Qualitative vs quantitative research: What’s the difference?

In this article, we explore the difference between qualitative and quantitative research, when to use each method, and how to analyze data effectively.

Research Methodologies
Qualitative vs quantitative research: What’s the difference?

If you’re new to the world of research, you may be wondering what the difference is between qualitative research and quantitative research. 

Or perhaps you’re not a researcher, but you've found yourself doing research in your role and you're looking to better understand these methods. 

While qualitative and quantitative research seek to answer very different questions, and have very different approaches, the data can often complement and support each other’s findings and insights. 

For instance, qualitative research can help design a quantitative research strategy. And quantitative research can help determine the return on investment for innovating a new product or service. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In this article, we’ll explore what each method is and what their data collection techniques are suitable for. We’ll also explore how these methods can help you answer your business needs. 

Keep in mind that research is contextual. This article is meant more as a clarification tool than a hard rule on how to conduct your research.

Let’s get started!    

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is human centered. This means it discovers what people value from their experience with a product or service.

This kind of research constantly asks why something is happening. It can help us understand what products to build and why we should build them in a certain way. It’s mainly used to test a theory or hypothesis, but is also used to understand trends.

Qualitative research is often used when creating a new product or making improvements to an existing product. It’s concerned with the perceived needs of the end user.  

Open-ended questions are used to better understand the motivations, behaviors, and opinions of the test participants who meet the required research criteria. These criteria are usually determined and agreed upon by the UX researcher in partnership with someone from the business side of the organization.

What are some examples of qualitative research methods? 

You can choose from various methods to collect qualitative data. Here are a few examples:

  • Interviews: Usually in-depth interviews conducted one-on-one.
  • Contextual inquiry: Observing and listening to participants in their natural environment.
  • Focus groups: A moderated discussion with a group of people who meet the study’s criteria for participation.
  • Co-design/co-creation: Bringing stakeholders and community members into the research process.

How can qualitative research help to answer business needs? 

Answers from qualitative questions are often rich and in-depth. This can help you define the qualities of your product or service that people are seeking. It can also help you understand why users are using your product or a competitor's product.

This helps you and your organization understand how to anticipate customer needs when designing, building, and innovating.  

Just a quick note – organizations rarely have a team of dedicated qualitative researchers. Instead, you’ll find qualitative researchers spread across teams like customer experience research, product, strategy and insights, service design, accessibility, and market research (not to be confused with marketing research – here you want to understand the market and your target audience). 

Examples of qualitative research questions

Here are some examples of the types of qualitative research questions to ask participants. 

  • Why did ____ happen? (e.g. to understand why a metric went up or down?)
  • What do you think/feel/do about ____? When does this happen? 
  • How do you understand the message/user interface/process?
  • What did you expect to happen when ____? 
  • What do you do when you can’t get what you need/want from us? 
  • Describe a positive experience with ____ (the product, a process, a service)
  • What is most important to you when using this product/service?
  • How would you define an ideal ____?
  • What do you expect from a ____?

What do I do with all this qualitative data?

After you’ve gathered your answers, it’s time to analyze and synthesize, my friends! 

Analyzing and synthesizing involves breaking down your collected data, spotting patterns, and identifying themes that relate back to the goals of your research plan or research design. 

You’ll then share the results back to the business and wider organization, usually in a written research report. 

It's worth noting that sample sizes for qualitative research represent a small target audience (10–20 participants). If you have more than this, you end up reaching a saturation point. This is where the same themes continue showing up with new participants, and no new themes can be identified.    

What is quantitative research?

Quantitative research focuses on numerical data and statistical analysis. It can tell you what’s happening with a product or service and how widespread something is happening at a point in time. 

Closed-ended questions in short and quick surveys are one of the most well-known methods of quantitative research. The results give measurable information and can help to project results for a larger population.  

We can use quantitative data as a secondary research method to support and test findings gained from a qualitative research study. Or we can use it as the primary research method when running an A/B test

What are some examples of quantitative research methods? 

Here are some ways you can collect quantitative data:

  • Usage logs: Use logs to find out where your website visitors are coming from and what they're searching for.
  • Funnel analysis: Analyze website traffic to show user behaviour, for example the steps they took to make a purchase.
  • Segmentation: Grouping numerical data based on people with similar needs and reactions to marketing messages. 
  • Heat mapping: Color-coded visual data showing where people are interacting the most with a website. For example, where they're clicking, looking, or scrolling.

