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Qualitative Research Methods and When to Use Them


When you’re thinking about starting a journey mapping exercise, creating personas, or just learning about your customers, gathering qualitative data is a great starting place. There are two primary data gathering approaches:

Quantitative data allows for calculation and measurement. Common types of quantitative data gathering include surveys, experiments, and measurable observations.

Qualitative data is used to understand experiences, emotions, and concepts. It’s not meant to be quantified but rather to provide observations and insights.

Frequently we use both methods; quantitative to gather generalizable insights and qualitative to hear first-hand about motivations, needs, frustrations, and goals. Below are the qualitative research methods we use frequently.


Great for gathering insights into experiences, motivations, and behaviors

Meeting with internal stakeholders and customers lets you dig deeper, uncover unmet needs, and put yourself in their shoes. It’s common to use interviews as the backbone of personas, journey maps, and experience maps. They can also help you discover new offerings that your customers would enjoy.


Ideal for gaining first-hand information on the task or experience

You may use online tools to watch people interact with your website. That’s a type of observation that lets you see the flow and engagement through real-life interactions. Sometimes, we use observation when we are concerned that self-reported data about behaviors will differ from peoples’ actions – whether purposefully or not.

Observations are not only helpful in improving websites. You can also observe through private shoppers or a “shop along” to understand your customer service experience or watch an intersection to see the traffic flow, for example.

Contextual Inquiry

For deep insights into activities and behaviors, clarified with questioning

Contextual inquiry is another level of observation and interview. In this case, the researcher observes the subject as they execute a task and asks questions about how and why they chose their process. One key benefit is that the subject does not have to recall and interpret what happened, unlike a traditional interview. The researcher is there in the moment to record insights and clarify motivations.

Website user experience testing often uses contextual inquiry. It is also helpful for understanding the quality of a prototype, determining a content strategy and architecture, and creating expert-perspective user journeys.

Diary Studies

Best for generating data over time

A diary study is a great tool when gathering longitudinal data is the goal. In this case, research participants track their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors over a period of time – from days to years. These studies can help you understand changes in trends and sequences or see cause and effect.

Healthcare organizations often use these kinds of studies to track target groups over time to understand things like the impact of exercise on weight or heart disease rates among different populations. However, diary studies are helpful outside of healthcare too. For example, when releasing a new product (think about a tablet) or understanding the context of when an existing product is being used (understanding tablet use while watching television). These studies also include an interview at the end to gather additional insights.

Other qualitative research methods, like focus groups, case studies, and ethnographic research, may be effective as well depending on your goals, but we find these four consistently provide actionable insights.

Regardless of the qualitative research method you use, you’ll want to write a clear research plan with your goals, hypotheses you plan to test, and your approach to identifying and recruiting your research subjects. This plan creates clarity for the research team and holds team members accountable for the process and anticipated results.

Qualitative research can provide a deep understanding of your customers’ motivations, needs, frustrations, and goals. Use what you learn as the basis for creating and evolving your website, products, and services.

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Lisa Sherwood

Lisa Sherwood is the Director of Audience Insights at Perficient. She uses her 20 years of experience to build approaches to content that generate results for some of the world’s largest companies in the healthcare, ecommerce, retail, and nonprofit sectors.

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