An intelligent German chap called Albert once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.“ You don’t have to be Einstein to correctly attribute that quote (or maybe you do, according to our internet sleuthing skills). Poor jokes aside, he pinpoints the fundamental logic behind qualitative research.
Talking to people gives us contextual cues we can’t uncover when we use strictly quantitative research methodology.
And life-changing products are often born from a single question.
When the product team at Apple sat down to work on the first iPhone, they might have asked, “What do our customers need in a new-age telecommunications device?” Touchscreens and tons of media storage were a given. But Apple did something else — they anticipated the power of cellular data.
They put a computer in our pockets.
How do companies like Apple “anticipate the client’s need before the need is needed?”
They talk to their users. They conduct quantitative and qualitative research. However, these methods are seldom used in equal measure. Within the $75+ billion global market research industry, only 1% of the revenue is generated by online qualitative research tools.
Walk with us as we journey down the road less traveled for a comprehensive overview of qualitative research.
What is Qualitative Research?
Here are three takeaways about qualitative research (skip to #3 for the nutshell):
- First, a brief history lesson. The origins of qualitative thinking date back to the 17th century, when French philosopher Rene Descartes proposed that there were two ‘realms of being’ — the material world and the spiritual or mental world. He argued that each required its own means of investigation. Qualitative research methodology traces back to the 1920s — initially used in studies where psychologists found it extremely tedious to evaluate human behavior in numeric. Traditional quantitative methods simply didn’t capture the totality of the human experience. Qualitative research methods became integral to social sciences such as psychology, anthropology, sociology and health sciences to explain processes and patterns of human behavior that are difficult to quantify.
- Second, defining qualitative research. What makes research “qualitative”? There isn’t one widely accepted definition of qualitative research. Aspers and Corte examine close to 90 sources in an exhaustive attempt to do so. We liked this one best — “Qualitative research is an interpretative science that focuses on the objective nature of behavior but also its subjective meanings.”
- Third, why it matters. Qualitative research gathers peoples’ individual accounts of their own attitudes, behavior, experiences, motivations and perceptions. If Apple didn’t pay attention to what its consumers wanted, the iPhone might have been very different. Researchers work towards solving complicated issues (what do we put in a new age device?) by breaking complex data into meaningful inferences easily understood by everyone. Apple executives understood that people wanted a phone with the best touchscreen experience, high storage for music and media and an unrivaled internet experience (watch the historic and hilarious unveiling). Safe to say they delivered.
The Nuts and Bolts of Qualitative Research Today
Qualitative researchers analyze non-numerical data in the form of images, text, audio and video. During Covid-19 lockdowns, over 40% of qualitative research was conducted via webcam and webcam technologies (no surprises there — this was the era of taking Zoom calls in our pajamas).
It’s an interactive process where teams collate quotes and testimonials by conducting open-ended interviews, focus groups, surveys and questionnaires. Central to a qualitative study is the researcher, who consider themselves ‘instruments’ in the process — all observations, interpretations and analyses are filtered through their own personal lens.
Qualitative research is an agile and reactive discipline, and researchers make several adjustments of focus and research design routinely as their studies progress. It is therefore of critical importance to document one’s methodology and explain choices made while collecting and analyzing data.
Qualitative Research Approaches
Qualitative research is an umbrella term that consists of several different approaches to make sense of data. Below are a few examples.
Ethnographic Qualitative Research
Ethnography studies participants carrying out the natural course of their daily lives. Researchers are completely immersed in their subject’s natural environment, conducting interviews and observing groups to understand their behavior. Any famous ethnographers, you might ask? Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey lived among chimpanzees, apes and gorillas, offering us fascinating insights into behavior of these primates. Interviews might’ve been a challenge though!
This qualitative research theory builds on the fundamentals of a concept called symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism focuses on the interaction between people and symbolic meanings that they attach to their social actions and environments.
Grounded theory aims to generate a theory that explains a process, action or outcome by studying these interactions and experiences. Researchers redefine scientific approaches to fit the qualitative data. It starts with a question, followed by collection of qualitative data, from which connections are formed. Data is categorized as research progresses and a hypothesis can be established and tested using quantitative methods.
