Qual and quant: a study in two ways

Lately, there has been a lot of chatter in the market research community about qualitative research. Some might even think the entire MR industry is about to forego quantitative research and dive into qualitative research as the primary means for gathering information. While that’s not at all the case, let’s look at the differences between two types of data and how they can be used together best.

What is the difference?

Quantitative research mainly generates numbers. For example, quantitative studies will often result in the charts showing average rating scores, frequency of responses gathered, and information that can be used in statistical analyses. Qualitative information can be looked at from a quantitative perspective, such as word use frequency.

Qualitative research mainly generates words. For example, qualitative research will use focus groups and open-ended text questions to gather data. Analyzing qualitative information can be tricky, since the methods for conducting qualitative research are flexible, rather than very structured question sets. Generally, qualitative is trying to get to the “how” and “why” of a respondent’s answers.

Why should I use one or the other?

Quantitative research is the bread and butter of market research studies. It’s a lot easier to analyze the data, since everyone taking a survey is asked the same set of questions. We all can understand hearing that 30% of the respondents said they liked one brand over another.

Qual, on the other hand, is more nebulous, difficult to really put numbers on, and can be tedious to analyze. How many comments are enough to draw definitive conclusions (hint: when your respondent base is in the hundreds, having less than 10 comments probably does not make for a trend)? When it comes to focus groups, every group is different (and comes with a realm of things to be wary of, such as groupthink, trying to hear from everyone and not just the dominant personalities in the room, knowing just when and how far to dig when hearing something potentially interesting). All that said, qualitative research can uncover insights that put the quantitative research into better context, and can even potentially explain some of the seeming discrepancies quantitative research might reveal. (Side note: more data visualization tools are also making it easier to identify trends and analyze qualitative information in more meaningful ways.)

More and more, market research best practice is showing that both should be used. At a minimum, online surveys should have one or two open-ended text questions to allow respondents to provide their thoughts. I’ve seen recently an increase in the number of “anything else you’d like to say?” questions at the end of surveys I’ve taken, as well as follow-up open-ended text questions to allow me to elaborate on why I had selected a particular answer to a quantitative question.

Putting both into practice

Here’s an example: a traditional customer satisfaction study will likely have a number of key performance indicators that the respondent is asked to rate. This could include the customer’s experience with purchasing a product, their experience in the store, and their likelihood to recommend the product to a friend or colleague. Let’s say a company is conducting this study on a regular basis, asking for feedback with every customer interaction. Analyzed weekly, the trends seem to stay steady until a few months into the study when the data starts to trend downwards. The natural inclination at this point is to ask, “Why are my numbers dropping? What can I do to increase the ratings?” All too often, the answer is somewhat guessed at, as opposed to being researched better. Tactics such as offering sales, checking customer service logs, and talking to cashiers might be done in an effort to both find the reason for the decline in CSAT ratings as well as looking for programs to implement to increase the ratings.

Instead, why not include an open-ended text question that is triggered any time a customer gives a lower rating? This could be done from the beginning of the study, and even including it later is better than not including it at all. Now you’re going directly to your customers to hear from them about what is causing them to give a low satisfaction rating. Perhaps it had nothing to do with customer service, but had to do instead with the product itself. Using qualitative methods can give you a better view of what is going on than just using quantitative methods.