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Quantitative vs. qualitative research: Learn the differences and when to use each

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You don’t need a laboratory coat or a Ph.D. to reap the benefits of qualitative and quantitative research. 

But gaining a clear understanding of what these two research methods are—and how to use them to accomplish your goals—is essential for CX leaders and practitioners who want to step up their game with actionable data and valuable feedback about how customers are interacting with and feeling about their company. 

Additionally, to get the maximum value out of qualitative and quantitative research, it’s important to know how these methods differ; instances in which one may be more efficient or effective than the other; as well as the ways in which two methods can be blended to complement one another. 

Although the results generated via each of these methods differ, both qualitative and quantitative research can play vital roles in your customer experience program, yielding actionable data and insights to help guide improvements of your products and service. 

Further, when appropriate, strategically teaming the two methods together can provide a holistic view into how your customers’ preferences, attitudes, behaviors and expectations, offering a powerful tool to build stronger, more authentic connections that can be used to increase loyalty and retention, strengthen your brand positioning, and hone your communications and messaging.    

Companies and organizations that consistently employ these research methods and effectively leverage the results can create a competitive edge by gaining in-depth insights that can drive better decision-making. In a sense, you end up with a data-driven navigation system for your company—identifying persistent or emerging trouble spots to address as well as unearthing valuable opportunities to improve on your strengths. 

What is qualitative research? 

Qualitative research is designed to collect nonnumerical data that provides greater insight into how your customers’ view your company, products, or services. This data is often gathered using open-ended questions. Qualitative research is not mired in statistics, but rather aims to capture more robust and nuanced insights—often emotionally driven—derived from the personal views of those you interview or interact with via surveys or other feedback methods. 

At its core, qualitative research gets to the heart of what customers think or feel about your company. Those candid insights can be assessed and analyzed to help guide your actions to continuously improve in myriad ways.   

What is the definition of qualitative research? 

Qualitative research refers to nonnumerical data obtained by the researcher from first-hand observation, interviews, questionnaires, open-ended surveys, or focus groups.

What is an example of qualitative research?

Say you recently launched a new line of what you hope are the coziest pajamas on the market.   If you want to get a deeper understanding of how your customers think and feel about the new releases, then a qualitative research approach can deliver. A simple example of a qualitative research question in this instance, would be: “Describe how you feel when you wear these new pajamas?”  This question aims to elicit a personalized and emotional response that can provide valuable insight that can’t be gleaned solely from a multiple choice or yes or no question.   

Further, a follow up to that initial question might be: “If there was one thing that could improve this product what would it be?” This question requires a respondent to give some thought about what might make your pajamas even cozier.

Through consistently asking these types of qualitative questions to customers you not only get individualized feedback, but can also start identifying trends that could lead to changes or enhancements that would likely benefit wide swaths of customers. 

What is quantitative research?

Quantitative research methods aim to collect numerical data that can then be used to measure variables. This data is easily quantifiable and enables you to identify “statistical significance.” The data collected is structured and statistical, delivering results that are objective and conclusive, and easy to systematically analyze.

Quantitative research is your go-to when you need data from which you can draw general conclusions, identify key trends, and predict potential outcomes. Quantitative research typically relies heavily on surveys that gives you the ability to readily collect data from a very large sample size.

What is the definition of quantitative research?

Quantitative Research is a structured way of collecting and analyzing data obtained from different sources. It relies on computational, statistical, and mathematical tools to derive conclusive results.

What is an example of quantitative research?

Sticking with the pajamas example, say you’re a month past when the new line hits store shelves and you want to get a quick and clear snapshot of how they are being received by your customers.

You can achieve that through a quantitative survey that features some closed-ended questions that ask respondents to choose from a set of predefined responses.

For example: 

How would you rate our new pajamas?

  • Love them

  • Like them

  • I’m neutral

  • Not a fan

This could be followed up by a simple yes/no question:

Would you recommend our pajamas to a friend?

  • Yes

  • No

The results from these quantitative questions provide conclusive statistical data—for instance, you may learn that 80 percent of your customers love the product, and 78 percent would recommend them to a friend. Capturing this statistical information can quickly show you if you are on the right track, or if you are in need of a major course correct. 

What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research? 

Let’s take a deeper dive into how these methods differ to help guide which approach might be most useful for what you aim to achieve—or if it makes sense to use both methods to gather statistical data as well as nonnumerical insights to get a clearer picture of customer sentiment at the macro and micro levels.

To get a sense of how these methodologies differ, consider the right brain vs left brain analogy. Quantitative research represents the left brain of the two methodologies—data-focused, fact-driven, and analytical. Meanwhile the right brain of this combo, qualitative research, allows for more freedom and creativity into how it is collected in hopes of eliciting richer, more personalized and emotional responses. 

