surveys | August 27, 2020

The Guide to Qualitative Research: Methods, Types, and Examples

Daniel Ndukwu

Qualitative research is an important part of any project. It gives you insights that quantitative research can’t hope to match.

To receive the benefits that qualitative research can bring to the table, it’s essential to do it properly. That’s easier said than done.

This in-depth guide will give you a better understanding of qualitative research, how it can be used, the methods for carrying it out, and its limitations.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is the process of gathering non-numerical data that helps you understand the deeper meaning behind a topic. It can help you decipher the motivations, thought processes, and opinions of people who are experiencing the problem or situation.

For example, an entrepreneur wants to start a shoe brand targeted at a younger demographic. They know younger people spend more money on name-brand basketball shoes. Qualitative research will help them understand the motivations and thought processes behind why those shoes are appealing.

With the help of capable marketing teams and mentors, they can use this data to craft communication plans that will resonate with their audience.

The data gained helps develop better hypotheses, confirm or disprove theories, and informs quantitative research studies. There are multiple quantitative research methods that are ideal for certain situations and this guide delves deeper into those data collection processes.

Keep in mind that qualitative research gives you descriptive data that must then be analyzed and interpreted. This process is much more difficult than a quantitative analysis which is why many organizations opt to skip it entirely.

What’s the purpose of qualitative research?

Qualitative research was popularized by psychologists and sociologists who were unhappy with the scientific method in use. Traditional scientific methods were only able to tell what was happening but failed to understand why.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, seeks to find the deeper meaning behind actions and situations. For example, you may realize a relationship between two things exist like poverty and lower literacy rates. It’s qualitative data that can help you understand why this relationship exists.

When should qualitative research be used

There’s a simple stress test to understand whether qualitative research or quantitative research should be used. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of the problem? If not, use it.
  • Do you understand the reasons that contribute to the problem or situation? If not, use it.
  • Are the attitudes of the people who experience or display the behavior clear to you? If not, use it.
  • Have you already analyzed first-person accounts or research related to the topic? If not, use it.

Qualitative research vs quantitative research

There’s a big difference between the two types of research. For the most part, qualitative research is exploratory. You’re trying to figure out the reasons behind situations and form a clearer hypothesis. Those hypotheses are then tested with further qualitative or quantitative research.

Quantitative research focuses on collecting numerical data that can be used to quantify the magnitude of a situation. The data gained can be organized and statistical analysis carried out.

For example, qualitative research may tell you that people in lower-income areas drop out of school and have lower literacy rates. Quantitative research can tell you the percentage of people that end up dropping out of school within a given population.

As you can see, they work together to give you a holistic understanding of a market or problem.

Qualitative research data collection Methods

We’ve written an in-depth guide about the data collection methods you can use for both quantitative and qualitative research. This section will give you a quick overview of the data collection methods available.


The first data collection method and the most common are surveys. More specifically, surveys with open-ended questions. These give your respondents the opportunity to explain things with their own words.

Another benefit of surveys, especially with online survey tools like KyLeads is that you can quickly distribute your survey to a huge audience. This can cut down on your costs while still giving you the insights you need.

There are two problems with surveys. The first one is that you’re unable to ask relevant clarifying questions. Some of the data you collect may be unclear and lead you to the wrong conclusions.

The second problem is that respondents, unless adequately incentivized, may abandon the survey or give inadequate answers. This is known as survey fatigue and is a challenge when you have longer surveys. You can mitigate the effects by placing the most important questions first.

Focus groups

A focus group involves 3 – 10 people and a specialized moderator. Groups larger than ten should be broken up and those fewer than three won’t be able to deliver the insights you need.

The benefits of a focus group come from the ability to recreate specific situations or test scenarios before they happen. To get the most out of the focus group, it’s important to carefully select the participants based on their demographic and psychographic profiles.

The advantage of a focus group is that the information is insightful and comes from multiple people within your target market. The disadvantage is that groupthink can be a real problem.

You can prevent groupthink by having people write their opinions down before voicing them and even assigning one person to play devil’s advocate. Don’t discourage divergent opinions or perspectives.

Another challenge is that focus groups are expensive compared to other methods listed here. The participants are usually paid for their time and it requires things like meeting space and specialized staff.


Interviews are an old staple of qualitative research and are almost as common as surveys. Interviews can be conducted over the phone, in person, or even through a video conference. The important part is that they’re real-time and you can ask clarifying questions so you don’t draw the wrong conclusions.

There are multiple types of interviews. You can use structured interviews, unstructured interviews, or semi-structured interviews. Keep in mind that the structured interview may not be the best option if you’re doing exploratory =research.


This is the process of observing the ongoing behavior of an individual or group. It’s most prevalent in social sciences and marketing applications. This data collection method is the most passive and may not be ideal when doing initial exploratory research. You may be drawing conclusions on incomplete information.

There is an option of participating actively in what you’re observing. Keep in mind that this is frowned upon because the researcher may accidentally introduce biases. The biggest disadvantage is that some things simply can’t be observed by a researcher without interaction.

Try to use team collaboration to cut down on the biases that will be introduced. Compare notes and, as much as possible, look at things objectively. A teammate is invaluable for this kind of exercise.

Pros and cons of qualitative research

Qualitative research is powerful and has many benefits but it also has multiple disadvantages you should be aware of before jumping in.


  • Get a deep understanding of the behaviors and attitudes of your target group
  • You can get those insights from smaller samples sizes
  • As long as you choose the right aspects to focus on and groups to work with, the insights can have much wider applications.
  • Helps reduce biases because you’re doing exploratory research to get a baseline of information
  • Most qualitative research is fluid meaning it adapts to the inputs to get a better understanding of the overall situation


  • The data itself is subjective because it’s based on the experiences and biases of the respondents
  • It’s more expensive than quantitative research
  • It can take much longer to go through the more involved data collection methods like focus groups and interviews
  • It’s more difficult to analyze and often requires people with specialized skills
  • It’s nonnumerical in nature so statistical analysis cannot be applied to the data
  • Results can’t be easily replicated following the scientific method


Qualitative research can be a powerful tool in your arsenal but there are many things to take into consideration. It tends to take longer to collect the data and analyze it. It’s also more expensive than most quantitative research methods.

Before diving into a qualitative research strategy, define clear goals, a timeframe for completion, and the kind of information you need to solve your problem.

Let me know what you think in the comments and don’t forget to share.


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