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Qualitative research: definition, techniques, examples [Guide 2023].

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Qualitative research is a generic term that refers to several techniques (individual interviews, focus groups, observations) that aim to discover the factors that may influence behavior. We have created this guide to be as complete and concise as possible. We have focused on the most important topics related to quantitative research. You will find answers to practical questions with many real-life examples from our experience as a market research agency.

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Summary

  1. What is qualitative research?
  2. What is the purpose of qualitative research?
  3. When to do (or not to do) qualitative research?
  4. Differences between qualitative research and quantitative research
  5. Contexts of application of qualitative research
  6. Examples of qualitative research in B2C
  7. Examples of qualitative research in B2B
  8. Overview of different qualitative research techniques
  9. What are the differences between B2C and B2B qualitative research?
  10. What are the differences between focus groups and qualitative interviews?
  11. 7 questions often asked about qualitative research

Chapter 1

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is a generic term for a methodological approach that allows for in-depth research into the factors influencing the behavior of individuals or organizational entities. Unlike quantitative research, which is deductive, qualitative methods are inductive. The samples are smaller, but the analyses are deeper. Qualitative research does not seek representativeness but diversity.

Qualitative research aims to highlight the effects of situations, social interactions, constraints, and the interplay of individuals with social norms. The reality researched thus goes beyond what the individual can perceive himself. Thanks to methods that approach the subject being researched from different angles, it becomes possible to reconstitute a complex reality that escapes the person who lives it.

Therefore, the researcher’s objective is to reveal how and why reality is constructed, how it is experienced, and the factors that condition its evolution.

All you need to know about qualitative research techniques in 30 seconds

Several techniques and tools belong to the qualitative research family:

  • Semi-structured face-to-face interviews: an exploratory technique that makes it possible to address several topics in depth, both in B2C and B2B
  • The “centered” life story: a specific interview that allows the subject of the research to be placed in a life trajectory while reconstructing the different stages (“customer experience”)
  • Observation: a technique rooted in ethnography that allows us to understand the interactions between people or between objects and people. Observation can be participatory when the researcher interacts with the person(s) being observed.
  • Focus group: also called discussion group, consists of gathering several people to discuss a subject. It is a confirmatory method.
  • Online diary (blog): This method collects user impressions over an extended period. It consists of asking a group of people to describe their actions and thoughts in writing each day. This allows for understanding context and capturing thoughts on the fly.

Chapter 2

What is the purpose of qualitative research?

The research aims to understand all the factors that influence behavior, including those of which the person or organization being studied is unaware. The perspective of qualitative research is to go beyond the rationality of individuals’ choices and to understand, through a series of techniques, everything that can influence decisions that economic theory would have us believe is rational.

On the other hand, qualitative research does not aim to quantify a frequency. To say, for example, that such and such a factor was detected in x% of the interviews is meaningless.

qualitative research scales

We can carry out qualitative research on different scales. In B2C, the behavior researched can be that of:

  • an individual
  • a small group
  • a segment (large group)
  • a country, a culture

We can apply the same type of reasoning to the context of the company in the case of B2B research. Qualitative research in B2B can thus research:

  • a person holding a certain position in a company (CEO, HR manager, etc.)
  • the functioning of a company
  • the practices of people holding the same position in different companies
  • companies in the same sector
  • companies in the same country
Scales of qualitative
research
Examples of application in B2C Examples of application in B2B
micro-individual Research into the behavior
of a customer
Research on a person holding a certain position in a company (CEO, HR manager, …)
micro-social Research on a group of customers Tracing the customer experience
Research into the practices of people working in the same position in different companies
meso-social Research on a customer segment Analysis of the operation of a company
macro-social Research on an ethnic group, a culture, a country
  • companies in the same sector
  • companies from the same country

 


Chapter 3

When to do (or not) qualitative research?

It is important to understand when qualitative research is appropriate and when it is not. This will help you avoid making methodological mistakes.

The diagram below, created by our agency, is an aid to decision-making.

decision tree on how to choose the right qualitative research method

 


Chapter 4

Differences between qualitative and quantitative research

The question of which method to choose is often asked. There is no one method that is better than the other. As we explain in our step-by-step guide to market research, the two methods are complementary.

When conducting market research, it is advisable to do qualitative research before quantitative research:

  • qualitative research allows us to qualify the phenomenon researched
  • quantitative research allows us to quantify the factors that influence this phenomenon

 

Qualitative research Quantitative research
Sample size From 5 for pre-interviews to 30 or more for complex research (e.g., in several countries). See our interactive tool to calculate your sample size here. The sample size must meet statistical requirements and must allow for inference.
100 respondents is an absolute minimum. Most serious research studies using quotas interview at least 500 respondents. Such a sample size is much more difficult to achieve in B2B than in B2C.
Methodologies individual interviews, focus groups, observations, online newspapers surveys, analysis of digital traces (Big Data)
Data collection instruments Interview guide, moderation guide Questionnaire
Causality Identification of constraints or potentialities that are anchored in the action system Quantification of causes via the establishment of statistical correlations
Advantages To show the ambivalence of most social realities better than statistical approaches.faire les approches statistiques. Allow conclusions to be extrapolated to a larger population (statistical inference)
Disadvantages This approach is often laborious and requires significant data collection and analysis work. Quantitative methods can be sterile if the questions are poorly formulated (wording bias), if the wrong scales are used, or if the measured variables have a minor influence on the analyzed behavior.

