How to use qualitative research

Qualitative research is the research approach you use to understand “why” your customers think, feel or act the way they do. The focus is on the quality of the insight. You want to find out what’s driving customer attitudes behaviours, perceptions and beliefs. You want to know what makes customers tick. That knowledge is what you get from learning how to use qualitative research. 

In this guide, you’ll learn where and when to use qualitative research, and what the pros and cons are. We’ll share with you example business problems and research questions, where qualitative research is the best approach. You’ll see example qualitative research outputs and learn how you’d turn them into actions. And if that leaves you raring to do more, we’ll finish with tips on how to find a qualitative market research company.  

How to use qualitative research

Table of Contents

QUZ

Take the Three-Brains qualitative research quiz. 

Answer 5 quick questions in 2 minutes, and show us what you know.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is the market research approach you use, when you know you want to find out more about customers, but you’re not exactly sure what you want to find out more about.

You want to diagnose why consumers think, feel or act in a certain way, or how they’ll respond to something new and different. 

In these types of scenario, the business problem and research brief you write early in the market research process will be broad. The research questions will be less specific and more exploratory. 

You’ll likely have a bunch of questions that start with “why”. Why do you think that? Why do you feel that? And, why do you do that? You want to find out why they think the things they do, why they feel the things they do, and why they do the things they do.

Think of qualitative research as like putting your customer on the psychologist’s couch. You’re going to have a deep and meaningful conversation with specific customers.

Where and when would you use it?

You’d most often use qualitative research on topics that are either new to your business or new to your customers.

For example, when you’re working on a new product or service. Or, you’re planning a new advertising campaign or packaging revamp.

In these business situations, quantitative research is a common way to find out how your customers will respond to those “new” activities.   

Qualitative research lets you share ideas, draft designs and concepts early in the development process. You can show prototypes and share rough sketches.

This early response from customers helps identify any obvious opportunities or issues, before you go to “full” production.

Not only does this save you time and money, this feedback also help you refine your final designs and activity, so they’re more likely to appeal to customers. Qualitative research can help you generate more ideas and inspiration about how to make your marketing ideas work better.

This is important to remember when it comes to how to use qualitative research. 

You use qualitative market research when you want to understand what your idea could look like. It’s about possibilities and exploration. 

The other common use of secondary research is to understand how customers make decisions and how they perceive brands. This often needs the more explorative style of qualitative research to get customers to explain their thoughts, feelings and actions. Often, customers might not have these thought processes top of mind, so you need the conversational questioning approach of qualitative research to pull these thoughts out. 

The pros of qualitative research

The main “pro” of qualitative research is that it gives you lots of ideas and inspiration about what motivates customers.

It’s the best way to really get under the skin of what makes customers tick.

You can use these ideas to generate hypotheses about what you need to do to persuade them to choose your brand over competitors. 

When you don’t know much about your customers perceptions, beliefs or attitudes, it’s a great way to generate a list of potential answer that you can then validate with more statistically robust quantitative research.

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

It’s also a great way to really get under the skin of how customers think and feel. It’s the only one of the three main research approaches where you hear real words come out of the mouths of customers. If you understand what your customers need, in their own words, this is a hugely powerful insight that you can use in all your marketing activities.

So, in your communications for example, customers are more likely to “get” your message if you convey your product’s benefit using the same words they would use.

The cons of qualitative research

However, there are also some “cons” when it comes to how to use qualitative research. 

Firstly, it does take time to set the research up. You have to brief the market research company, they have to find the customers to interview, conduct all the interviews and then collate the responses into clear recommendations. Those steps can easily take a few weeks, if not more.

For some businesses, that might be too long. 

There is also the cost of carrying out qualitative research. It’s more expensive than secondary research because you have to hire interview venues, you usually pay respondents for their time, and there are the time costs from the research company. 

Though the total cost of qualitative research per project is usually less than quantitate research is lower, the cost per respondent is much higher. 

So, you’ll only be able to interview a small section of your bigger customer group. This small section will not statistically represent the views of the bigger group.

