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Qualitative or quantitative — which method is for you?

Bar chart and blue penMarket research generally falls into two main methodological groups: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative research is an in-depth exploration of what people think, feel or do and, crucially, why. If you want to know why your customers behave as they do and what barriers there may be to their changing that behaviour, you would use qualitative research to explore those issues. Qualitative research does not give statistically robust findings.

Quantitative research provides a measure of how many people think, feel or behave in a certain way and uses statistical analysis to determine the results. If you want to know how many of your customers support a change in a product or service - and how strongly they support it — so that you can determine whether you have a business case for making that change, you would use quantitative research.

While these are often used as standalone methodologies they can also be valuably combined into mixed-methodology research. You may be considering a customer satisfaction survey for the first time. While you may have an idea of what is important to your customers, they may have a different view. An initial piece of qualitative research could identify their needs and priorities; a subsequent quantitative survey could measure how satisfied your customers are that you are meeting those needs.

How does qualitative research work?

Qualitative research follows a semi-structured discussion guide to ensure that all topics under consideration are covered and that the discussion stays relevant. However, the questioning is open and participants are encouraged to explore the reasons for their responses. The discussion process can reveal underlying views and motivations, behavioural triggers and barriers. It can explore reactions to messages, printed material, design features and new products, test understanding of terminology, help generate new concepts and much more.

The most commonly used qualitative approaches are focus groups and depth interviews.

Focus groups (also called group discussions) normally comprise five to eight participants brought together to discuss a number of topics, guided by a moderator. The dynamics of the interaction between participants is an important feature of a focus group.

Depth interviews are one-on-one interviews conducted by telephone or face-to-face. The more intimate environment allows participants to talk openly and is particularly appropriate where participants are competitors who would not agree to come together in a focus group.

Qualitative research is usually audio-recorded and transcribed. The transcriptions form the data which is then analysed by the moderator. Groups can also be video-recorded and can also be observed in real-time at venues specially designed for that purpose.

You can expect a report or a presentation of the findings supported by verbatim quotes from the participants.

How does quantitative research work?

Quantitative research uses a structured questionnaire with mostly closed questions, ie the respondents select their answers from given lists of possible responses. A range of question types may be used. For example, rating questions can measure strength of feeling such as importance or satisfaction, ranking questions can determine preferences, and so on.

Quantitative research may be paper-based, as in a postal survey, or computerised, as in a telephone or online survey. A computerised survey can also be conducted face-to-face using a laptop or on site (eg in-store, on street) using PDAs (hand-held computers).

Because of its statistical nature, sample size is important for quantitative research. Thirty is generally held to be the minimum number of responses for any area of interest although a larger sample size will produce more reliable data.

You can expect a report or a presentation of the findings supported by tables and graphs.