Qualitative Survey Methods

The objective of the qualitative methods is to answer questions like “how?”, “why?”, and “what for?” which should be carefully arranged while making a survey.

Researchers choose qualitative methods to lessen their influence on respondents’ answers. Their goal is to study social reality as it is perceived by people. That is why the set of assumptions might not be defined at the initial stage — the hypothesis will take shape based on collected data.

During sampling for qualitative surveys, researchers select information-rich cases for in-depth examination. The sampling unit in this context is not a person, but some experience or a pattern of behavior.

One of the criteria for representativeness is the theoretical saturation of a category, when each new case no longer provides new data for describing a research subject. For that reason, qualitative studies are conducted in small groups of 10–30 people.

For instance, Sigmund Freud created his theory of the unconscious mind while working with just ten clients. The fundamentals of neuro-linguistic programming were also developed with the participation of a group of ten.

When Are Qualitative Methods Useful?

      • When the goal of the research is described in business terms (for example, boosting product sales) and does not hint at how to approach it;
      • When the researcher wants to know how people select or use a product in normal life;
      • When the motivation that drives people to do certain things needs to be studied in-depth.

Focus Group

A focus group, or focus group interview, is a moderated group discussion on a given subject.

The task of the moderator is to create a relaxed atmosphere, so that the participants feel free to share their opinions, and steer the discussion in the right direction.

A focus group can consist of up to 12 individuals at once. Any more and the moderator will be unable to manage the discussion, and the participants will naturally split into sub-groups and talk among themselves.

Unlike with other methods, focus group interviews enable researchers to see how opinions collide and transform in the course of a group discussion. To make sure the communication goes smoothly, you need to pay heed to certain requirements to focus group participants. They should:

      • have no prior experience with focus interviews,
      • not know the moderator or any of the other participants, as their personal relationships may affect the discussion dynamics,
      • have a well-formed opinion on the subject,
      • be of similar social standing, so that participants can openly state their position.

One of the strengths of focus groups is the speed of information gathering: in just several hours you get an array of opinions of a whole group of respondents.

Since the interviews are caught on camera, the researchers can later analyze non-verbal reactions of participants: changes in their facial expressions, hand gestures, or how they sit. The participants are asked to provide consent to being recorded prior to the discussion.

In-Depth Interview

An in-depth interview is a one-on-one dialog between an interviewer and interviewee. The task of the interviewer is to create a safe space where the respondent can open up and reflect on their needs, expectations, and difficulties related to the product.

Through an in-depth interview, researchers can gain insights into feelings, views, and motivations of customers described in their own words. Guided by the interviewer, the interviewee might even articulate something that they were not consciously aware of before.

During the preparation for an interview, the researcher develops a plan of the discussion with key thematic blocks. Phrasing of the questions is not fixed and can be altered in the process, if necessary. Thanks to its format, the interview is held in a close-to-natural setting. The interviewer does not prompt or interrupt the respondent. Clarifying questions are asked only after the interviewee completes a thought.

The interview questions do not come with predefined answer options, and they are phrased in a way to prevent monosyllabic answers. They start with “how”, “why”, and “can you tell me about…” During the interview, the researcher can also use projective techniques and supplementary materials (cards, photos, collages, mockups).

With the interviewee’s consent, the conversation is recorded, and its transcript is later analyzed by a research team.

Desk Research

During desk research, marketing specialists work with secondary data collected from other projects but valuable for the research at hand.

Data are gathered from open and private sources, such as:

      • official statistics;
      • commercial research data;
      • online and media publications;
      • commercial databases;
      • reference materials.

The researcher can also draw upon internal data from CRM systems, regular reporting, and previous survey results.

Desk research is used to analyze the market structure, its current and potential size.

Key advantages of desk research is the availability of data and the ability to gather it quickly, since the only thing you need is the researcher and their time.

However, that’s also the source of its weaknesses. Since open source data are available to everyone, including competition, they are of little value to business. On top of it, you cannot pull details on target audience profile or customer expectations from secondary data, since they were collected for a different project.


This method involves observing and recording significant object parameters in natural settings. The presence of the observer should not affect the natural progression of events.

As a research method, observation features well-organized and systematic data collection. The observer makes audio and video recordings, and keeps a formal observations diary. The gathered information is also supplemented by text descriptions.

Depending on the observer’s role, there can be open or covert observations. In open observations, people know they are being watched. An example of this is social experiments. However, one should keep in mind that the presence of the observer affects the behavior of participants, so it should be minimized.

The observer effect can be avoided with covert observations, when the subject is not aware of the monitoring. A classic example is a mystery shopper sent to assess the politeness and professionalism of store clerks when dealing with customers.

Depending on the observation site, there can be field or laboratory observations. Field observations are conducted in a natural setting: near the entrance to a store, in shopping aisles, at the subject’s home. For laboratory observations, the researcher creates a simulated situation in accordance with the research objectives.

The main weakness of this method is that we observe the behavior but do not know the motivation behind it. The subject may act uncharacteristically, yet the observer will think that this is their normal behavior. That is why observations are often combined with other data collection methods (in-depth or personal interviews).

Expert Interview

For this method, researchers interview people with expert knowledge of the subject matter, such as experts, opinion leaders, or people with extraordinary experience. In contrast to in-depth interviews where researchers are interested in personal experience of respondents, this method explores the professional experience of an expert as a representative of a group.

The expert interview method is used to:

      • learn industry performance data based on empirical evidence;
      • make middle- and long-term forecasts;
      • conduct a quantitative assessment of difficult-to-measure indicators;
      • study internal business processes of organizations.

The main challenge with this approach is that the experts’ time is a valuable asset, so the interview needs to be arranged and conducted in a short time frame.

If analysis requires a lot of data, researchers can organize group discussions with 4–8 experts. Participants share their opinions, make hypotheses, and debate. Results can be even more valuable than data collected from one-on-one discussions between the interviewer and each expert.

Recruiting for Qualitative Studies

Researchers agree that recruiting is one of the most challenging yet pivotal stages of qualitative analysis.

Efficient recruiting is key to receiving insightful information from real consumers of a product or service. Only with proper recruiting the research sponsor can be sure that decisions will be made based on relevant data, rather than some abstract notions of people who do not even belong to the target audience of the product.

A decision to engage external respondents is made based on the aim of your research. Sometimes it is enough to approach your current clients — for example, if you want to improve the existing product or add new features for power users.

There are several main recruiting channels:

      1. Your clients. If you are working on improving a launched product, you should first consider respondents from your current client base. It is helpful if you have already collected client data with information on their purchases. This will allow you to quickly do the sampling in accordance with the needs of your research.
      2. Your website. You can attract visitors of your site to take part in the research through built-in surveys, pop-up forms or banners. To incentivize them, you can offer discounts or bonus services.
      3. Social media. Social media, online forums, and messengers are a great, free recruiting channel. However, you have to be confident in the reliability of the screener to efficiently filter out irrelevant candidates.
      4. Recruiting agencies. Their services cost money, and there is also the risk of running into an agency that hires freelance and/or incompetent recruiters. During preliminary negotiations, ask the agency if they offer “turnkey” qualitative research and whether they have in-house recruiters.
      5. Recruiting platforms. Thanks to its vast databases and various targeting techniques, this tool can help you to find relevant respondents even for niche research in a short time frame.