Qual on a Budget: How to DIY
5/25/23 / Annie Theodoropoulos
Qualitative research is a powerful tool to get to know more about your specific client or user base. It can provide insight into ambivalent feelings and complex interactions that might be otherwise missed in typical surveys or questionnaires. A small, narrowly focused study can be especially important if your organization has limited touchpoints to gain and incorporate meaningful feedback from users/clients.
But with great power often comes a sizeable price tag. Many times, an informative qualitative study simply isn’t in the budget. So, what can you do? Is there a way to DIY qual and save? The answer depends on how you define what it is you need to know and what methods you employ to find out.
What is your research question?
Defining the parameters of your research question might be the most important part of your project. If a question is too large, you might find yourself saddled with results that take ages to analyze and may not reveal anything substantive. You might be tempted to start with a big question like, “what do our clients think of our program” and leave it at that, but the key to extracting data you can use is in thinking more granularly.
It is unlikely that your product or service magically appears before your customer and is experienced in a single moment. Think about the multiple points where a potential customer engages with your service. Maybe you already have an inkling that there is a barrier at one point in the experience chain, so try to draft your question around that hypothesis. A narrower question then would be, “how does the length and complexity of our registration form impact a client’s willingness to engage in our program?” This question is focused on one phase (the beginning) and one touchpoint (completing registration forms) in the process and greatly improves the likelihood that you can answer this in a simple research project.
Choosing a research method
There are many different qualitative methods to choose from—some of the most popular being interviews, focus groups, and participant observation, or even a combination of those for a more comprehensive ethnography. These methods are excellent tools for understanding different perceptions, feelings, and thinking styles. They are also very useful for more exploratory research where you want to understand how people approach something (what kinds of preconceived notions they have about a brand, service, a product, etc.) For example, if you want to learn how people make decisions about where to live, conducting interviews might be a good approach. You can ask multiple open-ended questions to figure out how your interviewees go about making that decision.
Now, employing these methods can cost a fair amount if your research questions are larger, more exploratory, and want to cover many different angles of a brand, product, service, etc. However, if your research question is honed, you might be able to look at a single key touchpoint and engage in some simple participant observation or brief intercept interviews that focus on the experience of that single component. If you think about the short surveys businesses often add at the end of customer service calls, this might be somewhat in that vein, except you are asking open-ended questions and probing for greater explanation on client thought processes—you are not fitting their words into a preapproved bubble list of options.
DIY depends on Y!
As a final caveat, qualitative research is only as good as the quality of its execution at the various component levels. It is just as important to design the study and select appropriate methods as it is to analyze the data in a rigorous and systematic manner. The DIY part ultimately depends on the Y—and if you yourself can put aside biases and assumptions about customers/clients and be attentive to their words and experiences. Any shortcomings in these areas could compromise your findings, leading to incorrect conclusions and flawed recommendations.