Qualitative versus quantitative research — which is optimal?
Qualitative and quantitative research generate different but equally valuable insights, depending on the research subject and research question.
In this article, we’ll pick apart the two categories of research by answering the following questions:
What’s the difference between qualitative versus quantitative research?
How do you decide which to use?
Which will deliver the most insights and value?
What are the benefits and drawbacks of each?
Which incentives are most appropriate for either type of research?
Table of contents
What is qualitative research?
Qualitative research uses open-ended questions to explore thoughts and concepts through language. Encouraging a vibrant discussion is important to getting respondents to share their genuine thoughts and opinions.
Because this type of research involves gathering opinions, the research moderator might delve into an unscripted line of questioning (dependent upon how the participants answer). The subjective nature of questioning is a hallmark of qualitative research.
3 types of qualitative research methods
There are many ways to conduct qualitative research. Popular data gathering methods include:
One-on-one interviews — held in-person, by video or over the phone
Focus groups — typically held in-person to elicit group conversation on key topics
Surveys — featuring open-ended questions encouraging written, narrative responses
Side note: Likert scales can be a type of qualitative research, even though they offer a predetermined list of answers to choose from on a scale — ranging from “very bad” to “excellent,” for example. In this case, the wording is open for interpretation by the individual, because “very good” can mean something different to everyone. Therefore, it's subjective and not objective.
3 qualitative research benefits
Qualitative research asks participants for feedback and experiences in their own words, which has a few benefits:
1. You can gain more colorful insights into participant attitudes, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
2. You can uncover emerging trends or insights that were otherwise unknown
3. Hearing various opinions allows you to evolve and adapt your research questions and hypotheses in subsequent interviews or surveys, which could strengthen your quantitative research strategy
How to analyze qualitative data
Given its subjective nature, a researcher must sift through individual responses manually to identify:
Repeating words or phrases
Themes and patterns
What is quantitative research?
Quantitative research collects numbers and statistics to gain measurable, objective feedback. It requires a larger number of responses than qualitative data to get a more reliable result. Unlike its counterpart, quantitative research involves forming a set of specific research questions that all respondents answer.
3 types of quantitative research methods
1. Closed-ended question surveys
A close-ended question is one that provides a set of possible answers. For example:
Yes or no
A, B, C or D
Select all that apply
On a scale of 1 to 10
These types of surveys are easy to scale and measure. Online surveys are the easiest and least time-consuming to set up and send out, though you can arrange in-store paper, telephone and mail surveys, too.
Polls are quick and efficient ways to get limited data on a specific topic. You can create polls on various online platforms, which then get shared via social media or a segmented email list.
3. Observing data
Observing data helps you gather quantitative information in scenarios where you need metrics like:
For example, websites often track and observe the number of visitors or page views over different time intervals. Observations can be more time-consuming than simply collecting survey data.
4 benefits of quantitative research
Quantitative research has a few inherent benefits:
Identically structured data (across participants) is easier to measure and draw conclusions from. Many automated survey platforms can filter information for you.
It produces objective, non-biased results (assuming research was conducted on a representative sample of the population)
Quantitative research is less time consuming and easier to scale than qualitative research.
How to analyze quantitative data
Statistical data analysis is the most popular way to process numerical data. It allows you to compare your results to find many key metrics, including:
Highest and lowest values
Gap analysis compares your collected results with your desired numerical goals — to find out which areas need improvement.
Trend analysis compares results over time to identify trends and changes.
What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?
The difference between qualitative and quantitative research is the type of information you’re hoping to gather and how you’d like to analyze that information. Qualitative research focuses on understanding:
These can be instrumental in developing products and services. Numbers only tell us so much. According to QRCA, a community of qualitative research professionals, qualitative research also reveals how customers may feel about your:
What influences certain behaviors
Quantitative research is about drawing facts that you can measure numerically. Hard figures help you:
Show exactly what works and what doesn't (without guesswork)
Make tactical and strategic decisions
Guide business strategies and goals
Surveys conducted regularly over time can show you trends and changing data, too.
