The how and why of qualitative research

By Heidi Dietzsch

Quantitative and qualitative research are different disciplines with very different outcomes. The two methods have their own strengths and limitations. Qualitative research is by definition exploratory, while quantitative research is conclusive in its purpose. For instance, quantitative research’s strength lies in its ability to determine how many clients use private banks and what the average age and monthly income of private banking clients are.

Qualitative research’s strength, in contrast, lies in its ability to answer “how and why” questions, rather than the more general what, when and who questions. For instance, why did people decide to become private banking clients and how does this make them feel?

Quantitative research is an organised process that involves measuring numerical information. Data can be analysed through statistical methods and captured into spread sheets.

Conversely, qualitative research generates non-numerical data and helps researchers better understand attitudes, opinions and motivations that are grounded in respondents’ real experiences and their own words. Qualitative data can refine quantitative data and is intuitive in nature. It provides more detailed information to explain complex issues.

The intention of quantitative research is to objectively ask the same question to enough respondents to statistically estimate the general perspective of a large demographic. Therefore, quantitative research is usually characterised by large samples. Methods of data collection include structured questionnaires that can be conducted in person, telephonically or online.

Qualitative research typically requires much smaller sample sizes and is less structured. The most common data collection methods are focus groups, in-depth interviews and ethnography.</span>

Focus groups are group discussions that concentrate on a specific topic. The discussion is steered, observed and recorded by a moderator. It is essential that moderators are well trained and thoroughly prepared. They should be skilful in the art of reading people and garnering the required information. The groups usually consist of about six to 12 respondents who are selected based on their relevance and relationship to the topic. Respondents are interrogated about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea or packaging. Focus groups are ideal when a researcher wants to explore sensitive topics or new research areas.

During in-depth interviews, respondents are prompted to extensively discuss a certain topic. As opposed to quantitative interviews with a specific question and answer set, in-depth interviews are much less controlled, with open-ended questions. It is almost like a conversation between the interviewer and the respondent. Additional points can be explored and if necessary the interview can change direction. In-depth interviews allow the collection of rich, contextualised data.

To conduct ethnography, the researcher unobtrusively enters the environment of the respondents, with the goal of blending in with the surroundings. It should be done in the most natural settings and situations possible, to avoid any deviation from the normal conduct of respondents. The discipline can thus be described “the study of people as they go about their everyday lives”. Ethnography’s origins lie in anthropologists who engaged in participant observation in the late 19th century. Today it is useful for testing products and services that don’t yet exist and for coming up with new product ideas.

Of course, as with quantitative research, qualitative has also moved into the online realm. There are various ways in which qualitative data can be collected online – online focus groups, discussion boards, online communities and online diaries. With online collection methods, “in the moment” feedback can be captured continuously. Online qualitative research is flexible, attainable and less costly than traditional methods.

Each research method can stand its own ground individually. However, qualitative and quantitative research do not need to compete – they are compatible and can be used symbiotically, reinforcing each other and overcoming their respective weaknesses. Sure, numbers can tell us a lot of things, but sometimes the voice of the people needs to be heard and we need to ask “why”? What qualitative research lacks in scientific rigour, it makes up for its ability to clarify and gain a deeper understanding of issues.