Conducting Qualitative Research

Making the most of your qualitative survey data.

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Qualitative survey research is a less structured research methodology used to gain in-depth information about people’s underlying reasoning and motivations.

The end goal is to develop a deep understanding of a topic, issue, or problem from an individual perspective.

Qualitative research is defined as any form of information collection that’s meant to describe, but not predict, as in the case of quantitative research. Often qualitative surveys are used to come up with a hypothesis, which are then tested using quantitative research.

The pros of qualitative research

Designing a survey when you’re unaware of a group’s general attitudes, opinions, or even words they use to describe your topic is similar to walking across a street blindfolded: You know where you want to go, but it’s dangerous to start your journey without investigating the landscape first.

Qualitative research is exploratory in nature, helping you understand detailed information about a topic or issue. You can then formulate a hypothesis before gathering data that will help you decide whether your hypothesis is correct or incorrect.

The cons of qualitative research

While qualitative research can provide rich, detailed information about a topic or problem, it often is only conducted among a small number of people (or sample) which means that it’s limited to only describing something—qualitative research can’t help you make a decision or come to a conclusion. So while qualitative research can help you understand how people are describing the packaging design of your product, it isn’t able to give you insight on which packaging design is more appealing.

Why qualitative survey research matters

Let’s say you are creating a restaurant feedback survey with the end goal of identifying and improving upon your restaurant’s weak points. You may decide to ask respondents to rate their level of satisfaction with your restaurant’s customer service, menu selection, and food quality.

Though this list may seem extensive at first, it’s completely possible for a significant portion of respondents to be most dissatisfied with issues that were overlooked or too minor to include in the survey, such as the restaurant’s cleanliness or ambiance. With a small amount of qualitative research, you could identify which issues you should to ask about before you even get started. Without qualitative research, your survey could miss potential issues.

Additionally, qualitative research can inform you of which specific words you should be using to be more relatable to your respondents. As a restaurateur, you’re probably familiar with the term POS or point-of-sale system, but many of your respondents will be unfamiliar with that term. Some initial qualitative research can help you refine which terms your respondents or customers commonly use and which one will go over their heads.

Forms of qualitative research

Qualitative research takes many forms. Here’s a quick look at a few ways that you can collect qualitative data:


Interviews collect in-depth content in a one-on-one setting that can be used to better understand a topic or issue. Let’s say you were planning on conducting a survey measuring worker satisfaction in your company.

Before creating your survey, it could be beneficial to conduct interviews to gain some context of the company culture, working conditions, and other concerns that are specific to your company or area. Interviews also give you the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, read body language, and pick up on other subtle cues that a more quantitative research method might not. In addition to learning more about a topic, interviews can also be used to create case studies and gather expert opinions.

Case studies

Your clients can be your number one selling point. Think about the popularity of Yelp or reviews on Amazon: Many consider third party reviews before they decide what product to purchase or which restaurant to go to. Gathering positive referrals or getting your most loyal customers to provide “their story” creates valuable content for winning over potential clients and other customers.

Conducting in-depth interviews with customers often creates the most compelling case studies. Alternatively, you can collect these stories by adding an open-ended question in your survey and using the responses you receive (though remember to always request to use a customer’s statements before placing their private comments in the public eye).

Expert opinions

Many people use expert opinions to gain informed insights on a particular topic. For example, you may be interested in learning about a topic that you don’t know much about (like, ahem, survey best practices). In this case, you’re probably best off conducting a few interviews with experts on the subject. This way, you can ask several open-ended questions and receive the high-quality information needed to better understand the topic.

Focus groups

Usually done in person or online, a focus group asks a small group of people to discuss their thoughts on a given subject. A focus group allows you to gauge the reactions of a small number of your target audience in a controlled but free-flowing group discussion. This form of research is a great way to test how your target audience would perceive a new product or marketing strategy.

Open-ended survey questions

Most often taking the form of a text box in a survey, open-ended questions allow your respondents to provide a unique answer (as opposed to providing a list of predetermined responses to select from). This approach gives respondents the freedom to say exactly what they feel about a topic, which provides you with exploratory data that may reveal unforeseen opportunities, issues, or quotes. You can then use this information to support the hard numbers you’ve collected in the survey. Often it is these quotes or examples that create more powerful statements than many averages and percentages.

Observational research

This approach involves observing customers or people in their actual element. A perfect example would be watching shoppers while they visit your store. How long does it take them to find what they are looking for? Do they look comfortable interacting with your staff? Where do they go first, second? When do they leave without making a purchase? These real-world observations can lead you to findings that more direct forms of research, like focus groups and interviews, would miss.

Now that you’ve learned about qualitative research techniques, learn more about quantitative research techniques, or how to marry the two to get better insights from your data!

This article is part of SurveyMonkey’s Surveys 101 project. We hope to help more people create smart surveys. Learn more about the project and our involvement in the research community.

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