Why use qualitative research methods?

Updated July 18, 2017

Qualitative research is a group of methods, approaches and techniques that explores events and variables as they occur in a natural setting, or a situation as close to natural as possible. Qualitative data is detailed, descriptive, individual and subjective. Qualitative approaches recognise the researcher as an important element of the research process.

Qualitative research has many applications in business, governance, education, health, politics and social sciences. Typical methods include depth interviews, focus groups, observation and content analysis.


Qualitative research is suitable for exploring new areas of inquiry, new topics, new markets, new niches and new products. It allows the researcher to draw boundaries for the topic and learn the language that people use to talk about the subject. In consumer research, qualitative studies show how real people think about and use the products in real life.

If the topic is new to the researcher, even quantitative studies need some qualitative research at the very start. Qualitative research gives more direct access to the phenomenon and can add context and flesh-and-blood reality to the theories that students learn from the literature. Qualitative exploration helps to gather material and generate hypotheses for the main quantitative phase.

Complex Detail

Besides exploration, qualitative research can add detail and depth to the understanding of any issue. It can capture emotional reactions, and often gives some insight into unconscious processes. Qualitative methods are suitable for learning about decision processes and values that drive behaviour.

Qualitative research strives for holistic and detailed descriptions. It can give insight into needs, fulfilled and unfulfilled, and motivations, conscious and unconscious. Social scientists use qualitative research to explore the context in which behaviour occurs, as well as the deep layers of meaning that objects or behaviours have for the individual.


Marketing researchers often use qualitative methods in new product development, to generate or test ideas for new products and find new uses for and gaps in the current offerings.

Product and concept tests often use qualitative research. Initial testing of new adverts commonly takes place in qualitative studies using concepts, storyboards and other draft materials.

Qualitative research is also suitable for studies of brand image and positioning. Those studies frequently use projective techniques that bring forth data indirectly; for example, by asking "if this product were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?"

Qualitative methods focus on detail, allowing researchers to analyse the decision-making process, or to see how to use software or tools.


The results of qualitative studies cannot be generalised for the larger population, as qualitative research doesn't use statistically representative samples. The results of qualitative studies are descriptive conclusions, not figures. Qualitative research cannot produce forecasts or even estimate current values in the population. "How many?" and "how much?" questions are not suitable for qualitative studies.

In motivation and decision research, qualitative methods will not produce mathematical models. Qualitative studies can say which factors play a role in the consumer's choice, and why; but they cannot reliably say how precisely important they are, overall, and for how many people.

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About the Author

Magdalena Healey has a Master of Science in psychology from the University of Gdansk. She is an English language translator and interpreter, has taught social psychology, information technology and questionnaire design. Healey has also written extensively on travel.