In short, quantitative data is focused on the numbers. Qualitative data focuses on the feels, helping to fill in the story behind the numbers (or the “why” behind the “what”) with more details and depth, which allows you to get a better grasp of the full implications of the customer feedback you receive.

In practical terms, quantitative research relies almost exclusively on closed-end questions in which a respondent chooses from a list of pre-determined answers that best reflect his or her view. Conversely, qualitative research typically relies on open-ended questions, allowing respondents to share their thoughts and feelings.

Whether the data you’re seeking is qualitative, quantitative, or both, GetFeedback’s Customer Research Guide offers advice on several different approaches to conduct customer research to help you improve overall customer experience. 

How do I collect quantitative data?

Typically, quantitative research draws from a large pool of respondents so the results of your research can serve as a valid representation of your broader audience.

As such, online or website surveys, polls, and questionnaires are typically the go-to tools for gathering quantitative data. In some instances, telephone or face-to-face interviews are also used in quantitative research, however those approaches can present a challenge if you aim to engage with a larger audience that is typically required to deliver statistically relevant results.

GetFeedback offers deeper insight into what survey format is right for your audience.

How do I collect qualitative data?

Because qualitative research isn’t seeking numerical data or statistical significance, you typically can gather valuable insights from a smaller pool of respondents.

Much like quantitative data collection, online and website surveys are effective in capturing qualitative insights—the difference being that the qualitative survey questions are open-ended, allowing respondents to share more in-depth views than would be captured in a quantitative study.

Because it is a more manageable pool of participants, telephone and face-to-face interviews can be effective, and allow for follow-up questions that can help unearth fresh insights. Focus groups can also yield meaningful qualitative results, and add a new dimension in that participants have the ability to interact with one another. 

The key benefit of conducting surveys is that you can readily blend quantitative and qualitative questions to get both statistically relevant results as well as more in-depth feedback. Getfeedback’s Complete Guide to Website Surveys provides easy to follow guidance on getting the most of these surveys. 

How to balance qualitative and quantitative research

Depending on what type of results you’re looking for, qualitative and quantitative research certainly can work well alone. Yet, when the opportunity arises, they also play well together.

The key is to find the right balance between the research methods to get the most valuable feedback in the most efficient way possible. To that end, before launching your research, it’s a good idea to clearly define your goal in terms of what you are hoping the data reveals.

After defining a research goal, ask yourself: “what would be the most useful results from my survey?” and more specifically: “How might we best use the data and insights we receive?”

If the answers to those questions require capturing in-depth feedback or experiential data, you should emphasize qualitative research. If you’re looking simply to draw conclusions from a representative data set, then a quantitative survey would offer the best first step.

For instance, if you are looking to gauge the overall popularity of a product or getting a high-level perspective on whether  your customer service department is responding to customer concerns or complaints in a fast and efficient manner, then a quantitative survey should deliver what you need.

Conversely, if you want to get a better sense of how your customers feel about a product, or explore more deeply how customer service interactions left your customers thinking and feeling about your company, then a qualitative approach is likely in order.

In many instances, teaming both methods will provide the most robust data and deepest insights. Often there can be some real benefit to making this a multi-phase process. For example, if you initially conduct a quantitative survey focused on customer service satisfaction gathering, you can then analyze the numerical data to help you hone in the best approach and questions to ask in a qualitative survey that would elicit the most valuable and actionable feedback.

That being said, combining both methods in the same survey can be a cost and time efficient way to get some holistic feedback in one fell sweep. For example, you can ask a quantitative question asking customers to rate your customer service, and then follow up with a “why” question asking respondents to provide additional context to support their rating.

GetFeedback has developed some free online survey templates that include a blend of qualitative and quantitative questions that can be easily tailored to meet your specific needs. This is a quick way to get more direct and actionable insights into customer behavior and sentiment.

Start getting results now!

Now that you’re versed in what sets qualitative and quantitative research apart—and how they can complement one another—it’s time to start putting these methods into action to gain a greater understanding of your customers’ experience with your company.

By strategically using both qualitative and quantitative research, you establish a more data-driven culture in which all of your employees can get a clear picture of what your customers want out of your products and services. This can go a long way in keeping customers happy, can boost morale and collaboration among your employees, and ultimately build valuable brand affinity that is essential in the increasingly competitive marketplace.

The bottom line? Putting qualitative and quantitative research into action is a win-win for your company—and your customers.

Want to get started? A great first step is to check out GetFeedback’s user experience research guide.

And GetFeedback’s Customer satisfaction surveys help explain how surveys can play a key role in keeping customers happy.

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