How can quantitative research help to answer business needs? 

Quantitative research questions are usually presented in some form of multiple choice survey, or data collected from within a process, product, or service. 

Answers from quantitative data is represented numerically (like a percentage or statistic) that can verify information. This information can bring results that can transfer to another study and possibly replicate results.

Quantitative researchers work in many of the areas previously mentioned with, or independently from, qualitative researchers. In addition, they can work in placement strategies, advertising, campaign tracking, and marketing research (not to be confused with market research – here you want to inform the marketing strategy toward the target audience). 

Examples of quantitative research questions

Here are some examples of the types of quantitative research questions to ask participants.

  • What is your age/relationship status/income? (multiple choice covering demographic ranges)
  • When using a _____, which of these is most important to you? (multiple choice questions that cover pricing, support, features, etc)
  • When searching for a product, do you use the search field? (Y/N)
  • Questions around metrics (e.g. conversion to a sale, new email subscriptions vs unsubscribes)
  • Questions that measure how successful the target audience is at completing a process
  • Questions around where to run marketing campaigns (e.g. print, digital banner ads, social media, etc)

What do I do with all this quantitative data?

By now you’ve got a lot of data according to different data sets, for example, the percentage of households that do grocery shopping based on meal plans versus sudden cravings. 

The next step is to quantify actions, attitudes, opinions, and habits, and create reports in graphs, charts, and tables.

You can use quantitative data to test or verify a theory or hypothesis and discover or replicate patterns. This will help you understand your target audience and use this numerical data to quantify potential gains or losses. 

It's worth noting that sample sizes for quantitative research are much larger than for qualitative research. These numbers can drive confidence and minimize a margin of error when making projections about a larger population.      

Qualitative vs quantitative research  

By now you should have some clarity on the differences between quantitative and qualitative research. To recap, here’s a quick summary:

  • We use qualitative research when we want to know why something is happening. It can help us work out what product or features to build, and why it should be built a certain way. We can also use qualitative research when we want to innovate or improve a product or service.
  • We use quantitative research when we want to know what is happening at a point in time and how widespread this is. It can also help us determine any potential gains or losses when developing a product or feature.
Qualitative
Quantitative
Qualitative
Gather data by listening and observing (individual in-depth interviews and focus groups)
Quantitative
Gather data by more automated numerical means (surveys and usage logs)
Qualitative
Analyze and synthesize data from notes, video recordings, and open-ended questions to identify themes
Quantitative
Analyze and synthesize data through computational math and statistical methods
Qualitative
Best expressed in a storytelling style using words, personas, and graphics
Quantitative
Best communicated in graphs, charts, and tables
Qualitative
Small sample sizes – as little as 10–15 study participants
Quantitative
Large sample sizes
Qualitative
Questions are generally asked in open-ended text field format
Quantitative
Questions are asked in close-ended multiple choice format
Qualitative
Data collection methods lend themselves to more opportunity for live, face-to-face interaction with the people using your product or service
Quantitative
Very few data collection methods require live, face-to-face interaction with people using your product or service

While the two methods are very different, combining them (called a mixed methods approach) can really help strengthen the validity and credibility of your findings. Especially when your research is being used to develop an innovation. 

For example, a mixed methods approach can help introduce a new persona. We can combine quantitative data with qualitative discoveries to define a target audience for a brand new product or service. For a detailed example on mixing methods, check out this article on marketing a workshop online using conversion rate optimization.

Hopefully you’ve found this article helpful in understanding the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. If you’re ready to conduct your own UX research, you can sign up for a free UsabilityHub plan to get access to unlimited active tests.

Frequently asked questions about qualitative vs quantitative research

What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?

We use qualitative research when we want to know why something is happening. It can help us work out what product or features to build, and why it should be built a certain way. We can also use qualitative research when we want to innovate or improve a product or service. We use quantitative research when we want to know what is happening at a point in time. It can also help us determine any potential gains or losses when developing a product or feature.

What are some examples of qualitative research?

In-depth interviews, contextual inquiry, focus groups, and co-design workshops.

What are some examples of quantitative research?

Surveys, usage and search logs, funnel analysis, segmentation, heat mapping.

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