What Is Qualitative Research?

Qualitative Research Definition Market research methodologies, at their highest level, are most often broken into two general groups – quantitative and qualitative. The main difference between the two is that quantitative research is about q...

Qualitative Research Definition

Market research methodologies, at their highest level, are most often broken into two general groups – quantitative and qualitative. The main difference between the two is that quantitative research is about quantities. Translation? Quantitative market research is focused on the gathering and analysis of structured (numerical) data. Qualitative research methodology, meanwhile, is descriptive. Qualitative research is about making sense of that which is not traditionally measured numerically – such as language or observed behavior.
The fact that qualitative market research requires the interpretation of non-numerical data means that one has to make sense of impressions, opinions, and other unstructured feedback and information. Think of it this way – whereas quantitative data can be interpreted empirically or objectively, the analysis of qualitative data is more a subjective process.

Types of Qualitative Research

To provide a foundational understanding before we move forward, it is important to explain some types of qualitative market research and terminology commonly used:

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is essentially putting data before hypothesis. While much conventional research methods require the researcher to first gain an understanding of their subjects or the events they are testing and development of a hypothesis through secondary research and pre-existing knowledge, grounded theory puts the collection of data and analysis first, before even developing a question to be asked. This data and analysis then inform the development of a hypothesis. The researcher can then read literature and perform secondary research to confirm and explain findings.


Phenomenology seeks to understand entire participant experiences with specific events or concepts through specific applications such as interviews, surveys, or observations. It works similarly to grounded theory in that findings emerge through data collection and analysis, but phenomenology is more a theoretical perspective that looks to better understand the response of a whole human being, not just specific parts or behaviors. The main aim of phenomenology is to understand the experience of a person and uncover hidden meanings that impact phenomena.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are often the first thing that come to mind when researchers discuss qualitative market research. In-person focus groups are usually made up of a limited number of participants, say between 8-10 per group, and is led by a moderator. The moderator leads the conversation and works to ask the questions needed to be asked but they are also conversational in that the moderator can respond to shifts in the conversation.

In-Depth Interviews (IDIs)

In-depth interviews are conducted one-on-one with one respondent at a time. These are highly conversational and are used because they provide the opportunity to gather data based on belief, experience, and intentions of individuals.


Ethnographies immerses researchers in cultures and environments with the goal of observation and potentially introducing concepts to understand behaviors and performance within a more natural setting. Ethnographies vary in length – from a few days to months or years depending on the subject.

Observational Methods

Observational Methods are like ethnographies in that they are based on observing individuals or groups in their natural habitat but the main difference is that it is designed to be less intrusive (and often less expensive.) The researcher conducting this type of research is commonly trying to remain unnoticed by the subjects being studied so as to fully observe in a natural setting. While observational methods can yield interesting results, there exists always a debate between being ethically required to gain consent from subjects and not introducing influence by telling the subject they are being observed.

Case Studies

Case studies focus on a particular individual or small group. This type of research looks intensely at this individual or small group and bases findings only on that individual or group within that specific context. Case studies do not look for universal truths or things like cause-effect relationships but rather focus on exploration and description.

Record Keeping/Content Analysis

Record keeping/content analysis is conducted by looking at existing information as the main source of data. In addition to poring over information manually, researchers can also use videos and audio information to perform this type of qualitative market research.

Narrative Research

Narrative research focuses on exploring and conceptualizing human experience through textual form. Most often, researchers employing a narrative approach interview small samples of people around a specific topic (though secondary research is also often used) and a free-ranging discourse is commonly the goal, where respondents/interviewees are encouraged to provide rich stories about their personal experiences.


Triangulation is an approach that uses multiple qualitative research methods in conjunction to develop a thorough understanding of a product. A single research method might reveal some aspects of consumer responses, but one or more methods – utilized in conjunction – can reveal a rounder, robust, and more accurate portrait of consumer behavior.

Monadic Testing

Monadic testing can supply information on how people view a single product in isolation, sequential monadic testing can provide comparative analysis, and a focus group might give you an idea of what kinds of discussions are had about that certain product. A study that is designed with the intent to employ all three techniques can take the results from one into account, shaping the approaches of the others.

History of Market Research

Emergence of Quantitative Research

The first true instance of a market research came about in the 1920s when a man named Daniel Starch tested ad recall by asking people if they (a) read specific publications and (b) whether they remembered specific advertisements within these publications. These results would then be compared against readers and circulation to understand how effective these ads were in reaching people. These were the beginnings of quantitative market research. That is, this type of research was numeric and analyzed as such.

Emergence of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research began in the early 1940s when two faculty members at Columbia University – Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Melton – used what they called “focused group interviews” to examine the effectiveness of propaganda during World War II. Later, Ernest Dichter (dubbed by some as the “father of focus groups”) furthered the use of qualitative research to understand consumer behavior.
A separate post covers the history of market research in greater detail.

