help you uncover levels of overall staff satisfaction and identify problem areas and what you’re doing well.

When it comes to qualitative research, SurveyMonkey can help with the heavy lifting. Find out how to conduct qualitative research and create a survey in a flash with our expert-certified survey templates and SurveyMonkey Genius, which vets your survey and highlights any issues.

Not sure who to send your survey to? Access an audience of over 80 million with SurveyMonkey Audience or make the most of AI-driven insights with Momentive Insights.

Plus, you can save time analysing the results with easy text analysis and automated charts, graphs and summaries.

Qualitative research can provide a wealth of in-depth information about subjective topics like thoughts and opinions. It’s invaluable in marketing and market research for understanding customers. However, it can be time-consuming and costly to both gather and analyse. But with the right tool, it doesn’t have to be. SurveyMonkey is the ideal platform for your qualitative surveys, not only making the whole process as quick as possible thanks to automation and text analysis, but also providing detailed guidance on how to carry out qualitative research effectively.

Create your qualitative survey with one of our sample templates.

Qualitative research investigates motivations, opinions and perceptions. Interviews, focus groups, observations and even open-ended survey questions are all types of qualitative research.

Qualitative research is descriptive and subjective. It studies motivations, opinions and perceptions. Quantitative research is objective and involves collecting numerical data and cold, hard facts. Explore when to use qualitative vs quantitative research.

There are four main methods for carrying out original qualitative research: interviews, focus groups, observations and surveys featuring qualitative questions. You can also do secondary qualitative research, where you perform qualitative analysis on data gathered by someone else.

Qualitative research questions are open-ended questions, rather than closed-ended questions such as yes/no or multiple-choice questions. They often begin with words like “why” or “how”, or ask people to provide a description in their own words. Some examples could include: “What did you enjoy most about your visit to our restaurant?” and “Is there anything we could do to improve the customer experience?”