Methods for Qualitative Research
Qualitative research can be a powerful and appropriate nonexperimental way to explore an academic question rigorously, as when the additional context is needed to explain phenomena missed by quantitative research methods. This tutorial explains the Qualitative Research Methods with best examples.
When properly performed, qualitative research projects add to the body of knowledge on their subjects and make the researcher even more well informed.
The choice of subjects for qualitative research involves nonrandom sampling. When using nonrandom sampling everyone in the population does not have an equal chance to be chosen as part of the sample.
However, non-random does not mean that a marketing researcher chooses the participants haphazardly or without thought. Even when conducting nonrandom sampling for focus groups, interviews and observational research, subjects will still need to be chosen carefully.
There are three basic issues to be considered for selecting research participants, which include demographic and psychographic characteristics, a knowledge of the research issue and the geographical location where potential participants live.
The description of which characteristics are important is called the ‘participant profile’. While there are similarities in the process of choosing participants for each type of qualitative research methodology, there are also specific issues related to the selection process that differ.
Focus group research participant selection issues
Recruitment of inpiduals for participation in focus groups requires the selection of subjects with specific demographic and psychographic characteristics from within a population. Researchers may decide that the sample to include in the research study will be based on demographics such as age, gender, income or ethnicity.
These characteristics may be the most important considerations when choosing a sample because the research involves examining the purchasing behavior of one of these specific consumer segments.
In addition, a new product may be targeted at a specific psychographic group based on their lifestyle or interests. Therefore, it is imperative that researchers include those participants who share these psychographic characteristics so that companies can learn more about their wants and needs.
The location where potential participants live is also a consideration when choosing the sample, as they must be willing to travel to the location where the focus group is being held. If participants do not live within a short distance, they may not be willing to travel in order to take part.
This is one reason for using online focus groups so that distance is not an issue. Least in importance is that participants have particular knowledge about the specific research issues.
Focus group participants may be selected by usage level, but they will not be expected to have any specific knowledge of the relevant industry or of its competitors.
Researchers recruiting a sample for interviews will need to find fewer participants. However, because there are usually only a few interviews conducted it is important to choose each participant carefully.
To do so researchers will develop a participant profile based on knowledge of the research issue with personal characteristics being a secondary consideration.
This makes selection more difficult as potential interview subjects must be screened about their knowledge level. However, fewer participants are needed because of the time it takes to conduct the interviews.
Personal characteristics must also be considered to ensure that the views expressed will provide insight into the target market segment of interest to the company involved.
Location is less important when considering the choice of participants. The knowledge the potential participants have is valuable but it is not reasonable to assume that potential research subjects will be willing to travel to meet with researchers.
Instead, researchers will have to travel to interview these experts or the company concerned must be willing to pay for the research participants’ travel expenses.
The challenge in finding participants will be the time that it takes to choose the correct participants when arranging the interview. It is fortunate that video technology can allow direct online communication without travel.
Observation research participant selection issues
Observation also involves choosing participants. However, with the observation, the location is the most important criterion. The observational research will always take place where participants are involved in the behavior under study.
Therefore, it is this choice of location that is the most important decision when choosing a sample. If the wrong location is chosen, it will be impossible to observe the right participants.
Of course, the choice of location is also based on the personal characteristics of the desired research subjects who will be found there. Because not everyone at the location is of interest to the researchers, they will have to choose potential subjects based on their personal characteristics.
For observational research, these characteristics must be discernible through observation. Even then researchers will need to make a judgment call, personal characteristics such as age would be described in general categories such as ‘young’, ‘aged 18–22’ or ‘middle-aged, 40–55’.
When conducting observational research, researchers gain data without verbal communication as it is behavior, and not knowledge, that is studied. Here technology has also assisted researchers. A videotape can be analyzed or cameras and computers can watch subjects even when the researchers are located elsewhere.
It can take considerable time and effort to find qualified research subjects for qualitative research. Some researchers may also feel they do not have the expertise to find appropriate subjects.
This is especially true if the research subjects are from a population that is ethnically or culturally different from that of the researchers. Professional research subject recruiting firms can provide assistance in these situations.
These companies continually recruit subjects who are promised payment for their participation. The subjects a research company may need could already be in an existing database compiled by a professional recruiter. Alternatively, they can recruit participants who will be needed for studying a unique segment.
Constructing a Sample for Qualitative Research
Snowballing is a system where an appropriate potential participant is identified and is then asked to recruit others with similar characteristics. When using purposive sampling, researchers select potential participants that best meet the sample profile.
