What is Qualitative Research?

Qualitative Research is research that is non-numerical and that focuses on things such as users’ impressions, feelings, feedback, thoughts, actions and so on.

So, rather than worrying about exact numerical measurements that quantitative researchers use, qualitative research focuses on gaining a deeper understanding of a phenomenon.

Focus groups, in-depth interviews, observing people, and analyzing existing data such as texts or website content, are all examples of methods used in qualitative research.

Dr Paul Symonds

What Are the Characteristics of a Good Research Question?

Asking qualitative questions

1. The Question Should Be Specific

A good research question needs to be specific, as opposed to generic.

The reason is that a generic question is quite hard to answer. 

For example, if you ask ‘why are cinema audiences declining’ you can see that the topic is quite broad.  There may be lots of reasons. So, where do you even start?

In order to refine this question, you can ask yourself: Why are you asking this question? Is there a specific demographic you want to target?

If you say instead that you want to ‘identify ways in which more people could be attracted to the cinema’, this is already more specific as it is clear that your purpose is to attract more people to the cinema.

You can make the question more specific by saying, for example, ‘identify ways in which more teenagers in Berlin could be attracted to the cinema’. Now, you are specifying an age range and a location.

This will make the question more targeted, easier to answer, and more feasible. So, make the question specific to your purpose.

2. The Questions Should Have a Clarity of Purpose

This means understanding the real reasons why we are asking a question.

For example, in particular, if a manager is asking a question, what is their real intention?

Has the manager already made up their mind about the answer to the question and is s/he just trying to confirm what they think they already know?

Is there a hidden agenda behind the question?

This is particularly important to find out for the researcher if they are external to the organization.

If the purpose is not clear from the start, the research will start in the wrong direction.

3. Focus on One Single Phenomenon, Concept, or Idea

This has to do with focus.

If instead of saying that you want to ‘identify ways in which more teenagers in Berlin could be attracted to the cinema’ you say that you want to ‘identify ways in which more teenagers in Berlin could be attracted to the cinema and the amusement park’, this makes it harder to answer.

Cinemas and amusement parks are two different things, so there may be different motivations why people go to each and, if you want to investigate both, you will dilute your research efforts and might get lost along the way.

4. Define the Sample and Setting

This is connected to point 1, about being specific.

So, you can say that you want to ‘identify ways in which more people could be attracted to the cinema’.

In this case, you have not defined your setting and your sample.

If instead, you say that you want to ‘identify ways in which more teenagers in Berlin could be attracted to the cinema’, you are identifying your setting (Berlin) and your sample (teenagers).

5. The Question Has to Be Feasible

This means that you want to ask a question that you are able to answer with the resources you have and also a question that is realistic to answer.

If you say that you want to find out ‘how to attract people to the cinema in 100 years’ time’, this question not only is not useful but it is also impossible to answer because who knows what will happen in 100 years time; cinemas may not even exist anymore by then.

This is an extreme example, but you get the idea.

What Type of Questions to Ask for Qualitative Market Research – 5 Tips for Asking Effective Questions

Market researcher

We can summarize good practice for interviews in 5 main tips.

1. Ask mainly open-ended questions and probing questions.

Closed questions are those that require just a very short answer such as ‘yes’ and ‘no’. In qualitative interviews, you want people to elaborate and open up, so you need to ask mainly open-ended questions so people can talk.

If a closed question is really needed, follow it up with probing questions.
For example:
Q:  ‘Do you like cakes?’
A: ‘Yes’
Q: ‘What types of cake do you like the most and why?’

2. Limit closed questions to the minimum (yes/no or one-word response).

So, you need to ask mainly open-ended questions but you can also ask some closed questions as needed. Just keep them to a minimum.

3. Avoid leading or judgemental questions.

A leading question can produce very biased results.

4. Ask clear questions (avoid ambiguity).

This is also important if you want to have good-quality data.

5. Use everyday vocabulary

Unless you are sure that your interviewee understands a specific vocabulary, if they are experts in something, keep language easy and jargon-free.