Benefits of Qualitative Research

Depending on the type of research being done and the project associated with it, there are often project-specific benefits of Qualitative market research in that specific instance. However, the three main benefits of qualitative research as compared to quantitative research are:


While quantitative market Research gets to the all-important “what” of the matter at hand through numeric types of data, qualitative market research helps researchers get behind those numbers to understand “why” something is happening. Qualitative market research depends largely on more open forms of questions-and-answers and observation. This allows for the gathering of details instead of simply metrics and uncovers subtleties and truths not readily apparent in numeric data.


Qualitative market research is meant to be flexible in that researchers can add questions or areas of exploration in based on the research gathered thus far. Whereas a quantitative study is more rigid, qualitative research is more fluid in nature.


Checking boxes and ranking items in a survey are not ways in which humans organically communicate. Qualitative market research is designed to line up with natural human communication through conversation and observation. Letting respondents speak in a more natural way and/or observing them without intrusion allows for the gathering of trustable information based in real human experience.
This is not to say that quantitative market research is not important. If possible, market research projects should combine multiple methods of data gathering and encompass both qualitative and quantitative research to tell a more holistic story.

Perceived Disadvantages of Traditional Qualitative Market Research

When looking at qualitative market research, companies are sometimes turned off to the idea based on what it takes to properly execute a qualitative market research project. It should be noted that some of these are perceived limitations of qualitative research. The advent of technologies such as the Internet have made some of these perceptions outdated.

“It can take a long time”

In this day and age, speed-to-market is of the utmost concern. Traditional qualitative can take a long time to complete (weeks, months, maybe even years) and with how fast the market moves these days, any insights or data gathered over the course of such a long time may be stale by the time the research concludes.

“It can be expensive”

Running several focus groups in varying geographies, conducting a full ethnographic study, or even implementing an online community can be an expensive endeavor. With budgets tightening and the need to spread research dollars, the expense of a full qualitative market research project might be hard to justify.

“Base sizes are too small to feel confident in results”

The time and expense of a qualitative study become even harder to come to terms with if teams and stakeholders feel that talking to a handful of people in a focus group or observing a few individuals will not give them enough respondents on which to base an important business decision.

“It’s too subjective” or “I prefer data I can more rigorously analyze”

While quantitative data relies on numbers that can be run through rigorous analysis, traditional qualitative market research relies on personal interpretation and an element of subjectivity, which can make some teams and stakeholders uneasy.

“Some Qualitative Market Research methods introduce inherent bias”

Specific to methods such as in-person focus groups, pitfalls such as Group Think (the nature of humans to “go along with the group”) and dominant voice (the presence of one alpha voice leading a conversation) can hurt the value of qualitative data.

Online Market Research Has Answered the Many Challenges Associated With Qual

As mentioned, the advent of the Internet and the emergence of online methods of conducting market research has improved upon a lot of what can be done regarding the collection and analysis of qualitative market research. Conducting qualitative (and quantitative, for that matter) market research online eliminates a number of drawbacks associated with traditional methods. Not only does being able to conduct this type of work online make work more efficient and less costly, but it also blurs the line between what can be done qualitatively and quantitatively. Using online methods, researchers can perform deep qualitative exploration across a quantitatively sized base. And through the use of the tools available today, qualitative unstructured data can be analyzed along numeric pieces of data. And since respondents can remain anonymous, the bias associated with traditional qualitative melts away.

When to Use Qualitative Research

In order to tell a complete holistic story, qualitative data should be gathered along with quantitative data in most research projects. Quantitative data helps to tell the “what” of the story, providing a foundation based on aggregate data and large populations. This data can be used to forecast growth, create segmentations, and model scenarios on confidence. But without qualitative data, researchers and their stakeholder teams are left with little explanation as to why trends or data points are happening. And in this day and age, there is no reason why researchers cannot include qualitative research into their project plans, either before, after, or alongside their quantitative efforts.

Qualitative data gathering and analysis can be applied throughout many industries (including, but not limited to, consumer packaged goods, retail, media and entertainment, financial services, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, hospitality, high-tech, and transportation) and across many different use cases such as advertisement testing, package/concept evaluation and optimization, content testing for media companies, co-creation and innovation, attitudes and usage, UX/UI testing, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and many others.

How Is Invoke Different?

Invoke Is Big Qual. An Invoke LIVE session brings every stakeholder together on a consumer-led journey that leads to a real-time decision.

  • It’s inclusive, bringing together showrunners, marketing, brand managers, business executives, and market researchers on an hour-long conversation with your target audience.
  • It’s conclusive, enabling you to probe audience sentiment, test concepts on the fly, attain clarity about strategy and message – and make the right decisions, often by session’s end.
  • It’s organic and illuminating, offering rich and sometimes unanticipated insights into how your audience view you and their world: the Why behind the What.
  • It’s qual and quant simultaneously, with audiences of many hundreds in a single session.

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