Qualitative Research Techniques

Although qualitative research can be used as part of formal or conclusive research, it is most commonly encountered when conducting exploratory research. Qualitative research techniques are part of primary research.

Qualitative research differs from quantitative research in the following ways:

  • The data is usually gathered using less structured research instruments
  • The findings are more in-depth since they make greater use of open-ended questions
  • The results provide much more detail on behaviour, attitudes and motivation
  • The research is more intensive and more flexible, allowing the researcher to probe since s/he has greater latitude to do so
  • The results are based on smaller sample sizes and are often not representative of the population,
  • The research can usually not be replicated or repeated, given it low reliability; and
  • The analysis of the results is much more subjective.

Because of the nature of the interaction with respondents, the training and level of expertise required by the person engaging in the direct communication with the respondents must be quite high.

The most common qualitative research techniques include:

  • In-depth interview
  • Focus group
  • Projective methods
  • Case study
  • Pilot study

The Experience Survey

Any time a researcher or decision-maker needs to gain greater insight into a particular problem, he or she is likely to question knowledgeable individuals about it. This is usually done through an informal, free-flowing conversation with anyone who is believed to be able to shed light on the question both within the organization and outside it. Such an approach is referred to as an experience survey. It is only meant to help formulate the problem and clarify concepts, not develop conclusive evidence.

People seen as providing the insight necessary are not only found in the top ranks of an organization or amongst its "professional" staff, but can also involve front line employees. Who else, for instance, is better placed to comment on recurring complaints from guests? In an experience survey, respondents are not selected randomly nor are they representative of the organization or department within which they work. Rather, they are knowledgeable, articulate and thoughtful individuals.

Related Readings (Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

Case Study

When it is deemed desirable to learn from the experience of others, researchers often resort to the case study. In this comprehensive description and analysis of one or a few situations that are similar to the one being studied, the emphasis is on an entire organization with great attention paid to detail in order to understand and document the relationships among circumstances, events, individuals, processes, and decisions made.

In order to obtain the information required, it is usually necessary to conduct a depth interview with key individuals in the organization as well as consulting internal documents and records or searching press reports. Observation of actual meetings, sales calls or trips, negotiations, etc. can also prove insightful, since "actions speak louder than words", even when it comes to understanding how decisions are made in an organization or why some organizations are more successful than others.

However, caution must be exercised in transferring lessons to other situations: there is no "formula" that can be applied, but rather a context that must be understood and interaction among individuals that must be appreciated. Individual personalities, their vision and drive contribute as much if not more to the success of an organization than processes.

Related Readings (link to Library. Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)

Pilot Study

When data is collected from a limited number of subjects selected from the population targetted by the research project, we refer to it as a pilot study. A pilot study can also take the form of a trial run. For instance, an advertising campaign is tested in a specific market before it goes nation-wide, to study the response by potential consumers.

In a pilot study, the rigorous standards used to obtain precise, quantitative estimates from large, representative samples are often relaxed, since the objective is to gain insight into how subjects will respond prior to administering the full survey instrument. Although a pilot study constitutes primary research, it tends to be used in the context of a qualitative analysis.

There are four major qualitative research techniques that can be used as part of a pilot study. These are

Related Readings (Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)

In-Depth Interview

When it is important to explore a subject in detail or probe for latent attitudes and feelings, the in-depth interview may be the appropriate technique to use. Depth interviews are usually conducted in person, although telephone depth interviewing is slowly gaining greater acceptance.

With the approval of the respondent, the interview is audio taped, and may even be video-taped, in order to facilitate record keeping. Although it is a good idea to prepare an interview guide ahead of time to be sure to cover all aspects of the topic, the interviewer has significant freedom to encourage the interview to elaborate or explain answers. It is even possible to digress from the topic outline, if it is thought to be fruitful.

Interviewers must be very experienced or skilled, since it is critical that s/he and the respondent establish some kind of rapport, and that s/he can adapt quickly to the personality and mood of the person being interviewed. This will elicit more truthful answers. In order to receive full cooperation from the respondent, the interviewer must be knowledgeable about the topic, and able to relate to the respondent on his/her own terms, using the vocabulary normally used within the sector being studied. But the interviewer must also know when it is necessary to probe deeper, get the interviewee to elaborate, or broaden the topic of discussion.

Since an interview can last anywhere from 20 to 120 minutes, it is possible to obtain a very detailed picture about the issues being researched. Even without considering the potential from interviewer bias, analyzing the information obtained requires great skill and may be quite subjective. Quantifying and extrapolating the information may also prove to be difficult.