Examples of Qualitative Research Questions for Market Research Interviews

Extra questions you can ask during market research qualitative research
  • Diary question: ask people to describe a day in their life as a way to introduce the interview.
  • Critical incidents: ask about the worst/best experiences to understand what is important about a topic.
  • Free listing: ask people to list items; for example, all the types of devices they use to surf the Internet.
  • Ranking: ask people to rank items generated by free listing in order of importance or efficacy.

Example of Qualitative Market Research Questions Using the Laddering Technique

A type of questioning that is used in customer research to understand why customers prefer certain products, is called the laddering technique.

This technique is based on the Means-End Chain theory. According to this theory, there is a hierarchy or ladder of consumer perceptions that goes from attributes (A) to consumption consequences (C) to personal values (V).

Lddering techniques for asking market research questions

Attributes are the easiest to recognize. They have to do with the attributes of a product.

For example, you may ask a person: ‘Why did you buy this jumper?’ and they may say: ‘Because I like the color’. This is the attribute of the jumper.

Attributes have consequences for individuals. For example, if you ask your interviewee what they like about that color, they may say: ‘It makes me feel relaxed’. So, that color has an effect on the person.

On a deeper level, there are core values. These are the values that a person cares about the most in their life and which are linked to their deep sense of identity.

For example, you can ask your interviewee why that color makes them feel relaxed and they may connect it with their childhood growing up in the countryside. Or you may ask them why it is important for them to feel relaxed and they may say that it is important for them to live in the moment.

So, you have gone from the attribute of a product to the core values of a person.

Classroom lesson plans

While each person is unique and has specific nuances to their sets of ladders and values, you should be able to see patterns developing as you compare the responses from a number of interviewees. So, you will document patterns across different customer types or personas.

Asking repeatedly ‘why’ to participants can get boring for them and they may not always be able to explain why they like or do certain things.

If you explain to your interviewees how this technique works, at the start of the interview, this should help mitigate the irritation they might feel at being asked why repeatedly.

If participants struggle to think of abstract reasons why they might do or like something, it might be helpful to ask them to think of reasons they wouldn’t do something or a value that they do not share. Sometimes, it is easier for people to think of a negative reason.

If you are teaching the laddering technique during a workshop or training session on interviewing skills, you can ask the participants to practice this technique via roleplay.

So, one person can be the interviewee, another one the interviewer, and one or two other people observe. Each group can choose a product or an object and start the interview based on that product.

Free Training activities and ice breakers PDF

Benefits of Using Qualitative Questions to Collect Data

You might be planning to collect data using quantitative methods (such as via surveys or questionnaires that use closed yes and no answer questions).

Even so, you might even before that, want to understand the phenomena you are studying first, in order to be able to ask the right kinds of questions.

1. Qualitative Questions Can Be Great for Marketing Research

Marketing is the business area that probably uses research the most. Research can help you find out information about the customer (the person who buys), the consumer (the person who consumes), and the public in general.

Every aspect of marketing can benefit from research.

For example, writing a marketing plan, positioning a new product, understanding customers’ buying behaviors, brand evaluation (understanding how people perceive your brand), and a lot more.

Research can also be requested for strategic reasons.

For example, leveraging extra funding; investigating the potential of a new idea or changing company direction.

2. Qualitative Data Can Assist Managers and/or Business Owners in Decision-Making

Research can assist managers to make a wide range of decisions.

From entering a new market to investigating the potential of a new idea, changing company direction, and deciding how to stock a shelf in a shop.

It is worth pointing out that researchers cannot make decisions for the managers, but research is there to help managers make a more informed decisions.

Ultimately, it is always up to management to decide what to do.

3. Qualitative Data Can Help Solve Immediate or Ongoing Problems in a Business

These can be practical and logistical problems as well as strategical issues.

4. Qualitative Interviews Help You Assess Staff Training Needs

Research is also useful to decide if members of staff need training, and, if so, what type of training they need.

You can find out not only what things exactly they need to know but also if they would benefit more from a training session delivered by a trainer, from e-learning or from just observing other more experienced members of staff, for example.

So, if you assess your staff’s training needs and how to meet them, it will save you spending time and resources on the wrong type of training.

Further Useful Resources

Learn More about the 'Qualitative Market Research Skills' Course
>> Learn More about the ‘Qualitative Market Research Skills’ Course
Dr Valeria Lo Iacono