Quantitative or Qualitative Research: How to choose?

Learn the difference between Quantitative and Qualitative Research

Well-executed research provides evidence-based findings critical to advancing knowledge and supporting or nulling claims and assertions that may otherwise be accepted at face value. It is a disciplined, systematic process that requires step-by-step planning through an objective examination of specific issues or problems. Two primary methodologies organizations can as a foundation for data collection and analysis are qualitative and quantitative research.

Quantitative Research

Research that relies exclusively on statistical analyses of data is quantitative. It is all about the numbers - if it can be counted or measured numerically, its quantitative. Quantitative research is great when a large amount of data must be collected and many respondents are needed. It is often used for polling potential voters, requesting employee input on a new organizational policy, or seeking customer views on products and branding.

Types of quantitative research methods

Surveys are the most common measure used to collect quantitative data. Creating questions using a Likert scale provides clear, numeric data. Likert scales typically include five, seven, or ten options based on the education level of the audience, with fewer responses options included for less-educated audiences. For example, a five-point scale is appropriate for a population of school children; or, perhaps even a simple three-point scale for smaller children. Examples of five and seven points agreement scales are shown below.

5 point Likert scale:

  • Strongly disagree
  • Disagree
  • Neither agree or disagree
  • Agree
  • Strongly Agree

7 point Likert scale:

  • Very strongly disagree
  • Strongly disagree
  • Disagree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Agree
  • Strongly agree
  • Very strongly agree

For highly educated, or otherwise well-informed audiences, a ten-point scale can be used. This would be more appropriate for company leaders versus new employees or potential customers. When using a ten-point scale, additional labels (e.g., somewhat agree/disagree, etc.) can be added, or, for better visual appeal, presenting the scale on a continuum may be a better option. Note that using an 11 point scale that incorporates zero as an option has been found to yield better results and fewer nonresponses than a ten-point scale. This is because the neutral option is equidistant from both extreme responses, whereas on a ten-point scale the neutral option crosses response options as seen below, which can potentially confuse respondents, particularly if used as part of a phone survey.

Demographic information also makes more sense as quantitative data because it avoids unnecessary variations. For example, asking an employee, “How many years have you worked at Company X?” will yield clear and specific, numeric responses, especially when options are offered: “fewer than 3 years; 3 – 5 years” and so on. However, if the question is worded more ambiguously, such as “How long have you worked at Company X?”, respondents might get overly specific (“7.5 years”) or offers responses requiring conversion (“since September 8, 1983”). Or, they may provide other honest but unhelpful responses such as, “Too many!” which would result in a nonresponse.

Businesses often use surveys to gather information about their market and customers. Common examples include surveys that assess customer attitudes, brand loyalty, new product screening, and acceptance, intention to buy, or customer segmentation.

Structured interviews also provide quantitative data. In these situations, an interviewer asks each individual respondent the same question, in the same order, listing the same response choices. This process is comparable to an oral survey.

Qualitative Research

While quantitative research offers objective, black and white responses, qualitative research provides richer, more substantive data. Think of quantitative data as the building that provides the structure and a clear delineation of space, and qualitative data as the design, furnishings, and personal touches that make it a home. By way of comparison, an architect might ask a client to complete a quick, quantitative survey to get a better sense of the client’s expectations and goals. Questions might include:

  • Do you prefer modern or traditional homes?
  • How many bedrooms do you require?
  • What are the ages of the people who will live in the home?
  • Does anyone have mobility issues or special needs?
  • In which room(s) does your family spend the most time: kitchen, family room, dining room, individual bedrooms, or basement?

These are good questions and the responses will offer insights, but only to a limited degree because the questions are closed-ended; that is, they elicit only pre-determined responses. However, asking open-ended questions encourages more descriptive responses that go beyond “yes” and “no” or selecting from options A, B, or C. In this way the architect will get a more comprehensive and authentic sense of the family dynamic and lifestyle. For example:

  • Tell me about the members of your family.
  • What are your favorite stories you like to share with friends and family?
  • What do you do to relax?
  • How do you like to spend your time together?
  • Where is your “happy place”?

Just these few questions go beyond structure and design to elicit a narrative from the client. Rather than checking boxes, their answers paint a detailed picture that reflects who they are and how they want to be personified. Using qualitative methodologies allow respondents to develop and personalize their responses with their own opinions and ideas, and they can focus on aspects of the issue that most strongly resonates with them.

The importance of an optimal respondent experience

There are many types of qualitative methods. Among the more frequently used are surveys, interviews, focus groups, and observation.

Surveys can be qualitative by using open-ended questions, as demonstrated above. Note that the analysis of open-ended questions requires the creation of a codebook to ensure reliability and consistency in how different coders analyze the data. Creating the codebook, training coders, and analyzing data can be time-intensive. As such, a survey using all or mostly open-ended questions should be restricted to smaller populations.

Compared to a quantitative survey where pre-established response categories are offered, qualitative survey questions focus on “how” and “why” to elicit broader responses. Asking a question like, “What do you like most about Do you use Product X?” allows a customer to elaborate on qualities of the product, cost, different uses, and any other aspect a customer may find relevant. If a similar question was posed in a quantitative survey as, “Do you like Product X?” or “Have you ever used Product X?”, the responses may be misleading because a customer may be a regular user of Product X when it first came to market but no longer uses it because of the price or lack of availability, which is useful information for the company to better understand its customers.

