Qualitative Research Methods

[Description] [Pros] [Cons] [Common Uses] [Resources]


Qualitative methods provide results that are usually rich and detailed, offering many ideas and concepts to inform your program. Qualitative methods can tell you how people feel and what they think, but cannot tell you how many of your audience feel or think that way.

To conduct qualitative research:

  • Select a small group of people with key characteristics in common
  • Convene a discussion through focus groups or in-depth interviews or observe individualsí behaviors through in-home interviews, observations in schools, malls, supermarkets, etc.
  • Keep the discussion somewhat unstructured so participants are free to make any response and donít have to choose from a list of possible responses
  • Use a discussion/interview guide to make sure you ask the right questions for your research purpose, but ask questions based on participantsí responses, rather than in a predetermined order.

Qualitative research results are considered thought of as themes; they should not be reported as percentages, subjected to statistical analysis or projected to a broader population. Thatís because the participants do not make up a randomly selected representative sample, the samples are relatively small, and not all participants are asked precisely the same questions. Even if you conduct a lot of qualitative research, you wonít get findings that enable you to say that most members of your target audience understand or feel or experience the same things. For that, you need quantitative research.

The most common tools used in qualitative market research are focus groups and individual in-depth interviews. In addition, many innovative methodologies may be appropriate for helping you learn more about your audience. Some examples:

  • Friendship pairs, in which best friends (commonly teens) are recruited to discuss sensitive subjects
  • Observations of behaviors and interaction in the target audienceís natural environment.


  • Explore topics in more depth and detail than quantitative research
  • Often qualitative research is less expensive than quantitative research, because you donít need to recruit as many participants or use extensive methods
  • Offers flexibility as far as locations and timing, as you donít need to interview a large number of people at once.


  • Cannot quantify how many of your audience answer one way or another
  • Cannot generalize your findings to your broader audience or the public in general.

Common Uses

Use qualitative research methods when:

  • Your research goal is to explore a topic or an idea
  • You want to gain insight into a target audienceís lifestyle, culture, motivations, behaviors, and preferences
  • You want to understand the reasons behind the results from quantitative research
  • You want to get input from key informants or others outside the target audience.


To compare qualitative and quantitative methods, see the Qualitative/Quantitative Comparison Chart.

Scroll to your method of interest in the Tools for Research.