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Glossary term

Qualitative Research

Quick definition

Qualitative research is collecting and analyzing non-numerical data to better understand how to improve customer experiences. The goal is to discover not only what customers think but also why they think or feel the way they do.

Key takeaways

 

●     Qualitative researchers focus on behavioral data instead of numerical data. With qualitative research, sample size is less important than personal experience.

●      When conducting qualitative research, try as much as possible to collect data from users who are unprimed and unprompted. Stick to open-ended, non-leading questions.

●    It typically takes less time to develop a qualitative research study, compared to a quantitative study, so you can analyze data several times during the process.

●    The power of digital technology makes qualitative research methodologies more flexible and effective. It’s easier to target participants and control the quality of respondents.


Claiborne Brown is group manager of corporate research at Adobe. With nearly two decades of experience in customer research and analysis, she informs marketing and branding efforts through user experience testing, interviews, and surveys.


Nili Pinchasin is a senior user experience researcher at Adobe. She is responsible for advocating for users and facilitating effective communication between companies, their products, and their customers.

Q: What is qualitative research?

A: Qualitative research is the “why” of customer research — understanding not only what customers think but also why they think, feel, or act the way they do. Qualitative research, or “qual,” involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data to better understand how to improve customer experiences.

Q: What is the difference between qualitative research and quantitative research?

A: Qualitative research focuses on observation, feedback, commentary, and the customer mindset. Quantitative research focuses on metrics instead of feelings, behaviors, and expectations. It’s one thing to see how many people visited a website, but it’s another to understand why they went to the site in the first place. That’s where qualitative studies come into play.

Qualitative researchers focus on behavioral data instead of numerical data. That’s not to say that numbers play no role in a qualitative approach, but sample size is less important than personal experience. Think of it this way: You see five cars hit a pothole in the road. Is that enough to tell you that the pothole needs to be fixed, or do you need to see 10,000 people drive over the pothole?

Q: How do you gather qualitative data?

A: The research methodology of qualitative research is a four-step process:

1. Evaluation. It all starts with determining the problem. Often, a quantitative study can show where issues are happening by indicating places where customers are abandoning carts, bouncing away from pages, or generally struggling with the desired customer journey. As part of this first step of the research process, you’ll also evaluate who your target audience is and determine what qualitative research methods and tools you will use. Tools like Adobe Analytics and Adobe Campaign, in particular, can be useful resources for testing and data collection.

2. Testing. The testing step is where all of your evaluation is put into action. During this step, qualitative researchers may use a variety of data collection methods such as surveys, customer interviews, or user testing. Qualitative research is observational, so the methodology is ethnographic — gathering data through observations and interviews to produce detailed accounts of social behavior. The goal is to put respondents in a setting and see what they naturally do or say.

3. Analysis. With testing complete, it’s time to gather, analyze, and share your findings. Your qualitative data analysis should focus on helping decision makers take meaningful actions.

4. Decision Making. The final step of qualitative studies is using the findings from the research project to make sound decisions that improve the customer experience and benefit your business.

Q: What are common ways to gather qualitative data?

A: What people do, what people say, and what people say they do are three very different things. That’s why it’s important to see things from every angle and use different research methods during qualitative research studies. There are many different ways to gather qualitative data. Some of the most common include:

        ●     Surveys or questionnaires
        ●     User testing and participant observation
        ●     User interviews.

The key is to try as much as possible to collect data from users who are unprimed and unprompted. By letting users explore a product or answer open-ended questions, you can get a glimpse of their mindset about your brand or products. Their authentic, spontaneous responses provide the truest qualitative insights.

Q: What are some best practices for performing qualitative research?

A: Always translate business questions into a research plan. If a product manager asks how to make a web page better, it isn’t effective to turn around and ask a user the same question. Chances are, they won’t know how to explain the problem. Instead, start by trying to understand where the customer is coming from, and through that understanding, you will get a much clearer idea of what you need to do and ask — and who you should interview.

During interviews, stick to open-ended, non-leading questions. Ask users to describe processes, feelings, how something works, or what issues they are having at this moment. These questions will identify the overarching problem instead of another symptom.

Q: What are some good strategies for qualitative research?

A: A great type of qualitative research to use is usability testing. The history of qualitative research shows us that consumers aren’t the best predictors of their future behavior. Their memory can be unreliable, and they tend to rationalize any purchase they have made in the past. They may even believe what they are reporting to you even if it’s not the full truth. Human beings are impulse buyers. They do things for subconscious reasons that they’re not even aware of — or wouldn’t admit to if they were. That’s why something like usability testing is such a useful tool.

Usability testing means focusing research questions on what customers are doing in the moment, instead of asking users why they think they did what they did in the past, or what they think they may do in the future based on hypothetical information. Ask them what they’re looking for, what’s important to them right now, or if a certain page or message is helpful to them right now.

As part of usability testing, another helpful strategy is presenting unbranded content. This removes unconscious bias and puts the focus solely on the product or content you are testing. You may even find that you have a bigger or higher-level problem than you thought you were addressing to begin with, which means you’ll have a greater chance of improving customer experiences.

Q: What are the challenges and benefits of qualitative research?

A: One of the biggest benefits of qualitative research methods is that you don’t need a huge sample size to gather useful insights. A small group of as few as five respondents can easily give you the information you need. That means putting together qualitative research studies is typically much quicker than doing so for quantitative studies, so you can conduct qualitative analysis several times throughout the development process.

Qualitative data also gives marketers justification for decisions they make if they receive pushback from other areas of the business. Being able to show that the target audience in multiple rounds of testing had a better experience because of a particular choice is powerful. It’s hard to argue with your customers.

One disadvantage of qualitative research is that it is difficult to quantify. Feelings and observations can be a gray area. Every person is different. Qualitative researchers must tread lightly and make sure they are talking to the right people and working to see a complete picture. Too many times, teams have started to make big decisions because one person says they don’t like what they see.

Q: How has qualitative research evolved?

A: Qualitative research began with in-person focus groups and a moderator. It was slow, costly, and not always effective — and it was difficult to get high-quality participants. Sometimes, qualitative researchers were going door to door asking for feedback.

Now, with the power of digital technology, qualitative methodologies are more flexible and effective. It’s easier to target participants and control the quality of respondents. You can conduct research remotely using video conference platforms and usability testing platforms. And you can interview participants one-on-one to avoid the risk of groupthink.

Q: How will qualitative research continue to evolve in the future?

A: The rise of social media is going to make it even easier to recruit participants and collect qualitative data. People love to share their opinions, and now it’s easier than ever to do so. It’s possible that social media could even become its own distinct methodology in qualitative research.

Another notable trend is biometric testing. By measuring skin response, heart rate, and eye movement, researchers can tap into a wealth of behavioral data that users aren’t even aware of. As technology improves, users will be able to participate in biometric studies from the comfort of their own home instead of coming into a lab. Making biometric data that much easier to collect will represent a big opportunity for qualitative researchers.

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