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What are the different types of qualitative research?

Last updated

8 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Customer research can be qualitative or quantitative. Both research methods deal with data collection, gaining insight into potential problems with services and products, and understanding user experience. But when it comes to understanding user thought process and motivation, qualitative research is king.

Qualitative research is a crucial step in product developmentWhile the quantitative approach might explain where an issue lies and the number of users it affects, the qualitative method answers why the problem is happening and how it affects customers.

This type of research explains how people experience the world. Many researchers use it to understand a group’s behavior, characteristics, and motivations.

People also use qualitative research in the business sector. Qualitative research enables you to access content-rich information about user emotions and perceptions. For example, you can use it in market research to understand what a target group thinks about your company’s new ideas.

Different qualitative research types serve a particular purpose. Before we delve into the various types of qualitative research, let's begin with the basics.

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What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is a market research process that involves collecting and analyzing in-depth data through conversational and open-ended communication. It focuses on "what" people think and "why" they think so. Qualitative research goes beyond how many people do something to determine why they do or don't do it.

Qualitative research methods enable detailed questioning of respondents based on their responses. The researcher’s aim is to understand the participants’ feelings and motivations.

Imagine a cake company looking to get more customers at two branches on the same street. A systematic observation showed more people bought cakes from Branch A than from Branch B. One way to determine why people preferred Branch A is to interview potential customers.

Let's say the company visited both stores and interviewed customers. Upon completion, results showed that workers in Branch B lacked good customer relationships, so many people visited Branch A instead.

Another example is if marketing notices a consistent but unexplainable churn in customers. Maybe subscribers of the platform were only staying on for a month rather than a much longer expected timeline. 

Qualitative initiatives could dive into the motivations of these users. Findings may reveal that the customers achieved their goals much faster than expected. Perhaps they didn’t have the characteristics the company originally assumed they had.

Qualitative research identifies customer pain points, determines why a particular product might not yield the desired results, and tests possible solutions. It’s a helpful tool when you’re looking to develop and improve products and services. Understanding how your audience makes decisions can help you draw valuable conclusions in market research.

Learn more about qualitative research platforms

Characteristics of qualitative research methods

Qualitative research involves collecting and evaluating non-numerical data (audio, video, and text) to deeply understand opinions, concepts, or experiences. It also includes data about lived experiences, emotions, and behavior with the meaning people add to it. 

Due to its softer manner, researchers express results more commonly in:

  • Words

  • Video clips

  • Sound bites

  • Photos

  • Pull quotes

Here are the characteristics of qualitative research.

Real-time data

Qualitative research methods often collect data at the location where people encounter the product or company’s service. This ensures it’s as close to the authentic experience of its consumers as possible.

Many data sources

Qualitative researchers don't need to rely on a single source of data. They can gather different data types from sources like observations, interviews, and documents for better understanding.


Qualitative research techniques tend to break down complex problems into smaller, simpler pieces that focus on what the research intends to evaluate. The goal is to have a clear understanding of the unknown. That means you can uncover answers while leaving room for surprises and discoveries to emerge.

Raw information

Since qualitative research involves conversations, participants should be able to confide in the interviewer and give their honest opinions. Researchers should use qualitative interviewing techniques to establish trust and comfort in participants to facilitate authentic and pure reactions to products. That’s why you need to ensure the information you provide is accurate.

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Types of qualitative research methods with examples

Qualitative research methods reveal your target audiences' behavior and perception of a particular situation. Its results are more detailed and descriptive, so you can easily draw inferences from the data.

Each qualitative research type has its purpose and might not be suitable for all projects. Before conducting a qualitative study, it's crucial to understand the various types of qualitative research methods and how they differ.

Let's look at each of the six types of qualitative research methods.

1. Phenomenological method

The phenomenological approach explores the experiences of a specific phenomenon (observable fact or event) in a person or group. These are “lived experiences.”

The method helps researchers better understand people's beliefs, attitudes, behavior, and experiences. In this method, you ask customers to describe their experiences as they perceive them. This approach recognizes there is no single objective reality; everyone experiences things differently.

