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Qualitative vs. quantitative research: what's the difference?

UserTesting  |  September 11, 2020

When it comes to understanding human behavior, you may find yourself wondering if your research approach should be qualitative or quantitative. While there are major differences between qualitative and quantitative research methods, it’s important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each. Because frequently, they complement each other and help highlight different perspectives (or a holistic view) of the same situation.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is a behavioral research method that relies on non-numerical data derived from observations and recordings that approximate and characterize phenomena. In other words, it’s concerned with understanding human behavior from the perspective of the subject.

Qualitative research definition

To do this, qualitative researchers acquire data by studying subjects in their natural environment—focusing on understanding the why and how of human behavior in the given situation. It’s especially effective in obtaining information about values, opinions, and behaviors during particular situations.

Qualitative research methods

There are three common qualitative research methods: 

  • Participant observation
  • In-depth interviews
  • Focus groups

Each method is unique and particularly suited for obtaining a specific type of data. 

Participant observation

Participant observation is best used for collecting data on naturally-occurring behaviors as they happen in their usual contexts.

In-depth interviews 

In-depth interviews are optimal for collecting data on individuals’ personal histories, perspectives, and experiences—particularly when sensitive topics are being explored or follow-up questions are likely necessary.

Focus groups 

Focus groups effectively gather information from multiple subjects at once and generate broad overviews of issues or concerns related to the demographics represented.

How UserTesting can help you conduct qualitative research

At UserTesting, we’re able to conduct qualitative research with our platform by collecting data and human insights that reveal people’s behaviors, needs, and opinions. Like the ones we just explained—common qualitative research methods can all be accomplished through moderated or unmoderated testing.

Our customers often:

  • Ask people to record their everyday activities, behaviors, and thoughts. Previously, this type of research was only possible when a researcher followed a participant around for a given period. Now, through remote testing, you can be exactly where your customers are without actually being present.
  • Explore people’s attitudes, preferences, and opinions. This often helps companies understand their target audience’s point of view so they can create better solutions and experiences. 
  • Ensure designs meet users’ expectations by collecting feedback on working designs or prototypes.
  • Optimize existing experiences by asking participants to complete key tasks on live designs. Or test “real life” experiences, such as unboxing a product.

What is quantitative research?

Quantitative research is the process of collecting and analyzing numerical data. It aims to find patterns and averages, make predictions, test causal relationships, and generalize results to broader populations through the representation of data expressed as numbers.

Quantitative research definition

The thing to remember is that quantitative research is unlike qualitative research in one key aspect—it relies on numerical data.

When to use qualitative vs. quantitative research

Quantitative data helps you see the big picture—generally in the form of trends and patterns. On the other hand, qualitative data adds color and context, giving a  human perspective to the numbers.

  • Formulating hypotheses: Qualitative and quantitative research helps you gather detailed information on a topic. Commonly, quantitative data will surface trends that you can use as a springboard for qualitative research.
  • Validating your hypotheses: Sometimes what you really need is objective information to confirm your hypothesis. Quantitative research will get you the key performance indicators (KPIs) you need to prove whether or not your hypothesis was a hunch or a real thing.
  • Finding general answers: Quantitative research usually has more participants than qualitative. And that’s because it’s much easier (and less expensive) to have someone fill out a survey than it is for them to participate in focus groups, for example. In this way, it can be useful for answering questions like: Were you satisfied with your experience? Or would you recommend us to a friend? On the other hand, qualitative research helps you answer questions like: Why were you satisfied or unsatisfied with your experience? Or why or why not would you recommend us to a friend?
  • Using emotion to validate decisions: Qualitative research is especially good at uncovering the emotions behind data. This can be in the form of quotes or body language or facial expressions caught on video. It helps to hear and see your customers describe wants, needs, concerns, frustrations, etc.. Qualitative data will get you that.

Why you need both qualitative and quantitative research

The two types of research don’t conflict with each other. They actually work much better together. In a world where data is collected everywhere and with almost everything, there’s a wealth of cold hard numbers that can form the strong foundation from which you can base decisions. However, that foundation is incomplete without human insight collected from real people to give those numbers meaning.

So how do you put these two forms of research together?

Quantitative data is the 'what' and qualitative data is the 'why'

Often we spot trends in data. We see what people are doing, but it’s tough to understand why. The numbers are trying to tell us something about trends in behavior, but numbers can’t give you the full story. 

When you pair qualitative insights with quantitative data, however, they can tell a richer story. 

Let’s say you’re a marketer, and you notice that people are finding one of your landing pages, but they’re not converting. Or you’re a product manager who notices that people aren’t using an entire element of your product that you just launched. Whichever the case, you likely came to these realizations by analyzing your quantitative data. It told you what was happening but not why. This is when you should turn to qualitative research methods to see and hear—from real people—exactly what the issue might be. 

Both methods can be helpful on their own, but together, qualitative and quantitative research methods give you an intimate understanding of your customers’ needs, expectations, and pain points.

Which qualitative method is right for you?

Discover which qualitative method is most suitable to pair with your quantitative data.

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About the author:

With UserTesting’s on-demand platform, you uncover ‘the why’ behind customer interactions. In just two hours, you can capture the critical human insights you need to confidently deliver what your customers want and expect.