That’s important to remember.

While your group of ten, twenty or thirty respondents might like your idea, that doesn’t mean your larget customer group of thousands of customers will too. 

You can be more confident that your research “answers” will be closer to the truth than not doing any research at all. You’ve talked to actual customers, after all. And that’s a good thing. 

But, you can’t be totally confident that your research answers will definitely predict how the actual market will react. The customers you talk to may not represent the views of the wider market.

Biases

You also have to factor in that the “open” nature of the process can let more subjectivity and bias into the analysis. 

So, for example, there is confirmation bias. This is where you pay more attention to information that confirms an existing belief.

So, if you think your new product / advertising / packaging is good, you’re more likely to listen to customers who think the same. You may ignore or reject those who don’t have the same opinion. 

Then, there’s the anchoring bias. This is where you overemphasise the value of the first piece of information you hear, over other pieces of information that follows.

So, for example, if you want to explore price options in qualitative research, customers will respond differently if they hear the lowest price first, and then explore more expensive options, than if they hear the most expensive option first and then prices go down. 

There are many other biases to be aware of, and you should check with the market research company that they carry out the research in a way that tries to eliminate bias. 

And finally, you also have to bear in mind, that qualitative research doesn’t replicate “real” buying conditions. You are asking people about their motivations and buying decisions in a relatively artificial environment.

In a real-life situation, most people don’t put that much thought into what they buy, so you need to have that in the back of your mind when it comes to how to use qualitative research. 

How do you do qualitative research?

The decision to use qualitative research comes at the research plan stage of the market research process.

At this point, the market research company has reviewed your research brief. They’ll have identified the need to ask open-ended and exploratory questions to answer the business problem you’ve shared. 

The aim of these questions is to identify possible options, not validate existing answers.

The qualitative research plan should then identify the key actions the market research company will do to answer your brief. 

This starts with finding customers to interview. 

Find respondents to interview

Your research brief describes the types of customers you want to research. But, it’s up to the market research company to actually find real people to interview who fall into these customer types. 

You need to discuss with them how broad or detailed the definition of the respondent group needs to be. 

Too broad (e.g. “men”, “young people”) and you end up with too wide a range of opinions. You won’t get the specific insights you are looking for. 

Too detailed though (e.g. “women aged 32 who eat Mars Bars on a Friday afternoon, own a labrador and like water-skiing) and you’ll struggle to find enough customers who match that brief.

There’s usually a middle ground with enough demographic information to make customers easy to find, along with one or two behavioural or attitudinal statements to make sure the customer “belongs” in the desired group.

So, “women between 30 and 45 who own large dogs” for example is probably better than the too detailed definition we gave before.  

They’ll often use specialist recruiter firms who’ll hold panels of respondents willing to attend market research interviews.

They’ll also often use screener questions to make sure there are no outliers in the group. Outliers are people who may have more extreme views that won’t represent the views of the wider group. Or, people who might have a biased or negative view of the research topic. 

So, for example, if your research is on meat-based food products, you might want to screen out vegetarians. If your research is on infant formula, you might want to screen out mums who only believe in breastfeeding. It really depends on what you are researching. 

Normally, there’s also a limit on how many times a respondent can attend research interviews.

If respondents become too practised at responding to interviews, they may not give true and natural answers to the questions. They’re more likely to tell you what they think you want to hear. 

Interview logistics

The research plan should also outline the interview logistics.

By logistics, we’re talking specific details of how, when and where the research will take place. 

You need to understand what the structure of the interviews will be for example. You need to understand the locations of the research, and who will be leading it. 

The research plan also needs to specify whether you need to create stimulus materials to show the respondents. And if so, what types of materials.

Blond woman partially hidden behind a leafy bush

So, do you need to provide draft versions of advertising, packaging or websites for example, so that respondents can look at them and give feedback? Do you need to create a prototype version of your new product or service?

In some cases, the interview can become part of a co-creation process. You ask respondents to come up with ideas on how they’d improve early drafts of materials. This is quite common in marketing innovation, for example. Respondents see early prototypes of products or services and suggest features and benefits they’d add, change or remove.

