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Brewing up qualitative research

Structuring and designing a qualitative study Qualitative research relies on a number of basic tools to be able to structure and plan the research, regardless of whether the research is face-to-face, focus groups, online, via webinar or via telephone. These are:

For a qualitative research project, the structure and planning of the research, and the simple amount of thought that has been given to the subject area prior to executing it, are probably the biggest contributions to a high quality project.

Discussion guide

A discussion guide is like a list of topics and related questions that you want to ask to ensure that you cover all the areas that you want to research in sufficient depth and, where several researchers are working on the same project, to ensure that each researcher covers the same areas in the same order. Even for observational studies, some form of check list or task list might be necessary to ensure that the research meets its aims.

When a discussion guide is drawn up, it needs to have a clear view of the purpose of the research. What is it we are trying to find out and why? It is also useful for the researcher to have good knowledge of what they might expect to come up. If a respondent suddenly starts talking off-guide about say, financing options, the researcher needs to be able to pursue this line of questioning to understand what and why. Alternatively, if a subject doesn't arise naturally the researcher should also be aware of the things that are not being said.

The design of a discussion guide is similar to that of a questionnaire - you move from the general to the specific, you develop spontaneous discussion before prompting with particulars. Unlike a rigid questionnaire however, it is important to build rapport. The early parts of a discussion guide, which may be of less importance from a results viewpoint, may be very important from the point of view of warming up and developing rapport with the respondent.

Similarly, the end of the discussion is also important. Your questions and conversation, may have left the respondent frustrated that there was an unasked area or an implicit assumption with which they didn't agree. Alternatively, the act of discussing may have clarified some thoughts and allowing the respondent to review what they have said, they may be able to better summarise their views better than any latter analysis.

Stimulus materials

To aid the discussion guide, the researcher will normally use a variety of "stimulus materials" to show, or invite comments on at various points during the discussion. This can be as simple as a list of brands, or more complex such as a video of a commercial or a software demonstration.

However, stimulus material isn't necessary just visual material. It can also consist of tasks (for instance a diary pre-research), building a collage, sorting cards, role playing, or a game of some sort.

The aim is to use the stimulus material to elicit information that might otherwise be hidden. For instance producing a collage describing the company you work for containing images such as burnt out cars or men in uniforms may say more about the company than anything "on-message" that might arise from plain questioning.

Recording and transcribing

Although a researcher may believe they hear every word and see every reaction, in practice the time pressure and the focus on maintaining rapport means that the researcher has to be able to review the research they have carried out. In some circumstances this may mean simply referring to notes. But the tendency with note-taking is that you record the information that you think is relevant at the time. Hearing the interview later, you may find that the respondent was trying to tell you something quite different and your note taking was based on a mistaken interpretation of what you thought was being said.

The basic standard for researchers is that the interview is recorded and then reviewed. The review may include a transcription phase where the whole recording is written down verbatim, or more usually researchers simply listen and draw out quotes and pertinent information. It is at this stage that having good quality recording equipment comes into its own. Tape recorders are just adequate in terms of quality whereas mini-disc recording is excellent and can be used in presentations.

If video has been used it must be edited if anyone else is to see it. Videos of qualitative research tend to be long and low quality. If the video is to be used within a report, then editing and adding appropriate voice over will greatly improve the quality of the finished article.

Analytical framework

The analysis of qualitative research throws up a number of large debates within the research industry. There are those researchers who take the view that your job is to report what respondents have said - you are their mouthpiece. On the other hand, there are researchers who see their role as interpreting what has been said and developing some theoretical framework or model.

Now in practice, both will happen. The MRS Code of Conduct requires that researcher distinguish reporting from interpretation, but for much qualitative work the line is blurred and in general companies want the interpretation along with the report.

The quality of the interpretation will depend almost wholly on the skills of the research and the exposure of the researcher to different and competing theoretical ideas. For consumer work you have differing psychological theories and models of how individuals relate themselves to consumption, to ideas about themselves, and to society in general. On the other hand, for business research you have competing ideas about the influence of corporate culture, process design, flexibility and financial control.

Consequently a good consumer research, the researcher will have awareness of different theories of the person. For good business research, the researcher will have good awareness of business theory.


The final stage of the qualitative process for most MR agencies (but often the first part of the planning process for a client) is the report or presentation. Few MR reports are written into a formal document, most are given as Powerpoint presentations.

In deciding what you want to research, it's worth thinking very hard about who you are going to report the findings to, and how that reporting is best carried out. If you are reporting to senior management, a brief summary of conclusions may be more valued than a long and detailed marketing level presentation.

What and how you report can also be influenced by the methods used to capture information in the first place. If you have good quality video or high quality sound recording you can incorporate "live quotes" directly in a presentation. This has far more impact than words on a screen.

Where a report is to be distributed, if good quality recording has been used it is possible to create an Audio Bulletin (similar to a Radio Show) that can be listened to in the car. Video Reports are also possible, but the requirement for suitable lighting and camera work means that this must be planned for well in advance.

For help and advice on carrying out qualitative research projects contact

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