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Why Qual Research is Making a Comeback (and Encroaching on Quant Territory)

Qualitative research has long played second fiddle to quantitative studies. However, that's beginning to change. More researchers are turning away from massive surveys and are embracing the power of actual conversations.

It’s long been said that quantitative analysis is excellent at getting at the what — the demographic makeup of a market, the traffic to a website — but not as successful at answering the why. For this, qualitative research is required. By having conversations with real people, companies can gain a more thorough understanding of why a product is not selling, a company not growing, and so forth.

Unfortunately, despite its advantages, qualitative research has often been seen as more costly and difficult to conduct than quantitative research. Because qualitative research uses a smaller sample size than quantitative research, it requires a more thorough vetting process when sourcing participants, as well as researchers and moderators who know how to uncover high-quality insights. In contrast, the internet has made it easier and cheaper than ever to access large audiences with quantitative research. As a result, most companies use quantitative surveys to understand their customers.

However, a surprising shift has begun taking place: Increasingly, researchers are turning away from surveys with large sample sizes and are instead embracing the power of actual conversations. In the era of Big Data, where everything we do can be measured and analyzed, is qualitative research making a comeback? Here are three reasons why we think it is.

 

There’s too much useless data

The digitalization of the economy has elevated the value of data and led to a proliferation of ways to collect information. Whereas quantitative research was once limited to paper surveys and other manual methods, companies can now measure vast amounts of metrics using digital tools. These range from online analysis software that quantifies data in the background to customizable surveys companies can ask individuals to fill out. One of the most popular quantitative research tools, SurveyMonkey, gets 20 million questions answered on its platform every day.

Having access to all this information has not come without its consequences. For example, because it now takes so little effort to launch quantitative surveys across websites or email campaigns, many organizations do not take the time to consider whether the data they are collecting is actually of value. This is a particular problem when a survey is flawed due to leading questions, poor sample size, or other common mistakes. At best, an organization may simply become overwhelmed by all this data. At worst, they may begin making poor decisions based on information they never should have collected in the first place.

The evidence is mounting that companies are beginning to take notice of this. GreenBook’s 2017 Q3-Q4 Report, for instance, found that the growth of qualitative tools and platforms is expected to outpace those for quantitative for the first time. This tells us that more organizations are choosing to invest their time and resources in the quality of their data — not just quantity.

 

Sample quality is getting worse

The rise of data analysis and the subsequent flood of tools and methods that made it easy to send out mass surveys, poll audience segments, and collect a range of quantitative information has also led to data fatigue. “People don’t want to do 20-minute surveys anymore,” remarked one respondent in the latest Greenbook report. “Until we make grander steps to address these issues, the same old sample data sets will decrease in quality.”

Decreasing sample quality is a prevalent concern among researchers. In fact, the 2017 Q3-Q4 GRIT report also found that 39 percent of researchers believe sample quality will continue to degrade over the next three years. The reasons they cite include an overabundance of surveys, excessively long surveys that discourage respondents, and an increase in privacy concerns.

One of the most alarming reasons why researchers believe sample quality is declining, however, is how many of them reference an increase in fraud, especially by bots. “Respondents are becoming more and more savvy on how to ‘beat the system’ and get more perks/incentives,” one researcher said. “Those who are honest are getting tired of surveys, leaving only dishonest/money driven respondents left to guide online surveys.” Indeed, other studies of online surveys have found that as many as 20 percent of respondents cheat or are otherwise disingenuous with their responses.

While qualitative research can’t compete with the scope and speed of online quantitative studies, it can eliminate all instances of cheating, bots, or other fraudulent responses simply by engaging each respondent in real conversation. It’s one of the most effective ways companies can ensure the ongoing viability of their research.

 

Qualitative tools are better than ever

Although qualitative research can help reveal hidden insights, answer intangible ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions that quantitative research cannot, and is nearly impervious to fraud, it has not traditionally been considered the more technologically advanced research method. In large part, this is because so much of qualitative research depends on the people rather than the tech. With smaller sample sizes, qualitative researchers and moderators must be skilled at engaging with respondents, while the respondents themselves must be high quality.

However, technology is rapidly transforming not only how qualitative research is done, but who is capable of doing it. As a result, qualitative research is becoming more widely used. “Some of the stigma concerning research budgets and timelines has broken down because technology has lowered the barrier to entry,” said Sarah Doody, a researcher and designer. “Software now allows people to do things like recruit users and record sessions. You don’t have to do research in person. You can still do great remote moderated sessions and get everything you need.”

Using today’s technology, companies can quickly find qualified respondents, recruit and schedule them for interviews, conduct those interviews remotely with video conferencing software, and then pay respondents immediately. In particular, the advent of online marketplaces for sourcing respondents has made it possible to locate highly niche audiences that can offer specific feedback. This has turned qualitative research into a potent tool companies of any size can use to quickly and cost-effectively uncover invaluable insights into nearly any field.

 

Qualitative research is on the rise

None of these trends mean that quantitative research is in any danger of disappearing; online surveys and other quantitative methods will remain a valuable way of collecting concrete data. However, as more companies realize the benefits that qualitative research offers, and as better tools and technologies continue to make it more accessible, it may be time for you to consider what insights qualitative strategies can give you.

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