For all three of these methods, the question remains of how many people should be involved in qualitative research. There is no rule or formula for the correct number. One concept that can help is saturation. If the researchers are not uncovering any new ideas or concepts, they have probably involved enough participants for the research to be considered valid.
Convenience sampling is used when researchers choose any willing and available inpiduals as participants. This method can be implemented when it is known that a specific location tends to attract the type of inpidual needed for that research study.
The recruitment of participants can then take place in this location as it is where people who meet the profile tend to congregate.
For example, if the research question involves a product used by college students, such as textbooks, the participant profile might describe those inpiduals who attend college. Locating such college students can be accomplished by visiting the college bookstore or library.
Another method of choosing participants is called ‘snowball’ sampling. With this method researchers choose the first participant to match the participant profile. This participant then refers to others with similar characteristics.
The theory for using this system is that the first participant is more likely to know someone like themselves than the researchers. This method is appropriate when the research calls for participants who may be from psychographic or ethnic groups that are very different from those of the researchers.
There are two reasons for using snowballing. Firstly, researchers may not have knowledge of the relevant participants. Secondly, even if they did, potential participants may not respond to an invitation from the researchers to participate.
This may be because they do not understand the process or trust the researchers.
For Example, Recruiting on Facebook? Consider This It is becoming increasingly popular to use Facebook ads to recruit research study participants. However, when doing so, researchers should consider privacy issues.
The researcher placing the ad should be careful to do so in a way that minimizes the ability for both Facebook and a person’s friends to learn that they have clicked on the ad. This is because the researcher may be recruiting on a sensitive subject such as a health issue or drug use.
It is recommended that the researcher avoid using controversial language that can be linked back to the person who is volunteering for the study. For example, rather than using the phrase ‘domestic violence’, the words ‘relationship difficulties’ should be used.
Instead of ‘drug use’, ‘recreational activities’ can be used. Once the potential participant is on the researcher’s website, additional information can be provided.
The reason for taking this precaution is that Facebook uses information from the ads to develop a profile. The person who is interested in participating in the study does not want future ads on the subject showing up on their page.
Question: What other sensitive subjects should be avoided when placing ads for research subject recruitment on Facebook?
When using the snowball process, researchers should choose the first participant carefully. The success of any research will depend on their accurate referral of similar participants.
Once additional participants are referred, it should still be verified that they meet the stated requirements. When this has happened, participants are then sent information on the research study and an invitation to take part.
Even when a nonprobability sampling method such as snowballing is used, the final group of participants should always be analyzed to see if they are significantly different from the profile.
Identifying organizations or groups
After the characteristics that define the desired participants are selected, the next step in the process is to identify the groups with which these potential participants might associate. It may be that the researchers or management know people who fit the profile, but this would be the exception rather than the rule.
Even if the researchers do know appropriate potential subjects, these are not the persons who should be selected. If the potential participants have an existing relationship with a researcher, they may not give objective answers.
If a participant profile calls for current product users, they may be found using internal company information, such as mailing lists or customer databases. For a small business, participants who are product users may be chosen from frequent customers who are currently known to the owner.
Usually, a participant profile calls for people who are nonusers. One way to locate these potential participants is by using organizational memberships.
An effective means of finding participants is to choose an organization that has members who are similar to those who meet the profile of potential participants. Such an organization may be a business membership group, social or service club, civic organization, nonprofit group, church or sports team.
If researchers have access to a membership list this can be used to invite participants. However, because of privacy concerns, such a list will probably not be available.
It may be necessary to contact someone who holds a position of authority in an organization to ask for his or her cooperation.
For example, a sports equipment business that wishes to target college students could recruit focus group participants from sports teams on campus. First, they will need to ask the coaches for their permission.
Once the purpose of the research has been explained, these organizational officials may be willing to provide membership information. They are more likely to do so if they see that the purpose of the research is beneficial to their organization’s members in some way.
For example, if a company needs information on how to adapt products for older citizens to use, members of a senior group may be willing to participate.
If the topic is seen as being beneficial to society, such as why some businesses fail, members of small business organizations may be interested in helping with the research. If an incentive is being offered, this should also be stated.
However, all researchers should be aware that offering incentives can alter the type of people who agree to participate.
Participants can also be found by advertising an invitation to participate. This method is used when potential participants may not be members of any official organization. For example, marketing researchers may need to conduct research concerning how to promote to young people who enjoy skateboarding.
