In our recent post, “What is Qualitative Research?” we explored the field and explained the six primary methods of research within it. At a high level, there is agreement within the industry that quantitative research can tell you what happened, while qualitative research can tell you why it happened. Both provide important information; however, one or the other is typically more appropriate depending on your needs. 

What is the Difference Between Quantitative and Qualitative Research?

Defining Quantitative Research: 

Quantitative research is for measuring something with hard numbers or facts. It is used to quantify attitudes, opinions, behaviors, and other variables. It’s a lot more rigid a discipline than qualitative research and is typically what a researcher relies on to draw out generalizations of results from a sample to an entire population or group. Relying on measurable data enables researchers to more easily identify facts and uncover patterns in their work.  

Defining Qualitative Research: 

Qualitative research provides a more contextual view of a topic, using feedback and other inputs to explain why something happened the way it did – yielding opinions, thinking, and positions. Drawing conclusions and analyzing qualitative research is more difficult because it is less structured, less straightforward, but the value of the insights can be powerful.

An easy way to remember the difference between quantitative and qualitative research is to look at them as forms of storytelling. Quantitative research will give you a high-level view of your subject, a high-level answer to your question. Qualitative research will enable you to zoom in and identify the details in between that are responsible for the outcome, a more detailed explanation of why things happened the way they did. The combination of both types in a research project, if applicable, often produces the most powerful conclusions. 

Qualitative Research in Action

Image Source: Optimal Workshop

Acquiring Research Data

Research projects vary in scope and topic, so it’s difficult to name and explain all the use cases for each method, but some examples include: 

  • Developing your hypothesis: Qualitative research helps explain why something happened the way it did, so it’s a logical place to start when developing the overarching hypothesis, or hypotheses, for your research project. You can then use quantitative research to back up and/or prove your hypothesis. 
  • Confirming a hypothesis: The great news about quantitative research is that it’s black or white. Numbers don’t lie, so when you’re looking to confirm a hypothesis it’s where you should start. Quantitative research enables objective decision-making.
  • Answering broad questions: Quantitative research often produces larger pools of participants given that completing a survey or questionnaire is much easier and requires a smaller commitment than taking part in focus groups or face-to-face interviews. This deeper data set enables researchers to answer broad questions, like “Which of our products is most popular?” or “Which marketing collateral is most effective?” 
  • Bringing research to life: Quantitative research produces cold, hard facts. Numbers. Unemotional, very direct and clear figures that add value and tell a story of their own. Qualitative research can introduce the opinions and points of view of the participants, providing color to the black and white story told by quantitative research, and bringing research findings to life in a way numbers can’t. 

Qualitative Research Tactics

There are six different qualitative research methods, but there are even more tactics for *acquiring* qualitative data. 

Face-to-face interviews: These are conversations between two people that focus on a specific topic. Historically, qualitative interviews took place with the researcher and participant being in the same place, but as technology has advanced, particularly desktop and mobile video capabilities, the face-to-face interview has become both easier to execute and easier for participants to accommodate. 

Focus groups: Where the face-to-face interview becomes a group conversation. Researchers are often seeking the same information and feedback as they would in an interview with an individual. And, like the one-to-one interview, focus groups now take place in-person and online. 

Observational research: Also known as ethnographic research, observational research takes place when a researcher watches a participant in their normal environment while they interact with the product or service in question. 

Case Studies: Whether or not they realize it, most people are familiar with case studies. Case studies focus on a specific thing – a product, company, city, etc. – and examine it in-depth.

Open-ended questions: Surveys are quantitative research tools, but the open-ended question is a form of qualitative research that allows the participant to express themselves freely without constraint. 

Both methods of research are powerful tools for uncovering insights about a population, particularly in business. Customer insights are the fuel driving business decision-making and product evolution. In the absence of customer input product design and development happens in a vacuum where businesses develop and go to market with products or services based on what they think their potential customers want and need. For some, that can be an effective approach to building and growing a business, but for most it can represent a fatal flaw that has limitless potential negative effects. 

Don’t work in a vacuum. Learn from your customers, right now.

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