NVivo Blog

What is Qualitative Research?

Written by Kath McNiff
November 09, 2016

More and more industries (education, business, health and government) are getting serious about qualitative research.

Knowing what it is and being familiar with the technologies that support it can help kick your career into overdrive.

What does 'qualitative' mean?

'Qualitative’ is a term used to define research that occurs in many workplaces and study environments nearly every day. It is primarily exploratory research.

It involves gaining an understanding of reasons, opinions and motivations, providing insights into a problem or to help provide hypotheses for quantitative research. It is 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, contextualized, 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. 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. This video can show you why:


Any examples of how to approach a qualitative project?

NVivo is designed to support research diversity. While there are common techniques, each approach is unique. 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.

To find out more about how NVivo can support qualitative research refer to our website or check out the videos on YouTube.


Kath McNiff

Kath McNiff is on a mission to help researchers deliver robust, evidence-based results. If they’re drowning in a sea of data (or floods of tears) she wants to throw them an NVivo-shaped life raft. As an Online Community Manager at QSR, she knows that peers make the best teachers. So, through The NVivo Blog, Twitter and LinkedIn, she shares practical advice and connects researchers so they can help each other. When she’s not busy writing blog posts, swapping stories on social media or training the latest tribe of NVivo users, she can be found wrestling four feisty offspring for control of the remote.


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