Related Readings (Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

Focus Group

In the applied social sciences, focus group discussions or group depth interviews are among the most widely used research tool. A focus group takes advantage of the interaction between a small group of people. Participants will respond to and build on what others in the group have said. It is believed that this synergistic approach generates more insightful information, and encourages discussion participants to give more candid answers. Focus groups are further characterized by the presence of a moderator and the use of a discussion guide. The moderator should stimulate discussion among group members rather than interview individual members, that is to say every participant should be encouraged to express his/her views on each topic as well as respond to the views expressed by the other participants. In order to put focus group participants at ease, the moderator will often start out by assuring everyone that there are no right or wrong answers, and that his/her feelings cannot be hurt by any views that are expressed since s/he does not work for the organization for whom the research is being conducted.

Although the moderator's role is relatively passive, it is critical in keeping the discussion relevant. Some participants will try to dominate the discussion or talk about aspects that are of little interest to the research at hand. The type of data that needs to be obtained from the participants will determine the extent to which the session needs to be structured and therefore just how directive the moderator must be.

Although focus group sessions can be held in many different settings, and have been known to be conducted via conference call, they are most often conducted in special facilities that permit audio recording and/or video taping, and are equipped with a one-way mirror. This observation of research process as it happens can be invaluable when trying to interpret the results. The many disparate views that are expressed in the course of the 1 to 2 hour discussion make it at times difficult to capture all observations on each topic. Rather than simply summarizing comments, possible avenues for further research or hypotheses for testing should be brought out.

Focus groups are normally made up of anywhere between 6 and 12 people with common characteristics. These must be in relation to what is being studied, and can consist of demographic characteristics as well as a certain knowledge base or familiarity with a given topic. For instance, when studying perceptions about a certain destination, it may be important to have a group that has visited it before, while another group would be composed of non-visitors. It must, however, be recognized that focus group discussions will only attract a certain type of participant, for the most part extroverts. (Read the set-up for a focus group on the perception and image of a destination in Southwestern Ontario.)

It is common practice to provide a monetary incentive to focus group participants. Depending on the length of the discussion and the socio-demographic characteristics of the participants being recruited, this can range anywhere from $30 to $100 per hour and more for professionals or other high income categories. Usually several focus groups are required to provide the complete diversity of views, and thus this is a fairly expensive option among the research techniques.

This incentive makes it easier to recruit participants, but can also lead to professional respondents. These are people who participate in too many focus groups, and thus learn to anticipate the flow of the discussion. Some researchers believe that these types of respondents no longer represent the population. See the following letter "Vision is blurred..." and response "Focus groups gain key insights..." that appeared in the Toronto Star, for instance.

For further information on focus groups, check out Smartpoint Research Focus Group and also see their links for additional background. You can even sign up to participate in a focus group yourself!

Related Readings (Stewart, D.W. & Shamdasani, P.N. (1990), Focus Groups: Theorgy and Practice. Newbury Park: Sage Publications; Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 14, 1999 A27

THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 14, 1999 A27

Focus groups gain key insights into needs

Re Vision is blurred (Opinion page Aug. 5).

The opinion piece about focus group participation written by Michael Dojc contains many blanket statements based on supposition, with little to link it to quantifiable facts.

Dojc seems to attribute an apathy and incompetence to the recruiters who so willingly (in his view) allow a self-admitted liar such as himself to gain admittance to these groups.

He also seems to think that the recruiting industry is somehow at fault for not finding him out.

As is the case with many activities within this 3ociety, market researchers

have to rely to some degree on the inherent honesty and goodwill of everyday people.

Focus groups provide a unique and Important medium for marketers to gain key insights into target consumers attitudes, needs and wants in a dialogue that allows for in-depth probing.

And, in my observation, not only do Many focus group participants enjoy the opportunity to provide legitimate feedback about a product or service, most understand that their reactions, thoughts, and feelings may have a substantive impact on marketing activities, and as such they do not actively misrepresent themselves.

Of course, there are always a few "bad apples" out to milk the system for whatever they can get.

To weed out these people, Central Files, a centralized database of focus group participants, exists to maintain control over the frequency of respondent attendance, and to exclude undesirable respondents (defined as those who have been determined to have lied during screening, been overly disruptive during a group session, or those classified as professional respondents because they have attended many more groups than normal as a way to make extra money).

The ability of the system to function

effectively is directly related to the number of firms who participate.

The Professional Marketing Research Society, of which I am a member, strongly endorses that all researchers buy recruiting services from those firms who submit names to Central Files, to minimize the chance that fake respondents such as Dojc slip through.

Dojc's description of his interaction with focus group recruiters serves more to reveal his own moral inadequacies (Lying and cheating to make a few bucks) than to expose systemic problems in the research recruitment sector.


THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 5, 1999 A21

THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 5, 1999 A21

Vision is blurred at many focus groups


Many market, research groups are experiencing tunnel vision when it experiencing tunnel vision when it comes to focus group testing. By dipping and double dipping and triple dipping into the same pool of people again and again, focus groups are really working with a fuzzy lens.

I started attending focus groups when I was 16 years old and I always relished the experience of not only trying out a new product, but being paid for it as well. Though it didn't take long for me to rush through the surveys, get my cash and run.

Since then, I have been repeatedly called, approximately twice a month, by the various groups in the Toronto area and even more times since I turned 19.

But now the novelty has worn off and I am beginning to realize the sheer inconsequence of the groups.

I am not the only disenchanted frequent focus group attendee at these gatherings. It did not take long to notice that it is the same people who go every time.

We all know the drill so well that we are never refused entry by the faceless telephone operators who screen candidates.

I came up with this simple formula that has never failed me yet. The first thing you have to realize is that the person on the other end of the phone does not care about you, and while they may not believe everything you say, they will diligently write it down as if it were the gospel.

The following is an example of the typical screening process:

"Hi, this is Casey from X recruiting, would you be interested in participating in a focus group? It pays $30 for 45 minutes."

The answer to this question is an assured "yes" or "sure," depending on your personal preference both will do quite fine.

"First we have to see if you qualify. Have you done a focus group in the last three months?"

The answer is "no."

Even if you have attended one, they will never check their records and even if the same person called you the last time, it is highly unlikely they will remember, considering that they make hundreds of calls every day.

"Do you or any of your immediate family members work in advertising, television, journalism or media?"

Again the answer is "no" and the same aforementioned rules apply. "Which of the following have you purchased in the last week?"

The answer to any question of this type is always an affirmative "yes." Never take a chance. The one negative you give could be the qualifying question. It has happened to me-on numerous occasions and they never let you take it back.

"Actually I did buy a bottle of wine this week, .1 just remembered," I coyly added after being rejected. I was not even given the courtesy of a response as the dial tone rang in my ear.

Do not be concerned that the phone operator will find you strange for haying purchased every item they list off. -They really couldn't care less.

On many occasions they will ask you if you have any friends who would be interested in coming out. Always give them as many names as you can. It never hurts to be nice to people and who knows, maybe your friends will return the favour.

One of my friends invented a fictional twin brother and requalified under the inventive alias for the same focus group just one hour later than the one he had signed up for under his

own name. After finishing the first group, my friend went to the bathroom, put on a backwards Yankees cap, and went right back in.

Once you get in, the rest is child's play. The focus group supervisors will explain everything they want you to do in baby speak and they may even do it twice to make sure you understand that you should write your assigned number in the top left-hand corner of the survey sheet beside the word marked "number."

It's become almost a social event for my friends and I who now go in-groups and make bets as to who will get out first. We take pleasure in writing down funny answers to the stupid questions that are invariably asked, like, how an image of a certain beverage makes you feel. It's truly amazing that companies are throwing around millions of dollars in these so-called research ventures, where they inter view professional focus group attendees who couldn't care less about the product a company is hawking, even if it's one they use on a regular basis.

Michael Dojc is a student at McMaster University and an Intern at the Town Crier in Toronto.




When it is important to collect information on trends, whether with respect to consumer preferences and purchasing behaviour or changes in business climate and opportunities, researchers may decide to set up a panel of individuals which can be questioned or surveyed over an extended period of time.

There are essentially three different types of panels:

The most common uses for panels are

  • Trend monitoring and future assessment,
  • Test marketing and impact assessment, and
  • Priority setting for planning and development.

There are some clear advantages to using panels. These include the fact that recall problems are usually minimized, and that it is even possible to study the attitudes and motivation of non-respondents. However, it must also be recognized that maintaining panels is a constant effort. Since there is a tendency for certain people to drop out (those that are too busy, professionals, senior executives, etc.), this can lead to serious bias in the type of respondent that remains on the panel. Participants can also become too sensitized to the study objectives, and thus anticipate the responses they " should" be giving.

Related Readings (LaPage, W.F. (1994). "Using Panels for Travel and Tourism Research", Ch. 40 in Ritchie and Goeldner; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

Consumer Panels

When researchers are interested in detailed information about purchasing behaviour or insight into certain leisure activities, they will often resort to panels of consumers. A panel will allow the researcher to track behaviour using the same sample over time. This type of longitudinal research provides more reliable results on changes that occur as a result of life cycle, social or professional status, attitudes and opinions. By working with the same panel members, intentions can be checked against action, one of the more problematic challenges that researchers face when studying planned purchases or intentions to engage in certain behaviour (e.g. going on trips, visiting certain sites, participating in sports, etc.).