The researchers could advertise at a local skate shop that they are looking for research participants. They can also post a request on a web or social media site that is of interest to skateboarders.
The researchers may need to provide an incentive to encourage participation. This incentive, perhaps skateboard equipment, should be communicated in the research participant request.
Once a list of potential participants has been created, a few short screening questions should be prepared. These questions will verify if the potential research subjects meet the profile determined by the researchers.
The questions can be administered orally and the answers recorded, or a potential participant can be asked to complete a questionnaire.
Using Segmentation Characteristics to Develop a Profile
Organizations can, however, use qualitative research to gather information on those consumer segments to which they currently do not the market. Information from these participants will be specifically needed for research on such subjects as proposed new products.
For example, during a focus group session product ideas can be described and the potential consumers’ responses recorded.
This information can then be used as one factor in the decision-making process. In addition, interviews with participants from a potential target market segment can use questions on such issues as product quality, customer service and any additional services that could be offered to customers.
Because of the time, money and staffing that are needed to design and conduct a qualitative research study, the choice of participants in any research study is critical. This is why time must be spent developing the participant profile.
One method to begin the process of developing the participant profile for a qualitative research study is to start with segmentation characteristics. The main bases for segmentation are demographic, psychographic, usage and geographic.
The research question will provide information as to who should be included in the research sample. However, the information provided in the research proposal might not be specific as to details.
For example, the proposal might have stated that research was to be held with current customers, or with young single professionals who are not currently customers. When the proposal has been accepted and the study is being designed, much more detailed information on the participant profile as to who will participate must be specified.
Choosing participants based on demographics
Probably the easiest place to start developing the participant profile would be to define the potential research study sample participants by demographics. These characteristics will include gender, age, education, income, ethnicity, and even physical characteristics such as height and weight.
Because of the nature of the research question, it might be easy to decide that only males or females are needed or desired. Products that are specifically designed for one gender may require a group that consists of men only. For example, a company might wish to expand their skin lotion product line with a product designed specifically for men.
However, even if the product is for the use of men, if potential purchasers will include women they may also need to be included in the participant profile. The age of potential research participants also needs to be considered. Once again, this may be determined by the research question.
If it specifically asks about the opinions and attitudes of younger or older consumers, then those participants must be chosen with their age in mind. Likewise, groups should be composed of participants from the relevant income, education and ethnicity groups specified by the research question.
However, today there is less reliance on age than other characteristics when choosing participants, as it has been found that it does not readily correlate with other psychographic characteristics as once had been believed.
If the research question does not specify what demographic characteristics are needed, then researchers must decide what criteria should be considered. Even if the benefits a product offers are not specifically designed to be targeted at males or females, gender might still be important.
For example, an automobile company may not be aware of why sales for a specific product are below expectations. The company’s management may believe that the issue has to do with the higher price of gas, making the automobile less attractive to consumers than more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Even when gender is not under consideration as a factor, it is important to have both males and females represented in a study. During research on the mileage issue, for instance, it may be discovered that male participants were unhappy with a recent redesign of the vehicle while females were unaffected.
If a research study does not specify that a certain gender, age, education, income or ethnicity is relevant, participants should be chosen to represent as many of these characteristics as possible.
Researchers might learn (when analyzing the data) what demographic characteristics are actually relevant to the research question. Sometimes it can be a nationality that is relevant. This is particularly true if a researcher is recruiting participants for expert interviews.
Choosing participants by demographic characteristics is quite easy to accomplish. After all, some of these characteristics can be determined simply by looking at a person.
A researcher can determine other characteristics with a quick question about the potential participant’s income or education level. Psychographic characteristics, on the other hand, are not so easy to determine. However, they may be even more important in choosing research participants than demographics.
Psychographic characteristics focus on a consumer’s lifestyle, including their opinions, interests, and attitudes. These are more often the characteristics that influence consumer purchases than demographic factors.
A consumer lifestyle, such as an interest in extreme sports, may still predominantly attract a specific demographic group such as young males.
Their interests would focus on sport, including viewing the sport on broadcast media and reading about it in specialist publications. For these young males, their identity would be based on the values associated with the sport, including a glorification of risk-taking and an anti-establishment attitude.
Consumers today are less likely to identify themselves based on the traditional demographic categories of age and gender. Instead, they are more likely to identify with groups based on lifestyle. Age, in particular, can no longer be looked upon as a predictor of consumer behavior.