Chapter 5

Contexts of application of qualitative research

The project’s objective determines the type of research (qualitative or quantitative) to be conducted.

To help you choose the right method, here are a few contexts where we can apply qualitative research.

Reconstructing the customer experience

The customer experience is, in essence, a complex concept that includes many stages that can vary from one individual to another. The interviews will allow us to reconstruct the different stages of the individual pathway before proposing a synthesis.

Defining the customer experience

Customer experience is a complex construct that involves many subjective perceptions. Qualitative research is a good way to explore these perceptions using an interview guide covering the 6 pillars of the customer experience.

Launching an innovative product/service

Developing and launching an innovative product/service is particularly complicated. It requires a good understanding of the needs of the target users, including needs that need to be clearly expressed (or unconscious needs). It is, therefore, not possible to ask closed-ended questions.

Qualitative research is an approach adapted to this type of exercise because it allows us to get to the bottom of things, to understand the reasons for a need.

Understand the different facets of customer service

Although the “customer service” construct has been the subject of numerous studies allowing a quantitative analysis (see the SERVQUAL scale by Parasuraman et al., 1988), the qualitative approach remains useful. It allows us to go beyond the numbers to understand the reality of the customer’s experience.

The qualitative approach can be particularly well suited to research situations in which customer service has been poor. It gives the company the means to understand the dysfunctions in greater detail and correct them.

Analyzing a purchase decision

A purchase decision is often based on complex constraints that the customer must be aware of. Research by questionnaire is therefore not recommended.

A semi-directed interview or a focus group is appropriate for recurrent purchasing decisions. For complex or rare decisions (e.g., real estate purchase), an individual interview of the “life story” type is preferred.


Chapter 6

Examples of B2C qualitative research

B2C research aims to understand how a ” physical person ” functions as a customer or end user.

Adopting a social selling platform

In this research, we explored the propensity of customers, in a context of crisis, to make group purchases of non-food products.

Interest in anti-pollution cosmetics

The research aimed to understand the needs of working women in terms of cosmetic care and to analyze their understanding of the “anti-pollution” positioning of face creams.

Analysis of the needs of blind people

This research aimed to understand the difficulties of blind people in Belgium. The research was realized in situ, i.e., in the people’s homes. In this way, the difficulties of daily life could be discussed and illustrated by specific examples. In addition, the interviewees could directly show examples of solutions implemented or problems encountered.

Termination analysis for a telecom provider

Avoiding customer attrition is a major challenge for telecom operators. Understanding the reasons that lead a customer to terminate is a complex exercise. Indeed, it is necessary to identify the reasons that triggered the dissatisfaction, place them in time (customer experience), and understand the decision’s dynamics. For this qualitative research, we conducted interviews with the customers’ families. We questioned the various members to highlight the role that each one had played to lead to the decision of termination.


Chapter 7

Examples of B2B qualitative research

Qualitative research is often an essential part of B2B market research. It is much more complicated to use quantitative techniques in the company context.

Analysis of the decision-making cycle

This analysis aims to understand how companies make decisions, where the need arises, and how it spreads. It is important to understand the arguments that resonate with different stakeholders so that they can be put forward in operational marketing.

Analysis of external constraints on company operations

This analysis finds its place in crisis contexts (Covid, energy crisis). These contexts can have various effects on the companies but also on the people who work there. The qualitative research will therefore analyze the effects on the structure on the one hand and the people on the other. Understanding how the performance of one affects the performance of the other is also essential.

Analysis of the interest for an innovative service

Innovative companies must understand their customers and prospects current and future needs. Quantitative research is very complicated in B2B; qualitative research is the ideal way to obtain this information. This type of project is a classic.

 


Chapter 8

Overview of different qualitative research techniques

The table below gives you an overview of the different methods in qualitative research. We present the advantages and disadvantages in a very concise way and give you some ideas for application.

