The Squeeze aka Qual and Quant Dilemma

Mar 3, 2020

“The goal is to transform data into information, and information into insight.”

-Carly Fiorina


Research buyers can attest to the dream of having unlimited budgets to support robust research designs, when time allows for multi-modal research designs. Alas, it’s not usually the case, and while qualitative insights would be extremely useful on the front-, or sometimes, back-end of a project, the team doesn’t have enough time before they have to pull the decision trigger, and budget simply does not allow for it either. Or, all they have time and budget for is a fist full of focus groups. In any event, it’s a reality squeeze. Sound familiar?

There’s seldom a situation when qualitative research, as a precursor to a quantitative study, is not a good idea. This is for a variety of reasons, most importantly the inputs from the qual inform to optimize the construct of the quant and deliver against objectives with a higher level of actionability.

All to say, while one or the other methodology, qual or quant, may have to be sacrificed, a tendency exists to seek the results of the sacrificed. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone makes a statement of representation from qualitative learning, and thought to yourself, “That’s the opinion of a handful of people and in no way can lend confidence enough for us to be basing this decision on”? Well, you’re right.

Qualitative research serves to qualify ideas and concepts through exploration and is subjective because the researcher is intimately involved. Quantitative research is objective, as it serves the purpose of obtaining opinions precisely. And as the root word implies, is intended to be quantifiable, providing enough opinions so as to support analysis, determine significance, and therefore lend confidence to the ensuing decisions.

Here’s something you’ve likely seen… A team conducts qualitative research, such as a handful of focus groups, with intention to conduct a quantitative study as a follow-up, but then the decision timeline gets shortened, or budget gets redistributed, or the qual results affirmed someone’s agenda and become absolute truth, and off to the races the team goes! The definition of risk.

All the best intentions in the world can’t make qualitative research a viable replacement for quantitative research. But, oh how it’s tried! You’ve seen those instances where focus group participants are asked to write down their opinions by rating certain concepts or attributes. In these cases, it’s extremely rare with a qualitative research study that the number of respondents providing answers to these scaled or rank-ordered questions will yield any meaningful quantitative results. What is important is what the respondents are saying about their ratings, which is generally the reason why Marketing Workshop might recommend including this type of exercise in a qualitative setting – to anchor their thoughts and to instigate dialogue. They are also an excellent way to break up the group discussion and boost engagement. Qualitative professionals have an arsenal of techniques that can successfully do this. In other words, they have a purpose, but their purpose is not quantifiable data.

Similarly, open-end responses in the body of a quantitative survey are not to be confused as qualitative surrogates. While verbatim responses from open ended questions provide some texture to our quantitative learning, they are no substitute for in-depth discussions where we can get at the emotive reasons for perceptions or behavior. This is important because understanding the causal circumstances enables effective strategy development.

When you’re stuck between the qual and quant hard place, take time out and talk it through with an experienced researcher who can help you take a risk/rewards look against your particular circumstances. There’s always a solution, you just want to make sure your approach doesn’t inherently negate your objectives.

~ Marketing Workshop