Lifestyle groups such as snowboarders may have started out with a specific demographic profile, say young males. However, this demographic profile may now also include females, older consumers, and families.
A company would then have to define the population and participant profile based on psychographic interest in exciting winter sports instead of demographics.
Once a lifestyle involves new demographic segments, other aspects of lifestyle such as opinions, values, and attitudes might remain the same or they may change.
Families involved in snowboarding may value the sport as a way to spend time together rather than as a way to display skills. They would not be likely to value risk, and in fact, may be quite concerned about safety issues.
Lifestyle can be defined as how people cope with the choices they need to make in their everyday life. This would include choices about their physical environment such as their dwelling, clothing, and food. It also includes the values that develop as a result of family and social influences.
Marketers know that it is a lifestyle that often influences the choice of a product. Therefore, a participant profile for qualitative research is often chosen based on lifestyle choice. In fact, the trend now is to segment ever more finely, such as a segment of people who are interested in a specific style of snowboarding.
Predetermined psychographic profiles
It isn’t necessary for researchers to construct a psychographic profile. There are standardized profiles that are available for defining research samples. These standardized systems have been developed by commercial companies. Two that can be considered when trying to determine who should participate in a qualitative study are VALS and PRIZM.
VALS (Values, Attitudes, and Lifestyles) is a system of categorization by psychographic characteristics and is based on the idea that our actions are determined by our personality. These actions include consumer purchase behavior and brand choice.
The categories are based on consumers’ primary motivations and resources. VALS defines motivation as the guiding principle that determines a consumer’s actions. Consumers’ purchases are made to give expression to these guiding principles of who they are.
VALS uses the term ‘resources’ not just to refer to whether or not a consumer has enough cash to make a purchase, it also refers to whether a consumer has the inner drive to make the purchase. These aspects are then combined with basic demographic data to create profiles.
VALS profile motivators
Innovators – many resources, successful life
Thinkers – ideals
Achievers – achievement
Experiencers – self-expression
Believers – traditional, concrete beliefs
Strivers – opinions of others
Makers – self-created self-expression
Survivors – few resources, narrow life
Market researchers could use this system by first working with the client company’s management to identify which of the VALS types of consumers would most likely be able to provide the information needed to answer the research question. Participants could then be chosen who would meet this profile.
The PRIZM system of consumer classification is based on research that has been gathered from many different sources, including psychological studies and census data. The classification system combines consumer behavior information with family status and geographic information.
The family status information includes household income, family size, and age, while geographic information includes housing condition, housing prices and the percentage of home ownership.
Using these psychological and demographic data, PRIZM has identified 14 different groups with 66 different segments. PRIZM then allows researchers to identify the predominant groups in a geographic area.
Researchers may consider geographic location when developing a participant profile based on product availability. If the product to be researched is only available in specific geographic locations, then the research subjects must also come from these areas.
For example, if researchers are conducting a study on consumer motivation when purchasing a locally brewed beer only available in a specific city, the potential research participants will need to be recruited from the area where that beer is sold.
To motivate potential research subjects to participate in the research, they will need to perceive the location as being convenient. The distance a potential participant might be willing to travel would need to be considered when developing the profile. This distance will vary based on the demographic and psychographic characteristics of the research subjects.
Working professionals will want to have the location of the focus group or interview close to their offices so that additional time is not wasted in a second commute. Suburban dwellers may not be willing to travel to the city.
Certain populations, such as the elderly, may find transportation a problem as they may no longer drive. Researchers should remember that they must choose participants within a certain distance so that they are willing to participate.
An aspect of usage to consider as part of a participant profile is product loyalty. Sometimes researchers may describe the participant profile as consumers who are new, lapsed, or frequent product users.
These characteristics cannot be determined without occasional screening questions about the type of product usage. Therefore, the screening questionnaire must ask if a potential participant is familiar with the product, their level of usage and if they have used competing products.
Focus group analysis
After a focus group has been conducted, the final step is to analyze the research findings. This is the responsibility of the moderator, as part of the skill they bring to the role is their ability to interpret what has occurred. The focus group proceedings may have been videoed or taped.
In addition, there may be written notes and also material from projective techniques. All the recorded and written information will be analyzed by the moderator for common themes and unique insights.
After the analysis is completed, a final report will be written. A research report for quantitative techniques will have statistics that are presented in graph or chart form to support its findings.
A qualitative research report will rely on supporting its findings using quotes or projective materials. The final task of the moderator is to provide an oral report of the findings.
