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Quantitative VS. Qualitative

Your company is developing a hot new product and is preparing to commission a market research study to ensure the product meets your customers' needs. Inundated with a barrage of choices, you're unsure of which methodology to choose. All market research methods can be divided into two primary types-quantitative and qualitative. Establishing how these are defined, assessing their relative strengths and weaknesses, and understanding how and when each style is most effectively utilized can help you choose the type of market research that's right for your company.

Quantitative Reserch — Strength in Numbers

Strength in numbers characterizes the many advantages of quantitative research. A numbers-based research discipline, quantitative research statistically measures customer attitudes, behavior, and performance. Utilizing a series of tests and techniques, quantitative research will often yield data that's projectable to a larger population. Because it is so deeply rooted in numbers and statistics, quantitative research has the ability to effectively translate data into easily quantifiable charts and graphs. Real-world examples have shown the effectiveness of quantitative research in measuring product awareness, establishing customer profiles, and determining market size.

Let's examine a case study of quantitative research in action. My firm recently completed a quantitative research study for a major telecommunications company. My client's objective was to define their telecom strategy of bundling local, long distance, cable, and wireless services for the next decade. In order to make prudent, actionable recommendations, a large sample of customers would have to be surveyed-a perfect condition for a quantitative research study. My firm conducted over 1,800 telephone surveys with small business and residential customers, followed by a conjoint survey with nearly 600 respondents. The successful implementation of quantitative research gave our client the sound, projectable data necessary to define their long-term telecom strategy.

However, quantitative research does have its limitations. Large samples are required, and the logistical difficulties inherent in gathering a sufficiently large sample can sabotage the study before it even gets off the ground. Larger samples also tend to be more expensive. Quantitative research, by virtue of its short (usually 20 minute) interviews and rigid structure, is not the most flexible method of market research and, when handled improperly, is especially vulnerable to statistical error. The misuse of sampling and weighting can completely undermine the accuracy, validity, and projectability of a quantitative research study.

Qualitative Research — Size Doesn't Matter

When it comes to dealing with large sample size, quantitative research reaffirms the axiom "bigger is better." Yet when it comes to dealing with smaller, more focused samples, qualitative research proves that "size doesn't matter." Qualitative research is a highly subjective research discipline, designed to look beyond the percentages to gain an understanding of the customer's feelings, impressions and viewpoints.

Gaining such insight into the hearts and minds of the customer is best acquired through the use of smaller, highly targeted samples. Expert moderators, unencumbered by the strict time and structure constraints of a quantitative survey, use a multitude of techniques to obtain in-depth information. Interviews are lengthy, oftentimes as long as four hours, allowing the moderator to elicit extremely candid, highly complex responses. The result is rich, in-depth data laden with insight unobtainable from quantitative market research techniques.

Good, sound qualitative research has many strengths. It's flexible, highly-focused, and designed to be completed quickly. Because the results are seen or heard first-hand, management relates to the findings easily.

My firm recently completed a qualitative research study for a company looking to launch a new color version of its handheld computing device. Our client's objectives were to evaluate end user preference for colors, customer willingness to pay a premium for their preferred color, and customer reaction to transparent flip cover overlays. The study called for a series of four focus groups in two major cities. A total of 39 qualified respondents participated in the focus groups. Each respondent examined and tested the device, then offered their personal opinions, preferences and attitudes about price, aesthetics and functionality. After careful analysis of the viewpoints expressed, our client was able to optimize the look, feel and price point of the device. This type of intuitive, highly subjective personal input can only be obtained through qualitative research.

Qualitative research is not without its weaknesses and limitations. Misuse or misunderstanding the capabilities of qualitative research is commonplace. Companies often fall in love with the data-rich results and assume that the results are projectable. This assumption is incorrect. Because the analysis is subjective and deals with a small sample size, projectability is not possible. Another common misconception is the expectation that qualitative research will always produce definitive conclusions. In reality, the results will not provide companies with definitive conclusions, but only with enough information to establish a firm basis for decision making.

Trained moderators are essential to the success of qualitative research. Placed in the hands of an untrained moderator, a qualitative research study's chance of success is vastly diminished.

There are projects that call for the application of qualitative and quantitative research methods. A recent study my firm completed for a computer monitor manufacturer illustrates this point. The client wished to achieve several objectives. First, understand and identify the relative desirability of a flat-screen monitor for our client's target consumer market. Next, identify the effect price or feature modifications might have on the client's unit market share. Third, profile the high-end consumer market. To secure the necessary numbers and the distinct voice of potential customers, we designed a study where both quantitative and qualitative methods were utilized.

Participants were recruited to a research facility and were educated on product concepts, attributes and survey procedures. Once this survey was completed, a small portion of respondents participated in probing focus groups. This qualitative research obtained detailed feelings, impressions and viewpoints for new flat-screen monitors. Upon completion of both the quantitative and qualitative phases, key product styling/feature concepts were verified and customer behavior patterns were clearly established.

When you are ready to pull the trigger on your market research study and can't decide which methodology to choose, just remember your axioms. When you want "strength in numbers," choose quantitative research. When "size doesn't matter," qualitative research is your best bet.

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