What are the Six types of qualitative research?

Qualitative research is the process of seeking out in-depth data and analysis from a target group of customers or users.

It is a form of market research that gets beyond the numbers of how many do something to ascertain why they do, or don’t do something. 

However, there is not a singular form of qualitative market research, and there certainly is not a one-size-fits-all approach that will be best suited to every project.

Six types of qualitative research are defined and, while they will often be used together to create an overall suite of analysis, it is worthwhile knowing how each differs and what the purpose is in each case.

In this post, qualitative research agency Acumen will list the names of the six and then run through them in more detail with an example of how the data might be collected and then analysed.

The Names of the Six Types of Qualitative Market Research

The six main forms are:

  • Phenomenological Method (deriving from phenomena)
  • Ethnographic Model
  • Grounded Theory Method
  • Case Study Model
  • Historical Model
  • Narrative Model

The Six Forms of Qualitative Research in More Detail

Phenomenological Method

Phenomenology uses methods such as observation and interview to try to work out why people make the decisions they make outside of purely logical reasons.

Why does someone choose the more expensive option if they know the cheaper option to be a logically better purchase. 

We do not always act in ways that logic can easily explain, phenomenological research dives into the other contributory factors.

The research method could be said to be seeking how participants feel about things, but it may go even deeper than this – using types of research to delve into their subconscious decision making. 

When we interact with a brand or campaign we may react in what feels like a natural way, rather than appearing to give it much thought. How can qualitative research tap into this, this decision-making process that is all about feeling and instinct.

An example might be in buying a car, people will often do a lot of research and then make a buying decision that is at odds to the logical evidence. There might be a make and model that is seemingly better in every way and yet something overrides this, an instinctive distrust of the brand, or natural inclination towards another. The manufacturer might have a disheartening blend of knowing their model to be the best and yet not getting the sales this should create.

Phenomenological research is therefore not always straightforward and it requires experienced experts skilled in the types of qualitative research. Undeniably though this can be one of the most important of the different types of qualitative research in understanding about how consumers and users really come to make decisions.

It might be that through successful use of this form of data capture there is success in getting people to buy into a brand, that essence of what makes someone a devotee of one trainer brand over another or one form of smartphone over another. How often are people an Apple person, or an Android user and would be unlikely to change regardless of the relative merits of new models.

The form of data collection can be interview, observation and surveys among other forms, the best methods to use will vary by project. 

This data capture will often have to be in the moment, capturing how people feel at the point of sale or action – if they are asked later the reasons given might change into ones more logic-based.

Ethnographic Model

Researchers using the ethnographic research model look to observe how people act, or how they use a product rather than how they might self-report they use it.

The research seeks to be a fly on the wall, watching what happens rather than leading a debate, or actively probing. It is a method that is a researcher will often use to assess the target market.

If phenomenology is studying why people make decisions, ethnographic research will provide insight into how they then use the product or service.

In many projects, ethnographic research is probably the most useful insight, especially if a company is looking to iterate on a product. To be able to build on an existing product it is vital to know how it is used currently. What is it missing, what are the problems people have?

How do people use rival products, what opportunities exist.

Often, people might say they use something one way, but observation shows a different story, especially when people are observed over extended periods of time. One example could be website usage – if people were interviewed post use they might say they found what they required easily, there might be a temptation to play down difficulties.

Actually observing gives a truer picture, the problems can be observed, so too the way they interact with the product that might be unexpected.

The researcher will act as a fly on the wall, this might be via a viewing booth, the skill of the agency making participants feel at ease, creating an environment in which they provide genuine reactions.

This form of research can be a way to test the idea. The research might be to study how participants use an existing product or service, but it is also commonly found when there is a desire to test a new iteration, beta or product.

Other research might have led to the development of a beta but it needs ethnographic research to move to the next stage and become more mass market. 

Carefully-selected groups would get their hands on the new product or service and get to use it, not in a staged way but as they see fit. From this, valuable qualitative data can be gleaned.

Grounded Theory Method

When using grounded theory approach to qualitative research, the aim would be to see what questions and theories emerge from the data set.

The research may start with either a question, or just a quantity of research data. This would then be studied and theories allowed to emerge. Emerging theories could be grouped and then further analysis developed.