Desirable Moderator Characteristics and Skills
One of the key measures in having a successful focus group is to write a focus group script that addresses the research question. In addition, the subjects must meet the participant profile.
Lastly, the right moderator must be selected. A skilled moderator will be able to run a successful focus group even if the subjects aren’t as motivated to participate as would be desired and the questions are a bit too vague or too narrow.
However, a poor moderator will result in an unsuccessful focus group – even with the most carefully chosen and motivated participants and the most well-written script. Choosing a successful moderator requires paying attention to both personal characteristics and skills.
Desirable personal characteristics
Successful moderators will find the research process interesting. It is not necessary, or even advisable, for them to be knowledgeable about the research topic.
However, good researchers continue to find the process of obtaining needed information exciting no matter what topic is under discussion.
A moderator will treat each focus group as being important and will be concerned that it provides the information needed by the company or organization.
If they do not, they might not be willing to spend the time in developing a script and other techniques that will provide the needed information. Instead, they may conduct a focus group using the same procedures and techniques that they used last time.
A moderator also needs to be comfortable with and feel empathy for the participants. This is especially important if a moderator is a different age and from a different income level, religion or ethnicity.
Empathy cannot be faked. If focus group participants come from a group whose opinions are usually ignored, they will quickly notice if a moderator does not treat them as equals.
For this reason, it is best to have a moderator with at least some similar demographic or psychographic characteristics as participants. If this is not possible, the moderator should have at least worked with similar types of participants in the past.
Focus groups using nominal grouping
Sometimes focus group proceedings can become heated because of the topic being discussed. There are some topics that evoke such strong responses that the usual interactive focus group will not work. It is the marketing of ideas that most often elicit these types of responses rather than the marketing of products.
Consumers may have strong feelings about the color, taste, style or design of a consumer product. They may even strongly disagree with the opinions of fellow focus group members, but rarely would such disagreements be so vehement that it would disrupt a focus group.
Market researchers working on issues regarding ideas may find that some of these do elicit very strong responses. Research involving political campaigns, environmental issues, health care access, and other social issues may prompt very strong opinions and disagreements.
For example, if a focus group was held where members felt so strongly either for or against the introduction of genetically altered food, they may either become argumentative or stop participating altogether.
Sexual behavior is another sensitive topic. If a focus group needs to be conducted to get ideas on how to prevent teenage pregnancies, the participants may have strong ethical and moral beliefs.
Under most circumstances, a skilled moderator can prevent or diffuse conflict among focus group members. However, a technique to handle focus groups on especially sensitive topics is called nominal grouping.
Using nominal group session techniques is a way to gain opinions and insights when the topic under discussion may prompt either overly disruptive arguments or silence on the part of participants.
Nominal grouping involves first grouping participants by common characteristics and then having the participants silently list their ideas. These are presented in turn without discussion.
Each idea is then discussed for its importance and relevance to the issue. However, they are not criticized based on merit. Each member ranks the ideas and then the rankings are discussed until a consensus is reached.
For example, a researcher for a community organization might want to gather information on why young people engage in sexual activity. This information will then be used to create a public service announcement.
Participants in such a focus group would be young people who were currently sexually active. Each participant lists the reason why teens become sexually active. However, here the moderator does not allow participants to argue their ideas with each other. Instead of criticizing each other’s ideas, they will discuss how these ideas should be ranked by importance.
Nominal technique for sensitive topics
Have participants silently write their response to a question
The moderator gathers these responses and lists them on a board
The responses are discussed for relevance, not correctness
The participants rank these responses by importance
How do You Know if You Have the Right Focus Group Participants? Decisions on what products to introduce are serious business. The amount of money that can be at risk with a new product launch is in the millions. It is no wonder that companies hold focus groups to get consumer opinions on what will be successful in the marketplace.
The problem is that many people may claim to be an expert on the product just to get in the focus group. One company, First Insight, has come up with a solution to this problem.
They have developed software that can separate the product experts from those potential participants that just want to get the incentive paid to focus group members.
Thousands of people interested in the consumer product category are sent questions that show new products that are in the process of being introduced to the marketplace.
They are then asked which products they think will be winners. Because the process takes only a few minutes and is designed to be fun for the participant, over 90 percent of the surveys are completed.
Later, the responses are then compared with actual sales data. The people who can accurately predict product successes are then asked to be in future focus groups.
Question: How could this process be adapted for products that are services?
Using Technology to Conduct Focus Groups
The traditional focus group is conducted with the participants and the moderator sitting around a table with face-to-face personal communication. However, focus groups can take place online, either using text only or video and audio.
