July 27, 2018

Exploration and Discovery: Diving Into Qualitative Research

qualitative research

Tyler Cusmina

Senior Market Research Manager, TL Health

Anyone who has worked in business for some time, knows what qualitative research is. But do we truly understand this tool for collecting insights? For example, can you answer questions like:

  • When should I conduct qualitative research?
  • What should the goals be of my qualitative research study?
  • What type of qualitative research should I use?
  • How do I best implement a qualitative research study?
  • What are the pros and cons of qualitative research?

If you know the answer to all the above questions, then this article isn’t for you. But if you are unsure about some or even all the previously listed questions, then keep reading as we are going to dive into each of these questions individually with the hope that by the time you are finished reading this article, you will have a much more in-depth understanding of qualitative research.

What is qualitative research?

Before we begin answering the above questions, I think it is important to first quickly define what qualitative research is. Qualitative research is exploratory research used to gain a better understanding of behaviors, beliefs, opinions and attitudes. 

Qualitative research is typically conducted either one-on-one or in small groups. It is these intimate settings that allow for the free flow of ideas and opinions. Qualitative research is not as structured as other forms of research and is used more as a brainstorming session to develop initial insights and hypotheses that will be applied in later forms of research.

When should I conduct qualitative research?

Now that you know what qualitative research is, let’s consider when you should conduct a qualitative research study. As mentioned previously, qualitative research is exploratory research. This research is typically done in the preliminary stages of data collection when there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding your research topic.

You should conduct qualitative research when:

  1. You don’t know a lot about the market and have lots of questions
  2. You are trying to understand the “why” behind certain behaviors
  3. You want to pressure test some initial ideas/concepts
  4. You have a large list of potential options and want to narrow it down

What should the goals be of my qualitative research study?

Once you have identified that qualitative research is the appropriate tool, you should start to consider what your research goals are.

Qualitative research should be used as the forefront for your quantitative research. This phase of the process is when you should be developing a better understanding of your topic and starting to drive your ideas in a particular direction.

In essence, the overlying goal of qualitative research is to take a range of ideas and hypotheses and generate clarity around them, so you can develop a quantitative research study that will be most appropriate and applicable for the larger population.

Below is a list of some example qualitative research goals:

  • Develop a thorough understanding of the current knowledge, attitudes and practices of my target audience
  • Create a list of product attributes that are most desired by my target audience
  • Identify key markets where my product will have the greatest potential success
  • Learn about the competitive landscape of my potential market

What type of qualitative research should I use?

Now that you have established your research goals, it is time to select which type of qualitative research you will use for your study.

There are two main types of qualitative research: in-depth interviews and focus groups.

In-Depth Interviews

In-depth Interviews (IDIs) are conducted one-on-one between a moderator and a respondent. These interviews typically last about 45 minutes to an hour in length and are conducted either over the phone or in-person. IDIs provide a great opportunity to get individual opinions on various topics without the fear of group think, which is when members of a group tend to all agree on one answer for fear of deviating from the group. IDIs help establish preliminary hypotheses about current assumptions, new product ideas and market attitudes. 

Focus Groups

Focus groups are similar to IDIs except instead of just talking to one person at a time, a moderator will talk to a group of people. Focus groups are usually about six to eight people in size and are often held in-person. A moderator proposes questions to the group and group members are then asked to provide their feedback. It is the moderator’s job to make sure all group members get a chance to express their opinions freely and that the group stays on topic. Focus groups are typically used when issues are a bit more complex and when feedback from other group members can be used to challenge some assumptions and help trigger new ideas. Focus groups are a great way to bring out several ideas and opinions as group members can use each other to help generate discussion. 

How do I best implement a qualitative research study?

After you have established your research goals and selected the type of qualitative research you wish to complete, you will want to think about the best way to implement the study.

First, think about who your target audience is. Are you seeking the viewpoints of Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs)? Community physicians? Nurses? Patients? This will vary depending on your research goals.

After you have determined who you want to interview, think about the types of questions you want to ask them. Besides a few introductory background questions, you will mainly want to focus on open-ended questions that generate a thorough, well-thought out response. Remember, qualitative research is supposed to be exploratory, so try and avoid questions that generate one or two-word responses. After you have created your list of questions, you can then develop a discussion guide.

Once you have selected your audience and created your discussion guide, you will then want to recruit respondents and conduct the interviews or focus group. You can either do this in-person or virtually. The number of interviews and focus groups will vary for each project depending on how long it takes for all possible ideas to be exhausted and responses to start becoming repetitive.

After the interviews/focus groups have been completed, you are then ready to synthesis the data and report on your findings. The first step is to transcribe all of what was said in either your interviews or focus group discussions. Once you have the written transcriptions, you will then want to go through and “code” the data. Coding the data essentially means taking the data and identifying key themes. After you have identified the key themes of the responses, you can then begin to group responses under these key themes. This process will help you organize the data in a way that you can start to pull out some key findings.

Unlike with quantitative research, the qualitative research report will not consist of a lot of charts and numbers. Instead, the qualitative research report should be more text heavy and focus on what were the key takeaways from the interviews/focus group discussions along with specific quotes to support these claims.

What are the pros and cons of qualitative research?

Now that you have a thorough understanding of the qualitative research process it is important to consider the pros and cons of qualitative research.

Below is a list of some of the pros and cons of qualitative research:


  • Develops a deeper understanding of your research topic
  • Helps pressure test ideas and establish preliminary hypotheses
  • Uncovers the “why” behind certain behaviors
  • Helps take a large list of product attributes, ideas or hypotheses and narrows it down to a more reasonable size
  • Allows for the free flow of discussion and unstructured answers
  • Generates new ideas/concepts not previously considered


  • Small sample size
  • When conducting a focus group, you risk the potential for group think
  • Responses are highly subjective
  • Data requires further validation
  • Responses can vary greatly and can be conflicting


Qualitative research is a necessary tool when trying to learn more about a particular topic. It is a great guiding instrument that gives you the insights you need to conduct future quantitative research. Qualitative research also helps you understand the why behind certain behaviors, gives clarity to the unknown and allows you to pressure test ideas/hypotheses.

In-depth interviews and focus groups are the two main types of qualitative research used and both have their benefits. In-depth interviews are held one on one and allow for intimate conversation, while focus groups are conducted with multiple people and allow for the free flow of ideas and opinions.

Conducting qualitative research is fairly straight forward with the keys to having a successful study being: a well thought out research guide, a good moderator/interviewer and a quality research team who will be able to take the research findings and identify the key takeaways.

Although qualitative research is a necessary research tool, it has its pros and cons. Some of the main pros of qualitative research include: helps give guidance around certain topics, brings clarity to ideas and generates preliminary hypotheses used for future research. While qualitative research has many pros, it also has some cons such as: small sample size, possible ambiguous or conflicting viewpoints and the potential for group think.

Qualitative research is a great form of research that all businesses should use at some point in time. Hopefully, after reading this article, you now have a better understanding of qualitative research and will feel more comfortable using it!


Tyler Cusmina

Tyler has seven years of pharmaceutical experience working in Market Research and Pharmaceutical Sales. Tyler holds a BA in Marketing from the Temple University Fox School of Business and a Certificate of Proficiency in Quantitative Analysis Field Of Study Data Analysis from the Burke Institute.

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