Qualitative research is the most familiar face of the market research business to the general public. Politicians rely on the focus group to test new policies and to keep track of public opinion, big companies test products and adverts to explore if their products and advertising is meeting the needs of their customers and to understand customer needs in more depth.
Quantitative research on the other hand, with its formalised questionnaires, statistics and measurements is the dry measuring tape to the dash of the qualitative scissors in the marketing tailor's sewing box.
We see our qualitative researchers as detectives in many ways, looking for clues and motivations as to what really drives a market using a range of qualitative techniques. And as always everyone is demanding new techniques for ever deeper insight such as our sensory-emotional research technique.
So what is there to qualitative research? Speaking to a handful of people, but not enough to get a statistical picture. Discussing in an open fashion so every conversation is different. What is it that qualitative research is doing that is just so valuable?
In essence it's not the place of qualitative research to answer how many, qualitative research is about asking what for and why. The qualitative researcher is a detective in search of clues as to motivations, desires, beliefs, ways of thinking and words for description. A qualitative researcher must look for absence as well as presence - what are and where are the gaps, difference as well as similarity - what types of people are more in tune with this idea, paradoxes as well as consistencies - what explains why people say one thing and do another.
The tools the qualitative research uses are predominantly the focus group and individual depth interviews (IDI)or hybrid techniques like paired interviews, or triads or conflict groups. The aim is to draw out the vital clues that explain behaviour and attitudes by developing a discussion - getting people to talk through in their own words how they see a particular idea or subject or product area. The researcher has to be aware of his or her role in the discussion. Introduce an idea into the conversation unwittingly and the researcher can turn and bias the discussion, but ignore clues and key words and the conversation is just a regurgitation of other people's marketing messages. The researcher must be sharp enough to probe beneath the surface of a subject and to challenge and tease out the contradictions. Is this really what you believe or are you just mouthing someone else's words? If every company is doing qualitative research, your company must compete by having better questions that will give you a keener insight. What does it matter that everyone knows that pensions are boring? The best pensions company is the one that makes pensions more relevant and more important to those in the market.
A good qualitative researcher, often called a moderator, is someone who listens, then thinks, then asks the probing question to get to the next level of the conversation. It's no good to have the inspiration for the perfect question back in the office once the interview or group is complete. You consistently want to try and build a picture and so you will use ideas and theories from a wide variety of subject area. Is this personality related? Is this a social barrier? Are there underlying issues about image? Or profit? Or guilt? Is this an emotional decision or is it purely rational? Does it involve other people and in what way? Does the message communicate and at which levels? Is this an instinctive response or a learnt response?
The process of a qualitative interview or qualitative discussion is typically to start with a broad overview of a subject then to narrow down to the area of interest. The idea is that the moderator of the focus group or depth interview tries to find out what individual's know or believe at different stages without leading or prompting inappropriately. To help guide the moderator, a discussion guide is prepared to ensure all the pertinent points are covered and to ensure that spontaneous opinion can be gathered prior to setting the researcher's stall out about what and why the research is taking place. For instance by introducing the name of the company commissioning the research part way through the discussion to allow information to be gathered without colouring the discussion. The discussion guide may call on the use of prompt materials such as mood boards or involve some level of pretending or play acting in order to see otherwise hidden motivations. Consequently trust and rapport are key moderator skills.
For people looking in from a sales type background the process can look very like a good salesman at work, opening up a broad line of discussion, then steering a conversation towards a proposition and then a close. Unlike sales however, qualitative research is more focused on understanding which proposition from many works and why. There is never a close, just a bigger picture and a multiplicity of routes. Qualitative researchers want to map their findings onto the bigger marketplace they need to understand the pitfalls and contradictions that arise, and the points of connection and resonance for the broader audience.
To get at depth, because depth is what the qualitative researcher is looking for, to get behind the social mask that each of us carries around, the researcher will use a variety of techniques. Projection - if it was a person what would it be, if you were telling someone else how would you describe it, stimulation - here are some pictures, words, phrases which would you associate with X, even to "events" such as role playing a situation or collecting diaries. The aim is to get beyond the "I don't know" and "I don't really think about it" to get at why people really do make choices.
Ethnographers and cultural anthropologists (who are sometimes sometimes one and the same) argue that the modern qualitative research interview or discussion is itself artificial. It has become a guessing game among respondents to find out what the real purpose of the research is and that the research is so managed that little original insight can be gathered. The standardisation of the process may even mean the insight is manufactured to order, rather than reflecting reality or really getting at underlying views. Some more advanced techniques break this log-jam, such as our sensory-emotional approach, but other research approach also have value.
An ethnographic approach relies more on observation and less on direction. How do you live your life really? Show me. Don't follow my lead, lead me. Don't give me the picture postcard view, take me down the mean streets and through the back alleyways. Ethnographers will take video cameras into people's lives; be a fly on the wall and watch and learn. Not just the words in a comfortable viewing facility but the dirt and grime of real lives and real situations.
The cultural anthropological view is also contextual, observational, undirected. But whereas the ethnographer is looking for the reality of today - what do we do - the anthropologist is trying to understand what lies beneath. What are the cultural belief systems, the norms and forms that guide and direct behaviour and lead us to different emotional reactions to the same situations? What are the shared reference points, the myths and stories that determine the archetypes that a society builds to determine what it is to be a member and what society wants (and doesn't want) individuals to be.
But for the buyer of qualitative research, sometimes a basic Inspector Plod approach is all that is needed. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to find which marketing brochure is preferred over another, or to investigate whether a company slogan should use the word "solution" in place of "product". It's not particularly sexy or high profile, but this ABC level of qualitative research is the meat and drink of the industry, simply putting marketing materials and products in front of customers and gauging reactions.
But there are times when real depth of insight is needed. When you want to do something new. When you want to transform and overhaul or find a new angle or insight to an old product, or a new design and a new context for an existing success. This is the glamour of the bright lights, rather than the more mundane challenge of keeping an existing product going.
But all forms of research, like all detective stories are backwards looking. Who did what, when, why? We can ask about the future, but the future is unplanned and indeterminate. We might know what you do now, or where your values come from today, but tomorrow?