Interviews are one-on-one conversations with individuals who have some connection to the research topic or issue. Interviews generally are semi-structured, meaning the interviewer prepares a list of questions but allows interviewees to expand upon their responses, which leads to additional, new questions. In some cases, an unstructured format, essentially a conversation between both parties, might be appropriate. In these more informal situations, the interviewer has a topic in mind but allows the conversation to flow freely.

Interviews are useful because they offer rich and descriptive responses and respondents are more likely to be candid. On the other hand, because interviews generally take at least 30 minutes, and often run longer, they are more time-intensive than other methods. Also, because respondents have more freedom of expression, it can be difficult to consolidate or summarize findings into specific categories.

When dealing with larger populations, a focus group might make more sense than interviews. This method brings together groups of respondents representative of the larger population to get their views on a specific topic (e.g., a candidate, product, idea, etc.). To maximize participation, six to eight people offers the optimal opportunity for all member to contribute; however, for marketing research, or when participants have little experience with a topic and therefore have less to say about it, groups might be extended to ten participants.

The advantages of focus groups are cost-effectiveness and candor in responses. The group setting can also encourage “piggybacking”, where participants build on each other’s ideas. This is helpful because it builds on topics that are important and also encourages participation from participants who may not be as vocal. For example, a participant might note that “My credit card company keeps raising fees and I feel like I’ll never be able to pay my bill.” This might prompt someone else to add, “The same thing happened to me! I liked the card because I got points but I missed one payment and was late on another, and the next thing I know I had late fees, interest payments and I stopped getting points! You just can’t win!” Having a shared experience makes participants more comfortable and encourages a livelier and more engaged focus group session.

The success of focus groups is directly linked to the effectiveness of the moderator or facilitator. A good moderator puts participants at ease, keeps the participants and discussion on task to make certain everyone has adequate opportunity to participate, and manages the group dynamic to ensure a productive session, all while paying attention to participant's verbal and nonverbal cues. A poor moderator is the greatest potential weakness of using a focus group.

Participant observation

Different levels of participant observation also can be employed as a qualitative data collection method. Participant observation offers a great deal of flexibility as the researcher can be exclusively an observer or participant, or combine the roles to be either an observer who also participates or participant who also observes. These perspectives offer unique insights because the researcher is part of the environment and has a direct connection to the situation being studied. This method is particularly useful when it is important to see how participants engage with others or products. Asking someone what they like or dislike about their new grill or lawnmower can yield useful information, but a firsthand look at how they use and enjoy its features, or where they struggle with certain functions offers a much clearer picture. That said, participant observation remains highly controversial as a research methodology, with critics questioning its lack of objectivity. There also is a risk that the mere presence of an outside researcher can influence the behaviors of those being observed, and thus skew the analysis of the observation.

Ethnography is a qualitative method that incorporates participant observation. Originally popularized by anthropologists, this respected method has become popular across a range of social sciences. Ethnographers become immersed in the setting they study, which offers a much more intimate and detailed empirical look at a population and phenomenon. The drawback of this method is that it requires a lengthy commitment of time and resources as it incorporates several of the methodologies noted here (e.g., interviews, observation), as well as other means of data collection, such as taking life histories, photos, and videos. However, when done well, the data collected is so contextually detailed that it offers unique insights that reflect the emotions and socio-cultural perspective of the participants, beyond what any quantitative method or individual qualitative method can provide.

Mixed Methods Research

Once controversial, the use of mixed methods in research, that is, combining quantitative and qualitative methods, has become increasingly popular and accepted in the past couple of decades. The use of mixed methods, also known as triangulation, allows researchers greater creativity in approaching their research questions while maintaining the rigor of the study. For example, a survey could include both open and closed questions, each yielding appropriate qualitative and quantitative responses. Or one method might be used to inform another. For example, a survey might be distributed to a large population, a global workforce, to identify their views on leadership and organizational processes. Based on the responses, focus groups including participants from various offices and departments might be scheduled to discuss the critical issues revealed by the survey.

Alternatively, employee interviews within an office or company might raise issues that could affect other workplaces. This could lead to the creation of a survey instrument or other instrument that can be used to collect a larger amount of data from a more diverse population, which then can be generalized across multiple workplaces, benefitting a range of organizations.

Using mixed methods can be challenging because it requires additional effort, and thus a team with expertise with the different methodologies being. That said, many researchers believe the added effort is worth it because it is a more accurate reflection of human study. That is, individuals’ experiences cannot easily be captured by a 20 question survey, nor can their uniqueness be adequately encapsulated to make effective recommendations.

To summarize, the type and amount of data needed should dictate the methodology used. To collect the views and opinions of a large number of participants, such as customers or employees from different locations, a quantitative survey allows for convenient and efficient data collection and analysis. If more detailed views are required, interviews, focus groups, or qualitative methodologies allow participants more leeway in their responses, going beyond surface-level description to offer a deeper understanding of how the issue is viewed. Alternately, a mixed-methods approach can be used to determine which specific areas of concern should receive the greatest attention and allocation of resources. Either way, your business will benefit from insights gained by a rigorous, data-driven process that results in clear, actionable findings.

We hope this article has helped you understand the difference between Quantitative and Qualitative research.  

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