But looking at trends is not the only use for panels. They can also provide invaluable insight into product acceptance prior to the launch of a new product or service, or a change in packaging, for instance. Panels, whether formally established or tracked informally through common behaviour (e.g. membership in a club, purchase of a specific product, use of a fidelity card, etc.), can also be used to study the reaction to potential or actual events, the use of promotional materials, or the search for information.

Compared to the depth interview and the focus group, a panel is less likely to exaggerate the frequency of a behaviour or purchase decision, or their brand loyalty. Although panels only require sampling once, maintaining the panel can be both time-consuming and relatively costly as attrition and hence finding replacements can be quite high. In order to allow researchers to obtain more detailed follow-up information from panel members, they are usually paid for their services. At the same time, this can introduce a bias into the panel, since the financial incentive will be more or less important depending on the panelists economic status.

Possibly one of the more interesting advantages of panels is that they can provide significant insight into non-response as well as non-participation or decisions not to purchase a given product.

Related Readings (link to Library. Lapage, W.F., Ch. 40 in Ritchie and Goeldner; Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)

The Nominal Group Technique

Originally developed as an organizational planning technique by Delbecq, Van de Ven and Gustafson in 1971, the nominal group technique is a consensus planning tool that helps prioritize issues.

In the nominal group technique, participants are brought together for a discussion session led by a moderator. After the topic has been presented to session participants and they have had an opportunity to ask questions or briefly discuss the scope of the topic, they are asked to take a few minutes to think about and write down their responses. The session moderator will then ask each participant to read, and elaborate on, one of their responses. These are noted on a flipchart. Once everyone has given a response, participants will be asked for a second or third response, until all of their answers have been noted on flipcharts sheets posted around the room.

Once duplications are eliminated, each response is assigned a letter or number. Session participants are then asked to choose up to 10 responses that they feel are the most important and rank them according to their relative importance. These rankings are collected from all participants, and aggregated. For example:

Overall measure

Response Participant 1 Participant 2 Participant 3 Importance
A ranked 1st ranked 2nd ranked 2nd 5 = ranked 1st
B ranked 3rd ranked 1st ranked 3rd 7 = ranked 3rd
C ranked 2nd ranked 3rd ranked 1st 6 = ranked 2nd
D ranked 4th  ranked 4th ranked 4th 12 = ranked 4th

Sometimes these results are given back to the participants in order to stimulate further discussion, and perhaps a readjustment in the overall rankings assigned to the various responses. This is done only when group consensus regarding the prioritization of issues is important to the overall research or planning project.

The nominal group technique can be used as an alternative to both the focus group and the Delphi techniques. It presents more structure than the focus group, but still takes advantage of the synergy created by group participants. As its name suggests, the nominal group technique is only "nominally" a group, since the rankings are provided on an individual basis.


Related Readings (Ritchie, J.R.B., E.L., Ch. 42 in Ritchie and Goeldner)

Delphi Technique

Originally developed by the RAND Corporation in 1969 for technological forecasting, the Delphi Method is a group decision process about the likelihood that certain events will occur. Today it is also used for environmental, marketing and sales forecasting.

The Delphi Method makes use of a panel of experts, selected based on the areas of expertise required. The notion is that well-informed individuals, calling on their insights and experience, are better equipped to predict the future than theoretical approaches or extrapolation of trends. Their responses to a series of questionnaires are anonymous, and they are provided with a summary of opinions before answering the next questionnaire. It is believed that the group will converge toward the "best" response through this consensus process. The midpoint of responses is statistically categorized by the median score. In each succeeding round of questionnaires, the range of responses by the panelists will presumably decrease and the median will move toward what is deemed to be the "correct" answer.

One distinct advantage of the Delphi Method is that the experts never need to be brought together physically, and indeed could reside anywhere in the world. The process also does not require complete agreement by all panelists, since the majority opinion is represented by the median. Since the responses are anonymous, the pitfalls of ego, domineering personalities and the "bandwagon or halo effect" in responses are all avoided. On the other hand, keeping panelists for the numerous rounds of questionnaires is at times difficult. Also, and perhaps more troubling, future developments are not always predicted correctly by iterative consensus nor by experts, but at times by "off the wall" thinking or by "non-experts".

