Quantitative? Qualitative? When to Use One or the Other or Both in Your Research

Quantitative? Qualitative? When to Use One or the Other or Both in Your Research

You might have heard of the terms quantitative and qualitative. These are categories describing the two main approaches to market research. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses, involving distinct data gathering techniques and achieving different goals. Insights professionals can use either qualitative or a quantitative approach for a study (or a blend of both). So understanding both is important so you can choose the correct path to get the insights you seek.


Quantitative research gathers customer data in numerical form. This type of information can be used to construct graphs and tables of raw data. For example, we might ask customers: Were you happy with your restaurant visit? We can count the number of people that said “yes” and the number of people that said “no” to derive an incidence of the various views. Customer research like this is primarily conducted using surveys. A survey asks a series of multiple-choice type questions where a participant select from one of the answer options listed. (Figure 1)

Surveys are typically distributed online. Customers are emailed an invitation directing them to a web page where they can submit answers to question. A survey can collect opinions from hundreds or thousands of customers over a few days, and such large sample sizes give the researcher great confidence in the data. The results of a survey can be used to represent the opinions of the broader population.

Figure 1. A survey is considered a quantitative approach. Data is gathered in numerical form.
Figure 1. A survey is considered a quantitative approach. Data is gathered in numerical form.


In contrast, qualitative research gathers information that is not in numerical form. There are many types of qualitative techniques, but perhaps the most common is a focus group. In a typical focus group, 8-12 customers are invited to a central location for a round table Q&A discussion. A focus group session includes a moderator, who asks the questions and drives the discussion. In a backroom, unseen by the focus group participants, researchers can listen to the conversation and takes notes about what is being said.

Data gathered from a qualitative approach is descriptive and as such is more time-consuming to analyze than quantitative data. You cannot report descriptive information with charts and graphs. Rather, responses to open-end questions and interviews must be organized into broad themes. Quotations from diaries or focus group sessions might be used to illustrate points of analysis. This process is a subjective one and interpretations of qualitative data will differ from researcher to researcher. Insights from qualitative research also do not represent the broader opinions of the population since qualitative data is drawn from a limited number of individuals.

Qualitative research does have an important place for insights professionals. Qualitative techniques allow for a deeper exploration of topics. Customers are given the opportunity to express a story or relate an experience they had with a product.  With a free-flowing discussion, a live interviewer or moderator can follow up with questions to understand how and why customers feel the way they do.  So while a survey (quantitative) will tell you that 23% of customers had a poor restaurant experience, you’ll get a better understanding of why that is if you interview them in a face to face discussion (qualitative).

Figure 2. Summary of differences between Quantitative and Qualitative.
Figure 2. Summary of differences between Quantitative and Qualitative.

When to choose Quantitative or Qualitative

Whether you choose a quantitative or qualitative approach to your business question depends on your particular goals. Consider the kind of outcome you need. Quantitative data is often thought of as answering “what” and “how many.” If you need to know how many people are aware of your brand; what the typical budget is for a mobile phone, or how many prefer product concept A vs B, use a survey. With large sample sizes from a survey, data results are robust enough to draw conclusions about the larger population. Qualitative data is best for understanding the “how” and “why” — allowing for the discovery of new ideas and exploring how people think and feel.  If you need to understand why your business is experiencing an uptick in customer service complaints, how people use your product, and why they are motivated to purchase it, a qualitative approach allows you to gather detailed narratives from customers. Sample sizes won’t be large enough to draw conclusions about the larger population, but you will gain insights on customer experiences, feelings, and underlying motivations.

Keep in mind it is appropriate to utilize both quantitative and qualitative approaches in one study. Often, you need the best of both worlds to get a complete picture of your customer. A survey may tell you customer satisfaction is declining while following that up with qualitative interviews can give you a better understanding of why that’s happening. Whether you use quantitative or qualitative (or both), understanding different approaches to research will enable you to leverage the appropriate techniques for gathering the answers you seek.

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