This article is part of a series by Katie Harris, principal at Zebra Connections (if you missed the other parts, start here).  

In this post, I look at the qualitative research process. I won’t cover the actual mechanics of qualitative research, because any good market research textbook will cover that. Instead, I’m going to focus on the thought process.

The qualitative research process

The thought process begins with questions. What kind of questions? Broadly speaking, the kind of questions businesses with even a modicum of customer focus, or those looking to become customer focused, will need to ask:

  • What do our customers or potential customers think of us? How can we connect with them in more meaningful, relevant (and profitable) ways?
  • How do customers or potential customers experience our brand? What do they think about our customer service? What do they think our competitors are doing better than us? What do they think we could do better?

Finding answers to these kinds of questions is what qualitative research is all about.

Three kinds of right

The thing that separates good qualitative research from mediocre or bad qualitative research is the output. Quite simply, good qualitative research delivers useful (and not just interesting) output.

You need to do three things to get useful (and not just interesting) output:

  1. Focus on the right people
  2. Ask the right questions
  3. Focus on the right people and ask the right questions in the right way

Focus on the right people

It may surprise you to learn that defining the right sample (so you can focus on the right people) is not a job for the qualitative researcher. While we can expertly advise on how to structure the sample to achieve the optimal research dynamic, sample definition should fall to those who will actually use the research findings, typically those commissioning the research.

Why? Because defining the right sample is intrinsically linked to, and depends on, the business strategy. And those who wrote the business strategy will be a lot closer to that strategy than the researcher, who may work on the business, but in most cases, doesn’t work in the business.

Leaving sample definition to the researcher is akin to asking them to shape or even define the business strategy.

Ask the right questions

The kind of questions I’m talking about here are questions that address the business’s strategic information needs: what they need to know to get from point A to point B.
Again, this is primarily a job for the people who will be using the research output, because the right (most useful) questions will be based on their particular business and marketing issues. Handing this task to the researcher relinquishes some serious strategic rope.

The right way to ask questions

By now you may be scratching your head, wondering what on earth researchers actually do.

Well, we take the business and marketing objectives and turn them into research objectives. In practice, this means that we take your business and marketing questions to the people (e.g. customers, stakeholders, staff, etc.) in an answerable way. This is the realm of the researcher: this is where we earn our keep and where, if we’re good at what we do, we shine.

What makes a question answerable? What is the right way to ask a question?

Ask any well-seasoned qualitative researcher the right way to ask a question and without a moment’s hesitation, they’ll look you in the eye and tell you straight: there isn’t one right way. There are many.

Check out part two of this series, where I cover the many right ways to ask questions (and give you the low down on those fluffy techniques, which I had planned to cover in this post, but in the interests of keeping it bite-sized, have decided to put into their very own post).