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Myths, Truths and Changes in Qualitative Research

25 March

Qualitative research is practiced by a relatively small group of people seeking answers to questions about humans and our relationship to the world we inhabit. The sub-category known as qualitative market research is especially misunderstood. Perhaps this is because things change more rapidly in the business world than in the academic world. Whatever the reasons, there are many common myths and misconceptions about qualitative market research. Here are a few:

  • Qualitative research is “unscientific” because small samples cannot be representative of the general population, and, therefore, qualitative research is useless.
  • Focus groups are rigged by moderators who ask leading questions.
  • Professional respondents taint the findings by lying about their qualifications for inclusion in the study.
  • If we are rigorous in our methodology we can prevent the introduction of bias.

As with most myths, there are some truths in these misconceptions.

  • Samples sizes ARE small, and inferences cannot be drawn to the general population, but generalizability is not the point of qualitative research.
  • Some focus group moderators DO ask leading questions. They are bad moderators.
  • Professional respondents DO lie, but a good moderator will spot them quickly and either dismiss them or disregard them.
  • Yes, rigor mitigates bias. But the relative importance of this axiom is changing. Shifting business demands are recalibrating the tradeoff between rigor and bias. Before you jump to the conclusion this is a bad thing, let me provide some context. Then you can judge for yourself whether you think this is detrimental to the quality of our research.

The “truth” is that there is noise, distortion and imperfection in all social science research. When human behavior, attitudes and beliefs are the thing you are researching, your findings will not offer the certainty of a lab test. Many of us who practice qualitative research feel compelled at some point to preach this sermon because our craft is so misunderstood.

So what’s changing with regard to the question of rigor in methodology and why is it not necessarily a detriment to the quality of the data collected? The demand for high quality video storytelling is growing. This means producing professional-quality renderings of the voice of the consumer for presentation to a group of stakeholders. Here is a summary of the advantages and tradeoffs of using a professional videographer to capture qualitative market research interviews and/or groups. You be the judge. Are the trade-offs worth it? Why or why not?

Advantages

  • Persuasive storytelling
  • Lets viewers feel like there were there
  • Can reach and hold a broader audience’s attention
  • Brings a wider audience of companies, brands, designers closer to the their customers/audience/users in a more vivid and visceral way than our traditional modes of reporting qualitative data

Trade-offs

  • Cannot gauge or control the effect of the camera and the operator  (but most respondents under age 40 are inured to being photographed and videotaped because of the prevalence of social sharing in their lives)
  • Reduces ability to probe more specific and detailed concepts, prototypes, messaging  in favor of more general topics
  • Makes the use of projective techniques less practical because responses don’t lend themselves to self-contained sound bytes

In my view, this shift toward market research captured on video is not a substitution of one method for another, but a new approach that has gained popularity and acceptance in the business world. Here are two examples from our archive:

Mobile Shopping

Fashion Focused Teens and Social Media

What are your thoughts? Have you any experiences or observations on this topic? Do share.

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