Skip to content

How to use qualitative research

Why read this? : We explore the ins and outs of qualitative research. Learn how it helps you uncover the “why” behind your customers’ thoughts, feelings and actions. Read this to learn how to use qualitative research to find growth-driving customer insights. Plus, our advice on how to find and hire 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.

Why do qualitative research?

You do qualitative research, when you want to explore why customers think, feel or act a certain way. It helps you understand how customers see what you currently do, or plan to do in the future. Its goal is to diagnose what’s going on with your target audience.

Your business problem and research brief usually cover broad topic areas. The research questions will be more open, and exploratory. Most of your questions will start with “why”. Why do you think that? Why do you feel that? And, why do you do that? 

Qualitative research is like putting your customer on the psychologist’s couch. You ask questions to see what’s going on in their heads.

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 cases, qualitative research helps you 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.

hand holding a black marker over a blank paper page with other marker pens and ruler

This early customer feedback helps identify opportunities or issues before you go to “full” production. This saves you time and money and helps you refine your final designs and activity, so they’ll be more appealing. Plus, it helps you generate more ideas and inspiration about how to improve your marketing impact. It can also be part of segmentation research where you group customers with similar buying characteristics. 

These are all important business benefits 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. About exploration. 

The other common use of qualitative research is around how customers make decisions and perceive brands. You ask exploratory questions to get customers to share their thoughts, feelings and actions. These might not be top of mind for customers. So you use the conversational questioning approach of qualitative research to uncover them. 

The pros of qualitative research

The main “pro” of qualitative research is that it gives you ideas and inspiration about customer motivations.

It’s how you understand what makes customers tick. What drives their perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. You use these insights to come up with ideas about what you need to do to persuade them to choose your brand. You test and validate these with more statistically robust quantitative research.

In addition, qualitative gives you a richer view of how customers think and feel. It’s the only research approach where you hear real words come out of customers’ mouths. You get a feel for how they think. How emotions influence their decisions. And what they need from you. 

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

Hearing customers’ needs spoken in their own words is a powerful insight which helps you improve your marketing. For example, customers are more likely to “get” your communications message if you talk about your product’s benefit using the same words they’d use.

The cons of qualitative research

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

First, it takes time to set up the research. Time to brief the research company. Time for them to find people to interview, do the interviews and then collate the responses into a clear story. This can easily take a few weeks, if not more. In some situations, that may be too late for what you need. 

There’s also a cost factor. It’s more expensive than secondary research as you have to hire interview venues and pay respondents for their time. Plus, pay for the research company‘s time. Though the total cost of qualitative research per project is usually less than quantitative research, the cost per respondent is much higher. So, you can only interview a small part of your total audience. This won’t statistically represent the views of the bigger group.

That’s important to remember. While your qual group might like your idea, it doesn’t mean the total segment of customers will too. 

You can be more confident 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 your research answers will predict how the actual market reaction. The customers you talk to may not represent the views of the wider market.

Biases

Biases are influences or prejudices which stop you from making decisions based purely on the facts. In qualitative research, this can influence how your research asks questions and how you analyse and use the results. 

You should work with your market research company to minimise bias. e.g. bias from the researcher, bias from the respondents and your own biases. The less bias you have, the more accurate the research results will be.

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. 

These questions aim to identify possible options, not validate existing answers.

The qualitative research plan should then identify the key actions from the market research company to answer your brief. This starts with finding customers to interview. 

Market research process - Flow diagram showing define the business problem - the research brief - the research plan - do the research - analysis an action plan

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 find actual people to interview who fall into these customer types. 

You should discuss with them how broad or detailed the respondent group definition has 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’re 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. Enough demographic information to make customers easy to find, along with a few behavioural or attitudinal statements to ensure the customer “belongs” to the desired group. For example, “women aged 30-45 who own large dogs” is better than the over-detailed definition we gave before.  

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

Screen outliers

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 which won’t represent the views of the wider group. Or, people who might have a biased or negative view of the research topic.

For example, if you’re researching meat-based food products, you might want to screen out vegetarians. If it’s infant formula, you might want to screen out mums who only believe in breastfeeding. Each category will have different dynamics and outliers.

Normally, there’s also a limit on how many times a respondent can attend research interviews. If respondents become too practised at 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 have to understand what the structure of the interviews will be, for example. You need to understand the locations of the research, and who’ll be leading it. 

The research plan should also 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

For example, do you need draft versions of advertising, packaging or websites, so respondents can review them and give feedback? Do you need to create a prototype version of your new product or service?

In some cases, the interview can be 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 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’ll be an opportunity to observe the research and if it’ll be recorded. This means anyone in your team can watch the interviews afterwards if they can’t watch live.

