Disadvantages of Qualitative Market Research: Science, subjectivity, and sample sizes

In our previous blog post, we shared numerous advantages of qualitative research from its ability to let participants experience concept materials in greater detail, to serendipitous findings, and helping marketers understand the imperfect human being behind the data. Of course, every research methodology has disadvantages that may impact the research outcomes, so we’ll share some of those now.

Qualitative methods are sometimes seen as less important

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Many people don’t realize that the process for conducting qualitative research is highly scientific. Research objectives are carefully described to ensure every important question is formalized and receives the attention it deserves. Detailed interview and discussion guides are prepared to address every research objective, and then reviewed and revised several times. Sampling plans are precisely prepared to identify the demographic and psychographic make-up of the desired research participants. Research moderators and interviewers with years of demonstrated experience within specific cultures and industries are selected. Market research facilities that provide two-way mirrors and record sessions are carefully chosen to ensure the accuracy of data collection. And this is just a high-level list of techniques used to facilitate the collection high quality qualitative data.

Despite all of these processes, some people think that qualitative research is less important or less useful than quantitative research. When it’s a key stakeholder who holds this opinion, it can quickly derail the entire research process. Researchers and research users may have to overcome this obstacle before they can proceed with the research.

Qualitative research isn’t generalizable

Though the methodology is scientific, the results are not generalizable to a broader population. But then, the purpose of qualitative research is not to be generalizable but rather to be deep and nuanced. So no, results generated from several focus groups or interviews cannot be used to project with scientific accuracy to a larger group of people. However, the ideas the arise from the research are very much valid and important for furthering the research objectives.

Researchers need industry experience

Unlike most quantitative studies wherein any researcher can run the data through tabulation and generate basic outputs, many qualitative techniques require the researcher to have a unique set of skills.

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First, the researcher needs to have heightened personal skills to build rapport with participants and help each person to open up about their personal experiences. This is a rare skill and certainly not one that can be learned overnight.

Second, qualitative researchers, need at least an introductory level of knowledge in the industry before they can generate basic outputs. Fortunately, researchers are human beings which means they have basic knowledge of retail environments, customer experience, shopper journeys, and other shared human experiences. However, they may not have knowledge of specific retailers in other cities, or of specific brands and products that are outside of their personal life (e.g., could you insightfully summarize an in-depth discussion of turnarounds, arpeggios, brushwork, rectifiers, and drivetrains?) Research buyers must ensure that the qualitative researchers they work with have appropriate experience for the study they intend to run.

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Responses are subjective

Memories, feelings, emotions, attitudes, and behaviours are affected by cognitive biases. Basically, people aren’t perfect. Whether it’s quantitative or qualitative research, people provide subjective, inaccurate, imperfect, and incomplete responses. In fact, in many cases, people don’t even know they’re providing less than accurate data.

As such, qualitative researchers need to embody principles that are widely used in quantitative research such as margin of error and confidence intervals. Though qualitative data can be very high quality when gathered by a skilled and experienced researcher, those data include errors and cannot be analyzed as if they were error free.

Interpretations are subjective

Unlike quantitative research where the data are prespecified responses to very specific questions, qualitative data are highly subjective. The data include written and verbal words and phrases, as well as nonverbal communication such as head nods and shakes, eye rolls, arm crossing, and so much more. No two participants provide the same verbal and nonverbal responses and, thus, the researcher must use their own skills and experience to consolidate the data as objectively as possible. In a subjective way.

If different researchers were to analyze the data, this would lead to slightly different conclusions and generalizations because each researcher’s own personal experiences impact which pieces of data are viewed as more or less important. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a researcher’s results are wrong or inaccurate, but simply that they’re different. Perhaps equally valid, but less reliable.

Just like quantitative research, qualitative research does not discover “The Truth.” Indeed, Truth can never really be known. The best that researchers can do is offer their best interpretation of a likely reality.

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Analysis takes time

Even though a qualitative study might only include ten participants, it could take just as long to analyze those ten data points as a vastly larger quantitative study. The researcher needs to go through each participant’s full set of written, verbal, and nonverbal data to identify key points and themes. They need to also review the entire set of data to develop key points and themes across all of the participants. All of the points and themes need to be evaluated to determine which ones are more or less important in relation to each of the client’s research objectives. Finally, a completely customized report must be prepared. Just because there are fewer research participants does not mean the report will be quicker to completion.

Small sample sizes make it hard to identify outliers

Qualitative research takes full advantage of smaller sample sizes but, in some regards, it is also hampered by smaller sample sizes. The chances of happening across an outlier within a sample of ten people is much less than within a sample of 300 people. Though you might be able to access far richer and more nuanced opinions in a qualitative dataset, you might be less likely to discover a highly unusual opinion.

Now that you understand the disadvantages and you have discovered that they are vastly outweighed by the advantages, we’d be happy to help you run interviews in Toronto, focus groups in Montreal, or any type of qualitative research across Canada. Please get in touch with us!



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”CanadianWith nearly 40 years of experience, Canadian Viewpoint is a field and data collection company that specializes in English and French offline and online services. We offer sample, programming, hosting, mall intercepts, pre-recruits, central location recruitment, mystery shopping, site interviews, IHUTs, sensory testing, discussion boards, CATI, facial coding, and other innovative technologies. Learn more about our services on our website. Canadian Viewpoint is a founding board member of CRIC (Canadian Research Insights Council).

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