What is Qualitative Research?

Emily James

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Paul Hudson

    Detailed insightful feedback is every research professional’s dream. When consumers partake in market research, they commit to influencing positive change with each decision their insight influences - the best way to do that is through deep insights, which can be created with detailed, high-quality qualitative data.

    Most insight teams are well-versed in two overarching research approaches, qualitative or quantitative research, which are two sides of the same coin. While quantitative research is numerical, qualitative research is based on text, images and sounds. Qualitative research is the main focus of this article and works to provide detailed, in-depth insights on consumer action and behaviour. In this guide, we will explore:

    1. The definition, history and evolution of qualitative research
    2. Popular qualitative methodologies
    3. The benefits of qualitative research and its real-world applications
    4. How to conduct qualitative research
    5. The challenges of qualitative research
    6. The solutions to qual research challenges
    7. Best practices to keep in mind

    This is one of our longer articles, so if you’re looking for something specific then you can use the quick navigation links above to jump to each section of the guide.

    An Introduction to Qualitative Research

    The Definition of Qualitative Research

    Many people have tried to define qualitative research over the years. A simple  Cambridge University definition is: “A type of market research that aims to find out people’s opinions and feelings rather than information that can easily be shown in numbers.”

    But there are also more complex definitions, often found in academic journal articles. These can be contradictory and can spark heated disagreements on the nature of qualitative data between qualitative researchers. Qualitative research has inbuilt methods that most insight professionals use regularly, such as focus groups, in-depth interviews, and dairy studies. But it also encompasses a range of methodologies drafted from other academic fields, like Behavioural Science and Economics, and Anthropology.

    Most definitions of qualitative research agree that this research tactic is about gathering insights that help the researchers and stakeholders understand the consumer population, their wants, needs, behaviours and routines. The other aspects that are slightly less agreed upon are still relevant to qualitative market research, in that we can use this methodology to understand the meaning people have constructed within their lives, how they use this to make sense of the world and their experiences.

    In short, qualitative research is the collection and analysis of non-numerical data - used to understand beliefs, experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and interactions.

    The Evolution of Qualitative Market Research

    It was in the 1930s and 1940s that qualitative market research emerged, during the ‘Mass Observation’ movement in Britain within the field of anthropology. These anthropological researchers pioneered an early version of ethnographical research, with techniques to aid in cultural observation and evaluation, which we can still see prevalent in the most recent iterations of ethnographic and qualitative research projects today.

    While quantitative research dominated the headlines and research projects of all professionals insight or not since the conception of research itself, qualitative research has slowly been rising through the ranks over the past decades as the underdog of high-quality and directly actionable insights.

    With qualitative research initially focussing on in-person observation and focus group testing, tasks that generated valuable data that could be easily quantified and analysed with quantitative techniques, the admittedly slower evolution of qualitative methodologies have been based on the principles found in these few core research tools.

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    Many people have tried to fully define qualitative research over the years, and while the many definitions all capture a different aspect of qual, there is yet to be a definition that covers it all.

    Qualitative research now exists in an online landscape, which has presented more opportunities for diversifying qualitative methodologies and strategies. In more recent years, video has skyrocketed to the top of the charts in useful qualitative research data collection methods, as it allows the closest online imitation of in-person communication, but also allows researchers and stakeholders to store and re-watch key footage for later analysis.

    Moving the qualitative research into the digital sphere also has many more advantages that relate to the space, time and cost it takes to conduct this research, such as eliminating the geographic space between researcher and target sample and allowing more participants to share their opinion in their time zone and schedule without compromising on the time it takes to conduct the research project.

    Popular Qualitative Research Methodologies

    Many qualitative research methods are dominating the market right now, but the most popular ones are as follows:

    • Focus Groups: The core of qualitative research, when you ask anyone outside of the industry what they think of when they hear the name ‘qualitative research’ they will automatically think of focus groups.
    • In-Depth Interviews (IDIs): These are like focus groups in that they are conversations with research participants, but these tend to be one to one and very detailed, very specific to the person the researcher is interviewing.
    • Ethnography: This is a qualitative method that researchers use to study a particular group of people to better understand them, in the case of market research it will be a subsect of the brand’s target market, customer base or the wider consumer population. Here researchers aim to gain an insider’s perspective of the group and discuss their experiences.
    • Smartboards: These are a more recent invention than the rest, mainly due to the accessibility and usability provided by the internet. SmartboardMR for example enables research participants to put tags on images along with sentiments and leave detailed comments - this is very useful for research projects that revolve around communications or product testing.
    • Scrapbooks: Scrapbooking has been around for a while now, and market research takes this concept and turns it into a way to look deep into the participant’s motivations, experiences and opinions on a particular subject through the use of images. Image analysis is used to gather insights from this task.
    • Content Analysis: This is the tool used to identify the presence of certain words, themes or sentiments within qualitative data collected. This helps researchers identify the relationship between certain images, opinions and experiences, which in turn enables us to understand more about the participant and their interpretations.
    • Qual Observation: this research method uses our five main senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Researchers observe how participants act in brand experiences or product and service testing and participants note down their experiences using these senses as a base point.
    • Dairy Studies: Good for longer-term research projects, diary study participants document their experiences over a set period of time. Researchers take these experiences and find insights based on this prolonged exposure.

    “Its nothing new or particularly sexy, but Im a huge fan of video self-ethnography. Its brilliant for collecting rich, authentic participant-led response, and helping to avoid moderator bias and groupthink.”

    - Delphi Jarrett, Director at Humankind Research

    Video-based qualitative research has become a rising star in the world of research, and for good reason. The accessibility, ease of communication and wealth of unexpected insights provided by context and incommunicable, automatic actions will aid in a researchers’ just for rich qualitative insights - all perfect for ethnographic qualitative research.

    Delphi expands on her initial comment by saying, “depending on where videos are shot, you also get a window into people’s wider lives and peripheries, helping to contextualise their responses. And using video clips is a great way to bring outputs to life for clients, to give them a sense of the real people behind the research.

    But ideally, I like to use video self-ethnography as an initial anchor point, and then use moderator led discussion (be it individual interviews or group discussions) to dig deeper into different areas, and truly understand the drivers behind the behaviours captured on camera.”

    These are only a few of the many qualitative research methods available for insight teams to try, but these are arguably the most popular and versatile as they have been used time and again in various studies across all industries for many different purposes.

    Application and Benefits of Qualitative Research

    Deep, Detailed Insights

    One of the main motivations for conducting qualitative research is to gain deep and detailed insights into the lives and experiences of our customers and the wider consumer population.

    With the power dynamic between businesses and the customer shifting in favour of the customer, and the methodologies available to us all deeply rooted in explanations via text, images and video, it’s no wonder the demand for qualitative insights have skyrocketed. All stakeholders in all industries have discovered the overwhelming need for rich qualitative insights.

    Through these more detailed insights, stakeholders can maintain confidence in each decision they make. Stakeholders can truly understand where the paths that each choice and decision will take them, and thus be able to better plan their project, strategy or brand trajectory based on these insights.

    Understanding Consumer Behaviour, Motivations and Attitudes

    Qualitative research takes place in natural environments; in this case, ‘natural environments’ means a place that research participants can freely discuss and provide in-depth answers to the questions, contexts, and scenarios researchers provide. Because of this, insight teams use qualitative research to better understand consumer behaviour, motivations and attitudes in a structured, comfortable space.

    Whether the research task at hand was crafted with a specific goal in mind or not, the insights that originate from these conditions are most of the time instantly valuable. Because of the importance placed on freely held conversations and the comfort of research participants, insight teams can discover insights directly relating to the human experience, and use the main aspects of ‘human experience’ research to power up the impact of qualitative research strategies.

    Understanding consumer behaviour, motivations and attitudes through qualitative research means that stakeholders can make better decisions with their customers in mind. They know how each communication, product, and service can impact the customer experience, and based on these insights be able to put into effect positive change to revolutionise that experience, helping customers stay loyal and drafting more consumers into the role of the customer in the process.

    Creativity as a Driving Force

    Qualitative research methodologies and tools can be the driving force behind many conversations, but specific methods such as creating qualitative online communities can encourage casual conversations that drum up unexpected insights. Using creative qualitative tasks and allowing the research participants the freedom to converse outside of scheduled research tasks too fosters a feeling of creativity and companionship between research participants, which in turn encourages creativity to be used every time they complete a task in the project.

    “One of the benefits of any qual data - I would include social media conversations too - is though you may guide the conversations, they are essentially free flowing and give you the opportunity to uncover the unknown”

    - Shehnaz Hansraj, Head of Research & Insight at Viking Cruises

    Shehnaz explains, “participants [can] talk about elements you may or may not have considered or in that context, and hearing how they phrase something in their own words, the tone, body language and what goes unsaid. Paying attention to these nuances can really add value and context to whatever you may be trying to achieve.”