Researchers usually set their assumptions aside to remove bias (bracketing) and focus on the participants’ experiences. 

While the outcome depends on the participants' points of view, researchers try to answer the following questions:

  • How do people experience this phenomenon?

  • How does it affect them?

  • What factors influence their experience?

This method uses information from interviews, observations, diary studies, or voice-of-customer sessions to determine a participant's feelings during a particular activity or event. During this research, it's vital to make your customers feel comfortable, so they share their honest experiences.

Your questions in phenomenological research should be free of closed-ended or leading questions. Closed-ended questions usually only require a simple one-word response and won’t tell the whole story or give you the actionable data you want to collect. 

Leading questions require your user to contradict what your question may imply. This usually results in polite and natural agreement rather than the honest response you need. In short, don’t ask them if they like a feature. Ask your user how they feel about it, either positive or negative, and let them direct the discussion from there.

You can use this method to determine your customer's purchasing behavior. For example, you can ask questions like, "Do you prefer red velvet cake or vanilla cake? Why?" The responses will depend on their experiences. The result of this research method can be useful when you want to improve your product's quality or target a different product to increase sales.

2. Ethnographic model

This model is an in-depth observation that studies your target audience in their natural environment. It involves collecting and analyzing data about people by watching them rather than interviewing them. Quite often, consumers may report using a particular product in one way, but observing could prove otherwise.

It requires researchers to adapt to the environment of their target audience. Since it could be any location, collecting data can be challenging. But this model helps you understand the challenges, cultures, settings, and motivations that occur by seeing it yourself. With well-executed ethnographic research, your company can uncover: 

  • Users' motivations behind using your product

  • How they’re using it

  • During what other activities are they using it

  • How they discovered it

  • And even why they stopped using it

All of these insights can help you build a more intuitive product experience that leaves consumers feeling heard and satisfied.

Companies that act on accurate ethnographic studies are often way ahead of their competitors since they have a clear idea of where their customers are and where they are going.

3. Grounded theory method

Sociologists Glaser and Strauss developed the grounded theory model in the 1960s. In this model, researchers collect, interpret, and analyze data to develop various theories regarding the research topic. Rather than establish theories before examining data, researchers develop theories after studying the data.

Researchers use this model in qualitative research to see what theories or questions arise from a given data set. They may group the drawn-out theories and analyze them further. Grounded theory needs careful content analysis since the emerging theories must be valid, else it can lead to lost insights and poor decision-making.

It is often a research method that builds on existing work. Data collection methods include interviews, observations, longitudinal studies, and diary studies.

4. Case study model

The case study model helps explain a particular element, family, person, business, or organization. It is common in fields like education and social sciences. Ways of collecting data in this model may include interviews since the research requires in-depth and real details. The researcher will ask questions to determine why a particular respondent acts the way they do.

For instance, a film streaming company might watch a family use their technology to determine their reaction to new services or products and what features could interest them.

5. Historical model

Historical studies involve identifying, locating, evaluating, and synthesizing data from the past. It doesn't only discover past events but tries to relate them to the present and future. 

For instance, you can analyze data from previous advertising campaigns and use it to conduct a new one. Or a music management company can look at the audience from a 2022 concert to plan future ones.

Historical research requires great skill. Researchers must analyze the data, look for trends or changes, or pinpoint any contradictions. You can ask questions to design your research strategy, like, "How has consumer preference changed over the years?"

Sometimes, historical data can collect irrelevant data. Let’s consider how airlines experienced so much turmoil during the pandemic. It’s possible the historical data isn’t relevant enough to gather useful data from in a post-pandemic world. 

6. Narrative model

The narrative method is one of the types of qualitative research methods that focuses on written and spoken words or visual representations by people. Here, stories become raw data.

Researchers evaluate people's lived experiences through questioning to determine issues they may face. This research method helps you understand what people think about your brand. You can use it to determine the various challenges your target audience faces on a personal narrative level.

