Choosing Qualitative Methods

By Jay Zaltzman and Betsy Leichliter

choosing qualitative options

In last year’s edition of this Guide, one of the most popular features was a checklist of things to consider when planning qualitative research. This year, we have expanded the checklist to reflect the more extensive options now available. As qualitative specialists who do not own or sell proprietary tools or platforms, we both think “agnostically” when it comes to choosing and recommending qualitative methods. We believe there is always more than one way to meet a client’s qualitative research objectives, and in many cases, using multiple methods can provide much richer insights than just one approach. Thinking through the factors on this checklist has helped us and our clients make the best choices.


When choosing methods for qualitative research, consider these three questions first:



Is confidentiality of client information shared during the research absolutely essential? There is no way to completely ensure confidentiality of information when conducting research remotely. A participant who is determined to “steal your secrets” can make a photo or recording of any information you share with them digitally or by phone (although most companies consider this type of espionage to be a very small risk). The safest way to conduct research involving critically confidential information is to get participants in a room and make sure they don’t take anything with them when they leave!



Do the targets you’re interested in have easy access to the internet through their computers, smartphones or other mobile devices?  If not, you may be limited to other remote or in-person methods that do not rely on the internet. Conversely, if you do not want participants to have access to the internet while your research is in progress because you do not want them to do their own “research” about the topics you’re exploring, you may need to choose real-time methods (such as in-person or webcam sessions) so you can limit their access to the internet.



Will your research involve sensory experiences such as foods, beverages, fabrics, fragrances, etc.? Can this be done remotely, or will it require an in-person setting? In-person methods may also be required if your research includes biometrics/neuroscience techniques (eye tracking, skin responses, etc.) or devices such as dial meters.


Once these three questions have been answered, other factors to consider include:



What kinds of information, insights, or inspiration do you need to wind up with?  Clearly defining your objectives up front — the key issues that must be addressed, and any optional insights that would be “nice to know” — will give you the best guidance for making choices throughout your research.



Who needs to be included or excluded from participating?  Which communications methods are appropriate for your target –internet, mobile, telecom, in-person or a combination?  Will they need the flexibility to respond in different ways (such as a choice of texting or voicemail or email) depending on their circumstances? How will requirements for “completion” be defined to participants, and monitored? What are the best ways to identify, recruit and authenticate qualified participants?



Is it ok for participants to be identified or recognizable to each other or to clients, either during or after the research? Or must you (by law or best practices) keep them fully anonymous? If any special permissions are required, how will they be obtained?



Do you need to recruit from client lists or other sample sources? Should recruiting be self-administered online, conducted by qualitative recruiting specialists, or some other way? Who will manage the “handshakes” between researchers, recruiters, facility/platform providers, and tech support from pre-checks through final payments?



Should the research happen in real time/synchronously, or asynchronously, or both ways? Security issues, participant or client availability, the need for discussions to evolve, and other factors can influence this decision.



Should in-person methods, remote methods, or some of each be used? This decision may be driven by security, geography, and other factors on this list.



When, how, and with whom must key learning be shared — while the research is in progress, when it is complete, or over the long term?



When do decision-makers need to act on key learning from the research? When deadlines for deliverables are tight, the best choices may be methods that make client observation and rapid team debriefs easy. Longer timeframes open up more options.



What level of qualitative research expertise will you need to design, conduct, and/or interpret the research? Do the researchers need experience with specific topics, targets, methods or techniques?



Is there time to design, build, and ideally pilot a new method before the research launches? Qualitative projects that depend on internet or mobile-based communications can initially take more time to set up, moderate, monitor, and analyze, compared to in-person methods where adjustments can be made quickly on the fly.



Are there specific techniques you would like to include, such as image sorting, projectives, whiteboarding, game-like activities, role playing, etc.? Many qualitative techniques can work well in person, with webcams, or via computers or mobile devices. A little experimentation can help you quickly decide which methods will be easiest and most effective for your purposes.



Will communications with participants need to be unobtrusive “fly on the wall”) or intrusive (“in their face”) or some of each? Qualitative researchers are finding more and more ways to connect successfully with participants, occasionally or continuously, by combining different communications methods (such as alternating live on-on-one voice calls with online discussion board activities).



Which type of tech solution is best suited to your project? One designed for specific purposes (such as creating diaries) or one that you can use in various ways (such as “one-stop” platforms that combine discussion boards with mobile-enabled channels and other tools)? Simpler solutions may have shorter learning curves, but multi-purpose solutions offer more flexibility, and allow you to manage all participants “under one roof” when you combine online, phone, or mobile-enabled methods.



What types of human technical resources will you need? 24/7 multi-country tech support? Tech checks or on-boarding for participants? Technical training or “co-piloting” for researchers? Guidance on how to design or build your project? Customized branding? Customized features or functions? Special activity reports? Special assistance with output or archiving?  Tell your tech providers as much as you can about what you are trying to accomplish. Then listen and be prepared to re-think your vision if it is not yet easy, reliable, affordable, or feasible.



How much money can you invest in the research, and what expenses are essential or optional?  Users may assume that digital qualitative methods cost less than in-person methods, but that is not always the case. Qualitative research typically requires precise recruiting, so costs to recruit and incent participants are often similar for in-person and digital projects.  Rent for online and mobile platforms is typically less than rent for physical facilities plus travel. However internet and mobile-enabled methods may require more time and expertise from qualitative researchers and technicians. When requesting cost estimates, ask researchers and tech providers to help you understand what their rates do and do not include, and if necessary, options for staying within your budget limits.




“To truly understand whether qualitative options that are new to you are right for your needs, commit a little time and money to explore them in low-risk ways.”


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