Focus groups can easily be combined with projective techniques to allow participants to communicate ideas in ways other than verbal answers. However, focus group data cannot be used to prove a fact.
In addition, the quality of the data is dependent upon the appropriateness of the participants and the skill of the moderator.
2. Focus group methodology consists of three phases of preparing, conducting and analyzing. In the preparation stage, the researcher meets with management to define the research issues, to develop a participant profile and choose a moderator. The researcher will then prepare a research script.
The conducting phase will involve preparing the facility, moderating the proceedings and collecting the information after the group has concluded. The analysis stage will include transcribing and coding the information. The final report will then be written.
3. Much of the success of the focus group methodology depends on the skill of the moderator. The moderator should have an interest in the research process and empathy with the participants. The skills needed include knowledge of research methods, the ability to handle group dynamics and skill in analyzing and reporting data.
4. Conflict can arise during focus groups. A knowledge of group dynamics including the forming, storming, norming and performing stages can help a moderator to constructively direct the conversation.
Nominal grouping can be used when particularly sensitive topics are discussed. With this technique, participants first privately list ideas that are then discussed for relevance rather than correctness.
Respond in own words
The purpose of an interview is to uncover consumer motivation by allowing participants to respond to a question in their own words. The advantage of this approach over survey research is that the answer is not based on the researcher’s preconceived ideas.
In survey research, even if the question is general in nature, a researcher will have predetermined possible responses. For this reason, it is difficult for new insights to emerge from survey research.
For example, a survey question on why consumers do not buy a brand of breakfast cereal might provide possible answers concerning its price, taste, and availability. However, in an in-depth interview, it might be found that these three factors had nothing to do with consumers not purchasing the product.
Instead, consumers might mention that this cereal is for kids, and not for adults such as themselves. Interviews can lead to deeper insights that might be missed in other forms of research.
Allow time to develop ideas
Interviews allow researchers to probe underlying reasons for consumer behavior, such as why a particular segment of the population is not purchasing a product. If consumers who routinely purchase a competitor’s product refuse to purchase a company’s similar product, there may be a deep-rooted reason for such purchasing behavior.
In-depth interviews with potential fans may be needed to uncover the reason why American football is having trouble attracting fans in Europe, for example. These allow researchers to spend enough time with research subjects to find out the cause of the purchasing behavior.
Interviews can be used to develop hypotheses that can then be tested using quantitative survey research. For example, the owner of an amusement park might wish to conduct a survey on the motivations for attendance. The information obtained will then be used to develop future promotional campaigns.
Attendance at the park is strong and, therefore, management does not believe there are any serious problems that need to be explored with a focus group or in-depth interview methodology.
On the other hand, they do not want to construct a survey form without some input from current customers. They might decide to use intercept interviews of guests leaving the park to quickly gather information.
If the majority of respondents list ‘quality time with my family’ as the motivation for attendance, a survey can then be developed to confirm or deny this hypothesis.
Probe for underlying reasons
Interviews also allow researchers to probe beyond the initial answers given by participants. Sometimes this is necessary because the original answer is unclear. Often participants will use negative terms, such as ‘boring’, ‘ugly’ or ‘useless’, or positive terms such as ‘great’, ‘best’ or ‘exciting’.
The problem with this type of terminology is that it is too general to be of use to the company commissioning the research. In an interview, a researcher can ask for clarification on what a participant means by a word such as ‘ugly’. Is it the packaging or product design? Is it the product’s color, size or shape that the consumer finds so unappealing?
Once this negative information is obtained, a researcher can then obtain information on how the product can be improved by asking what color or shape the participant prefers.
Ask follow-up questions
Another advantage of conducting interviews is that researchers can probe unexpected insights. For example, if during an interview a participant mentions that they enjoy cereal as an evening snack a researcher can probe for more information on how often that participant consumes cereal of an evening.
The researcher may then decide to ask other participants about their consumption habits. From this first insight, that researcher might find that a number of participants consume the same product in the evening. Communicating these unexpected data to the company may provide them with a new promotion idea.
Gain factual knowledge
Expert interviews are used to gain factual knowledge on subjects that are of interest to researchers.
This knowledge may be about benefits that consumers prefer in a product or information regarding a target market segment’s behavior. For example, a company that produces medical equipment for hospitals may be developing a new design for wheelchairs for obese patients.
