Quantitative and Qualitative Research
They are commonly discussed in market research but just what is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research? And how should each be used?
Qualitative research is generally exploratory in nature. It’s used to understand the motivations, reasons, thoughts, opinions, and feelings that underlie behaviours and phenomena. It’s used to identify areas for more in-depth study, and to give context to results or hypotheses already measured.
- Data collectors – Semi-structured interviews, open-ended forms and group observation
- Analytical objectives – Investigates opinions, motivations, experiences and beliefs
- Audience size – Smaller sample audiences
- Questions asked – Open-ended, exploratory questions
- Flexibility – New questions can be created or provided in response to answers given
- Results produced – Data that gives a general description of the qualities of the subject
Quantitative research is concerned with the measurement and analysis of the subject. It’s used to understand how many of something there is, or how frequent an occurrence might be. Generally, anything that can be reduced to a number is qualitative research.
- Data collectors – Structured observation, experiments and online surveys
- Analytical objectives – Investigates measurable characteristics of a population or group
- Audience size – Larger sample audiences
- Questions asked – Closed, discrete, specific questions
- Flexibility – All participants are asked the same questions
- Results produced – Data that gives a quantified numerical description of the subject
Using Quantitative and Qualitative Methods
As qualitative research is looking for subjects to reveal their thoughts and opinions, especially where these are not already known to the researcher, the most commonly-used methods are face-to-face or phone interviews, qualitative surveys, focus groups, or simple observation. These are all “open-ended”, meaning the subjects are not expected to give simple answers to discrete questions, but encouraged to discuss, either one-to-one or in a facilitated group, their reaction to the topic. The value of this kind of research often becomes apparent when the discussion goes into areas that were unanticipated to the researcher.
Because of the open-ended and often verbal nature of this research, data is frequently collected by transcribing audio recordings. Transcription is often slow, which can make it expensive. It can take over an hour to transcribe 10 minutes of dialogue. With many focus groups or in-depth interviews going on for an hour or two, turning audio recordings into transcribed documents comes with a significant overhead.
This isn’t the only possible method and an alternative is to use open-ended forms that can be filled in by the subject or a researcher who is interviewing or facilitating a discussion. Using online forms for data collection can be beneficial when doing this kind of research as it can ensure that each item is logged at the time it’s gathered, and it can reduce the need for using paper as part of the collection process. Platforms that support offline data gathering can be of great benefit when this research is being done in the field.
This uncovering of unexpected associations between topics often then leads into follow-up research of a more quantitative nature. Follow-up research might investigate how common or strong these associations are. It’s often said that the best research projects aren’t the ones that answer all your questions, but the ones that raise the best new avenues for further research.
How Qualitative can lead to Quantitative
Consider a retail store that’s experiencing a lack of sales. It could undertake a qualitative study by briefly interviewing people who leave the store without making a purchase to find out what the reasons for that might be. The results of this could then feed in to a qualitative study where potential customers are asked questions to help find which new products or pricing strategies may work best for the store. The goal is insight that allows the business to take the appropriate action.
How Quantitative can lead to Qualitative
For instance – a video games developer might have collected and analysed gaming survey data about how their users have interacted with and used their game. This quan data says a lot about what the behaviour is, while not giving much information about the wants, needs, desires, or intentions driving it. By performing a qual study where users are asked about these things, the developer can make better decisions about future developments and marketing.
In short, qualitative research has two main uses. As exploratory research to uncover avenues of investigation, and as contextual research to “flesh out” or give a fuller background to purely numerical data.
So it isn’t a case of quantitative vs qualitative research, they both have their uses and can compliment each other. If this article has sparked some ideas for your own research methods, feel free to test them out with a survey.