Interview approach - Depth interviews, focus groups and ethnography

There are 2 main types of interview approaches.

You can 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 taps into people’s emotions. It’s also common when you interview a subject expert, say a doctor or a lawyer, for example. 

Or, you do a focus group. You interview small groups of 6-8 customers at a time. This lets you speak to more customers in a shorter amount of time than interviewing them one-on-one. But of course, you then have to factor in group dynamics, as groups will answer differently than individuals. 

An alternative approach to interviewing is ethnography. You don’t ask questions directly but observe / record a respondent as they carry out the task you want to research.

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

You use ethnography when you don’t think direct questions will give you true answers. For example, topics when the respondent has to reveal personal details or might skew their response to create a more favourable impression. 

Supermarket central aisle with lots of displays and signage on view

Ethnography is less common than interviews as it can be expensive and you also lose some control over the research, as it’s led by the respondent. It’s often used in addition to interviews, rather than instead of them, 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. They should be comfortable enough to share their emotions

It’s also vital 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 the interviewer doesn’t share your details and that you’re behind the research.

If the respondent knows who you are, this can influence how they respond. They might hold back so they don’t offend 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. 

Neon sign with a question mark inside a square at the end of a dark corridor

Observing interviews

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

Most interviews take place in specialist market research venues, where one-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 isn’t possible, though. For example, if the topic is particularly sensitive or confidential.

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

With focus groups, it’s also important the interviewer can control the group dynamics. Everyone should get a fair say.

It’s not unusual to have a few more dominant personalities. These can “lead” the group in certain directions, and often not in 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.

A row of people sitting in the audience taking writing notes into their notebooks

So, that wraps up how to do qualitative research. We now move on to how to use qualitative research.

To make it feel more real, we’ll use 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

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. (so you’re a B2B business).  Let’s also assume 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 which forms your core research question looks 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 helps us understand how these Heads of IT make decisions. It helps us understand why they choose particular products and services. And, it helps us understand what we need to do to influence those decisions, so they choose our brand.

Case study - open questions

So, the business problem isn’t necessarily one 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 may take place in the subconscious. A skilled interviewer can pull out this thinking with open-ended questions. 

For example, questions could include :-

Coffee mug with the word begin sitting on a wooden table with blurred chairs in the background
  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, can you explain how you decide between suppliers? What criteria do you use? How formal is the process? Who else do you involve? And, who makes the final decision?
  3. If 2 suppliers have similar offers on quality and price, how do you decide between them? What other criteria would influence your decision?
  4.  

You’ll note 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 to follow-up open questions. 

You may have also spotted there are no actual “why” questions in these examples. Even, though our overall research question starts with why. There’s a reason for this. 

“Why” can be 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 lead up to a why question, so the respondent feels comfortable answering it. It’s not that you can’t ask “why”, more you need to ask it with sensitivity. 

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 regularly and spending lots of time with them. There has to be good rapport among the team”.

There were some clear marketing opportunities to dig into in this statement. 

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 changed its lead advertising message and trained its sales team on better ways to build rapport with customers. 

How to use qualitative research - results presentation

The final qualitative research stage is when the research company debriefs the results. Before this session, make sure you 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 presentations start with a reminder of the key points of the research brief and plan. Then a reminder of the methodology. (which usually takes far too long, but that’s maybe just us).

Then you get 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 bring the customer to life. This is key when planning 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’s worth sharing these quotes and examples with your 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 stimulating customer profile.

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

There was clearly a big issue about Account Managers being available when they’re needed. It was also clear there were issues with how fast they responded to questions. And even just the way they handled the relationship, you can see it’s mixed. Some respondents were 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. 

Headline says Qualitative research debrief example : IT account manager services and has 7 quotes from research respondents, a mix of positive and negative comments

Of course, these quotes only represent the views of 7 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?

You need quantitive research to answer those sorts of questions. 

How often should you 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 regularly. How regular depends on your business context, your business problems and of course, your budget. 

In categories where customer habits, ideas and behaviours change quickly, you research more often. For example, in categories like entertainment or fashion, businesses will have more frequent qualitative research interactions with customers. This could be weekly, or monthly.

Calendar

In more stable categories like insurance or banking, there’s less need for such frequent research. But you’d still check in with actual customers at least once or twice a year to maintain your customer focus.

How to find a qualitative research company

We have a whole separate guide on market research companies. But to close off this article, 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, there’s the Research Society and the Association of Market and Social Research Organisations.

Mans hands typing on a MacBook keyboard with another blurry display screen in the background

You can search the Company Directories on both sites to find market research companies that 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.

For example, check out their areas of speciality 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.

Conclusion - How to use qualitative research

This guide 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. However, you must 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 get in touch to learn more about how 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