Imagine that you want to understand why your mother loves making pancakes for breakfast. You could sneak around the kitchen, tracking when and how she makes pancakes, or you could just sit down and have a chat with her. Most people would agree that the chat will give a much better answer.

If you want to understand people’s beliefs or thoughts, numbers (i.e. quantitative research) don’t always give the full picture. Interactions or conversations with people (i.e. qualitative research) often help researchers gain deeper insights into why people do what they do.

qualitative research methods

What is qualitative research?

“Conversations with people” isn’t very specific, so let’s go a little deeper. By definition, qualitative research is an inquiry into the way people interpret a certain social condition around them. It usually involves interviews or conversations, which produce non-numerical data. An example of qualitative research is identifying how effective a government welfare program is by talking to the people directly affected by it.

Qualitative research is often time intensive, primarily because it requires collecting data by interacting with people over long periods of time. Then, after collecting data, analyzing conversations and bringing out insights is also time consuming.

Qualitative research is useful in two situations:

  • When research questions need to be sharpened: In the beginning of any study, researchers may only have a rough idea what they want to collect data on and how they can collect that data. Using qualitative research can help researchers understand their problem, zero in on their hypothesis, and create a design for further research (either qualitative or quantitative) as the study unfolds.
  • When you need detailed description of an issue: For complex issues, simple statistics may show what is happening, but not why it’s happening. In these scenario, qualitative research is helpful for exploring social conditions and explaining them in detail. For example, quantitative data may show how many girls drop out of school, but qualitative data can help researchers understanding the barriers that stop parents from sending girls to school.

There are several different qualitative research methods. Which method you should use depends on what you’re trying to achieve. However, the three most commonly used qualitative research methods are in-depth interviews, focus group discussions (FGDs) and observation.

qualitative research methods, in-depth interviews

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Method 1: In-depth interviews

What is an in-depth interview?

One-to-one interviews are the most commonly used qualitative research method. They are semi-structured, which means that the questions to be asked and issues to be addressed are fluid and take shape as the interview unfolds.

How long do in-depth interviews take?

An in-depth interview may last 60–90 minutes and is conducted face to face.

Do participants need to give their permission?

Yes. Participation must be voluntary, and each person must give informed consent before they participate in an interview.

When are in-depth interviews useful?

In-depth interviews are ideal in situations where:

  • The research topic is complex. (For example, what factors affect whether men of a certain strata use contraceptives?)
  • The research topic is sensitive. (For example, understanding the prevalence of alcoholism among a group of people.)
  • The study requires detailed information.

In-depth interviews can be used at any stage of research. For example, they can be conducted in the beginning of a program to explore hypotheses and set the research plan, in the middle to benchmark the program’s progress, or at the end to understand the effectiveness of a program’s implementation.

Who should interview participants?

Highly skilled interviewers are important for effective in-depth interviews. It is critical that interviewers are sensitive, empathic, and able to establish a comfortable environment for interviewees.

Interviewers should also have a deep understanding of both the topic under study and the research objectives, so they can ask questions that provide relevant and actionable insights. Poor interviewing skills, poor phrasing of questions, or inadequate knowledge of the subject’s culture or frame of reference may result in data that isn’t accurate or useful.

While selecting interviewers, researchers may also need to weigh personal characteristics that will make interviewees more comfortable with interviewers. For example, age, sex and profession may be important characteristics.

How should researchers prepare for in-depth interviews?

In-depth interviews typically start with open-ended questions, then interviewers use further questions to probe into different topics. The interviewer should have a guide prepared with a list of issues that are to be explored along with some suitable questions or probes for each issue.

How should researchers collect data during in-depth interviews?

The interview should be recorded. Preferably, it should also be transcribed immediately so that invisible information such as body language and expressions are not lost in the annals of time.

Collecting audio or video data doesn’t require expensive recording equipment. Just use your smartphone with Collect, our mobile data collection tool.

Advantages of in-depth interviews:

  • Yield rich data and new insights
  • Allow face-to-face interaction
  • Allow in-depth conversation about the topic being studied
  • Can capture both affective and cognitive aspects
  • Give the interviewer the opportunity to clarify or explain the question/topic for better responses

Limitations of in-depth interviews:

  • Costly and time-consuming
  • Require highly trained interviewers
  • May obtain a massive amount of information, which makes transcription and data analysis difficult
  • Create exploratory, not conclusive, results. This means that their findings usually cannot be generalized for the entire population.

qualitative research methods, focus group discussion, fgd

Method 2: Focus group discussions (FGDs)

What is a FGD?

Focus group discussions are another common qualitative research method. In a focus group discussion, an interviewer talks to a group of people about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes towards an idea, concept, service, product, etc. The participants are usually a group of people who are similar in some way, such as their income, education, or occupation. This helps the participants feel more comfortable with one another.

How many people are involved in an FGD?

A typical focus group has anywhere between 6 to 12 participants, and it’s usually best to carry out at least 3 FGDs. Talking with multiple groups leads to more in-depth or diverse information.

How long do FGDs take?

