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An introduction to qualitative research: the art of induction

An introduction to qualitative research: the art of induction


What is Qualitative Research?
  • It’s in-depth – which means we interview or observe people for long periods of time in order to get a real understanding of their experience, viewpoint, lifestyle
  • Because it’s in-depth, it’s usually small scale, we don’t talk to many people because we spend a lot of time with a few people (which means it’s not representative like quantitative research often is)
  • It’s inductive – it builds theories from what is seen, observed and heard, in contrasting to ‘deductive’ where theories are tested, validated, confirmed.

Qualitative Research in Action
Imagine you wanted to market a new make-up brand to young women. You want an angle, a way of talking about this product (let’s imagine it’s a range: for eyes, skin, lips and nails).

It’s a crowded market – think about all the brands that are already out there and how much advertising they do. Think about how much choice you have when you walk into a store like Boots.

You need to understand your target consumer before you launch your brand, you need to figure out what angle you can take to make her identify with and want your brand. You need research!

If you already know what your angle is (if you have plan that you want to test) then you can consider quantitative research – which is deductive (a larger scale, robust, often representative study) that will test theories. You might show 400 young women ideas for your brand and get them to rate the ideas.
But you don’t have theories to test. You are new to the market, and you need to identify a new marketing angle – one that’s right for your brand and what it offers. So, you need qualitative research.

Different Approaches
There are several different approaches you can take, and they all involve spending time with research participants:

  • In-depth individual. The researcher spends time chatting one to one with a ‘respondent’ who is in her target market. Remembering that the research is inductive (you are building theories rather than testing them), the questioning approach is open ended, exploratory. The researcher’s goal is to find out as much as possible about how the respondent thinks, feels and behaves in relation to wearing make-up. (By the way sometimes these interviews happen with friendship pairs, or couples).

  • Group discussions (also known as focus groups). Here the researcher ‘moderates’ a group discussion with between 5 and 10 respondents. They might, or might not know each other. (You’d need to think about the advantages of interviewing a group of strangers vs friends). Group discussions can be useful because conversations between groups of people helps our brains (sometimes!) get into maximum ‘spark’ and ‘creative mode’. Our brains are made to be social, so social settings fire us up.
  • Observations. Here the researcher observes what’s going on – in this case you can imagine watching someone putting on make-up and starting to learn more about what a woman gets out of wearing make-up simply from watching and really thinking about what she’s doing. These days we have great ways of ‘observing’ without needing to be there, as respondents can film themselves doing stuff and then send us their selfies
  • Mobile Qualitative in fact methods are moving on-line and mobile. Ten years ago nearly all research was done with respondents face-to-face, but these days research is done via bulletin boards; through mobile apps; via email conversations; with on-line group discussions (where respondents from different locations all input their thoughts).

Key Qualitative Skills
The key word to focus on is inductive. Rather than testing theories, you are building theories and understanding. To achieve this, you need to be very open and fluid in your questioning/ learning approach – following the insight that unfolds throughout the conversation or observations.

Qualitative researchers spend timing honing their:

  • Listening skills so they can really hear and understand what is being said to them (it’s scary how bad we are at truly listening to people – because our minds our usually occupied with ‘us’ more than ‘them’.)
  • Questioning skills so they can ask questions that really open up and reveal insight (there are lots of pitfalls with the kinds of questions you ask, they can be leading, they can close down or direct conversations, and importantly they can encourage socially acceptable responses (where the person you are questioning tries to give you the ‘right’ answer rather than the ‘true’ one). Think about asking questions about something as personal as wearing make-up. If you ask a blunt question like, ‘Why do you wear make-up?’ at the wrong time in a conversation it could make someone feel like they are being interrogated about their behaviour, rather than exploring their own fascinating selves…

Good researchers take time to understand how people behave, process information, react to questions. They know that we are ‘strangers to ourselves’ and often rationalise our irrational behaviour, without knowing that’s what we are doing… and they find ways to compensate for these human behaviours by also developing

  • Observational skills: they spend time watching and noticing behaviour as it happens
  • Behavioural experiments: they spend time focusing on how people behave as well as how they say they do…

The Researcher’s toolkit
To help people ‘reveal’ themselves, researchers use stimulus materials. In our make-up study we might want to give women our make-up to try out and explore – that way they can tell us what this make-up is doing for them (vs the competition). We might also want to explore possible ways of talking about the new range: we can develop concept boards that describe the range and different ways of talking about its benefits. We can develop experiments too – giving people different choices and exploring how they make their decisions.

The art of induction
Really useful, good qualitative research helps expose behaviours, feelings, attitudes. Sometimes these are hiding in full sight, camouflaged by their mundanity. Sometimes qualitative research breaks new ground, exploring new experiences.

However, watching, asking, listening is never enough. We need to build theory from what we have seen and observed. In the case of our make-up study, we need to identify what we think is the right way to market the range so that it is compelling to the target market. Perhaps we will have built up a theory around inner confidence, perhaps about defining who you are through make-up… Our theory will have been built on thinking about what we have explored in research, the themes and patterns we have identified from our open, curious exploration of our subject.

Ultimately a good qualitative researcher is a good thinker. They know how to sort and sift the information they have been given and they are able to grow this into insight about the market and the people that they want to buy their product. To be a good qualitative researcher you need to be a master in the art of induction!


Kath Rhodes

I love love learning and so I invest time and resources into exploring social psychology, neuro science, creativity and new techniques in research. Read all about it and help yourself to the ideas that will deliver your business the insight it needs

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@Qualstreet on 12 March 2019