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Qualitative vs quantitative research

5 min read
You’ll use both quantitative and qualitative research methods to gather survey data. What are they exactly, and how can you best use them to gain the most accurate insights?


What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is all about language. That covers words, meanings and understanding. It’s used to describe why people feel the way they do, why they act in a certain way, what opinions they have and what motivates them. Qualitative research gives breadth, depth and context to questions, although its linguistic subtleties mean that results are trickier to analyse than quantitative data.

What is quantitative research?

Quantitative research is all about numbers. It gathers information that can be counted, measured, or rated numerically. It’s easy to ‘crunch the numbers’ of quantitative data and produce results visually in graphs, tables and on data analysis dashboards.

Differences between qualitative and quantitative research

Qualitative Quantitative
Gathered from focus groups, interviews, case studies, expert opinion, observation Gathered from surveys, questionnaires, polls
Uses open-ended and open text questions Uses closed-ended (yes/no) and multiple choice questions
Uses a ‘human touch’ to uncover and explore an issue (e.g. a customer complaint) Cannot use a ‘human touch’ to interpret what people are thinking or feeling
Helps formulate a theory to be researched Tests and confirms a formulated theory
Results are categorised, summarised and interpreted linguistically Results are analysed mathematically and statistically
Results expressed as text Results expressed as numbers, tables and graphs
Fewer respondents needed Many respondents needed
Less suitable for scientific research More suitable for scientific research as it is compatible with most standard statistical analysis methods
Harder to replicate Easy to replicate
Less suitable for sensitive data: respondents may be biased, too familiar, or inclined to leak information Ideal for sensitive data as it can be anonymised and secured

Qualitative, quantitative or combined? Choose your research methods

Here’s how to decide which method to use:

  • Qualitative research: use this to understand something – experience, problems, ideas. For example, you choose 100 supermarket loyalty card holders and survey them, asking open text questions, e.g. “How could we improve our store?” or “Were you able to find everything you came in for?” This research will pinpoint problems (a lack of trolleys, dirty toilets, poor stock control) that quantitative research will not.
  • Quantitative research: use this to test or confirm a theory or hypothesis. For example, you survey 400 loyalty card holders, asking them, “On a scale of 1-5, how happy are you with our store?” You analyse the numerical responses and conclude that the store has scored 4.5.
  • Combined method: Use qualitative research to gain insights and propose a theory, then quantitative research to test it. Your surveys can include both multiple choice/closed questions and open text. For example, market research interviews with supermarket focus groups find that customers would like to be able to buy children’s clothes in store. The supermarket pilots a children’s clothing range. Targeted quantitative research reveals that those stores selling children’s clothes achieve higher customer satisfaction scores and a rise in profits for clothing.

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Different survey question types

Quantitative data

You have various options for question types. The usual ones are:

Net Promoter Score (NPS)

On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend our café to other people?

Likert Scale

How would you rate the service in our café? Very dissatisfied to Very satisfied

Radio buttons (respondents choose just one option)

Which drink do you buy most often? Coffee, Tea, Hot Chocolate, Cola, Squash

Check boxes (respondents can choose multiple options)

On which days do you visit the cafe? Mon-Saturday

Drop down

Do you visit the café at weekends?

Sliding scale

Using the sliding scale, how much do you agree that we offer excellent service?

Star rating

Please rate the following aspects of our café: Service, Quality of food, Seating comfort, Location

Qualitative data

There are fewer survey question options for collecting qualitative data. But with artificial intelligence programs that analyse open text, and turn qualitative data into quantitative for real-time statistical analysis, they are equally valuable:

Open text ‘Other’ box (can be used with multiple choice questions)

Other text field

Text box (space for short written answer)

What is your favourite item on our drinks menu

Essay box (space for longer, more detailed written answer)

Tell us about your last visit to the café

Analysing survey data

Your survey data is in, now you need to interpret the results. Here’s what to do:

  1. First, clean your data: you need to sort valueless data such as incomplete surveys, disengaged or inconsistent respondents, and bots.
  2. Stick to your basic research questions: select the results that answer those questions.
  3. Make sure your data is representative: and large enough to give an accurate picture of your research sample.
  4. Cross-tabulate results to create individual tables for specific survey questions.
  5. Consider filtering out certain respondents: you may wish to exclude some demographics, or locations.
  6. Work out averages: the mean (average) number of respondents, mode (most common response) and median (the mid-range response), and run statistical analysis.
  7. Benchmark against previous results: you’ll be able to see improvements, changes and trends emerging.

eBook: A guide to building agile research functions in-house