    These conversations are incredibly valuable to qualitative insight generation, as it means stakeholders get to listen in or read conversations that might not have taken place otherwise because it’s not something they would have thought to discuss.

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    Qualitative insights guide conversations, both inside of the research platform and stakeholder boardrooms; and there are many applications for qualitative insights, from future opportunity spotting to NPD.

    Applications of Qual Research

    With these benefits in mind, there are many applications for qualitative research, including:

    • Opportunity spotting: with the detail provided by qualitative research, stakeholders and insight teams can sift through the data and uncover any new ideas for strategies, products or customer services that they hadn’t thought about themselves, or reinforce any existing ideas that were previously deemed too risky or unnecessary.
    • Brand and customer experience: the brand and customer experience thrives off customer-specific insights. Any qualitative data regarding the brand or customer experience can help improve that experience in the way the customer needs.
    • New product development: iterative qualitative strategies can aid in the development of new products and services with the nitty-gritty insights on what currently works and what doesn’t.
    • Testing communications and advertising: similar to new product development, the same principles can be used to test communications and advertising either before or after it has gone out. To truly understand the success of a marketing campaign testing it before AND after and measuring the sentiments from both will help insight teams and stakeholders to spot any potential flaws or gaps in their current research sample.
    • Exploring the meaning of communication: each customer and consumer subculture will have their own way of communicating, whether it’s the platform they prefer, the language they use, the frequency in which they communicate, or all of the above. Qualitative research can help insight teams truly understand this, and then use it to accurately interpret all of their research data in the future.

    Conducting Qualitative Research

    Knowing how to conduct qualitative research and the thought that goes into it has become an essential skill required in all researcher arsenals.

    How to Decide Which Methods to Choose

    “For me, the answer very much depends on the task in hand and your target audience in question. Is the qual exploratory, or to provide richness to existing data.”

    - Shehnaz Hansraj, Head of Research & Insight at Viking Cruises

    Shehnaz is very much correct in her statement, that choosing the right methodologies for the research project hinges on the project, the strategy, the objectives and the stakeholders involved. With each research experience being unique, it’s important to make sure that the methods used will not only compliment the style of research conducted but also enhance it.

    The constraints of the qualitative research project will also determine which methods are chosen. The typical constraints of a research project, whether it is qualitative, quantitative or otherwise, are time, cost, and the overall effort required on the part of the insight team to manage the project. So any methods, platforms and strategies chosen will need to fit in with the project’s objectives and constraints for it to be viable.

    The methods chosen will determine what platform you need as well. While most insight teams have a research platform and tools in their technology stack, it might be that for a specific method they need to look outside of the stack and choose another platform that will better suit their needs for this (potentially) one-off project. FlexMR’s InsightHub platform has a range of qualitative and quantitative tools ready and waiting to be used in any configuration stakeholders can conceive, but there are many more research platforms to consider as well that have different tools to offer.

    While there are many new flashy methodologies to choose from, sometimes it’s the simpler methods that are the best. Focus groups are a timeless method, with many insight tools taking that original conversational concept and innovating it to adapt the method to different environments. Our Question BoardMR tool is one example, and any forum-based tool can be classed as other examples.

    Types of Qualitative Strategies

     Another condition that will determine what tools an insight team should employ for a particular research project is the strategy they will be using. There are several market research strategies that are best used with qualitative research in mind, and others that can only be used if qualitative research is in the equation.

    Agile research, for example, is a key market research strategy that can be used with any research method, but can be a bit trickier to do when it comes to qualitative research - however, this doesn’t mean that it should be discounted. Agile research can take many forms, with some being quick research, others being iterative research, and the rest being cheaper research. Qualitative research can fit into any agile research strategy, but it particularly feels at home in the agile as iterative research strategies that generate qualitative insights continually to inform the production, evolution or innovation of any brand strategies, products or services.

    Any long-term research projects would benefit from a qualitative element in the mix too. These longer-term projects are usually used for keeping tabs on consumer behaviour, sparking continuous insights in a customer or wider consumer community, or even as a record-keeping exercise where researchers document the customer or consumer behaviour over a period of time to gain valuable insights into how, when and where they interact with a brand, product or service. Qualitative data collection in all of these examples will only enhance the insights gained throughout the research process.

