Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research Studies: Market Research 101

Quantitative research, in its most basic form, boils down to numbers: The idea is to ask a question of enough people to statistically estimate the general viewpoints of a large population. That is to say, it involves breaking a question down into a scale or into defined choices, then tallying up how a large sample of people have responded.

yes and no

Qualitative research involves asking broader, more open-ended questions that cannot be quantified or broken into defined choices. In qualitative research, the interviewer is trying to elicit reactions and opinions from potential and/or actual users of a product or service in order to gain a more in-depth understanding of an issue – it can help researchers interpret and elaborate on data that might not be apparent from using just numbers or pre-defined answer choices. Because it involves more in-depth questioning, and asks respondents to provide their own answers and experiences, qualitative research usually involves a smaller sample over longer time.


We see quantitative research a lot in the news – 55% of people say they approve of Candidate X, or 74% of people said that they felt better/the same as/ worse about themselves after reading Beauty Magazine. It’s a quick way to make a general point. But sometimes, these general statements have a lot of nuance. For instance, The New York Times reported yesterday that President Obama’s approval ratings have increased since the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden:

Nearly half [of polled US Americans] said the nation should decrease troop levels in Afghanistan. But more than six in 10 also said the United States had not completed its mission in Afghanistan, suggesting that the public would oppose a rapid withdrawal of all American forces.

Enter here the need for qualitative research follow up – suggestions from the quantitative numbers need clarification found in one-on-one interviews. Would the public truly oppose a rapid withdrawal of American forces? What kinds of conditions would they want to be met in a withdrawal? What factors did they consider when judging the completion of the mission in Afghanistan?

The Times understood this, and later recontacted its quantitative respondents:

One Democrat polled, Richard Olbrich, 68, said in a follow-up interview that Bin Laden’s death was not sufficient reason to remove all American forces.

The Taliban needs to be defeated,” said Mr. Olbrich, a lawyer from Madison, Wis. “I have no idea how long it will take to complete that mission. And we can’t leave until Afghanistan is back on its feet a little bit.

As I have mentioned before, quantitative and qualitative methods have important places in market research. While popular platforms for quantitative research include SurveyMonkey.com and Zoomerang – right now the only way to conduct online qualitative research on your own is through GutCheck. This is why our goal is to make the qualitative research space as accessible and easy to use as the quantitative research tools currently available. Numbers can talk, but sometimes that voice needs to be singled out and asked “why”?

101 is an on-going series on how to effectively use qualitative methods in market research. Up next: Matching your project with the right method.