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Is Qual Evolving to Extinction?



Jim Bryson

Focus groups are dead.”  Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, 2005


How should we describe what qual is?”  Ray Poynter, LinkedIn Forum, 2014


We all know focus groups are not dead.  Such a statement is hyperbolic at best.  Even so, there is no doubt that the traditional method of conducting focus groups in research facilities is waning.  Today’s qualitative researcher must be so much more than a “focus group moderator.”

As a society and a profession, we are in the midst of a Technology Revolution that is being fueled by consumer access to digital communication tools.  This renaissance began to impact qualitative research in the mid-1990s as described in Jennifer Dale and Susan Abbott’s new book, Qual-Online, The Essential Guide.  The digital revolution in qual picked up steam in the U.S. in 2006 when consumer broadband access reached 60% and researchers realized that accessing consumers in their environment was possible, even desirable.

Even so, the rapid adoption of digital communication technology by consumers has shaken the qualitative world.  Weekly, research entrepreneurs introduce new technologies and applications promising to deliver more insights better, faster and cheaper than ever before.  Many researchers who thrived for decades utilizing their interpersonal skills and techniques in face-to-face settings now find themselves behind the technology curve and fearful that they will be shut out by young digital natives.  The neat, comfortable market of qualitative focus groups has become a chaotic menagerie of mushrooming methods that sometimes seem impossible to fully comprehend, much less execute.

Focus groups are not dead; they have simply been relegated to also-ran status.  No researcher can now blindly equate qualitative research and focus groups.  Today’s qualitative landscape is highly fragmented, chaotic and confusing.  Researchers must be well-versed in many methods and able to adapt different approaches to different scenarios.

This openness to new approaches and methods is the central theme of ESOMAR’s Qualitative Conference in Vienna in mid-November.  There, researchers will be exposed to new thinking that will help them navigate the rapidly changing qualitative landscape.

In this newly hectic world, Ray Poynter asks, “How do we define what qual is?”  It is no longer sufficient to say that qualitative research is simply “focus groups.”  Nor, is it adequate to define it as “the why behind the what.”

We know that qualitative research is evolving.  But, is it thriving or dying?

If we take a narrower, more traditional view that qualitative is defined largely by the methods of face-to-face focus groups or interviews, particularly those held in a qualitative facility, then the case can be easily made that qualitative is dying.

However, qualitative research is actually evolving to a more nuanced profession.  The blunt instrument of “focus group facility” research is being replaced by a methodological scalpel that cuts with precision and forethought, requiring significant multi-disciplinary expertise.  As research designs become more customized and present more contextual understanding, qualitative research will become even more insightful and useful to decision-makers.

From this influx of tools and capabilities is emerging a research profession with far greater capability to provide understanding and insights than ever before.  “Voice of the Consumer,” “Actions of the Consumer” and even “Emotions of the Consumer” are becoming more evident and better understood.  So, researchers have the opportunity to become more valued partners in the corporate decision-making hierarchy because they hold the keys to understanding and success.  Qualitative research will thrive in the near-to-intermediate term because it is providing an ever-increasing value to the marketer in terms of actionable insights.

However, qualitative research as a discipline is in a long-term decline.  In ten years, qualitative research, as an independent profession, will be much smaller than it is today.  There are two primary macro forces driving this trend.

First is the advance of technology to deliver more quickly information that meets a minimum threshold of quality and insight.  Qualitative research has traditionally been slow, difficult and expensive.  Technology is changing that.  Focused technology can deliver qualitative information for tactical decisions significantly faster than the typical qualitative researcher. Many qualitative researchers currently work on tactical research for which they will not be needed in a few more years.

Second, text analytics is blurring the line between qualitative and quantitative research.  As text analytics improve, the need for human interpretation decreases.  Today’s text analytics on research is generally inadequate to meet the need.  However, analytics improvement will eventually lead to a corresponding decline in the need for human analysts.

Both trends are propelling us toward truly Integrated Research where much qualitative research can be executed, not as a separate discipline, but as an expected skill set for any seasoned researcher. Much of today’s phased research featuring a qualitative phase followed by a quantitative phase will be fused into a single research phase with a single researcher/analyst.  That researcher/analyst will use the technology at his/her disposal to conduct the research and analysis.  The qualitative researcher as we define him/her today will no longer be needed for this work.  So, the size of the qualitative profession will contract.

While the above scenario will shrink the profession, the remaining qualitative professionals will be even more skilled and important than they are today.  These will be the qualitative experts who are proficient in deep, strategic customer studies that mine insights and apply them to strategic decisions that drive the business.  These “qualitative insights consultants” will be even more highly accomplished and highly valued than most qualitative researchers are today.