Qualitative research data collection

This is the process of obtaining information. Qualitative data collection involves obtaining non-numerical data. It provides researchers with detailed insights into why people make decisions. But to arrive at such conclusions, the collected data should be rich, holistic, and from participants that accurately represent your targeted audience.

Some ways to collect data in qualitative research include:

Participant observations

You collect data by watching other people's behavior closely and recording what you hear, see, or encounter. 

One-on-one interviews

This involves an open-ended conversation with your target audience. The interview can be via phone, email, or face-to-face.

In-depth surveys

This may involve distributing a questionnaire with open-ended questions.

Focus groups

Here, a moderator asks participants (usually 6–12 members) predetermined questions about your products, brand, or services. It's crucial to avoid yes-or-no questions to promote engagement.


Here, the moderator comes up with a feature or product concept and brainstorms the idea with a customer. The customer plays an active role in shaping the concept to ensure the feature really would be a solution for them.


This method involves index cards with written content about a given service or product. The moderator asks the participant to think out loud while organizing cards in ways that make sense to the user.

Diary studies

Diary studies require users to keep a journal or diary of specific experiences and their thoughts around them. These studies typically take longer to complete the data-gathering stage.

Regardless of the method you use for collecting qualitative data, it will generate a large amount of data. For example, if a researcher uses one-on-one discussions or a focus group to collect data, there will be video recordings or written notes to analyze. 

Diary study templates

Qualitative research data analysis

Qualitative data analysis involves examining data to understand and derive meaning from it. It involves making notes, recording videos or audio, taking photos, or analyzing text documents.

Here are the steps involved in qualitative data analysis:

  • Prepare and organize your data: This could mean typing notes during sessions, including timestamps, or transcribing your audio.

  • Review and explore the data: Check the data for repeated patterns or ideas that emerge.

  • Create codes for the data and assign them: Develop a set of codes to separate your data into categories and assign them.

  • Spot recurring themes: Link codes together into overarching, cohesive themes. 

Learn more about qualitative research data analysis software

When to use qualitative research

Researchers use qualitative research methods to get factual data for in-depth insights. You can use qualitative research when you want to:

  • Develop a new product or generate an idea.

  • Understand the problem areas of your product or service thoroughly.

  • Improve your marketing strategy.

  • Understand your weaknesses and strengths according to your users.

  • Deeply explore potential consumers’ motivations, desires, and demographics to understand your company’s role within them.

  • Figure out how people perceive your brand, product, or services.

  • Stay well ahead of your competition by knowing your users better than they do.

Qualitative research helps brands understand the underlying motivations and reasons behind consumer behavior and decisions.

Qualitative research methods vs. quantitative research methods

In a nutshell, qualitative research methods revolve around people's perspectives and their reasoning to solve the “why” and “how.” Quantitative research methods center on measurements and numbers to uncover what is happening and sometimes the timeline in which it happened. 

Together, both research methods help companies get an accurate and in-depth insight into a situation. It’s important to understand their significant differences to know when to employ each.

Here is a table to help you understand how both research methods differ.

Qualitative research methods

Quantitative research methods


Focuses on user motivations, “how” they do things,  and "why" they think in that manner

Centers on the "what" and "when " of what happened in the data 

Type of data

Descriptive data

Numerical data




Data collection method

Less-structured methods like focus groups, scripted in-depth interviews, participant observation, and case study

Structured methods like in-app data, surveys, and questionnaires

Interaction with participants

More personal and direct contact with participants

Less personal and direct contact with participants

Type of questions



Extent of flexibility

User responses can influence what question the researcher will ask next

User responses don't usually affect what question the researcher asks next


Why do you prefer green apples?

Did you buy a green apple today? A. Yes B. No


What is the most common type of qualitative research?

A detailed interview is the most common type of qualitative research approach.

What is the most common form of qualitative interviewing?

A semi-structured interview is the most common form of qualitative interviewing. User testing is considered a qualitative interview in a one-on-one live environment.

What is the most common method used for qualitative data analysis?

Pattern matching is one of the commonest methods used for qualitative data analysis. Pattern matching involves forming a mental model to categorize all collected data into compartments to compare and evaluate.

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