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Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research? | Methods

April 28, 2017
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The Trig Team

What is the Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research?

Research is about discovery and testing. In product development, many times we are trying to gain a clear understanding of what customers want and need. What do customers feel are the pain points where innovation is needed? Do customers fall into different groups that have common sets of needs and other defining traits? To what degree are your target customers aware of your brand? How big is the potential market for your new product concept? These and many other questions can be explored through a variety of research methods, most broadly grouped into “qualitative” and “quantitative” strategies that can be used separately or together.

Quantitative - Research Methods Emphasize Measurement

Quantitative Research Methods Emphasize Measurement

Quantitative research is about collecting and analyzing data to answer research questions. At a broad scale, quantitative research may involve market sizing and understanding geographic trends through geospatial data analysis. These types of analyses may be conducted through evaluation of existing data that may be freely available, such as government databases, or purchased if only privately available. 

When you see the term “data”, you may think of organized numerical data in tables and rows. However, the reality is often more complex. Official government-produced data may be well-organized, however the data may be a mix of numerical, geographic (e.g., zip codes, census blocks, and categorical (e.g., income brackets). Other data sources of interest may be less organized, have greater variety in form, and higher in volume; these topics that are often discussed in big data and data science forums. These data may include image files (e.g., medical images), purchase records, social media posts, and sensor data. These data may be a trove of valuable insight, but take time and expertise to process and analyze. 

In the course of research to support product development, new data are often collected through surveys. This method can rapidly collect highly valuable data, when the survey is designed to target specific research questions and the respondents that take the survey are representative of your customers. Surveys can be designed to reveal what may drive customers to purchase a new product or switch brands, how sensitive they are to price, and whether they clearly separate into customer segments or groups that have common traits. Surveys may be conducted online, through the mail, face-to-face, or over the phone, in order to best connect to your target respondents. Screening questions can be embedded into the survey, to ensure your participants are representative of your target customer. Surveys can be custom-built to collect the type of data that is most valuable in answering your research questions.

Whether analyzing existing or newly collected data, there are well-developed statistical approaches to explore, summarize, and evaluate the data sets to identify new insights. Excel continues to be a common workhorse of data analysis. However, for large and more complex data sets, research data analysts often turn to other tools - such as R, Python, ArcGIS, Tableau, PowerBI - to organize and analyze the data.

Qualitative – Research Methods Emphasize Understanding

Qualitative Research Methods Emphasize Understanding

Qualitative research focuses on understanding rather than measurement. For example, quantitative research may tell you that product A is recalled more often than product B, but how does a customer of product A feel about how the product functions and why they perceive it to be more effective than product B?

A significant amount of qualitative research is concerned with understanding the customer and establishing the meaning the customer attaches to products, brands and other marketing objects. Another focus is motivation. For example, why does one product meet customer needs over another - and what are the needs that are being met? Does the customer’s behavior match the ‘Jobs-to-be-Done Theory’, or are there other drivers that need to be understood?

Qualitative research is typically conducted with a smaller sample group compared to quantitative research. In the case of attitudes to products, for example, qualitative research may determine a specific view that is held about the product, whereas quantitative research would tell us how many customers hold that view. Collection methods can vary from using unstructured or semi-structured techniques. Some common methods include focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and participation/observation tactics. 

Qualitative research is principally investigative. It is used to generate insights about underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. It can perceive elements of the problem or help to develop ideas or hypotheses for potential quantitative research. Qualitative research is also used to uncover trends in thought and attitudes, and dive deeper into the problem.

Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Both qualitative and quantitative research can provide valuable information when conducted separately. After reviewing what you already know and what research questions you have, you may conclude you only need one method or the other. In many cases, however, conducting these two methods in tandem can greatly expand your understanding of your customer. When combined, the qualitative element frequently takes place first, followed by the quantitative research phase. The “deep dive” with a small group in the qualitative research phase reveals insights that can then optimize the design of the quantitative research. For example, hypothesized customer segments may be developed in the qualitative research phase, then tested to understand the scale of the customer segments in the quantitative phase.

For more information on Trig's qualitative and quantitative stakeholder research services, please check out Customer Insights and Design Strategy.

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The Trig Team

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