So, we return to our question, “Is qualitative research thriving or dying?”  The answer is an unequivocal, “Yes.”  The profession is more exciting than ever and is delivering more insights in more ways than before.  Technological capabilities will cause a decline in the number of qualitative researchers, but the profession’s value will increase.  Qualitative research is not evolving to extinction, just to a different place.  It will never look the same again.

If you’re interested in attending Global Qualitative 2014 from 16 November in Venice, Italy you can find more information and register at

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16 responses to “Is Qual Evolving to Extinction?

  1. I hesitate to disagree with Jim, but I really don’t think we will see a decline in the qualitative research discipline. Yes digital has grown and will continue to. But, all the things that can be automated (qual, design, productions, even some text analytics) will be automated. However, automation delivers parity between brands and parity between suppliers. When faced with parity the ambitious, hungry, or desperate need to dig further. And, how do you dig beyond the automated? Qual would be one of my top suggestions?

    I was asked by a blue chip company today what my recommendation would be to a new market research entrant looking to specialise. I dismissed story telling and visualistion (everybody will need to be good at those), my two recommendations were analytics and qual.

  2. I remain highly suspicious of the claims that automatic high-speed computer-based analysis (of what?) will actually provide insights that will enable businesses to achieve significant competitive advantage. Clever as technology is, it is still a long way off anything approaching understanding the way people (broadly – or even narrowly – defined) think and behave (and the two are often different). So while technology may well replace, and has already replaced, a lot of routine analysis, it’s far from being able to do anything very constructive too move businesses forward. that’s done by creativity, and that depends – still – on human insight and human application of the insights. And that will depend on some form of qual research for a long time to come.

  3. Nice piece Jim – there are some sensible insights in your article. From the perspective of a qualitative recruitment agency in Australia, extinction is definitely not we see. There was a decline in in-facility research a few years ago which resulted in a few small facilities (venues only) in Sydney & Melbourne closing down, however since then, business has continued in a positive direction. These days we see many new guises for ‘qual researchers’ e.g. user or customer experience consultants, shopper marketing experts, ethnographers, etc – many of who do not consider themselves to be ‘quallies.’ While there has been a definite increase in on-line qual work (live and over-time sessions), the need for face-to-face interaction, be it in a group setting or one-on-one remains strong.

  4. As we move in the direction of “qualitative insights consultants” as referenced in Jim’s article, the acronym for QRCA might become QICA which a better copywriter than I am could turn into a play on words for ‘quicker’ … a fitting name perhaps for an evolving role

  5. I like reading that “qualitative research is actually evolving to a more nuanced profession.” Though I would suggest that, for at least some of us, it always has been. It’s just been hard to find a way to talk about what we do b/c the the industry at large tried to categorize us as one or the other. From my chair, the best part of what’s happening in the MR industry is the dialog. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

  6. What defines market research as qualitative?
    When information is brought to the table so that it qualifies assumptions, hunches, and perceptions or paints new canvasses it is deemed as being qualitative in nature.
    In the process of ‘qualifying’ this sort of information often ends up answering the why, what, when, how, where, whom, of what relevance/consequence type of questions related to the enquiry @ hand.
    In so much the process of qualifying is per se is method agnostic. It is more aligned to being a way of thinking.

    So how does one define qualitative thinking? From my experience of 13 years of being a “quali-researcher” here is how I would look at this. Qualitative Thinking is
    1. Exploratory in intent with a discovery mindset
    2. Interdisciplinary and collaborative in approach (each person brings a new angle and we need that)
    3. Nonlinear and amoebic in enquiry (whatever it takes- wherever the data goes)
    4. Bespoke (need to find that authentic voice)

    I really liked how the University College London introduces a course on Making Value Judgments: Qualitative Thinking on their website: Mind you it was not a course of market research per se. It states “Looking for meaning in the world and making value judgements is an inescapable part of being human. It is through language that ideas of value are articulated.”

    Three key things stand out for me: 1. Looking for meaning 2. Value judgment (of the consumer in case of MR) 3. Via language.

    The way I see it – so long as these end goals remain relevant, the discipline of qualitative thinking empowered research remains relevant.

    The focus groups can stay or morph into sublime digital entities. It really is beside the point.

  7. It would be extraordinary if the tech changes that have revolutionized retail and marketing, created new media channels and defined new skill sets for practitioners, had not had the same effect on the qualitative research industry and its consultants. These changes have made the qual. toolbox bigger & more exciting, and have enabled consultants to offer much greater depth of insight than ever, despite some dubious methodologies out there (recently I’ve been reading about ‘self-ethnography’ which seems to me a bit like ‘self-endoscopy’: good luck spotting what’s really going on without some expert observation!). Yet the GRIT report shows that focus groups are more popular than ever. There’s a reason for that: they allow agile analysis and decision-making between the observers in the back room. The same can be said for any qualitative fieldwork which puts executives face to face with their consumers or customers, enabling agile learning. Moderators have a role to play here too in facilitating agile insight activation in-field and immediately afterwards. I agree with Jim that qualitative research is becoming more nuanced and more integrated but qualitative research been more than focus groups for many years. A bigger issue for the profession is the strategic skills to help clients activate the vast quantity of insights now generated with the help of technology into actionable recommendations.

