Qualitative Research: 3 Practical Tips on What to use When

This article is for people who want to use re-emerging qualitative research techniques like individual interviews, focus groups and online communities but who lack the experience to know what technique to use when. 



The 3 Things to Consider

To choose the method, first identify what you want to find out

  1. Behaviour - what people do?
  2. Psychology - what people think or feel, what motivates them or demotivates them?
  3. Culture and society - how concepts and ideas are expressed and how this is changing, how topics are debated and discussed.

1. Researching behaviour

If you want to find out about customer or user behaviour, you need to conduct some form of ethnography.  In commercial research (rather than in anthropology), ‘ethnography’ usually means observing people directly as they are doing whatever it is you are interested in. Conversation will also be part of this.

Observation should be ‘in the wild’, i.e where people usually are when they use this product or service. If the product or service is used by people on their own, observe people using it on their own.  If interaction with others or with specific places or objects is a key part of this product or service, make sure you observe in those contexts.

Ask yourself: do I have the right skills for this? 

To do ethnography well you need to be a good and patient impartial observer and to be able to put people at their ease. If this is not your skill set, ask a professional to do this for you.

2. Researching psychology

If you want to know what people think or feel, or to find out what motivates people, then you will need to interview them, whether that means in person or online.  

The method to use depends on three things: what you want to know, who you want to know it from and what kind of material you have to research or test.

What you want to know:

  • Do you need to learn a lot from a single individual?  Then interview them on their own.  
  • Do you want to know what the spread and diversity of ideas is? Then interview a group of people and allow them to share their ideas and opinions. 
  • Do you think it will help people to talk about something if they have other people to chat to? Then interview more than one person at a time. If the presence of other people will hinder them, interview them on their own.

Who you want to know it from:

  • Can you get all the relevant people in the same physical location at the same time? If not, face to face groups are not an option. Consider online groups or an online community, or an individual interview.
  • Can the moderator or interviewer be in the same place as the participants? If not, consider depth interviews or focus groups by webcam. 
  • If the product or service is used by people on their own, you can interview them on their own but if interaction with others (such as colleagues or family) is important then include them too.

How much material you have:

  • Do you have a single topic - for example one prototype, or one ad to test?   If that is the case, individual interviews are almost always the best option. Groups and communities are best when there are more topics to explore or discuss.
  • Do you have a broad range of topics?  You want to explore the product, the pack, the advertising, competitive advertising and more?  Consider online communities for say 3 or 4 days, with one topic per day (but your topic has to be interesting enough for people to want to log on for half an hour every day for several days.)

The skills you need for any form of interviewing are:  

The ability to craft the right question in the right way; the ability to listen; and an understanding of the logistics involved.  If these are not in your skill set, ask a professional.

3. Culture and society

Let’s say that you want to know how people’s ideas of ‘freshness’ are changing or how a concept like ‘the right to privacy’ is being debated and discussed. These are cultural issues, so you need to use cultural analysis methods.  There are two of these:

  • Semiotics: use semiotics to analyse how concepts and ideas are expressed visually and through sound.  Semiotics comprises a range of analytical techniques which can be used on such things as advertising, websites, packaging, books, movies and TV shows.
  • Discourse analysis: use discourse analysis to analyse spoken or written language. Use it to analyse how ideas are expressed in corporate communications and print media for example.

The skills you need: 

These are specialist topics.  Contact a professional.




Tags: Semiotics, Market Research, Qualitative Research , Ethnography