To ensure that the chair will be developed with the right benefits they may arrange expert interviews with nursing supervisors. From these interviews, researchers might learn that an important criterion in chair design is the height of the seat as nurses have difficulty helping obese patients transfer from a bed to a chair.
Disadvantages of using interviews
A disadvantage of the interview methodology is that researchers must be highly skilled if an interview is to provide useful information. Because each participant is allowed to develop their own ideas every interview will be unique, making the information between interviews difficult to compare.
A final disadvantage is that because of the time and expense of conducting interviews, only a small sample of participants can be used.
Data not comparable
Because researchers use probing questions without knowing exactly what answers may surface, each interview will be unique. While it is difficult to compare data, through analysis, common themes may be found.
For this reason, interview methodology is often used as a prelude to further quantitative research. Because data are difficult to compare, management should be careful when basing important decisions on data obtained through interviews alone.
Small sample size
A series of in-depth interviews will involve many fewer participants than a survey. Because there are few participants, interview research cannot be used to prove or disprove a hypothesis.
While interviewing can provide valuable insights, the quality of such insights will depend on the quality of the research subjects. Therefore, extra care must be taken to ensure that the interview subjects meet the participant profile.
Types of Interviews
The choice of marketing research interviewing methodologies includes in-depth interviews. With this technique, a researcher spends most of the interview exploring consumer motivation and behavior.
Expert interviews are used to gather information from people who are not necessarily direct consumers of a specific product, but have knowledge of either that product and industry or the needs and wants of the market segment that is being targeted.
Intercept interviews are short person-on-the-street interviews that only ask a few predetermined questions. This information can be used to develop hypotheses that can then be proved or disproved by using quantitative research.
Types of interviews
In-depth: one-to-one on a single topic for an extended period
Expert: with someone, other than the research subject to obtaining facts
Interceptor person-on-the-street: short interviews with many participants
Person-on-the-street interviews also ask open-ended questions. In this case, though the interview is kept very short. An intercept interview should only take a few minutes and is therefore limited to three or four questions. The participants are chosen and interviewed at the location where they can be found.
This technique is often used when the subjects needed for the research are unwilling to agree to an in-depth interview. Because the interviews take a short period of time, many more can be conducted.
However, the short time period for person-on-the-street interviews means that there isn’t time for in-depth probing questions. Interviewers used for this type of interview do not need the same level of technical skill.
Instead, it is more important that the potential participants view the interviewer as someone who is friendly and approachable.
For breakfast cereal preferences, intercept interviews might take place wherever a target market segment congregates. If working adults are the target market segment, the interviews might take place outside an office building. If families are the target, the interviews might take place at a shopping center or grocery store.
Types of interview questions include descriptive, causal, consequence and non-directional. Descriptive questions ask for facts concerning behavior. Such questions are usually both easy to ask and easy to answer.
Causal questions ask research subjects to think about why a certain behavior takes place. These questions ask for underlying motivations and take more time and thought to answer.
Even more difficult are consequence questions. These types of question ask research subjects to construct a hypothetical example in their mind and to then respond to how they would act. Non-directional questions ask research participants to determine if there is a relationship between two facts.
Many of the early questions used during an interview will be descriptive. These types of questions ask participants to describe their consumer behavior.
Because these are factual they are both easy for researchers to ask and easy for participants to answer. An example of a descriptive question would be ‘How often to do you go shoe shopping?’
If an interview only consisted of these types of questions, an interview, which is both expensive and time-consuming, would not be necessary. Such descriptive data could be easily obtained by using a survey form.
Descriptive questions: ask for facts
How often do you shop for shoes?
When do you shop for shoes?
How much money do you spend on shoes?
The interviewer could then move on to other suggested causes, such as stress, relationship problems or active social life.
Casual questions: ask for reasons that behavior exists
Why do you shop for shoes?
Do you shop for shoes when you are depressed?
Do you shop for shoes as a result of difficulties at work?
A consequence question will address behavior by a shopper that results from the frequent shopping behavior. Once again, an open-ended question could be asked regarding how subjects feel after they have finished shopping.
Or alternatively, the question can provide a suggested answer by asking ‘Do you feel relaxed after you have finished shopping?’ These questions would provide information on the intangible benefits provided by shopping that cause the behavior.
Consequence questions: what happens as the result of a behavior?
How do you feel after shopping for shoes?
Do you feel relaxed after shopping?
A non-directional relationship question asks whether two variables are related. The question is asked without implying either a positive or negative aspect to such a relationship. An interviewer may want to know if frequent shoe shoppers read many fashion magazines or have many family responsibilities.
