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GuidesResearch methodsQualitative research: methods and examples

Qualitative research: methods and examples

Last updated

13 April 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

Qualitative research is an excellent way to gain insight into real-world problems. This research type can explain various aspects of individuals in a target group, such as their traits, behaviors, and motivations.

Qualitative research involves gathering and evaluating non-numerical information to comprehend concepts, perspectives, and experiences. It’s also helpful for obtaining in-depth insights into a certain subject or generating new research ideas. 

As a result, qualitative research is practical if you want to try anything new or produce new ideas.

There are various ways you can conduct qualitative research. In this article, you'll learn more about qualitative research methodologies, including when you should use them.

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What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is a broad term describing various research types that rely on asking open-ended questions. Qualitative research investigates “how” or “why” certain phenomena occur. It is about discovering the inherent nature of something.

The primary objective of qualitative research is to understand an individual's ideas, points of view, and feelings. In this way, collecting in-depth knowledge of a specific topic is possible. Knowing your audience's feelings about a particular subject is important for making reasonable research conclusions.

Unlike quantitative research, this approach does not involve collecting numerical, objective data for statistical analysis. Qualitative research is used extensively in education, sociology, health science, history, and anthropology.

Types of qualitative research methodology

Typically, qualitative research aims at uncovering the attitudes and behavior of the target audience concerning a specific topic. For example,  “How would you describe your experience as a new Dovetail user?”

Some of the methods for conducting qualitative analysis include:

Focus groups

Hosting a focus group is a popular qualitative research method. It involves obtaining qualitative data from a limited sample of participants. In a moderated version of a focus group, the moderator asks participants a series of predefined questions. They aim to interact and build a group discussion that reveals their preferences, candid thoughts, and experiences.

Unmoderated, online focus groups are increasingly popular because they eliminate the need to interact with people face to face.

Focus groups can be more cost-effective than 1:1 interviews or studying a group in a natural setting and reporting one’s observations.

Focus groups make it possible to gather multiple points of view quickly and efficiently, making them an excellent choice for testing new concepts or conducting market research on a new product.

However, there are some potential drawbacks to this method. It may be unsuitable for sensitive or controversial topics. Participants might be reluctant to disclose their true feelings or respond falsely to conform to what they believe is the socially acceptable answer (known as response bias).

Case study research

A case study is an in-depth evaluation of a specific person, incident, organization, or society. This type of qualitative research has evolved into a broadly applied research method in education, law, business, and the social sciences.

Even though case study research may appear challenging to implement, it is one of the most direct research methods. It requires detailed analysis, broad-ranging data collection methodologies, and a degree of existing knowledge about the subject area under investigation.

Historical model

The historical approach is a distinct research method that deeply examines previous events to better understand the present and forecast future occurrences of the same phenomena. Its primary goal is to evaluate the impacts of history on the present and hence discover comparable patterns in the present to predict future outcomes.

Oral history

This qualitative data collection method involves gathering verbal testimonials from individuals about their personal experiences. It is widely used in historical disciplines to offer counterpoints to established historical facts and narratives. The most common methods of gathering oral history are audio recordings, analysis of auto-biographical text, videos, and interviews.

Qualitative observation

One of the most fundamental, oldest research methods, qualitative observation, is the process through which a researcher collects data using their senses of sight, smell, hearing, etc. It is used to observe the properties of the subject being studied. For example, “What does it look like?” As research methods go, it is subjective and depends on researchers’ first-hand experiences to obtain information, so it is prone to bias. However, it is an excellent way to start a broad line of inquiry like, “What is going on here?”

Record keeping and review

Record keeping uses existing documents and relevant data sources that can be employed for future studies. It is equivalent to visiting the library and going through publications or any other reference material to gather important facts that will likely be used in the research.

Grounded theory approach

The grounded theory approach is a commonly used research method employed across a variety of different studies. It offers a unique way to gather, interpret, and analyze. With this approach, data is gathered and analyzed simultaneously.  Existing analysis frames and codes are disregarded, and data is analyzed inductively, with new codes and frames generated from the research.

Ethnographic research

Ethnography is a descriptive form of a qualitative study of people and their cultures. Its primary goal is to study people's behavior in their natural environment. This method necessitates that the researcher adapts to their target audience's setting. 

Thereby, you will be able to understand their motivation, lifestyle, ambitions, traditions, and culture in situ. But, the researcher must be prepared to deal with geographical constraints while collecting data i.e., audiences can’t be studied in a laboratory or research facility.

This study can last from a couple of days to several years. Thus, it is time-consuming and complicated, requiring you to have both the time to gather the relevant data as well as the expertise in analyzing, observing, and interpreting data to draw meaningful conclusions.

Narrative framework

A narrative framework is a qualitative research approach that relies on people's written text or visual images. It entails people analyzing these events or narratives to determine certain topics or issues. With this approach, you can understand how people represent themselves and their experiences to a larger audience.

Phenomenological approach

The phenomenological study seeks to investigate the experiences of a particular phenomenon within a group of individuals or communities. It analyzes a certain event through interviews with persons who have witnessed it to determine the connections between their views. Even though this method relies heavily on interviews, other data sources (recorded notes), and observations could be employed to enhance the findings.