  8. Jim, we liked your 20/20 facility in Miami. Looking forward to trying your brand new 20/20 facility in Nashville one day … if of course person to person focus groups are not dead by then. Not sure if Malcolm Gladwell was right. There’s an interesting article in AMA’s Marketing News by Editor in Chief Elizabeth Sullivan interviewing Christian Madsbjerg cofounder of ReD Associates a Copenhagen and New York based innovation and strategy consultancy. It starts “The swirl of conversations bout measurement and analytics, statistical techniques, econometric analyses, modeling methods and algorithms, it’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of technology-empowered opportunity … The marketplace has lost sight of the most valuable and most basic piece of the research process – The people.

    Focus groups, invented in the US, for fast feedback in WW2, may appear to have lost some of their cache but rumours of their death are still perhaps too premature. People (clients) still like to watch and listen (selectively) to people discussing and reacting to brand initiatives.

  9. There is much in this piece to agree with, and much to disagree with! Yes, qual researchers need to be more adept than ever before in many data collection methods.

    However, the phrase that stands out to me is ‘Focused technology can deliver qualitative information for tactical decisions significantly faster than the typical qualitative researcher. ‘ If you ‘deliver’ qualitative information at the end of the day it is is still ‘qualitative information’. The best qualitative researchers have always taken ‘information’, and then analsyed it, found the patterns in it and found the meaning for the client. That is still the case. Text analytics can play a role in helping the researcher analyse and synthesise but without the human mind to make sense of it, the job is unfinished.

    I do feel that over the years, face to face focus groups simply became a bit stale. Nevertheless, the rationale for using them to solve business problems remains valid. In fact, Suzanne Burdon and I will be presenting at the NewMR Festival (Asia Pacific) on some things that moderating online has taught us about how to revive and refresh face to face groups.

  10. Great article and great emphasis on the two trends of speed and blurring. The expectation (and technological ability) to deliver more information more quickly coupled with the blurring of the lines of what is/can be covered by our discipline make this an exciting field to be in.

    Good luck to Mary and the MarCom committee – your new mission seems to be encapsulating the evolution!

  11. I think qualitative is becoming more relevant, not less. Companies see results by engaging more with customers in lean and agile way, in essence co-creating their solutions by getting ongoing feedback. Today, survey’s still don’t effectively answer why, and big data can’t provide feedback on specific new ideas.

    I heard three key trends at the QRCA event. First, qualitative researchers are using a combination of digital and in-person in a single project, recognizing both have strengths. Second, they are looking toward online communities, rather than trying to create a separate project for every research question. Finally, they are using both qual and quant, so they can be a holistic consultant to their clients. Ultimately, I think clients can insource and automate data collection, but they will still rely on these expert “insight” consultants for truly meaningful engagement.

  12. Very thoughtful and thought provoking article, Jim! I agree that our industry is evolving faster than ever, largely due to technology advancement. While this evolution may result in the automation of some activities that have been predominately qualitative researchers’ territory, I also believe this same technology will open new doors for qualies to explore areas (and ways) we have not been able to explore in the past. Additionally, the inundation of new data sources (passive collection, “big data,” etc.) will only add to the challenge of identifying meaningful insights from the minutiae. Both of these aspects work to the benefit of qualitative research. First, a client’s ability to “humanize” the data will be essential for them to understand the research insights, activate it and to socialize it throughout their organization. Second, as Ray mentioned earlier, the ability to “see” data on this human level will be the factor that separates client organizations. The inclusion of technology, social sciences, neuro marketing, Behavioral Economics, etc. in what we do will be essential to helping our clients get deeper than the data itself, helping them truly understand the people behind the data. No doubt, our qualitative world will be (and already is) vastly different but, for those willing to evolve with it, I believe the qualitative world will become larger and more valuable than ever before!

  13. Interesting, thoughtful article. “Truly integrated research” is definitely where the industry is going and much appreciated by clients. Our qual/quant techniques which we pioneered for the industry over two decades ago (and now conduct in-person on iPads) blends some of the best aspects of both worlds and, for the right research needs, allows to experience the insight, speed and face-to-face benefits clients crave.

  14. Thanks for this article. Over the past 10 years as a qual researcher, I feel like I’ve tried out so many things for the first time, including, yes, self ethnography. Over time we get better at using certain techniques and technology, some become favourites and some are abandoned because the logistics are not worth the output.

    My hope is that as a profession we get better at using technology and spotting what to steer clear of, even as new technology keeps pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

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