Using layered approaches for better qualitative research

Using layered approaches for better qualitative research

Sonya Turner

May 09, 2016

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Quirks.

Conventional research wisdom tells us that, prior to beginning any sizeable quantitative engagement, we should invest in some exploratory qualitative work. This two-pronged approach helps to ensure that large, expensive and time-consuming quantitative endeavors get at the right information.

It’s good logic, but why does this model only apply to quant? What about all of the large, expensive and time-consuming qualitative endeavors? How might a preliminary qualitative phase enhance the outcomes? How much value is there in starting out by asking consumers to show you where to go?

After exploring these questions in depth, I can confidently say that layering qualitative approaches offers real, measurable advantages. Market researchers and brands should consider this methodology to maximize their qualitative study outcomes.


Unlike qual-on-quant endeavors, where the follow-up to exploratory qualitative research is a quantitative study intended to attach numbers and metrics to hypotheses, qual-on-qual methodology involves blending multiple qualitative explorations into an overall approach. This lessens the risk of incomplete or inconclusive learnings.

After experimenting with this tactic, I’ve found that its innate flexibility and adaptability makes it a valuable addition in a host of situations. There isn’t a right or wrong way to go about it, and it’s important to understand that the approach does not always have to be linear:

  • You can use qual as an adjunct at key points in a larger qualitative study, pausing to field additional, off-topic questions to further inform the primary qualitative instrument. This can be prompted by news events, changes in the business landscape or even information provided by respondents. By briefly pausing to gain clarity, you can arrive at a more targeted and valuable outcome.
  • Sometimes all you need is a quick gut check before jumping into a major qualitative study. For these situations, you might conduct a handful of one-on-one conversations to check your assumptions prior to launching a larger series of interviews.
  • There are situations where you simply don’t know enough up front to develop a productive and targeted qualitative instrument. To resolve this, you can ask a few thousand people a series of open-ended questions to establish a solid baseline prior to developing and launching the larger qualitative study.

Establishing a baseline

While connecting qualitative exercises has been a valuable tool across a wide range of engagements, using the approach to establish a baseline has been particularly transformative. Having a clear, validated, mutually-understood jumping-off point from which to embark on the main qualitative study means that all stakeholders share an understanding of the consumer and how they approach the topic at hand. As a result, the primary study can proceed in a more targeted and efficient manner.

Establishing this baseline is especially critical when a brand has a loose hypothesis about a question but no real evidence to support it beyond a hunch or handful of anecdotes, or when stakeholders share competing agendas. In these instances, the baseline helps to ensure that existing biases or weakly-informed positions will not influence or corrupt the structure and outcome of the larger endeavor.

In some instances, the exploratory qualitative phase is simply for peace of mind, providing a comforting “all systems go” for the larger study. In many other cases, I have seen it uncover consumer opinions or perceptions that are directly at odds with preconceived notions and assumptions. In these instances, the exploration can provide a critical opportunity to pause, ask hard questions and ultimately reset expectations for how to proceed.

How does it work?

One of the things I find most exciting about a layered qualitative approach is that the phases of research can be integrated in almost limitless ways depending on the particular need and situation. The following are three examples of the most universally applicable approaches.

1. Product innovation: Prior to beginning a large-scale qualitative exploration intended to inspire new product ideas, my team asked 4,000 people a preliminary series of open-ended questions about how they use the current product and what it means to them. The goal was to make sure that we were starting at the beginning, letting consumers provide us with a rich and reliable platform on which to build the core qualitative study. Using this insight, we were able to conduct one-on-one conversations that were focused and drilled deep.

2. Customer experience: Another powerful application is to treat existing, but potentially untapped, data sources – ratings, reviews, call-center feedback or even social media streams – as qualitative data. Mining this data often provides critical context and understanding that can shape the direction of a qualitative endeavor. I have successfully used this approach with a client in the hospitality industry, mining their online ratings and reviews and following up on our analysis of those learnings by having targeted qualitative conversations with key consumer groups. At the end, the team provided clear opportunities to enhance product offerings and customer service insight into where competitors were gaining ground and recommendations for ongoing tracking of customer feedback.

3. Audience intelligence: Knowing your audience is crucial for any brand. For a global non-profit, this knowledge must stay fresh so it can know how to best market to its donors, volunteers and other constituents. In one case, my team combined a year-long series of one-on-one conversations on a consistent topic with monthly spotlight questions directed to a smaller group. This allowed us to monitor the audience, while still having the flexibility to push harder on interesting or trending topics. The result? An intimate and up-to-the-minute portrait of this client’s key audience.
As we increasingly lean on always-on data streams to understand consumer sentiment and behavior, and as brands strive to navigate “I want what I want when when I want it” consumer mentality, the rigidity and scale of classic quantitative instruments is losing relevance. Instead, brands need a way to explore ideas and opportunities iteratively. The Holy Grail is a methodology that allows enough flexibility to pursue interesting leads while also drawing from a large enough base-size to feel reliable.

Using qualitative more than once in the research process solves many of these challenges. Researchers don’t need to grasp at straws when starting a qualitative engagement, nor do they need to feel that their study is carved in stone once it begins. And brands do not have to worry about trusting qualitative research simply because it’s not quant. By combining qualitative methodologies, researchers can adjust and iterate on the fly. These checkpoints, which let us adapt, rethink and fine-tune, ultimately result in smarter, better and more effective research that we can all feel confident in.

And who doesn’t want that?

Sonya Turner

Director, Insights

I love finding the story that exists inside every job we do, the thread that ties together.

Our research work with iModerate over the past several years has developed into a true partnership. Their unique fusion of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies in a single study has offered new insights into key topics and markets of interest for our organization, which in turn, we are able to quickly turn into action steps. They are flexible, responsive, and extremely engaged in the entire project process, from conception and design to final data processing and delivery. They have even gone above and beyond by volunteering their time, resources, and expertise to assist with a special target market project on women. iModerate has their finger on the pulse of the research industry and consistently provides creative suggestions and solutions to enhance our current work. This ultimately allows us to provide our leadership with the strategic insights and opportunities that helps us to advance the common good.

Kristin Thomsen, Manager, Market Research, United Way Worldwide