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Qualitative before Quantitative

The other day, I read a great article in Harvard Business Review entitled Identifying Unmet Needs in a Digital Age by Jean-Louis Barsoux, Michael Wade, and Cyril Bouquet. It appears in the July-August 2022 edition. Our goal in market research is to reveal unmet needs, spur innovation, and help our clients succeed. Here are some of my thoughts after reading the article.


Market research has moved almost exclusively to digital. We want data and lots of it. We want it clean and easy to work with. With lots of clean data, we give precise quantitative answers. Researchers don’t have to provide insights since it’s all in the data. While collecting market data has moved to the folks trained to use large data sets, we’ve left behind the foundation of understanding markets, your customers, potential clients, and the dissatisfied.


We look to PowerPoint stacks with data, graphs, and interpretations of data. But, they often fail  to reveal what’s behind the data. Digital doesn’t collect feelings, intuition, or context. In fact digital suppresses what’s behind the data, the human side.


Feelings, context and intuition are only available thru in person sense making. Researchers need to talk to people. Not just customers, but non-customers, and dissatisfied users or prior users. This part of a research project needs to be done prior to the digital portion. Without context, intuition, or feeling, how do the survey experts know what to ask, how to ask it, and if they will get the answers that provide the most value?


We have two ways to conduct qualitative research: focus groups and interviews. While focus groups are typically more efficient and less costly, the key to their success is finding the right participants and moderator. Participants need to be your target audience. A good moderator will allow each participant to voice their opinion without influence from others while keeping the everyone engaged.


Much of our qualitative work is interviews. We talk to employers, medical doctors, and financial advisors among others. These folks do not have time to attend focus groups. They are put off at the idea of participating in a group. Usually, these folks have things to say and value a third party independent source spending the time to listen to their opinions and insights. We do this by phone or video calls. We unearth their feelings, intuition, and the context of their responses. What do they think of our client and the services they offer? Have there been good or bad experiences? Are the experiences people, systems, communication or product driven. How strongly do they feel and what are the consequences of their experience.


Let’s assume most companies follow a bell curve of client satisfaction. At either end of the graph lie a few ecstatic customers and some very upset clients. These are the groups who typically respond to surveys. They are emotionally driven to provide their feedback. Often we have found, the majority of customers are non-respondents. They fall in the middle of the bell curve. These are frequently your most important constituents. While it’s important to understand why a customer is upset as well as ecstatic, it’s more important to learn how to move the majority in the middle to better experiences and avoid letting them slip into dissatisfaction. The first step to address the majority in the middle, is to talk to them. Revealing feelings, context and intuition will set you up to accumulate the data you need as well as making better business decisions to serve your clients.


The qualitative research of talking with constituents followed with larger quantitative research in the form of surveys, and other relevant data, positions a market research project to be indispensable. Building from a qualitative foundation, we know the questions to ask, in what way and the data that is ultimately needed. We understand what’s behind the survey responses and their feelings, intuition and context we have revealed. We also  have a firm footing to review other data sources to analyze, interpret, and draw conclusions.


Qualitative and digital research compliment one another. With digital, we can collect large data sets to make determinations. But without the qualitative foundation before digital, the quantitative data will fail to reveal the complete story.

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