Qualitative Research vs. Quantitative Research: A Brief Primer

11/16/2017 Mark Traylor

Qualitative Research vs. Quantitative Research: A Brief Primer

Qualitative research and quantitative research methods both try to explain how the market works, but the way they go about it is quite different. Stick with only one and you won’t get the entire story. Conduct both and you’ll get a more complete view of the market and the most accurate data.

Here’s what I mean:

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research — e.g., personal interviews and focus groups — typically involve lengthy and detailed interviews conducted by skilled interviewers among a small sample of respondents.

These respondents can be picked at random, but it’s more common to pick and choose certain respondents who likely represent a range of characteristics or who might be especially knowledgeable about the category in question. These are more apt to be “judgment” samples than random samples.

While the interviews are usually open-ended and some may be initially planned, much of the questioning is “on the fly” as the interviewer reacts to what the respondent is saying, probing for more information and clarifying what’s been said.

When is qualitative research a good choice?

This approach is especially useful when “we don’t know what we don’t know.” It’s effective at uncovering more deeply seated motivations, perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors we might not be aware of in the market. Since we’re not aware of them, we can’t prepare survey research questions to ask about them.

Qualitative research has uncovered feelings of guilt, resentment, disgust, resignation, and enthusiasm among buyers that no one knew existed.

This method of research is projectable in the sense that a characteristic reported by one respondent is probably shared by others in the market — a lot of people or just a few — which isn’t clear from interviewing people in a small, judgment sample. To make statistical projections, shifting your focus to quantitative research is a must.

To make statistical projections, shifting your focus to quantitative research is a must.

Pros of qualitative research

  • Leads to in-depth insights into a subject’s motivations and thinking
  • Often less expensive and faster than quantitative research
  • Doesn’t require a large sample size of participants
  • Offers flexibility in geographic market locations

Cons of qualitative research

  • Doesn’t allow for statistically extrapolating results to the broader market population
  • Can be subject to misinterpretation, e.g., clients often hear what they want to hear and ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs

What is quantitative research?

If qualitative research uncovers, say, feelings of resentment, it’s not exactly clear how many buyers share that feeling. That’s why qualitative research is normally followed up with quantitative research.


The most common quantitative research design is a survey. A well-designed survey tries to draw a statistically representative sample of the population and accurately form conclusions about how many share one characteristic or another. Survey research normally involves these two components:

  1. A large sample of respondents
  2. A standard set of questions that can be answered quickly by respondents directly or that can be asked by a relatively unskilled interviewer

Through statistical analysis, survey research can show how having one characteristic (gender, for example) is linked to another (awareness of brands). Or how education is linked to preference. Or how preference is linked to spending.


A second type of quantitative research is an experiment. Unlike a survey, which can show statistical relationships between variables, a well-designed experiment can show causal relationships: how one variable (e.g., a TV commercial) actually causes the value of another variable (propensity to buy) to change.

Pros of quantitative research

  • Data can be collected and analyzed fairly quickly
  • Results can be generalized to the larger population
  • Produces repeatable data that can be tracked over time for trends

Cons of quantitative research

  • It can be difficult or impossible to probe beyond the initial surface answers in order to examine responses in more depth (one more reason it should be preceded by qualitative research)
  • Often takes longer and costs more than qualitative research
  • Respondent self-selection — e.g., people who are willing to respond may share characteristics that don’t apply to the audience as a whole

Qualitative research vs. quantitative research — and the winner is…

While quantitative and qualitative research approaches each have their strengths and weaknesses, both can be extremely effective in combination, because they fill in each other’s gaps. This is why so many research studies are two-phased: qualitative followed by quantitative. The following is a recent example:

In a series of focus groups, we came to understand that female homemakers who frequently shop at convenience stores bear a sense of shame or guilt — not only for spending money for the same products they can buy at a regular supermarket, but they also thought themselves to be disorganized, incompetent managers. To avoid the embarrassment of making repeated trips to the store, these women resorted to such “compensating behaviors” as:

  1. Sending another household member to the store
  2. Waiting until the shift changed so they wouldn’t see the same cashier
  3. And switching to a different store (It was this last tactic that was of most concern to our client.)

Based on this, a question was made to test these newly revealed feelings in a follow-up survey. Sure enough, a substantial number of women expressed guilt over multiple trips to the same store.

The solution? Our client’s new marketing strategy aimed to address these feelings by reassuring this female segment that they are far from disorganized. Rather, these customers were simply coping with many demands in their busy, hectic lives, and that it was a mark of their good management that they could rely on the client’s store to meet their family’s needs.

So there you have it — you can use qualitative research to identify the factors that affect the areas under investigation, then use that information to devise quantitative research that assesses how these factors would affect user preferences.

The result?

More confident decision-making.

Mark Traylor is a research and customer experience consultant for RRD Marketing Solutions.

Are you interested in discussing how to improve your research methods? Contact us today.


Contact Us