It has a less rigid starting point, instead seeing where the data leads.

Grounded theory requires confident content analysis as the theories drawn out must be valid otherwise time can be wasted and bad decisions undertaken. The skill lies in looking at the acquired data and using this to come up with theories truly worthy of further analysis.

The qualitative method is looking to theorise why people may act as they do, the action itself having been observed in the phenomenological stage.

Grounded theory is likely to be a research method that builds upon earlier work, demonstrating the joined-up nature of qualitative research; it is unusual for one method on its own to deliver true insight. 

The research can be undertaken and data is collected through interviews, observation, surveys and questionnaires, potentially in person, over the phone or online.

Grounded theory looks to make more sense of earlier findings.

Case Study Model

A case study model focuses in on one thing – an individual, a family, a business or other and takes an in-depth view.

To use a business example, a music streaming company might observe how a family uses existing technology to get a sense for how they might react to new products and which features could be of benefit.

Most modern businesses and organisations will use case studies, indeed we have several on this site that showcase our qualitative research with clients, covering all types of data. 

The use of case studies can use in-depth interviews as the research looks to deliver real detail. 

Popular and widely used, the research focuses in on the detail of one user or group. The research method may not be purely observational, it is not the fly on the wall approach.

Instead, the researcher will interact with the participant, they will ask questions and probe and find out why they act as they do or make certain decisions. The data collection is therefore very different to other methods, there is not a set script to be followed.

It is not a method that describes past events, instead it can understand present patterns. 

Case study research may be the form that most people would have the greatest existing knowledge of.

Historical Model

The historical method uses past events as a means to explain the current.

Past events can be used to provide insight into planned events, for instance data taken from a previous ad campaigns could be analysed to help shape a new campaign.

The basic premise is fairly obvious – use historical data to inform the present and future.

Great skill is required. The data has to be analysed to look for trends and also identify any contradictions.

From the data, the most valid theories and ideas have to be developed with evidence as to why these are arrived at.

It may also be necessary to factor in any changes of circumstance, using the advertising campaign how have user preferences changed? A car manufacturer may not want to read too much into the data acquired from five years ago if there has been major changes in driving trends – the increasing emergence of hybrid technology for instance. How would this factor into the data from earlier?

Care needs to be taken in sourcing the data for research; as already described people may respond differently when asked about their behaviour if time has passed since. Historical model can be carried out with a nod to phenomenology.

It may also be that data captured at the time or directly from the time – website usage data for instance – is analysed as a means to look at future events.

A sport website could look at traffic from the 2018 World Cup to help plan their coverage of the 2022 event – whilst also factoring changes of user behaviour and other points of difference.

Narrative Model

The narrative model is a form of qualitative research that is formed over time, observations and notes taken at every stage similar to the narrative of a story.

The events are then melded together to form a comprehensive story, as with all stories one with a beginning, middle and end.

The narrative model either requires long-term observation, or for data to be captured which can then be analysed at a later stage. Clearly, you cannot analyse what you don’t have, so if key stages are not recorded the narrative method will not be applicable.

As with all qualitative research, careful planning is required from the outset to ensure that all the information that will be required is captured in an efficient manner.

You are likely to be familiar with what emerges from the narrative model; the idea of the buying (or user) persona. These are sculpted from interviews with participants to ascertain the key moments in their ‘journey’.

The personas can be hugely beneficial but, done poorly, they can also be problematic. If the personas are not accurate then any business or organisation risks tailoring future developments for groups that don’t actually exist.

However, accurate, well developed personas can help focus future decisions – how will any decision impact all or some of these persona?

Different weighting can then be assigned to each group – a new feature might appeal to only one of the personas so should it be prioritised over one that might appeal to all?

The Highest Standards of Market Research

The proof of our quality is in our case studies and past clients. Please take some time to view our past work, this shows how we worked with clients to understand their needs, advise as appropriate and deliver the findings that could benefit their business.

We have won awards, received accreditation and have professional certification, for instance for data usage – you can find out more on this site.

We also have a bespoke verification programme called Acumonitor, this verifies all participants. We take every step to ensure you can be confident in the validity of the research and analysis we provide.

Acumonitor is an example of how we are actively looking to drive the standards of market research forward – you can read more and watch a short video that explains more.

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