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Qualitative vs Quantitative Research: What is it and when should you use It?

Qualitative and Quantitative research are established and effective ways of collecting data. Learn when to use them, when not to - and how they can help you to reach your research goals

Firstly, it’s important to distinguish that qualitative research is different from quantitative research. Both serve particular purposes, but are often used in combination when appropriate.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is the act of collecting data that is non-numerical in nature. Typically, it goes beyond the information that quantitative research provides (which we will cover below) because it is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions and motivations.

Rather than provide the exact truth, conclusions drawn out of qualitative research are summarized and inferred, but help to provide valuable context. And so because of that, qualitative research is typically viewed as explanatory in nature.

What is quantitative research?

In contrast to qualitative data, quantitative research is the collection of data that is numerical in nature. It can be put into categories, ranked in order, or measured in units of measurement. Undertaking this research gives you access to data that can be used to construct graphs and tables of raw data when analyzed.

Quantitative researchers often start with a hypothesis and then collect data to determine whether empirical evidence to support that hypothesis exists, so that the hypothesis can then be accepted or rejected.

Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Sometimes we are so hypnotized by data, we gaze past our own humanity. To get the whole picture, you need the story behind the data - the ‘so what?’, otherwise all you have is data. Which is why qualitative data can be so valuable.

Qualitative research complements your data. It’s the bridge that helps you understand the emotions that drive behavior and the feelings that precede decisions. It's used to gain an understanding of people's reasons, opinions, motivations and thoughts.

Quantitative data can tell you which markets are buying honey cereals, which age groups are likely to see your advertising and what your market share is. But it can’t as easily explain why people act as they do. This is data, without the story.

Types of research

Qualitative Research

The most common types of qualitative research are:

  1. Focus groups - small group discussions lead by a moderator
  2. In-depth interviews - one-on-one interviews
  3. Ethnographic research - “embedding” yourself into the environment of your buyer
  4. Diary entries - written journal entries from buyers about their feelings and thoughts
  5. Video diaries - video journal entries from buyers about their feelings and thoughts
  6. In-Home-Usage Tests - Buyers use your product for a period of time and report their experience
  7. UX - interface usability tests that show how easily users can complete certain tasks

Researchers use qualitative research methods because they can add more depth, or context, to the data. So for example, rather than the answer being “no” to a certain question, you can start to understand the reasoning behind the response or particular attitude

Strengths of qualitative research

By basing research off human experience, the data obtained is typically more in-depth than quantitative research. The complexity of human behavior means that subtleties may be missed without digging deeper and asking ‘why,’, rather than taking the data at face value. This is where qualitative research is useful.

Weaknesses of qualitative research

Qualitative research can be time-consuming to complete - both in the collection of data, and analysis. The data is also open to interpretation from the researcher, so the conclusions may be biased.

It can also be difficult to draw conclusions to the wider study population, but this can be navigated by using qualitative research to complement existing harder data.

Quantitative research

Types of Quantitative Research

The most common types of quantitative research methods include:

Read more about what a survey is here.

Please note; these methods are not exclusive to quantitative data, as they may include open-ended text questions too.

Strengths of quantitative research

It is generally straightforward undertaking this research in that the process is quite standardized, so when you get your results you will be able to accept or reject your hypothesis. And because of the controlled nature of the research, bias is reduced making your data more reliable and precise.

Weaknesses of quantitative research

Quantitative research doesn’t always tell you the full story, meaning you won’t understand the context - or the why, of the data you see. Why you see the results you have uncovered. This is especially true when dealing with complex issues, and in those cases quantitative research may not be enough.

When to use qualitative research vs quantitative research

These qualitative methods help improve your products and marketing in many different ways:

  • Understand the emotional connections to your brand
  • Identify obstacles to purchase
  • Uncover doubts and confusion about your messaging
  • Find missing product features
  • Improve the usability of your website, app, or chatbot experience
  • Learn about how consumers talk about your product
  • See how buyers compare your brand to others in the competitive set
  • Learn how an organization’s employees evaluate and select vendors

Whereas quantitative research methods may help in areas such as:

While qualitative research helps you to properly define, promote and sell your products, don’t rely on qualitative research alone because qualitative findings can’t always be reliably repeated. Qualitative research is directional, not empirical. The best research uses a combination of empirical data (quantitative research) and human experience (qualitative research) to tell the story. Often, one without the other leaves you with missing answers.

Many marketers use qualitative research to learn how best to describe their product, how they position their brand and their overall go-to-market strategy. Their hypothesis is tested with large-scale quantitative research.

Even in today’s data-obsessed marketplace, qualitative data is valuable - maybe even more so because it helps you establish an authentic human connection to your customers. If qualitative research doesn’t play a role to inform your product and marketing strategy, your decisions aren’t as effective as they could be.

Don’t let a simple half-turn to the right be something you miss because you never thought to ask the right questions. Qualtrics is a leader in market research software used by over 9000 organizations to gather qualitative data, get in touch to learn about how we can help your business.

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This post was originally published August 2018 and was updated in April 2020.

Harry Gough // Content Strategist

With an English Literature degree from Loughborough University under his belt, Harry’s career has been all things content related ever since. He now spends his time helping Qualtrics tell the Experience Management story, showing the value that it brings to brands and most importantly, their customers.

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