When undertaking a research project, the first question people often ask is whether to conduct quantitative or qualitative research. However, both of these methodologies actually complement each other! In other words, while it can be useful to think of them as single approaches, there are also times when you should combine them for even clearer data.
What is Qualitative Research?
Qualitative research, or “qual,” seeks in-depth, freeform answers from respondents either in person or via open-ended responses. As recently as only five years ago, I would have said this was usually carried out with small groups in the form of in-person focus groups, telephone interviews or detailed surveys with free-text responses. Things have changed. While qualitative can still be conducted in person, the vast majority of qual is now done online. (As I’ll explain later in this article, this allows someone to conduct qual research at a quantitative scale.)
Qual research is often a go-to method for an insight department trying to gather anecdotal views and opinions. It offers a deeper understanding, with the ability to explore topics in more detail., which would usually come about via unprompted feedback. Qual can be a great approach for anyone looking to expand or start a brand-new product line because it allows you to gain honest responses and comments from your target audience.
Three to five years ago, you could argue that qualitative research was hard to measure, but there are so many different tools out there to analyze open-ended comments (as well as video responses!) that clients can receive results within hours of their research project getting underway.
The only thing I do find potentially difficult when conducting qualitative research is its statistical robustness. This is because you are generalizing to your broader audience, rather than having thousands of data points to analyze.
What is Quantitative Research?
On the flip side, quantitative research is, as the name suggests, all about the numbers! It tends to involve a large group of people (usually at least several hundred, but often thousands) completing a survey. While the approach is heavily numerical, this also means the results are clear and are harder to misinterpret. The survey can also be easily repeated and you can reliably track changes over time, such as in a tracker study. Then comes the analysis of your data—as you are asking closed questions, your data can be collected more quickly.
However, dealing with numbers means you need a large sample of the population to deliver reliable results. The larger the sample of people, the more statistically accurate the outputs will be.
I always like to remind researchers that when they are creating online surveys, the wording is crucial. To be confident in the results of quantitative surveys, you have to be confident that you’re asking the right questions, in the right way, with the correct answer-options included.
Quantitative and qualitative research both have their place in market research, and a blended approach should be carried out whenever you’re extending product lines or launching something new because it can give you a holistic viewpoint on what your customers are thinking, rather than just from one data point. Both methods can work hand-in-hand; brands can use qualitative research for developing concepts and theories, and quantitative for testing pre-existing ones.
You can also use freeform qualitative research to guide the creation of more structured quantitative surveys. Following quantitative surveys, turn to qualitative to better understand the context of the responses! There are so many opportunities!
Technology advances like open-response video and heat mapping also mean that qualitative research is getting closer to the quantitative price point. As a result, more and more organizations are able to use both approaches during their work.
You no longer have to choose a methodology based on cost because there is now value for the money within the sector. The real question you should be asking is not over which approach but rather how to best use both to provide insights that can have an impact on the bottom line.
Jake Pryslak, commonly known as the Research Geek, is a 3-time award-winning market researcher, blogger and speaker. He’s a current Forbes columnist who is active across a plethora of social media channels. His aim is to share his market research knowledge with others in the industry. You can find his blog and social media channels here.