For example, a company’s HR head notices productivity and morale have been especially low lately. She orders an inquest, and rolls out a satisfaction survey to all employees. She collates and categorizes received complaints into several buckets such as ‘unsatisfactory work timings’ and ‘no career advancement opportunities’. Too many employees are unhappy as they find themselves spending too much time sitting in traffic. She proposes(or theorizes) that employee morale will increase if the company allows some employees to work 8am-4pm to avoid traffic, rather than the usual 9-5. After operating under this new system, she can test her theory by conducting additional surveys to compare employee morale between new-hour and regular-hour employees.
Phenomenology seeks to interpret people’s constructs or concepts through life experiences of an individual. Where grounded theory seeks to develop a theory using multiple data sources, phenomenology focuses on describing an event from the perspective of those who have experienced it. A phenomenological study might interview people who lived through both World Wars to understand their general outlook on life during those troubled times.
Narrative qualitative research studies, in first person, the way people tell stories and the structure of narratives. Researchers try to extract meaning behind participant life choices and events. They use material such as journals, stories, interviews and letters to document their findings. Biographers who create books and films use narrative research as they attempt to capture the protagonist accurately.
This is a collaborative approach, where participants and researchers alike work to create positive social change. A local town wants to understand why their parks are being littered. They conduct a survey and interview local residents to understand why they are not using rubbish bins. Areas next to eating establishments that surround the park are especially filthy. From the survey, it emerges that the number and size of bins around parks is inadequate. They work together to identify ‘hot zones’ for litter, place bins all over and replace small bins with larger ones. Mission accomplished.
Critical theory explores how material conditions (such as economic, gender and ethnicity) influence beliefs, behaviors and experiences. A study may examine the lack of equal job opportunities among the LGBTQ community, for instance.
Qualitative Data Analysis Methods
Once researchers select their qualitative approach, they use the following analyses to unearth insights from their qualitative data.
This describes and categorizes common words, phrases and ideas. Researchers analyze the meaning and relationships of words and concepts, and provide context for the data. Analyzing the text of a Russian article covering the war, might reveal biases as compared to a Ukrainian media outlet. Content analysis can also describe the culture or time period that the text originates from.
This method identifies and interprets patterns in qualitative data. Data is coded, and eventually assigned a theme. Take the rubbish bin example – people’s individual accounts may differ, but a majority of them mentioned the restaurants surrounding the park. “Proximity to restaurants” is created as a code.
Textual analysis examines the content, structure and design of texts. Companies are using AI such as machine learning and natural language processing to extract data insights from large amounts of unstructured data. Sentiment analysis is a type of textual analysis where words are assigned ‘positive, negative or neutral’ ratings to understand the tone, context and meaning behind people’s messaging. Social media companies need to do this to remove hate speech and offensive messaging from their platforms.
Discourse studies communication and how we use language in specific social contexts. In other words, how do we talk in real-life situations? How do the words (and the non-verbal cues) we choose create meaning?
Watch Steve Jobs give a commencement speech at Stanford vs. Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ali G) giving one at Harvard. They both spoke to an audience of graduates in similar setting — but they clearly took different communication approaches to make their voices heard.
Qualitative Research vs. Quantitative Research
And of course, it’s impossible to mention qualitative data analysis without its quantitative research counterpart. For some research goals, quantitative methods are more appropriate, and for others qualitative.
Depending on the task, the researcher may apply a mixed-method approach, combining both to reach their goal.
We promise we’ll get to that.
Check out our deep dive comparison into qualitative research vs. quantitative research…and how to improve your own user research methods.
Frequently Asked Questions about Qualitative Research
Why is it important to know the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?
When you begin research, you need to understand which methodology is best suited to your study. When you know how to approach the research, you ask better questions. You collect better information. You get better insights. The two methods are not incompatible or mutually exclusive. In fact, many researchers rely on a mixed-method approach, employing both qualitative and quantitative research.
When do you use quantitative research?
Once you know the strengths and weaknesses of quantitative and qualitative research, it’s easier to determine the use case for each. Quantitative researchers focus on testing a theory through highly structured and standardized data collection methods (such as questionnaires). The rigor of their research depends on finding statistical significance, which means they need to base their study on a large sample size.