In this post we’ll go over quantitative vs. qualitative research; we’ll see what they are, the differences between them, and when to use each.
To begin, let’s take a look at qualitative research.
What is qualitative research?
What is qualitative research? Qualitative research consists of collecting data through open questions, so that we get an understanding of different people's point of view. And, most importantly, we do not intend to do calculations based on the answers we get. Or we might do some, but we know that the numbers aren’t really representative of our target population. The point is to gather broad knowledge.
Typically, qualitative research methods use questionnaires with open questions, and we allow respondents to answer whatever they want.
For example, a typical question in a qualitative market research sturdy for a new product might be "what do you consider to be this product's main positive aspects?”
We use these questions because at an early stage of research, we may not yet have a good knowledge about the market, and we have no idea of what people may answer. Or, we think we do have an idea, but want to make sure, because but if we're used to doing market research we know there will be surprises, and we don't want post-launch surprises.
In this case, it is a good idea to have a broad conversation with a handful of people to get a general idea of what people like, so that we can generate some hypotheses regarding the product's main selling points.
But a key thing to have in mind here, is that our goal with this question would be just to get an idea of what people like; we're not trying to understand what percentage of our market likes which features best.
So, with qualitative research the point is to expand on general knowledge. And that’s why qualitative research methods examples could be:
- focus groups,
- advisory boards,
- mock negotiations, or
- any other means that allows us to have open interactions with respondents, that we may even sometimes tailor as the conversation moves along.
Unfortunately, having these types of broad discussions is very time-consuming.
You need to spend time conducting the interviews, or preparing and moderating the group discussions, and the data obtained can be all over the place, even if you have a predesigned discussion guide. That makes analizing these results also very time-consuming.
On top of that, the interviewer must have enough depth of knowledge on the topic to be able to steer the discussion to obtain the most relevant information possible form each respondent; so not everyone can do this for you.
The interviewer must also make sure that the results obtained make sense and can be acted upon, or the research will be pointless. If the outcome of your research is that people want flying cars, well… your interviewer didn’t do a great job. What are you supposed to do with that?
Anyway, due to all of this, qualitative interviews (or other qualitative research methods), can't be used in large numbers.
While they allow to collect very granular data, and they allow for an expansion of gathered information outside of your initial scope of knowledge (sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know until an interviewee brings it up), the format of research does not allow to scale the number of answers. It would be too time consuming and expensive.
So, this type of research does not allow us to talk about averages, means, percentages, and all the numbers that we typically like to use when describing a market for a product.
And that’s where quantitative research comes in.
What is quantitative research?
What is quantitative research? Quantitative research consists of getting information from a large number of participants (or observations), which allows you to have a research sample that is large enough to be representative of your target population.
That is, when talking about quantitative market research, whatever is going on in this sample, is likely to be going on in you market as a whole.
Just as in the case of qualitative research, quantitative research methods can come in several different formats. But for market research purposes, we’re generally talking about surveys or behaviour observation. I’ll assume we’re talking about surveys here.
In this case, since we need data from a large number of participants and surveys are boring to fill in, the research materials need to be a lot simpler (for whoever is taking the survey, not the researcher, of course; for the researcher quantis are usually a lot tougher to put together).
And that is because while you can keep an interviewee engaged in a discussion for well over an hour, and advisory boards can last an entire day or even several days and still keep people engaged all the way through, if you send people a survey that takes 1 hour to complete, the data after a certain point may not be the best quality because people are completely fed up. And I’d assume that people who answer at all are being paid to do so.
Also, people taking surveys should be able to understand everything presented to them and answer the questions by themselves (although there are exceptions). So, simplicity is a must.
Anyway, in the case of quantitative market research, not only the questions are predefined, but for ease of analysis, the answers are usually pre-defined also.
Usually respondents are asked to:
Select among options
Provide a number
This makes it possible to analize a high volume of data without the need to spend hours and hours reading through answers.
So, although the answers to a quantitative study can be qualitative, for ease of analysis, they are usually predetermined, so that they can each be represented by a number or letter.
As an example:
- While for a qualitative study we might ask “what 3 things do you like the most about this product?” and leave it at that,
- For a quantitative study we might ask “what 3 things do you like the most about this product? A) Ease of use, B) Design, C) Price/quality relationship D) Whatever makes sense, etc., etc.).
While you may notice that the several options are qualitative answers, if we analize the percentage of people selecting options A, B, C, etc., we’re doing a quantitative analysis of qualitative data.
And this is an important thing to understand: the difference between qualitative and quantitative research isn’t that one has qualitative data and the other one quantitative data.
Difference between quantitative and qualitative research
Quantitative research studies can have qualitative questions, and qualitative research studies can have quantitative questions.
The difference difference between quantitative and qualitative research is that for a quantitative analysis we need a high volume of data, so that we can consider that the data is representative of a target population.
Generating that high volume of answers is what leads us to having constraints regarding the way in which we can ask things, since we must be able to analyse a lot of responses, making it impossible to read through text answers in a cost-efficient way.
But this leads us to an added difficulty with quantitative studies, which is that to define upfront what options you will give respondents, you must already have a solid expectation regarding likely answers; otherwise you’d have a lot of of “other, please explain” answers (if you give respondents that option), and A LOT of work to do.
Or worse, people pick a random option so that they don’t have to type, and your data is garbage.
So, at the end of the day, quantitative research is usually best suited to quantify things that you either already know or suspect that are going on.
Now… could you add a couple of qualitative open questions in a quantitative research? Of course.
However, you would need to code the answers afterwards; that is, you would have to categorize the answers into buckets of similar answers if you want to do any sort of quantitative analysis based on them (e.g., what percentage of the population gave an answer that falls into a given category). And that’s a huge headache.
Quantitative vs. qualitative research: when to use each
Quantitative research vs. qualitative research sometimes isn’t a matter of either or, but a matter of where we stand in the process of understanding the market.
- Qualitative market research is good to gain knowledge, but not suitable to measure and optimize, while
- Quantitative market research is good to measure something that you already know or suspect is there, but you don’t know the extent to which it is there, and want to measure it.
So, it is likely that you’ll need to do both at some point.
For example, when it comes to product development, the one to go for to test your initial idea would clearly be qualitative market research (you want broad feedback). However, if what you want is to e.g. optimize price, you should bet on a quanti (you need a large amount of data to estimate relative purchase likelihood at different price points).
The key take-away is that both qualitative and quantitative market research are great tools, but they serve different purposes. So, you need to choose the one that suits your particular purpose best.
And that’s it for today. I hope it was helpful!