It was opening night, the middle of the second act. As the lights came up the Seven Dwarves carried (Black) Snow White’s poisoned body onstage singing the funeral dirge. But the piano was playing “High Ho.” We had skipped a scene! One more dress rehearsal would have helped. The head dwarf whispered, ventriloquist style: “Take her off stage!” “Huh?” We were confused. But we did it. Backstage the head dwarf barked orders to the Wicked Queen and the Magic Mirror (who was a character in the play) to get out there NOW and perform the missing scene so the story would make sense.
I was a member of the Magic Mirror Players, a predominantly women’s theater troupe in Taos, New Mexico. We produced fourteen musicals (nine originals) from 1975 to 1980. We skewed toward fractured fairy tales, edgy melodrama and sketch comedy. We still laugh about the Snow White opening night mix-up. How could I know then that it would be excellent training for my second career in qualitative research?
In the theater you learn to deal with the unexpected, but you don’t wish for it; in qualitative research, you hope for it.
First, let me explain the key difference between quantitative and qualitative research because their differences are often misunderstood. A lot of people think “qual” is the same as “quant” except with a smaller sample. It’s true that sample size is one key difference between the two methodologies. But to me the most vivid difference is that qualitative involves conversations that are LIVE. (Yes, some online qual is asynchronous, i.e., not LIVE, and we will discuss this on another day.) Quant is a questionnaire. Everyone who takes the survey answers the exact same questions, most of which offer closed-ended answer options. Qual is an open-ended conversation you have with each person interviewed.
In qual studies we develop structured discussion guides (similar to scripts) designed to steer the LIVE conversations to the areas we want to explore. Unlike quant studies, the LIVE qual conversation allows for the unexpected. The surprises we encounter create opportunities for improvisation. This is where qual has an edge over quant research. You cannot probe unexpected findings LIVE in real time in a quant study.
Good qualitative researchers HOPE for the unexpected because it is in those moments that the most valuable information reveals itself. If everything goes as planned, that’s ok. You validate what you already knew and you deepen your understanding of that. But if you are lucky enough to have unexpected developments during a qual study, it opens the door for synergy. Customers say things that the company did not know. This gives rise to more questions that were not in the discussion guide. You have the chance to improvise because it’s LIVE; the mirror works its magic and the story comes to life and makes sense.