Quantitative research is wide-reaching, but shallow.  It primarily involves measuring or counting things, rather than describing them.  Quantitative research is conducted using a standardized instrument such as a survey, and the data collected is numerical in nature, easily lending itself to statistical analysis and visualization.  The analysis phase of this type of research is more straightforward and much quicker to conduct.  However, this type of research requires a relatively large sample size to be successful, because producing statistically significant findings is typically one of the goals.  If you choose a quantitative approach to your research project, you can expect the findings to be more straightforward, quantifiable, and generalizable than projects that take a qualitative approach.

Qualitative research is more narrow than quantitative research, but it goes much deeper.  It aims to describe something rather than simply measure it.  Qualitative research is usually conducted in the form of interviews or focus groups, and the data collected is much more free-form and rich.  Interviews and focus groups have the potential to be taken in directions the researcher may not have anticipated, which gives them a more fluid quality than the surveys used in quantitative research.  Qualitative research can also be conducted with a much smaller sample size, because each participant is offering deeper insights.  However, the analysis phase of this type of research is complicated and typically much slower.  In addition, because of the smaller sample sizes, qualitative research is not considered to be generalizable to a wider population.  If you choose a qualitative approach to your research project, you can expect the findings to give you a deeper insight into and a more holistic understanding of your research question.

In summary:

Quantitative: Surveys or experiments, Produces numerical data, More straightforward analysis based on statistical models, Big sample sizes,  Aims to produce statistically significant findings, Generally a quicker turnaround. Qualitative: Ethnography, focus groups, or in-depth interviews, Produces narrative data, More complicated analysis based on synthesizing recurring themes and insights, Small, non-representative samples, Cannot produce statistically significant findings, Generally a longer turnaround

How to Pick:

  1. Think about your research question. Understanding the nature of your research question is the first step to understanding which type of research will best answer it.  If your research question is open ended and exploratory in nature, the rich detail provided by qualitative research will be very valuable.  On the other hand, if your research question takes the form of a straight-forward, testable hypothesis, quantitative research will offer the numerical data you need.  You should also consider if statistical significance is important for your goals.  Quantitative research is the only type of research that will allow you to make statistical claims when answering your research question.

  2. Think about your stakeholders. Who has knowledge about the topic you are researching?  Who cares about the project and would benefit from the chance to share their point of view?  People who are invested in your research project will be your most valuable resource for collecting data.  If you have a small group of people with strong opinions or a lot of stake in the project, a qualitative approach is going to yield deeper insights.  If you have a more broad group of stakeholders that you would like to hear from, a quantitative approach will allow more people to weigh in.

  3. Think about the time and resources you can devote to the project. A qualitative approach to a research project will typically take longer.  Recruiting for and conducting interviews or focus groups can be a lengthy process, and the rich data they produce takes a long time to properly analyze.  Quantitative research can provide a quicker turnaround for a research project where findings are needed promptly.  Qualitative research will require recruiting fewer participants, but each participant will need to devote more of their time to the project.  Quantitative research requires a larger pool of participants, but the time commitment for each participant is much smaller.

  4. A mixed-method approach is also possible. Consider sending out an exploratory survey to gain a preliminary understanding of the factors and dynamics impacting your research question.  You could then follow this up with in-depth interviews or focus groups that go deep on what you learned from the survey.  Inversely, you could interview a few people to gain a deeper insight into or new perspective on your research question, then use what you’ve learned to create a much more informed survey that will be sent to a larger group of participants.  The benefit of a mixed-method approach is that you can leverage the advantages of both types of research and use the insights from one phase of research to inform the next, making it more focused and effective.

It’s crucial to understand your own research question and goals when deciding between quantitative, qualitative, or a mix of both.  Quantitative research is best for gathering precise, numerical data and making statistical claims, while qualitative research will help you explore complex, nuanced insights about your project.  Choosing the right approach will start your research project off on the right foot and help you answer your research question accurately and informatively.

Market Research Analyst
As a Market Research Analyst, Maya uses her experience in data analysis and research to collect, analyze, and interpret data that will help clients make important decisions. Whether it's surveys,...Read more