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Are surveys qualitative or quantitative? Turns out, they can be both. Learn when and how to use them, then explore our expert survey templates to run your own research.

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Quantitative and qualitative research are complementary methods used in surveys to gather results that are both wide-reaching and deep.

Choosing the method depends on the type of data and insights you aim to capture to serve your research goals. Qualitative data provides  details and context to better understand individual responses, while quantitative data can supply the cumulative results you need to prove the general ideas or hypotheses of your research. To get the best results from these methods in your surveys, it’s important to understand the differences between them. Let’s dive in.

Quantitative research is a methodology that provides support when you need to draw general conclusions from your research and predict outcomes. These methods are designed to collect numerical data that can be used to measure variables. The resulting quantitative data should be structured and statistical to present objective and conclusive findings, relying on systematically analyzed data collection.

Qualitative research is a methodology designed to explain the “why” behind research findings. With less of an emphasis on statistics and structured data, it provides an in-depth understanding of human behaviors, motivations, and emotions through text-based information. 

Qualitative research methods usually involve first-hand observation, such as interviews or focus groups. This type of market research is usually conducted in natural settings, meaning that researchers study things as they are without experiments and control groups.

While qualitative approaches bring depth of understanding to your research questions, it can make the results harder to analyze.

Qualitative data collects information that seeks to describe a topic more than measure it.  This type of research measures opinions, views, and attributes vs. hard numbers that would be presented in a graph or a chart. 

Market researcher analyzing data from product testing research.

In essence, qualitative and quantitative research methods shine light on different survey objectives. Quantitative data can help you see the big picture. Qualitative data adds the details and can also give a human voice to your survey results.

Let’s break down how to use each method in a research project.

  • Formulating hypotheses: Qualitative research helps you gather detailed information on a topic, typically for exploratory research. You can use it to initiate your research by discovering the problems or opportunities people are thinking about. Those ideas can become hypotheses to be proven through quantitative research.
  • Validating your hypotheses: Quantitative research will get you numbers that you can apply statistical analysis to in order to validate your hypotheses. Was that problem real or just someone’s perception? Through the answers you collect, you'll be able to make decisions based on quantifiable information.
  • Finding general answers: Quantitative research usually has more respondents than qualitative research because it is easier to conduct a multiple-choice survey than a series of interviews or focus groups. Therefore it can help you definitely answer broad questions like: Do people prefer you to your competitors? Which of your company’s services are most important? Which ad is most appealing?
  • Incorporating the human element: Qualitative research can also help in the final stages of your project. The quotes you obtained from open-ended questions can put a human voice to the objective numbers and trends in your results. Many times it helps to hear your customers describe your company in their own words to uncover your blind spots.
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Launch a quantitative research study with SurveyMonkey audience and reach a sample audience that matches your needs.

In a world of Big Data, there’s a wealth of statistics and figures that form the strong foundation on which decisions can rest. But that foundation is incomplete without the information collected from real people that gives the numbers meaning. Therefore, these two research methods don’t conflict with each other—they actually work much better as a team.

Here’s our top tips for how to combine the two research methods: 

  1. Conduct qualitative research before quantitative methods
    Qualitative research is almost always the starting point when you seek to discover new problems and opportunities–which will help you do deeper research later. Quantitative data will give you measurements to confirm each problem or opportunity and understand it.

    For example, a conference organizer distributed a post-event survey to understand what attendees enjoyed the most about their event and how to improve using open-ended questions. In addition, they used close-ended questions to track attendance rate, overall satisfaction, the quality of speakers, and the value of information presented. Many responded that the difficult-to-reach location was frustrating. For the next conference, the organizer added quantitative questions on preferred location options based on this qualitative finding to improve accessibility. 
  2. Decide how to get the qualitative data you need
    There are many methods you can use to conduct qualitative research that will get you the richly detailed information you need on your topic of interest.

    - Interviews: One-on-one conversations that go deeper into the topic at hand.
    - Case studies: Collections of client stories from in-depth interviews.
    - Expert opinions: Highly-researched information from well-informed sources.
    - Focus groups: In-person or online conversations with small groups of people to hear their views.
    - Open-ended survey questions: A survey response that lets respondents express their thoughts.
    - Observational research: Observing people using a product or service in daily life.

    However, this open-ended method of research does not always lend itself to bringing you the most accurate results to big questions. And analyzing the results can be challenging—people will use different words and phrases to describe their points of view, with open-ended responses veering off topic from pre-selected responses.
  3. Know why and when to collect quantitative data
    Before collecting quantitative data, first be clear on the specific questions or trends you want to quantify to produce statistically significant insights. As rich and insightful as qualitative data can be, it can also run the risk of being too vague.

    Whenever possible, avoid confusing your respondents with questions that are too general and don't hit at the type of feedback you need to reach your research goal. For example, if you were an internet provider and you asked, "What do you think about your internet service?" you may not be able to glean the details needed to measure specific aspects of customer satisfaction.

    In this example, a more targeted question to gauge satisfaction might be:

    My internet service is reliable:
    - Always
    -Most of the time
    -About half the time
    -Once in a while
    -Never
Employee taking survey

Gaining both types of insight can provide a comprehensive understanding of research subjects; however, if you've already decided you need to know the "why" vs. the "what" (or vice versa), it may be simpler to choose just one research method. Let's break it down one more time:

Quantitative data (what):

  • Enables you to measure behaviors, opinions, and trends through close-ended questions
  • Provides numerical and statistical data to analyze patterns, averages, and correlations
  • Allows generalization of findings by collecting data from large sample sizes
  • Establishes statistical significance, tracking metrics over time and benchmarking against goals

Qualitative data (why):

  • Gives context to behaviors, motivations, and attitudes through open-ended feedback
  • Captures more subjective insights like feelings, opinions, and unique perspectives
  • Enables the discovery of more intangibles like company culture and unmet needs
  • Allows new ideas and themes to emerge organically from participants

Our customer satisfaction survey template includes some good examples of how qualitative and quantitative questions can work together to provide you a complete view of how your business is doing.

How long have you been a customer of our company?

  • This is my first purchase
  • Less than six months
  • Six months to a year
  • 1-2 years
  • 3 or more years
  • I haven’t made a purchase yet

How likely are you to purchase any of our products again?

  • Extremely likely
  • Very likely
  • Somewhat likely
  • Not so likely
  • Not at all likely
  • Do you have any other comments, questions, or concerns?

The following is another example from our employee engagement survey.

When you make a mistake, how often does your supervisor respond constructively?

  • Always
  • Most of the time
  • About half of the time
  • Once in a while
  • Never
  • What does your supervisor need to do to improve his/her performance?

Now that you know the definition of qualitative and quantitative data and the differences between these two research methods, you can better understand how to combine them, or zero-in on one. Put them to work in your next project with one of our expert written survey templates.

We’ve got templates for all types of questions. Check out our library of expert-designed survey templates.

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SurveyMonkey can help you choose whether to collect qualitative or quantitative data to get the best results.