    Lastly, an ethnographic strategy, used initially in the fields of anthropology and behavioural science before market research, is an example of a research strategy that can only work with some element of qualitative data collection involved. Qualitative research methods strengthen ethnographic strategies and help to achieve its primary goal of exploring cultural phenomena, not only by understanding what happens, but also delving deep into the reasons why these cultural behaviours have appeared and how they have maintained prominence in consumer lives.

    Connecting to Customers and Consumers

     “Online qual - especially since the remote working days of COVID-19 - has allowed us to be more flexible in involving the wider business to participate in viewing consumers, often in situ’. This helps us to understand them better as people and what matters to them in their everyday lives, which also helps to increase customer closeness.”

    - Shehnaz Hansraj, Head of Research & Insight at Viking Cruises

     Connecting with customers and consumers through research is one of the best ways for a brand or stakeholder to create productive and mutually beneficial relationships. Qualitative research is a great way of doing this because of the effort and involvement needed from both parties - on the part of the stakeholders, creating these spaces where connection is possible takes time, effort and resources, and on the part of the customer, the inclination to take part and foster two-way communication with the brand is always appreciated.

    But what are the best ways to connect with research participants through qualitative research?

    One of the first and most obvious answers is that this connection can be through moderation. Researchers and stakeholders assigned to the qualitative project will be able to incite more communication and connection through simple conversation, asking participants to please expand on their answers, sharing thoughts on an experience, or even sharing stories with participants to help them feel comfortable enough to share more insightful encounters that they wouldn’t have otherwise told.

    Another way that can help connect stakeholders, researchers and participants is through other research communication, such as task invite emails, incentive communication, and regular research or community newsletters. The task invites and incentive communications are pretty standard but still help provide that connective presence in the participants’ daily lives.

    However, the research newsletters can be as creative and connecting as stakeholders need, and one way to make sure that participants keep connecting with stakeholders and researchers is by feeding back the changes that were made because of the participants’ valuable insights. Showing that they have the power to enact change is a crucial element that is often overlooked when it comes to creating stronger connections.

    Challenges and Mistakes in Qual Research

    Despite the many advantages and applications, there are in favour of qualitative research, there are also some challenges and mistakes that researchers can make in the pursuit of high-quality qualitative insights.


    Firstly, there are high levels of subjectivity or ambiguity in interpreting participant data in both the text, image and video variety - so how do we get the right interpretation? Then there is the inclination to only recruit small sample sizes because of the work anticipated by researchers and stakeholders, where larger sample sizes would be better if only for the variety and amount of data it would bring. But then the time-consuming nature of qualitative analysis is usually the culprit that puts most researchers off using larger sample sizes.

    If the research isn’t moderated in the right way or the research environment isn’t set up well enough, then there is a real danger of losing the naturalness in participant responses. Any manipulation, accidental or intentional, in communication is easily detectable and impacts the final insights. Another moderation challenge occurs when researchers listen to participant stories, there are several dangers that come with more private or personal topics, researcher guilt, grief, vulnerability to even exhaustion can have irrevocably damaging impacts on the research project and the final insights.

    But recently, with the massive demand for quality qualitative insights, researchers are facing a more significant challenge: how do we scale qual efficiently, so that we can speed up the time it takes to gather qualitative insights even further, as well as scale it so that we get more qualitative insights in that quicker timeframe, but without losing the significant essence that makes qualitative insights so good? There are a few ways insight teams can approach this to try and fix the issue on their end, for example through creating a technology stack with quality control tools already embedded within it and then planning the fieldwork carefully as much as insight teams can, although this last one might be a bit more difficult with ad-hoc projects.

    Of course, the severity of the challenges will always be different depending on the research experience stakeholders and insight professionals have encountered.

    “The core challenge is addressing the reality vs perception gap, and getting under the skin of what people actually think and do, versus what they claim to think and do.”

    - Delphi Jarrett, Director at Humankind Research

    Delphi further explains this particular challenge, commenting that, “we know people are very unreliable witnesses to their own behaviour, and attitude and behaviour are imperfectly correlated. Thus, it’s important to leverage creative qualitative approaches that allow us to watch behaviours in context, so we can observe first-hand the influencers and triggers to certain behaviours.”