There is no clear direction to these questions because the researcher will still not know if reading magazines cause people to buy shoes, as people who read about shoes may not necessarily feel a need to buy them.
In addition, some people who read magazines may feel the need to purchase what they see. Here all that will be known is that a relationship does exist. Further research will be needed to prove this relationship.
Non-directional relationship question: are two variables related?
Do you frequently read fashion magazines?
Do you have many family responsibilities?
For on-the-street interviews, a participant profile will be provided for interviewers. By using the profile, an interviewer will need to ask a single screening question.
Sample participant profile for intercept interviews
Not with young children
Dressed in a style that suggests the person has money for clothes (most likely employed)
Dressed informally (not too fussy about appearance)
When a potential subject is identified, a researcher will then ask a single screening question, such as ‘Do you eat cereal?’ This method is not as scientific as the screening questionnaire used for an in-depth interview.
The reason a full screening does not take place is that potential participants will normally not be willing to provide such information to a complete stranger on the street.
However, because more interviews are conducted, there can be less emphasis placed on each participant exactly meeting the participant profile. The example below shows how the research was used to discover the reading preferences of young people.
Participants for expert interviews are usually chosen on the basis of referrals. Using this method, researchers may be tempted to rely only on people they know in order to save time.
Instead, researchers should ask the management of a company commissioning research for the names of people who would have knowledge of the subject being researched.
These experts might work in the industry under study, such as the cereal industry. They may also be experts on a specific consumer target market segment, such as young men, or be expert on a specific product type, such as breakfast foods.
One question at a time
Another important guideline for researchers to remember when writing questions is to only ask one question at a time. Any more than this will prove confusing for participants to answer. It may also confuse the researcher concerned, who will not know if the answer was to the first or second question.
A question such as ‘How did you choose your last vacation destination and did you enjoy the trip?’ is too complicated for easy response. It can also make an analysis of the data more difficult if a participant had had a difficult time choosing their destination (unhappy response) but enjoyed the trip (happy response).
Write in the words and style of participants
Market researchers, because they have similar educational backgrounds, most often communicate with each other using the same educational level of English and similar vocabulary.
Written language is also often more formal than spoken language. Therefore, the questions researchers write must be ‘translated’ into the everyday language of participants so they do not sound stilted when asked.
This translation will not only include terminology but also grammar, the length of a sentence or question, and sentence structure. Researchers should be familiar with how the targeted participants use language.
This would include any jargon that is used by younger people or by persons from minority ethnic groups. The use of their own language when writing questions will not only help in communication, it will help in establishing legitimacy and trust.
Asking the listener to repeat the question is another test to see if a question communicates the topic clearly. It may also provide researchers with alternative wordings that they may want to incorporate.
Finally, asking a test participant if they would be willing and able to answer a question provides information on whether a topic is too sensitive to be easily answered.
1. Interview research can be conducted to explore ideas, to obtain factual knowledge and to gather information that can be used in developing hypotheses that will be tested using quantitative research.
The advantages of using an interview research methodology include discovering the underlying reasons for consumer behavior, allowing participants to respond in their own words and the fact that researchers can follow up unclear answers with further probing questions.
The disadvantages include fewer participants being involved, the need for a skilled interviewer, and the fact that each interview is unique which makes comparisons of data difficult.
2. Interviews can be in-depth where topics are explored for an extended period. Intercept interviews are short but are conducted with many participants. Expert interviews are used to gather facts.
All types of interviews use predetermined questions. However, only in-depth interviews use unstructured questions to probe more deeply into issues.
3. Interview questions can be descriptive, asking participants to describe behavior. Causal interview questions try to determine the effect of one variable by asking about the ‘Why’ of certain behavior.
These questions will take more time and thought to answer. Consequence questions try to determine what happens as the result of behavior. Non-directional questions ask about the relationship between two variables.
4. When screening potential participants for in-depth interviews a profile should be very specific as to usage, demographic and psychographic characteristics.
A screening questionnaire will be developed for this purpose. For intercept interviews, a sample profile will be developed that will rely on visible demographic characteristics.
The only important consideration for expert interviews is that participants have the required knowledge about a specific industry, consumer segment or product type.
5. Interview questions should only ask what participants can answer and should only allow for one question at a time. In addition, questions should be put into words and phrases that will be familiar to participants.
Finally, any questions should be tested. The type of interview will partially determine the location where it should be held.