Related Readings (link to Library. Moeller, G.H. & Shafer, E.L., Ch. 39 in Ritchie and Goeldner , and Taylor, R.E. & Judd, L.L. (1994). "Delphi Forecasting" in Witt, S.F. & Moutinho, L. Tourism Marketing and Management Handbook. London: Prentice Hall)

Projective Techniques

Deeply held attitudes and motivations are often not verbalized by respondents when questioned directly. Indeed, respondents may not even be aware that they hold these particular attitudes, or may feel that their motivations reflect badly on them. Projective techniques allow respondents to project their subjective or true opinions and beliefs onto other people or even objects. The respondent's real feelings are then inferred from what s/he says about others.

Projective techniques are normally used during individual or small group interviews. They incorporate a number of different research methods. Among the most commonly used are:

While deceptively simple, projective techniques often require the expertise of a trained psychologist to help devise the tests and interpret them correctly.

Related Readings (Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Rotenberg, R.H. (1995). A Manager's Guide to Marketing Research, Toronto: Dryden; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

Word Association Test

There are a number of ways of using word association tests:

  • A list of words or phrases can be presented in random order to respondents, who are requested to state or write the word or phrase that pops into their mind;
  • Respondents are asked for what word or phrase comes to mind immediately upon hearing certain brand names;
  • Similarly, respondents can be asked about slogans and what they suggest;
  • Respondents are asked to describe an inanimate object or product by giving it "human characteristics" or associating descriptive adjectives with it.

For example, a group of tourism professionals working on establishing a strategic marketing plan for their community were asked to come up with personality traits or "human characteristics" for the villages as well as the cities within their area:


  • Serene
  • Conservative
  • Quaint
  • Friendly
  • Accessible
  • Reliable


  • Brash
  • Rushed
  • Liberal
  • Modern
  • Cold

Most of the tourism industry representatives came from the cities and had strongly argued that the urban areas had historically been neglected in promotional campaigns. As a result of this and other exercises, they came to the realization that the rural areas were a strong feature of the overall attractiveness of the destination and needed to be featured as key elements in any marketing campaign.

Related Readings (Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Rotenberg, R.H. (1995). A Manager's Guide to Marketing Research, Toronto: Dryden; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

Sentence Completion

In the sentence completion method, respondents are given incomplete sentences and asked to complete the thought. These sentences are usually in the third person and tend to be somewhat ambiguous. For example, the following sentences would provide striking differences in how they were completed depending on the personality of the respondent:

"A beach vacation is..."
"Taking a holiday in the mountains is..."
"Golfing is for..."
"The average person considers skiing..."
"People who visit museums are..."

Generally speaking, sentence completion tests are easier to interpret since the answers provided will be more detailed than in a word association test. However, their intent is also more obvious to the respondent, and could possible result in less honest replies.

A variant of this method is the story completion test. A story in words or pictures is given to the respondent who is then asked to complete it in his/her own words.

Related Readings (Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Rotenberg, R.H. (1995). A Manager's Guide to Marketing Research, Toronto: Dryden; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

Thematic Apperception

In the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), the respondents are shown one or more pictures and asked to describe what is happening, what dialogue might be carried on between characters and/or how the "story" might continue. For this reason, TAT is also known as the picture interpretation technique. (click to view an example)

Although the picture, illustration, drawing or cartoon that is used must be interesting enough to encourage discussion, it should be vague enough not to immediately give away what the project is about.

TAT can be used in a variety of ways, from eliciting qualities associated with different products to perceptions about the kind of people that might use certain products or services.

For instance, respondents were shown a schematic logo (click here) and asked what type of destination would have such a logo, and what a visitor might expect to find. Some of the comments were:

  • That makes me think of the garden.
  • It is the city in the country, very much so.
  • It looks like New York, with the Empire State Building right there.
  • Calming, relaxing. There's a tree there so you can see the country-side and you've got the background with the city and the buildings, so it's a regional focus.

Related Readings (Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

Third Person

The third-person technique, more than any other projective technique, is used to elicit deep seated feelings and opinions held by respondents, that might be perceived as reflecting negatively upon the individual. People will often attribute "virtues" to themselves where they see "vices" in others. For instance, when asked why they might choose to go on an Alaskan cruise, the response might be because of the quality of the scenery, the opportunity to meet interesting people and learn about a different culture. But when the same question is asked as to why a neighbour might go on such a cruise, the response could very well be because of "brag appeal" or to show off.

By providing respondents with the opportunity to talk about someone else, such as a neighbour, a relative or a friend, they can talk freely about attitudes that they would not necessarily admit to holding themselves.

The third-person technique can be rendered more dynamic by incorporating role playing or rehearsal. In this case, the respondent is asked to act out the behaviour or express the feelings of the third person. Particularly when conducting research with children, this approach can prove to be very helpful since they "know" how others would act but cannot necessarily express it in words.

Related Readings (Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)