The research plan should also share if there will be an opportunity to observe the research, and if it will be recorded. This means anyone in your team can watch the actual interviews afterwards, if they can’t observe them live.

Interview approach – Depth interviews, focus groups and ethnography

There are two main types of interview approach. You can either interview customers one at a time, in what’s called a depth interview. This is common when the research topic is sensitive or personal, or you interview a subject expert, such as a doctor or a lawyer. 

Or, probably more common is the focus group. This is when you interview small groups of around 6 to 8 customers at a time. This lets you speak to more customers in as shorter amount of time than interviewing them one to one.

But of course, you then have to fact in group dynamics, as groups will answer differently than individuals. 

There is another less commonly used approach, and that’s when you decide on an observation led approach. So, you don’t ask questions directly, but observe or record a respondent as the carry out the task you want to research.

So, for example, instead of asking someone how they choose products at the supermarket, you follow them on a real shopping trip to the supermarket. And you observe how they make those choices at the shelf.

This observation approach is called ethnographic research.

You would use it where you don’t think direct questions will give you the true answers.

So, topics where the respondent might answer in a certain way to make themselves sound better, for example. Or, where they might have to reveal personal details.

Supermarket central aisle with lots of displays and signage on view

This type of approach is not unheard of, but it’s relatively rare compared to interviews. It can be more expensive to set up. You also lose some control over the structure of the research, since the respondent leads it. When used, it’s often used in addition to interviews, rather than instead of interviews, to give a more rounded customer view.

Interview structure, style and question types

Qualitative research should feel like a relatively deep and meaningful conversation. Though the interviewer will have a list of topics and questions to cover, they need to make those flow naturally. 

The interviewer needs to be flexible enough to listen to the respondent and adjust the order and tone of questions, so the conversation is easy. It shouldn’t feel stilted or awkward.

It’s important the interviewer can make the respondents feel comfortable, and able to express themselves freely.

Good interviewers build empathy and rapport, so respondents open up. Respondents should feel at ease, and shouldn’t feel afraid of saying what they really think, feel and do. 

In qualitative research, you want the customer to talk as much as possible. You want them to be honest and genuine and tell you what they really think and feel. 

It’s also important that the interviewer is impartial and non-judgemental. Even if the interviewer knows something the respondent says is wrong or misleading, the aim is to understand the respondent’s point of view, whatever it is.

This also usually means that the interviewer doesn’t share your details and that you are behind the research.

If the respondent knows who you are, this can influence how they respond. They might hold back for fear of offending you for example. You don’t want this. In these cases, the interviewer would normally say, “we’re working on behalf of a client in the “x” industry” and leave it there.

Part of the skill of putting interview respondents at ease is the use of open questions. With open questions, the aim is to avoid questions that lead to yes / no answers. 

So, for example, “Tell me more about why you like the blue one?” is a good open question. Compare that to a closed question like “Do you like the blue one?” where yes to no is the likely answer. 

Observing interviews

Usually, as the client, you’ll be able to observe some or all of the interviews. Either the market research company will record the interviews and you can watch them afterwards. Or, you’ll be able to view the interview as the research location as it happens.

Most interviews take place in specialist market research venues, where two way mirrors allow you to sit in the next room and watch the interview. It’s a slightly weird experience, but a great way to see actual customers in real life.

There may be some cases where this is not possible, though. So. if the topic is particularly sensitive or confidential, for example.

When you observe interviews, it’s important to listen closely. In particular you want to make sure there’s no bias or ambiguity.  Good qualitative interviewers know how to avoid these.

With focus groups, it’s also important that the interviewer can control the dynamics of the group. It’s important that everyone gets a fair say.

It’s not unusual to have one or two more dominant personalities in any group. These can “lead” the group in certain directions, and often not the direction you want.

So, good qualitative interviewers know how to watch for this, and how to bring in the views of more passive respondents.

So, that’s wraps up our content on how to do qualitative research. We need to move on to how to use qualitative research.

