For 20 years, I have helped companies understand their customers and help improve the way they interact with them. Most of the time, I start with research on what customers do, where they do it, and how they like to do it (shop and buy things, that is). Once I develop those key insights, I turn that information into plans to improve the customer experience (CX).
Sometimes my clients have distinct ways in which they want me to gather research insights about their customers. But often times, they want help determining the best course of action to elicit the most usable insights, the ones that will allow them to take action and see results. I nearly always recommend a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Both have strengths and weaknesses on their own, but when paired together, they afford businesses a unique look into a combination of consumer behavior, emotion and needs.
Qualitative research is the go-to standard for product development, brand insights and user testing, as well as my favorite use: developing consumer journey maps. There is simply no other way to obtain insights into human emotion, user needs and preferences. Qualitative research can range from focus groups and interviews to ethnographies in people's homes or work places and longitudinal diary studies. These studies allow us to dig into how people feel and why they do the things they do (or love the brands they love).
Sample size often comes up when talking about qualitative research, and many organizations aren't comfortable making decisions without vast numbers to back it up. In truth, there are very few recommendations on sample sizes, with good reason. Remember, the intent of qualitative work is to find the how and the why, the "quality" part of the name. If, for example, you discover the same problem for 20 customers in a focus group, is it any less of a problem because you only heard it from 20 people?
The fact is, good qualitative researchers are searching for themes. And once they hear a theme, they're searching for saturation. You don't need to hear the theme hundreds of times to know there is something to tug at. I asked several user experience (UX) researchers what they consider saturation, or the point at which they have heard something enough that they consider it a theme or trend. The UX researchers agreed that they hear all the unique themes they're going to hear from 5 to 12 participants. After that, it's all duplicative.
Quantitative research, on the other hand, uses numeric data to provide descriptive characteristics about people and their behaviors. Quantitative analysis can provide volume that isn't attainable in qualitative research and show us how people really behave (regardless of what they say). Quantitative work includes web analytics, mining social chatter, surveys, call center logs, sales data and any other type of numeric insights.
Quantitative has the benefit of "quantity" as the name implies, offering comfort to those corporations who aren't comfortable with small samples provided by qualitative research. Quantitative offers great insight into behavior and demographic characteristics and allows researchers to categorize users based on statistical differences. While qualitative research provides the why and the how, quantitative delivers the what and the how often.
Qualitative and Quantitative Combined
Each have their merits individually, but when used together qualitative and quantitative research can be exceptionally powerful consumer insight tools. Because most companies have a general sense of what consumers are doing (or at least at a high level), I typically recommend starting with Qualitative research to gain insights into intent, rationale and emotion around what they're doing today, and how they wish things could be tomorrow. Qualitative insight puts a different lens on quantitative behavioral data, allowing businesses to see that behavior in a new way.
I have seen great success in layering qualitative research onto existing quantitative data to develop customer journey maps. A simple, yet elegant way to share qualitative and quantitative data in your organization, journey maps move beyond charts and graphs, and bring your customers to the table. Often times, illustrating qualitative and quantitative consumer insights via a journey map can be the catalyst you need to create alignment and make forward progress on your customer experience initiatives.