Qualitative research methods (tools)

Some of the instruments involved in qualitative research include:

  • Document research: Also known as document analysis because it involves evaluating written documents. These can include personal and non-personal materials like archives, policy publications, yearly reports, diaries, or letters.

  • Focus groups: This is where a researcher poses questions and generates conversation among a group of people. The major goal of focus groups is to examine participants' experiences and knowledge, including research into how and why individuals act in various ways.

  • Secondary study: Involves acquiring existing information from texts, images, audio, or video recordings.

  • Observations:  This requires thorough field notes on everything you see, hear, or experience. Compared to reported conduct or opinion, this study method can assist you in getting insights into a specific situation and observable behaviors.

  • Structured interviewsIn this approach, you will directly engage people one-on-one. Interviews are ideal for learning about a person's subjective beliefs, motivations, and encounters.

  • Surveys: This is when you distribute questionnaires containing open-ended questions

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What are common examples of qualitative research?

Everyday examples of qualitative research include:

Conducting a demographic analysis of a business

For instance, suppose you own a business such as a grocery store (or any store) and believe it caters to a broad customer base, but after conducting a demographic analysis, you discover that most of your customers are men.

You could do 1:1 interviews with female customers to learn why they don't shop at your store.

In this case, interviewing potential female customers should clarify why they don't find your shop appealing. It could be because of the products you sell or a need for greater brand awareness, among other possible reasons.

Launching or testing a new product

Suppose you are the product manager at a SaaS company looking to introduce a new product. Focus groups can be an excellent way to determine whether your product is marketable.

In this instance, you could hold a focus group with a sample group drawn from your intended audience. The group will explore the product based on its new features while you ensure adequate data on how users react to the new features. The data you collect will be key to making sales and marketing decisions.

Conducting studies to explain buyers' behaviors

You can also use qualitative research to understand existing buyer behavior better. Marketers analyze historical information linked to their businesses and industries to see when purchasers buy more.

Qualitative research can help you determine when to target new clients and peak seasons to boost sales by investigating the reason behind these behaviors.

Qualitative research: data collection

Data collection is gathering information on predetermined variables to gain appropriate answers, test hypotheses, and analyze results. Researchers will collect non-numerical data for qualitative data collection to obtain detailed explanations and draw conclusions.

To get valid findings and achieve a conclusion in qualitative research, researchers must collect comprehensive and multifaceted data.

Qualitative data is usually gathered through interviews or focus groups with videotapes or handwritten notes. If there are recordings, they are transcribed before the data analysis process. Researchers keep separate folders for the recordings acquired from each focus group when collecting qualitative research data to categorize the data.

Qualitative research: data analysis

Qualitative data analysis is organizing, examining, and interpreting qualitative data. Its main objective is identifying trends and patterns, responding to research questions, and recommending actions based on the findings. Textual analysis is a popular method for analyzing qualitative data.

Textual analysis differs from other qualitative research approaches in that researchers consider the social circumstances of study participants to decode their words, behaviors, and broader meaning. 

Learn more about qualitative research data analysis software

When to use qualitative research

Qualitative research is helpful in various situations, particularly when a researcher wants to capture accurate, in-depth insights. 

Here are some instances when qualitative research can be valuable:

  • Examining your product or service to improve your marketing approach

  • When researching market segments, demographics, and customer service teams

  • Identifying client language when you want to design a quantitative survey

  • When attempting to comprehend your or someone else's strengths and weaknesses

  • Assessing feelings and beliefs about societal and public policy matters

  • Collecting information about a business or product's perception

  • Analyzing your target audience's reactions to marketing efforts

  • When launching a new product or coming up with a new idea

  • When seeking to evaluate buyers' purchasing patterns

Qualitative research methods vs. quantitative research methods

Qualitative research examines people's ideas and what influences their perception, whereas quantitative research draws conclusions based on numbers and measurements.

Qualitative research is descriptive, and its primary goal is to comprehensively understand people's attitudes, behaviors, and ideas.

In contrast, quantitative research is more restrictive because it relies on numerical data and analyzes statistical data to make decisions. This research method assists researchers in gaining an initial grasp of the subject, which deals with numbers. For instance, the number of customers likely to purchase your products or use your services.

FAQs

What is the most important feature of qualitative research?

A distinguishing feature of qualitative research is that it’s conducted in a real-world setting instead of a simulated environment. The researcher is examining actual phenomena instead of experimenting with different variables to see what outcomes (data) might result.

Can I use qualitative and quantitative approaches together in a study?

Yes, combining qualitative and quantitative research approaches happens all the time and is known as mixed methods research. For example, you could study individuals’ perceived risk in a certain scenario, such as how people rate the safety or riskiness of a given neighborhood. Simultaneously, you could analyze historical data objectively, indicating how safe or dangerous that area has been in the last year. To get the most out of mixed-method research, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each methodology, so you can create a thoughtfully designed study that will yield compelling results.

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