The Ingredients of Good Qualitative Research

When done correctly, qualitative research can tell your product’s story for you. Qualitative consumer insights help explain the why behind the numbers, giving context and life to otherwise one-dimensional data. Qualitative feedback can help identify customer needs, clarify marketing messages, generate ideas for product upgrades, extend a brand, or gain perspective on how a product fits into a customer’s lifestyle. And by leveraging the speed and relative anonymity of online market research, it’s easier than ever for companies to capture the honest, unguarded opinions and behavior of their target audiences.

As traditional focus groups become more and more of a logistical and financial hassle, many brands are rethinking the means by which they conduct the qualitative research that brings their data to life. When doing so, these brands should keep in mind the following three ingredients that are essential to cooking up an effective qualitative approach, as well as where they fit into a successful research recipe.

1.    During the Research Design — Objectivity

While this quality is pretty crucial to most types of market research, objectivity is particularly important to qualitative research design. Though the objective of the research is to elicit opinions and probe emotional reactions, these must be articulated entirely by your respondents. In other words, your job is not to make a sales pitch for your product; it’s to uncover insights into how people feel about your product and what you can do to improve it. In order to craft an objective discussion guide, be sure to avoid leading language. Write questions that encourage frank responses—ones that will be interpreted more or less equally by anyone who reads them. Additionally, employ a moderator who can function as a productive devil’s advocate, able to probe for details without putting words in respondents’ mouths.

2.    During Data Collection — Stimulation

When consumers feel inundated by pop-up surveys and lengthy discussion guides, it can be hard to keep them interested, let alone get them to elaborate on their reactions to a product. So instead of simply suggesting changes or offering a few generic adjectives, feel free to utilize projective techniques that ask participants to cast their feelings and thoughts directly onto a brand, product, or tested stimulus. What could have been a brisk answer with little meaningful impact becomes a window into the consumer thought process, thanks to engaging questions that demand creativity and individual experience. There are a number of projective techniques that can be implemented in market research, including personification, sentence completion, and projective drawing. And in order to optimize their impact, make sure your moderator or analysts probes deeply into the subconscious thoughts uncovered by these projective exercises.

3.    During the Analysis — Empathy

Empathy might be one of the trickiest elements to pin down, since it’s intrinsically difficult to measure. But empathy in qualitative research is as simple as being open to the story being told about the data. In order to gain a sort of vicarious understanding of study participants, researchers and analysts must approach their responses with respect, cultural and situational awareness, neutrality, and presence of mind. Hearing the story that respondents tell you about why they prefer one product over another allows you to connect to their struggles and understand their motivations because you have accessed their unique personal perspective. Though a number of techniques and strategy go into eliciting those insights, the learnings will not achieve their full impact without the empathetic interpretation of those doing the analyzing.

Qualitative research must be neutral in its design, engaging in its study conduction, and empathetic in its analysis in order to maximize the resulting consumer insights. Once you are engaged in actual consumer stories, imagining how the business decisions you make will impact your consumers becomes easier and clearer. Thus, qualitative research helps brands understand their customers more deeply, uncovering the true root of a problem or behavior and opening the door to more innovative solutions. To see how a global beverage leader used qualitative feedback and in-country moderators to develop cross-cultural usability for a new drink dispenser, check out the case study below.

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