Advantages Disadvantages
Semi-structured face-to-face interview Easy to organize
Rich in information
Processing the collected information can be complicated
Clinical interview/life story Interviews are often very pleasant to conduct for both parties Requires much discipline not to get lost
Non-participative observation Very easy to implement in a public area.
Potentially revealing behaviors and interactions of which the protagonists are not aware.
Authorizations are sometimes difficult to obtain (in companies, for example)
can be perceived as intrusive if the observer is not discreet
Requires much concentration to be on the lookout for important behavioral cues
Participative observation Allows you to ask questions right away to clarify observed situations. Investigator bias
Hawthorne Effect
Focus group (discussion group) A common and well-accepted method
Numerous insights if the group dynamic is working well
The confirmatory method is preferred when it comes to making choices.
Very complicated to organize in B2B
Journal/blog Allows us to be closer to the reality of the individuals
Possibility of capturing fleeting ideas and feelings.
It can be combined with individual interviews or focus groups.
The interest in the method depends on the discipline of the people. If they do not “play the game” and are content with a few cryptic lines, the material to be exploited will be poor.

Chapter 9

What are the differences between qualitative research in B2C and B2B?

The contexts (B2B / B2C) influence the realization of qualitative research. In the table below, we detail the differences that exist in the different tasks. We focus on those that result from the implementation of the 2 most commonly encountered techniques:

  • individual interviews
  • focus groups

 

B2C B2B
Recruitment Recruitment is usually relatively easy. B2C respondents are more available than B2B respondents, and there are more of them. The lure of money is also a factor. The convenience sample is a reality in B2B. It is indeed more complicated to recruit B2B respondents.
Techniques Focus groups are probably the most used technique in B2C, followed by face-to-face interviews. Both are now being realized online. Give preference to individual interviews. Focus groups in B2B are very difficult to realize.
Interview or moderation guide Most of the time, the interview guide will be easy to prepare because there is a lot of data on B2C behavior. You will be able to identify the important aspects to explore easily. More difficult to prepare because the literature review in a B2B context will generally be less rich than in B2C.
Length
  • Individual interviews: 45-60 min
  • Focus Groups: 2-3 hours
  • Individual interviews: 30-45 min
    Focus Groups: 1.5-2 hours
Organization
  • Individual interviews: easy
  • Focus Groups: easy
  • Individual interviews: difficult to organize over a short period due to scheduling constraints
  • Focus groups: difficult or impossible when competition issues are involved.
Duration of the data collection
  • Individual interviews: about 20 interviews can be realized in 2 weeks.
    Focus groups: 2 focus groups can be held in one week
  • Individual interviews: about 20 interviews will have to be spread over 4-8 weeks, depending on the availability of the respondents.
    Focus groups: almost impossible to realize (see above)
Compensation 30 to 50€ for an interview, 80-100€ for a focus group 50-250€ per interview depending on the profile of the respondent

Chapter 10

What are the differences between focus groups and qualitative interviews?

Focus groups and interviews are the two most common methods in qualitative research. However, they often need clarification.

  • Interviews are preferred in exploratory contexts, i.e., when you have yet to formulate a hypothesis about the place of a behavior.
  • The focus group is preferred to confront a small group with a first hypothesis. By reacting, the participants will allow you to confirm or refute your hypotheses and add nuances.

If you want to go further, we advise you to read this complete article that explains the differences.


Chapter 11

7 questions often asked about qualitative research

To finish this guide, we propose to answer 7 frequently asked questions about qualitative research.

Question Answer
Is qualitative research as accurate as quantitative research? The term “precision” is not appropriate. The objectives of the two approaches being different, the notion of precision does not have the same meaning:

  • The precision of qualitative research is related to the exhaustiveness of the factors of influence discovered (see on this subject the concept of saturation)
  • The precision of quantitative research is related to the margin of error (and therefore to the sample size, although this is not the only criterion)
Can I calculate averages from the data collected in qualitative research? No. Calculating averages (e.g., on the frequency of this or that response) in a qualitative field is meaningless. You cannot make statistical inferences from such small samples.
At best, your numbers will be insignificant. At worst, they will be completely wrong.
Does qualitative research always precede quantitative research? In the method we have detailed here, the quantitative follows the qualitative. There are exceptions, however:

  • You have realized quantitative research and want to understand why the respondents negatively evaluated an aspect. Interviews will allow you to understand the places.
  • Persona construction
How many respondents are needed? It all depends on the method, of course. Generally speaking, for interviews and focus groups, 20 to 30 participants will give you a good basis for analysis. Finally, try our interactive calculator to calculate your qualitative sample size more.
Should the respondents be paid? It is not mandatory to compensate respondents. However, be aware that this will impact your ability to recruit them and, therefore, the speed of realizing your qualitative research.
What impact does the GDPR have? The GDPR also applies to qualitative research since you will be collecting potentially personal data. Your responsibility will be to take the necessary measures to protect it. To learn more, we advise you to read this article.
How to anonymize the results? When analyzing the results, you must be careful to anonymize them to protect the identity of the respondents. We advise you to replace your transcripts’ first and last names with “respondent A, B, C, …”. Also, be sure to delete or anonymize any information that could lead to the re-identification of the respondent.

 

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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