Mixed method approach
You don't have to stick with one kind of research. According to a 2017 study by University of Alabama at Birmingham, using qualitative and quantitative research together can yield powerful results that wouldn’t be possible on their own.
This is a mixed-method or hybrid style of research.
Explanatory sequential research focuses on gathering numerical data. Then you follow up with qualitative questions to validate the reasoning behind the respondent’s choices. Exploratory sequential research is the inverse of explanatory. You gather experiential data and then back up your findings after with quantitative data analysis.
Qualitative vs quantitative survey questions
Both kinds of research can use surveys to obtain useful feedback. Here, we’ll define the differences between the questions asked in qualitative and quantitative research to get the best results.
Qualitative survey question examples
To obtain meaningful information in a qualitative survey, open-ended questions are a must. Avoid questions with “yes” or “no” answers. Focus on:
Pro tip: If you’re conducting an interview and accidentally ask a yes/no question, there’s a simple solution: Ask “Why do you feel that way?”
When interviewing individuals or groups:
Make participants feel comfortable by first asking easy questions or for light-hearted information about themselves
Transition into more challenging questions that ask about their sentiment on a specific aspect or feature of the main topic
Then ask your most specific questions
Always end interviews by asking some version of this question: “What did I not ask about that we should be thinking about?”
Interviews conducted in person or on video call often yield the best results, because you can observe body language. Interviews can work well over the phone. Questions answered in writing or over email are the least effective because they require more effort from the participant to write out their thoughts.
Pro tip: When asking participants to write answers to open ended responses, ask your most important questions first. They’re more likely to get fatigued the more questions you ask.
A line of questioning in a focus group interview about the fictional breakfast cereal, Fiber O’s, might look like this:
Tell me about yourself and your first memory of eating Fiber O’s.
What can you tell me about the taste of Fiber O’s?
How does eating a bowl of Fiber O’s make you feel?
What do you dislike about Fiber O’s?
Would you recommend Fiber O’s to your friends? Why or why?
What have we not discussed regarding Fiber O’s that we should be thinking about?
Quantitative survey question examples
This research focuses on data and statistics, which means closed questions are ideal. Finalize your questions prior to conducting research — so every respondent provides data on the same questions. Examples of quantitative questions are:
1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with the technical support you received at XYZ brand?
2. Why did you decide to cancel your membership?
a) Too expensive
b) Not enough features
c) Wasn't happy with the support
d) Didn't use it enough
3. How often do you visit XYZ brand's store in person?
b) Several times a week
c) Several times a month
d) Less than once a month
Is a survey a quantitative or qualitative research method?
You can successfully use both open-ended and closed questions in surveys. A solid approach begins with qualitative research methods to establish your initial strategy, then use your findings to get numerical data to provide measurable results.
Some number-driven surveys have open questions to ask why the respondent picked their answer, or to ask for feedback on anything they didn't ask in the set questions. This helps pick up useful feedback and reasoning.
Which incentives are most appropriate for either type of research?
By this point, you should have some idea of what type of research you want to conduct:
Now you need to get people to take part in the research. Enter incentive programs.
Incentives are a simple, effective way to maximize research participation. But which incentives do you select for the type of research you’re conducting?
The value needs to reflect the work the participant puts in. In a nutshell, here’s a couple rules of thumb:
For easier tasks like quick multiple choice surveys, your incentive will likely be lower value.
A more in-depth kind of research like a video interview or focus group should be rewarded with a higher value incentive.
You can offer various types of rewards like:
Prepaid Visa® cards
Non-monetary, tangible gifts
Lucky for you, we put together a guide on how research incentives work — and why they’re so effective at optimizing participation.
Both qualitative and quantitative research serve up valuable data in different ways. Qualitative focuses on experiences and is subjective, providing new ideas and concepts. Quantitative deals purely in numbers and statistics and helps you present facts and trends.
Start with gathering opinions and feedback, then use this data to discern what numerical data is most important for you to collect. The end result is a strong research strategy that gives you the data you need to achieve your goals.