What is qualitative research?

For those more familiar with quantitative research techniques, the methods used in qualitative research may, at first look, seem ineffective. However, it is important to realise that qualitative research is not trying to answer the same questions that are asked in quantitative research.

In short, in comparison to quantitative, qualitative research focuses on words rather than numbers, depth rather than breadth. Its methods are exploratory; they seek to unearth the opinions, thoughts and feelings of respondents. It is most commonly used to help inform new concepts, theories and products. First developed within the social sciences, qualitative research is now widely used to inform market research, by gaining unique consumer insight from a wealth of data.

One particular difference between qualitative and quantitative research is that the former requires much more in-depth involvement from the researcher. It is their interpretation which shapes the outcome.

Why choose online qualitative research?

Now you know the basics of qualitative research, why should you use it to conduct your project? Here are some of the main benefits:

  • Qualitative techniques give you a unique depth of understanding which is difficult to gain from a closed question survey. Respondents are able to freely disclose their experiences, thoughts and feelings without constraint. Qualitative methods offer a dynamic approach to research, where the researcher has an opportunity to follow up on answers given by respondents in real time, generating valuable conversation around a subject – something which isn’t possible with a structured survey.
  • Whilst the facts and figures generated by quantitative research are undoubtedly useful, you can often be left looking for the ‘why’ behind the stats. This is where qualitative research is key, as respondents have the opportunity to freely elaborate on their answers.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted“ (Albert Einstein)

Online qualitative research methods are a relatively new approach within the field but come with their own unique benefits. Online methods make qualitative research more accessible by taking away the constraints of traditional techniques. For example, collecting data via a traditional focus group can be time-consuming and costly, whereas conducting an online focus group removes the cost of participant travel, venues and transcriptions, as well as logistically being easier to manage.

  • Furthermore, by not being face-to-face with the moderator, respondents are likely to feel anonymous and therefore are more likely to give the most honest answers. This also helps alleviate moderator bias; body language, expressions, tone of language are all possible sources of bias in a face-to-face environment, something which is eradicated by online methods.
  • There are many ways in which online qualitative techniques can specifically be useful for conducting market and consumer research. For example, if a brand needs to clarify or test new marketing messages, focus groups can be the perfect way to gain honest feedback. Qualitative methods can also be used to help construct new ideas for how to improve or fine tune a product, as well as learning how a brand matches its target audience. Overall, for any in-depth insight into how a brand/product is viewed by the general consumer, qualitative research has the perfect tools.

Whilst these methods aren’t going to give you statistics from large sample sizes which you can extrapolate across a population, it will give you the perfect tools to explore a new concept, or gain feedback on a new idea. It is also a great starting point to develop ideas which will later inform your quantitative research.

Online qualitative methods

There are a wealth of online qualitative methods you can use to gain product and customer insight. Here are a few common techniques:

Focus Groups: This is a useful way to generate guided discussion around the topics of your choice. The moderator of the group would begin the discussion using text or video, allowing respondents to construct a conversation, generating data in real time. The moderator’s role would be to ensure conversation is on track and relevant, whilst also probing for deeper insight where appropriate.

Discussion boards: Similar to focus groups, discussion boards are useful when wanting to collect dynamic data over a longer period of time. Much like an online forum, the researcher can prompt a topic for discussion, allowing respondents to contribute and build on each other’s thoughts and ideas. This is an interactive way to produce qualitative data, and allows the researcher to have as much or little input as needed, through the use of prompts and probing. A discussion board could be active for several days to weeks.

These methods would be a great choice for generating feedback on a new product or marketing message; creating conversation between a diverse group of people, will help you understand different views of the product from various perspectives, and ensure you really get to know your customer.

Diaries and Journals: The use of diary or journal entries are a great way of generating qualitative data over a longer period of time. Respondents have the opportunity to upload entries at requested time intervals e.g. every day or once a week, recording their experiences and commenting on any changes of opinion.

This method would be of particular use within consumer research when wanting to understand the experience of a product over a period of time. For example, if you were looking to track the usage and experience of an app or website over a number of weeks, this would help gain insight into how it would be used by a consumer in the real world.

Pictures and Video: Other interactive qualitative techniques include the use of pictures and videos. Respondents are able to upload photos or short video clips to help illustrate their experiences. For example, if providing a feedback on a product, respondents could provide video footage to complement their written word.

So now you have generated your qualitative data, what happens next? With such rich, detailed data, in-depth analysis is necessary to generate the key themes and insight from the research.  Once these key themes are formulated, the results can help inform the next stages in the development of a product or marketing message or help to narrow down your target audience.

In addition, your research may have prompted some new thoughts and concepts which you wish to explore, generating the basis for a quantitative survey to understand if these opinions are typical of a larger population.

In summary, qualitative research methods sit perfectly alongside quantitative methods to offer a unique opportunity to gain in-depth insight from consumers. What quantitative research lacks in depth of meaning, qualitative makes up for. Having access to both methods of research allows the ability for all research needs to be fulfilled.


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