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GuidesResearch methodsUnderstanding qualitative measurement: The what, why, and how

Understanding qualitative measurement: The what, why, and how

Last updated

30 January 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

You’ll need to collect data to determine the success of any project, from product launches to employee culture initiatives. How that data is collected is just as important as what it reveals.

There are many ways to gather and analyze data, from in-person interviews to emailed surveys. Qualitative research focuses on telling a story with the information collected, while quantitative research involves collecting, analyzing, and presenting hard datasets.

Data gathered through qualitative measurement describes traits or characteristics. You can collect it in different ways, including interviews and observation, and it can be in the form of descriptive words.

While gathering and analyzing data through qualitative measurement can be challenging, especially if you’re working with limited resources or a smaller team, the insights you get at the end of the project are often well worth the effort.

What is qualitative measurement?

Qualitative measurement is a research method used to better understand a topic. It’s most often used in projects or studies related to human thoughts and behavior. It involves non-numeric data and characteristics, so it can be observed or surveyed rather than counted or measured.

Qualitative measures can be particularly helpful in understanding how a phenomenon or action affects individuals and groups.

Why is qualitative data important?

Through data, you can understand how to better serve your customers and employees and anticipate shifts in your business.

The data will provide a deeper understanding of your customers, empowering you to make decisions that positively benefit your company in the long run. Qualitative data helps you see patterns and trends so you can make actionable changes. It can also answer questions posed by your project so you can provide company stakeholders with helpful information and insights.

How to collect qualitative data

Your ideal method for collecting qualitative data will depend on the resources you have at your disposal, the size of your team, and your project’s timeline.

You might select one method or a mixture of several. For instance, you could opt to send out surveys following a focus group session to receive additional feedback on one or two specific areas of interest.

Analyze your available resources and discuss options with project stakeholders before committing to one particular plan.

The following are some examples of the methods you could use:

Individual interviews

In-depth interviews are one of the most popular methods of collecting qualitative data. They are usually conducted in person, but you could also use video software.

During interviews, a researcher asks the person questions, logging their answers as they go.

Focus groups

Focus groups are a powerful way to observe and document a group of people, making them a common method for collecting qualitative data. They provide researchers with a direct way to interact with participants, listening to them while they share their insights and experiences and recording responses without the interference of software or third-party systems.

However, while focus groups and interviews are two of the most popular methods, they might not be right for every situation or company.

Direct observation

Direct observation allows researchers to see participants in their natural setting, offering an intriguing “real-life” angle to data collection. This method can provide rich, detailed information about the individuals or groups you are studying.


You can conduct surveys in person or online through web software or email. They can also be as detailed or general as your project requires. To get the most information from your surveys, use open-ended questions that encourage respondents to share their thoughts and opinions on the subject.

Diaries and journals

Product launches or employee experience initiatives are two examples of projects that could benefit from diaries and journals as a form of qualitative data gathering.

Diaries and journals enable participants to record their thoughts and feelings on a particular topic. By later examining the diary entries, project managers and stakeholders can better understand their reactions and opinions on the project and the questions asked.

Examples of qualitative data

Qualitative data is non-numeric information. It’s descriptive, often including adjectives to paint a picture of a situation or object. Qualitative data can be used to describe a person or place, as you can see in the examples below:

  • The employee prefers black coffee to sweet beverages.

  • The cat is black and fluffy.

  • The brown leather couch is worn and faded.

There are many ways to collate qualitative data, but remember to use appropriate language when communicating it to other project stakeholders. Qualitative data isn’t flowery, but neither does it shy away from descriptors to comprehensively paint a picture.

How to measure qualitative data

To measure qualitative data, define a clear project scope ahead of time. Know what questions you want answered and what people you need to speak to to make that happen. While not every result can be tallied, by understanding the questions and project scope well in advance, you’ll be better prepared to analyze what you’re querying.

Define the method you wish to use for your project. Whether you opt for surveys, focus groups, or a mixture of methods, employ the approach that will yield the most valuable data.

Work within your means and be realistic about the resources you can dedicate to data collection. For example, if you only have one or two employees to dedicate to the project, don’t commit to multiple focus group meetings with large groups of participants, as it might not be feasible.

What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative measurements?

Qualitative measurements are descriptive. You can’t measure them with a ruler, scale, or other numeric value, nor can you express them with a numeric value.

In contrast, quantitative measurements are numeric in nature and can be counted.

When to use qualitative vs. quantitative measurements

Both qualitative and quantitative measurements can be valuable. Which to use greatly depends on the nature of your project.

If you’re looking to confirm a theory, such as determining which variety of body butter was sold most during a specific month, quantitative measurements will likely give you the answers you need.

To learn more about concepts and experiences, such as which advertising campaign your target customers prefer, opt for qualitative measurement.

You don’t have to commit to one or the other exclusively. Many businesses use a mixed-method approach to research, combining elements of both quantitative and qualitative measurements. Know the questions you want to answer and proceed accordingly with what makes the most sense for your goals.

What are the best ways to communicate qualitative data?

Communicating the qualitative data you’ve gathered can be tricky. The information is subjective, and many project stakeholders or other involved parties may have an easier time understanding and reacting to numeric data.

To effectively communicate qualitative data, you’ll need to create a compelling storyline that offers context and relevant details.

It can also help to describe the data collection method you used. This not only helps set the stage for your story but gives those listening insight into research methodologies they may be unfamiliar with.

Finally, allow plenty of time for questions. Regardless of whether you’re speaking to your company’s CEO or a fellow project manager, you should be prepared to respond to questions with additional, relevant information.

How can qualitative measurement be expressed through data?

Qualitative data is non-numeric. It is most often expressed through descriptions since it is surveyed or observed rather than counted.

Challenges associated with qualitative measurement

Any in-depth study or research project requires a time commitment. Depending on the research method you employ, other resources might be required. For instance, you might need to compensate the participants of a focus group in some way.

The time and resources required to undertake qualitative measurement could make it prohibitive for many companies, especially small ones with only a few employees. Outsourcing can also be expensive.

Conducting a cost–benefit analysis could help you decide if qualitative measurement is a worthwhile undertaking or one that should be delayed as you plan and prepare.

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