To help make that less theoretical, we’d like to introduce a mini case-study adapted from some actual qualitative research. It’ll give us some example business problems, research questions and research results. And we’ll use these to show you how to use qualitative research.

Case study introduction – IT professional services

So, let’s imagine you run a small IT services firm. Your target audience is the Heads of IT at mid to large size companies who make purchasing decisions. Let’s also assume that you and most of your competitors offer similar technical features in your services, and charge similar prices.

Case study business problem

So, your overall business problem that forms your core research question looks something like this. 

“Why would Heads of IT choose us over competitors, if quality and price are similar?”

Remember we said, qualitative research is most useful when you want to explore “why” something happens.

In this case, the qualitative research will help us understand how these Heads of IT make decisions. It’ll help us understand why they choose particular products and services. And, it’ll help us understand what we need to do to influence those decisions, so they choose our brand.

Case study - open questions

So, the business problem is not necessarily one that we’d ask these customers directly. They may well not have an immediate answer in any case. 

So, we’d need to help them think about it, and draw the answers out. We’d need to build some rapport and gently unpick their decision-making. 

They need to think about this consciously, where much of the actual decision-making make take place in the sub-conscious. A skilled interviewer can pull out the subconscious thinking through a series of open-ended questions. 

So, here’s some examples of the type of open-ended questions we could use in an interview to do this. 

  1. When you review the agreement on your IT services, can you talk us through the way you identify suppliers? What steps do you take? Where do you look? Where do you gather information?
  2. When you have a short-list of suppliers, can you explain how you decide between them? What criteria do you use? How formal is the process? Who else do you involve? And, who makes the final decision?
  3. If you have two suppliers that seem to offer a similar level of quality and price, how do you then decide between those them? What other criteria would influence your decision?
  4.  

You’ll note that these questions are generally open. It’d be hard to answer “yes” or “no” to any of these. Even when they result in specific answers, they help the interview flow on to follow-up open questions. 

You’ll maybe also have spotted that there’s no actual “why” questions in these examples. Even, though our overall research question starts with why. 

There’s a reason for that. 

“Why” is actually a fairly provocative way to start a question. It puts people on the spot to justify and explain, so it can feel threatening. You need to have led up to a why question, so the respondent feels comfortable answering it. It’s not that you can’t ask “why” questions, more you need to ask them in an unthreatening way. 

Case study – exploratory questions

Remember, part of the aim of qualitative research is to get the respondent to open up and share lots of information. It can help to include exploratory question types to do this.

So, rather than direct questions, you’ll see we use question types like “can you talk through the way you …” and “if .. how do you then decide …”. 

These types of questions help build empathy and make the interviewee feel more engaged. These are less threatening in tone. They’ll get better, less defensive responses. 

How to use qualitative research – unpicking answers

So, let’s now look at an example answer you might hear in qualitative research. In this example, one of the Head of IT respondents said they chose between two different suppliers because one supplier seemed friendlier and more approachable.

The interviewer asked them “why” that would be important …

“well, we’ll be working with this supplier on a regular basis and spending a lot of time with them. It’s important that there’s good rapport among the team”.

There was clearly some marketing opportunities to research further in this statement. 

So, for example, how important is rapport when putting a project team together? Should you include “team rapport” as a benefit in your advertising copy? Does it matter more than price?

So, the interviewer followed-up with this …

“That’s interesting. So, even if there was a price difference between suppliers, you’d still pick the one your team would have better rapport with? Talk us through your thinking on that.”

These types of questions help get to the bottom of what respondents think about brand identity and marketing activity.

In this case, the IT company ended up changing their advertising messaging, and training their sales team on better ways to build rapport with customer teams. 

How to use qualitative research – results presentation

The final stage of qualitative research is when the research company presents the results back to you in a debrief session. 

Before this session, you should re-read the research brief. Take a copy with you into the session and make sure the research company references it when they present.

Typically, these debrief sessions will start with reminding people of the key points of the research brief and plan.

They’ll then usually remind people of the methodology. (and usually take far too long doing so, but that’s maybe just us).