    For all the challenges that could occur, the biggest mistake researchers could make is to let those challenges overwhelm them and force them away from conducting quality qualitative research. But there are other mistakes as well:

    • Forsaking moderation and participant communication for analysis and insight generation.
    • Underestimating the timescales needed to get all of the insights they need.
    • Being too scripted in moderation can mean researchers lose natural conversation that could spark in customer communities
    • Not finding the balance between ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves’ in terms of research methods, strategies and actions - if stakeholders sacrifice any ‘must haves’ for the sake of keeping a ‘nice to have’, then the qualitative insights that result will not be as impactful or directly actionable as is needed.
    • Using a non-intuitive platform or software that is hard for participants to use - self-explanatory, but any platform that is used needs to be intuitive or easily explainable for all users, or no one will be able to provide opportunities for data and insight generation.
    • Using qual data in a quant way - any improper use of qual data means researchers aren’t analysing it properly, and not gaining the full extent of insights available.


    For the challenges and mistakes presented by qualitative research, the insights industry has come up with solutions that can help assuage their impact or even eliminate them altogether.

    In the last couple of decades, there have been many artificial intelligence or automated analysis programs developed that can be used to help cut down on analysis time, as well as make it easier to maximise qualitative insight generation through pattern spotting and automated report templates.

    These algorithms are also able to pick up any key repetitions, linguistic anomalies and important sentiment through language, image and video analysis, so that researchers can better understand and more accurately interpret key qualitative insights.

    Insight teams need to build up both hard and soft skills in moderation, research design, and qualitative analysis, to fill the gaps that these algorithms miss. Because they are only machine learning automations, they will not catch everything - so researchers need to step up and conduct qualitative moderation and analysis too, to make sure that nothing is missed. The moderation skills will help insight teams work with research participants until there is no stone left unturned and all of the insights are found.

    For this to happen though, researchers need time - time to design the research right at the start, time to communicate with participants in a comfortable manner where no one feels rushed, and time to analyse all of the data gathered from those insightful conversations to a high standard.

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    Qualitative insights are great boons to decision-making, but there are challenges insight experts need to prepare for, and mistakes to avoid. 

    Qualitative Research Best Practices

    The best way to make sure researchers are doing qualitative research well is to look out for the potential challenges and mistakes as outlined above, but also to adhere to a few best practices too. There are many best practices out there to take advantage of, but here are three of the most useful ones to know:

    Remember to be Flexible

    Agile insights are created by agile minds, and this is especially true for qualitative research where conversations can take a turn and to find out the insights you truly need instead of the insights you thought you needed it’s better to follow those conversations until the end. However, it’s also true that those conversations may just be distractible tangents, so learning when to recognise the value is crucial - this usually comes with experience.

    Flexibility doesn’t just occur in in-task conversations though, insight experts can be flexible in a number of different ways, by:

    • Creating new ad-hoc tasks based on the insights from the last task if they think it’s worth it
    • Steering the research project in a different direction if it isn’t providing as much relevant and accurate data as is needed
    • Adjusting the timescales for different parts of the research project based on the insights already collated
    • Closing down conversations when they have given all the insights needed rather than giving a strict time-based deadline

    Make Sure your Sample is Representative

    A good best practice for all market research, but for more in-depth projects such as qualitative research, double or triple checking you have a truly representative sample is crucial if this in-depth, detail-oriented study is to be a success.

    This is also why a smaller sample sometimes isn’t the best option for a qualitative study, even though a smaller sample means insights teams have more time to spend with each participant individually. A larger sample doesn’t necessarily mean representative, but if curated carefully it means there is more space for everyone in the target audience to be represented equally.

    For those insight teams struggling to create a representative sample of their own, using the expertise of a sample provider or recruitment agency can help source these participants for them.

    Don’t Underestimate the Value of Participants

    “Participatory research, whereby you involve participants in research design and methods, is a great way of not only strengthening qualitative findings, but also ensuring participants are treated as valued partners (not mere subjects that you extract information from).”

    - Delphi Jarrett, Director at Humankind Research

    Delphi is correct in this, as research participants have more value than just as data production centres. Participants can help insight experts in other areas of the research process too, including some that might not have occurred to researchers before.

    Delphi continues, saying that “for example, at a most basic level, when conducting social research at Humankind Research we often share summaries of our interim findings with our research participants for their feedback. Participants feel listened to and respected, getting something positive out of the process, and we as researchers are able to use their feedback to validate and build on our findings, ensuring greater quality insight.”

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