What is Qualitative Research?

You know the feeling. You're being interviewed for the position of a lifetime.  

It's all going so well - your resume is flawless, your answers are articulate and your hair has never looked better. Then, out of the blue, your potential employer leans forward and says,

"Tell me what you know about qualitative research."

The term sounds familiar but you're at a loss. There's a deathly silence interrupted by the nervous grumbling of your stomach. 

Slowly, you feel that dream job slipping through your fingers....


Ok, maybe that's an extreme scenario, but here's the thing - more and more employers (in education, business, health and government) are looking for candidates who understand 'qual' research and are familiar with the technologies that support it.

I understand 'research' but what does 'qualitative' mean?

'Qualitative’ is a (hard-to-pronounce) term used to define research that occurs in most workplaces and study environments nearly every day.

It involves observing, describing and interpreting the way people behave or think - typically based on insights gleaned from 'unstructured’ or non-numerical data like interviews, focus groups or open-ended survey responses.

For example, you might do this kind of research if you're; evaluating the impacts of a government policy, tracking brand awareness over time, exploring the outcomes of a healthcare program or studying the linguistic features of a culture. 

Even if you're just reading journal articles, books, reports or blog posts (to get your head around a particular topic) - then you're doing qualitative research.

How does it differ from quantitative research?

As the name implies, qualitative research is about focusing on the ‘qualities' (rather than the quantities) of a particular phenomena.

Quantitative analysis relies more heavily on statistics, maths and computational techniques - for example, a quantitative study might indicate that 50% of your customers are dissatisfied while a qualitative approach can help you to understand why.

As usual, Albert Einstein explained it best when he said:

Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted 

These days, many researchers are realising that 'qual' and 'quant' methods can complement each other and so they use a 'mixed-method' approach.

How do you do qualitative research?

Qualitative researchers explore their unstructured data (like text, video, audio, surveys, social media) looking for themes or ideas. They make comparisons and check for patterns, asking questions like “Why do women say one thing but men say another? or “Does a person’s job influence their attitude?” or "Why do these authors disagree?"

They follow hunches, gather evidence, develop recommendations and present their findings (in formats like a thesis, report, journal article or video documentary).

So, while the term 'qualitative research' sounds a little dry, the journey can be “...intense, engaging, challenging, non-linear, contextualised, and highly variable.” (Bazeley: 2013: 3)

There is no step-by-step process that applies to every qualitative project. The way a researcher analyzes their material depends on their methodology, data and research design.

How can technology help?

Not so long ago, most people doing qualitative research marked-up their source documents using pens, highlighters and post-it notes (and many still do).

While this approach has its merits - it's very time consuming and important ideas can easily slip through the cracks.  Nowadays, most researchers use technology to help them manage the process.

NVivo is the most widely used software tool for organizing, analyzing and visualizing qualitative data - watch this video for a quick overview:


Any examples of how to approach a qualitative project?

Here are two scenarios of how a researcher might use NVivo to support their research:

1. Evaluating stakeholder perceptions of a community arts program:



2. Exploring the language used by members of an online community:


As you can see, there are common techniques but each approach is unique - and NVivo is designed to support this diversity.

Back to that job interview...

"Tell me what you know about qualitative research."

No problem. You've got this coverered.

"Qualitative research delivers invaluable insights that can't be found using other methods. It involves exploring the themes in source data, whether that be interviews or survey results, to better understand how people think and behave. This nuanced understanding helps us to; maximise our knowledge, create positive change and gain a competitive advantage. Software tools like NVivo can support this process; making it faster, easier and more robust."

Now, all that's left is to do is.. choose which corner office you'd prefer.

If you want to know more about how NVivo can support qualitative research refer to our website or check out the videos on YouTube.

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