They’ll then share the results and answers to the research questions. In qualitative research debriefs, they’ll often use direct customer quotes and show video clips from the research. 

Quotes and videos help to bring the customer to life. This is important when you’re planning on how to use qualitative research.

They help you picture “real” customers, rather than hypothetical ones. They’re helpful because you hear what customers think in their own words. 

It can be very helpful to share these quotes and examples with marketing agencies. Use them when you brief on brand identity, marketing communications and digital marketing. They can inspire agency creatives by painting a much more evocative picture of the customer.

You can see from our example here, how quotes bring the customer to life. These are quotes from Head of IT respondents giving their view on the service they got from Account Managers at their suppliers. 

It’s clear there’s a big issue about Account Managers being available when they’re needed.

It’s also clear there are issues with how fast they respond to questions.

And even just they way they handle the relationship, you can see that it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Some respondents are happier than others. 

This type of research output gives you ideas of what you could do to improve the level of service. That’s an important benefit when it comes to how to use qualitative research. 

Of course, these quotes only represent the views of seven people. What you don’t know from this page, is how big the problems are. Is it just one account manager? Or, is it a consistent problem among many account managers?

But to answer, those sorts of questions, you’d need to carry out some quantitive research

How often do you need to carry out qualitative research?

Qualitative research helps you ask questions directly to your customers, and it gives you ideas and inspiration to solve business problems.

Clearly, there’s a benefit to doing this on a regular basis.

How regular you choose to do this though depends on your business content, your business problems and of course, your budget. 

In categories where customer habits, ideas and behaviours change quickly, you’d want to carry out such research more often.

Calendar

For example, in categories like entertainment or fashion, businesses will have more frequent qualitative research interaction with customers. This could be weekly, or monthly.

In more stable categories, there’s less need for such frequent research. But still, you’d be looking at least once or twice a year to make sure you check in with actual customers through qualitative research. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing your customer focus in your marketing activity.

How to find a qualitative research company

We have a whole separate detailed guide on market research companies. But to close this article, out, we wanted to share a couple of specific thoughts on qualitative researchers. 

As a first step, we recommend you go online and check-out the relevant market research industry association website.

These sites will have lots of useful information on how to use qualitative research, and will also have links to market research companies who are official members. 

In Australia where we are based, there are two associations. There’s the Research Society and the Association of Market and Social Research Organisations.

You can search the Company Directories on both sites to find market research companies who cover specific industries or offer specific research services. From there, you can check out specific research company websites to see if they might be a good fit for your needs.

Check out their areas of speciality for example and any articles, case studies and client testimonials they give. You want to try and find a research company that suits your working style, and budget.

How to use qualitative research - Conclusion 

In this guide, we’ve covered what qualitative research is and where and when you might use it. We’ve outlined the pros and cons of this research approach.

In simple terms, it’s great for going deep into a topic when you need to understand “why”. It’s less helpful when you need to understand how widespread attitudes, beliefs or motivations are among the total customer group.

We also covered the main aspects of how qualitative research is done. Your market research company will normally handle most of these details. But it’s important you understand the basics of how to use qualitative research.

Two people sitting at a table with coffee cups in front of them having a conversation

You need to understand what to watch out for during the research itself, and when you see the results. 

This understanding can give you a real competitive advantage when it comes to how to use qualitative research. Ideally, you’ll end up with actionable ideas and recommendations that will help you raise your marketing game. 

Three-brains and market research skills

We coach and consult to help businesses improve their market research skills. We can help you set up and optimise your qualitative research skills, so that you ask the right questions and get the best answers to drive your marketing activity. 

Check out our other market research skill guides to learn more. Or contact us directly, so we can help you raise your game in market research

Use this market research brief template when working with your market research agency to brief them on market research related tasks.

3 pages including a blank template, a guide to completing each section and an example brief from the vegan ice cream case study in our secondary research skill guide.

Download it here or from our resources section. 

Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

Market research brief template
Click to download the pdf

Latest market research blog posts