The Ins and Outs of Qualitative Research: Use in Market Research
Qualitative research is about discovering rich & in-depth details about the participant’s experience
What Is Qualitative Research
Qualitative research is about discovering rich and in-depth details about the participant’s experience. It is based on a naturalistic inquiry, meaning the research is conducted in a natural state without influencing the discussion (Colorafi & Evans, 2016). The objective of qualitative research is to gain a deeper understanding of the experience through the participant’s sense of meaning rather than through the numbers. Qualitative research does not provide a single meaning, but a range of meanings, and there is no right or wrong answer since the meaning is derived from the participant’s perception of the experience (Braun & Clarke, 2014).
We do not manipulate the words of the participant but instead listen for keywords during the discussion, asking probing questions when we hear keywords, and drawing out themes of the conversations based on these keywords. We also look for non-verbal cues (i.e., body language, facial expressions) as part of their reaction and probe further based on their reactions. The goal of qualitative research is to experience with the participant what they are experiencing and why they feel that way about the topic.
However, there is a lack of agreement on when saturation occurs in qualitative research. The saturation point occurs when no other themes or patterns emerge from the participants, which would suggest how others with similar experiences would answer the questions. This will help to generalize your overall findings to the specific target population with whom you are working. At the point of saturation, you do not continue to collect information and you then analyze the information fully. Guest et al. (2006) found that saturation typically occurs around the twelfth interview, but basic themes started developing after the sixth interview.
Qualitative market research is used in a variety of ways, which include online surveys, individual interviews, and focus groups (Source). Qualitative market research is conducted very similarly to other types of qualitative methods. The difference is mainly the audience, typically being customers or consumers.
Assessment Methods for Qualitative Research
A participant’s responses can be assessed in several ways, including: observation, questionnaire, individual interview, a focus group, and secondary resources (i.e., video, audio recordings). These methods are very common in qualitative research and typically go in a specific order during the research process.
During observation the researcher monitors the participant’s verbal and non-verbal behaviors by using their own senses - sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. Observations are considered subjective because they rely on interpretation by the researcher and their own personal senses in the situation. The researcher becomes part of the participant’s culture to better understand their situation. Researchers in this situation need to use their intuition, understand the emotions of the participant, and pay attention to non-verbal cues.
Questionnaires are typically used before individual interviews and focus groups and are used in specific types of qualitative research (i.e., ethnography, phenomenography). The questionnaire is in survey format with open-ended questions that allow the participant to type in long answers to be evaluated by the researcher. The questions are built to evaluate the participant’s opinions and experiences.
Individual interviews can be unstructured (no set questions, natural discussion), semi-structured (set of questions but probing questions during conversation), or fully structured (preset questions in a specific order). Individual interviews are conducted one-on-one to fully engage with the participant. Sometimes an individual interview leads to a member checking focus group in which some of the individual interviewees are given a brief summary of the emerging themes found in the interviews and are interviewed further to verify the accuracy of the information.
Focus groups are designed to let the researcher collect data from multiple participants simultaneously. The purpose of the focus group is to have unstructured conversation so participants can interact with each other, question each other, and agree or disagree with one another about the topic (Braun & Clarke, 2014). It is standard to have 5-7 participants in one focus group and typically the researcher will have multiple focus groups in order to get in-depth experience on a topic.
Secondary research is when the researcher collects data through videos, audio recordings, transcripts, and even images. Secondary research typically comes from the other sources mentioned above like individual interview transcripts and focus group audio recordings.
Asking Questions in Qualitative Research
As researchers, we need to be always asking ourselves, “ what is a good question? ” Typically, this is open-ended because the answers are more in-depth, going deeper and more extensive, thus shedding more light on the problems we need to address.
Here is a comparison of two very different methods.
Using Individual Interviews
Qualitative research is all about the conversation and drawing out information from your participant. Open-ended questions are the best types of questions for this style of research because it allows the participant to give you go deeper and give you information you didn’t even know to ask for. If the person is not comfortable with the topic or not comfortable with the researcher, you will need to draw out the information by listening for keywords and ask follow up questions.
Here is an example of a conversation where P1 is the researcher:
P1: Can you describe your experience with … ?
P2: Yes, I am currently the director of …
P1: That’s great, can you tell me a little more about what that position entails?
P2: I do X, Y, and Z.
P1: It sounds like X is a really challenging part of your job.
P2: X is very challenging.
P1: Can you tell me more about X?
Sometimes we can draw out more information through emotions and use key emotion words (i.e., frustrating, anger, joy), for example:
P1: It sounded like X can be really frustrating.
P2: Yes, X is really frustrating because …
What do you do when an interview doesn’t go as planned? If the interview goes poorly or you cannot draw out information from the participant, it’s okay. Many factors can cause this. The participant’s mood that day can influence how open they are that day. Perhaps it’s a topic that they just don’t want to talk about with anyone. Or, if they’re feeling low on time, this can impact how much information they are willing to share. If any of these are true, you can diverge from protocol and ask only the questions that seem to be the most important for your research.
Using Focus Groups
Focus groups are a different animal than individual interviews. In these, the researcher will participate. You’ll guide and sometimes even control the direction that the group is taking. If conversations go off topic, get wildly out of control, or one person tries to take over the conservation, the group needs to be brought back into focus on the matter at hand.
Typically focus groups are 5-7 participants max to keep the conversation under control and to give everyone a chance to talk. If you schedule one for an hour, plan for an hour and a half instead because focus groups tend to go longer than expected.
Introduce ground rules in focus groups so that people do not talk over each other. Have everyone shut off their cell phones and use the restroom beforehand. Remind them that there are no right or wrong answers. And let the participants know you will interrupt the conversation if they are going off topic or not following the ground rules.
Here is an example of how a conversation in a focus group might go with P1 as the researcher:
P1: Hello everyone, we are here today to talk about (X). Before we get started, please bear these things in mind. (...) So, now let’s start out by talking about X.
P2: X can be great for our profession because …
P3: I agree that X can be a good option for our profession.
P4: I don’t agree that X can be good for our profession because ...
P1: This is all really great information, does P5 or P6 want to add anything to that information?
Make sure the conversation involves all participants and don’t let one or two participants take over the conversation. Here’s an example of conversation going off topic and and how to redirect it:
P1: How does Y play a role in your current profession?
P5: Y is really about …
P6: But Z really does a better job of showing how …
P4: Exactly, I enjoy Z much better!
P6: Yeah, don’t you think that Z is just a better program than Y.
P1: It sounds like Z is a great option, but what about Y? Let’s focus on Y for right now and then we will circle back and talk about Z.
Key Takeaways About Qualitative Research
Qualitative research is a non-bias process where we (as the researcher) are able to question the individual or groups and see their perspective based on the information given. As a qualitative researcher, we are interested in the whole perspective from the client (the good or the bad) and we can understand market trends and help the client better understand their client, service, or product. Using any of the methods described above can help your organization with understanding the client and their perspective better and with more depth.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2014). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. Sage Publishers.
Colorafi, K.J., & Evans, B. (2016). Qualitative descriptive methods in health science research. Health Environments Research and Design Journal, 9(4), 16-25. DOI: 10.1177/1937586715614171.
Guest, G., Bunce, A., & Johnson, L. (2006). How many interviews are enough? Field
Methods, 18(1), 59-82. doi:10.1177/1525822x05279903
Question Pro (n.d.). Qualitative market research: The complete guide.