An FGD should be 60–90 minutes. If the FGD is shorter than 60 minutes, it is often difficult to fully explore the discussion topic. If the FGD is longer than 90 minutes, the discussion can become unproductive (as participants get weary) and the discussion can start to impose on participants’ time.

Do participants need to give their permission?

Yes. Researchers must get informed consent for all participants. Participation should be voluntary, though it can be incentivized.

When are FGDs useful?

Focus groups are most useful for:

  • Identifying and defining problems
  • Pre-testing topics or ideas to sharpen the research questions
  • Identifying program strengths, weaknesses, and recommendations
  • Interpreting quantitative findings
  • Learning people’s thoughts on project outcomes and impacts
  • Generating new ideas

In a FGD, the researcher is not trying to make the group reach a consensus. Rather, their goal is to explore different people’s opinions on the topic. Hence, the results of an FGD are exploratory, not conclusive.

Who should conduct an FGD?

A successful FGD requires a skilled moderator. As a moderator, it is important to ensure that all participants are comfortable and engaged with the discussion, and that their opinions are being heard. The following techniques are helpful:

  • Remain neutral to ensure that everyone feels comfortable expressing their opinion. No nodding or shaking your head, raising eyebrows, agreeing or disagreeing with comments, or praising or denigrating participants.
  • Elicit further information from shy participants with comments like “Can you tell me more about that?”, “Help me understand what you mean”, or “Can you give an example?”
  • Deal with dominant participants by acknowledging their opinion and soliciting other opinions. Sentences like “Thank you. What do other people think?” can be helpful.
  • Paraphrase or summarize long, unclear comments by participants. This shows participants that the moderator is actively listening, and it helps the moderator to ensure he or she has understood the participant’s statement.
  • Act spontaneously if needed. If the conversation goes in an unexpected, but productive direction, go with it and ask questions that were not on the initial questionnaire. Probe deeper into new topics and ideas, as long as the information being gained is valuable.

How should researchers collect data during in-depth interviews?

Like with in-depth interviews, digital recorders (either audio or video) are a great way to record data during FGDs. The record should be transcribed immediately so its nuances aren’t lost over time.

Don’t forget to pair audio or video recordings with other relevant data points, like how many people attended the FGD and their personal characteristics. Collecting lots of different types of data in one place is a breeze with Collect, our mobile data collection tool.

Advantages of FGDs:

  • Focus groups can often get at perceptions, attitudes, and experiences better than a quantitative survey.
  • They allows in-depth conversation about the topic
  • Unlike a paper survey, FGDs gives researchers the opportunity to clarify or explain the question or topic for better responses.
  • When participants discuss a topic with one another, they can become more active and engaged, which leads to more data. However, the moderator plays a key role in probing and ensuring participation.

Limitations of FGDs:

It is important to realize that there are two key limitations to FGDs:

  • Since FGD data is qualitative, it cannot necessarily be generalized to the population. This is because qualitative data is often context-specific.
  • Moderators must ensure that they don’t show any bias. This will veer the trajectory of the conversation. Moderators must also be be active in ensuring that active participants do not overpower subdued participants during the discussion.

Looking to conduct an FGD? Keep reading for more information on how you can conduct a successful FGD.

qualitative research methods, observation, observational data, observational research

Method 3: Observations

What is observation?

Observation is a qualitative research method where researchers gather data by observing people’s behavior or events in their natural setting.

There are 2 main types of observation:

  • Covert: No one knows they are being observed and the observer is concealed. For example, a researcher trying to understand the rituals and ceremonies of Hindu weddings may conceal himself as a guest to observe what’s happening.
  • Overt: Everyone knows they are being observed. For example, a researcher on Hindu weddings may explain his study to the wedding party and use a video camera to record the wedding.

Usually, overt observations are preferable, because observing people without their knowledge or permission can raise ethical problems.

Covert vs. overt aren’t the only types of observation. There’s also direct vs. indirect, simple vs. behavioral, and participant vs. non-participant. Learn more about each type here.

Do participants need to give their permission?

For overt observation, informed consent must be obtained from participants before any observational data is gathered.

When is observation useful?

Observations are most useful when:

  • You are trying to understand an ongoing process or situation.
  • You are gathering data on individual behaviors or interactions between people.
  • Collecting data from people is not realistic. If respondents are unwilling or unable to provide data through questionnaires or interviews, observation is a method that requires little from participants.

How should researchers prepare for observation?

The research questions or processes being observed must be well structured — that is, the parameters to be observed must be clearly defined. For example, a researcher observing students in class should have precise things to observe, like the number of students asleep within the first five minutes or students’ level of engagement throughout the class. Selecting specific focus areas or questions helps make the collected data more accurate and relevant to the research question.

In addition, it is critical that to schedule observations so they overlap with whatever is being observed. For example, if you’re trying to observe noon music classes at a school, observations shouldn’t be scheduled for 2 pm. This requires advance planning.

Who should conduct observation?

Observers must be well-trained on the data collection process, and must be focused on producing effective, useful and unbiased insights. Observers can be the researchers themselves, or researchers can train other people (such as students, interns, research assistants or stakeholders) to act as observers.

How should researchers collect data during observation?

The right data collection technique depends on what information is being collected. Here are a few ways to collect data through observation.

  • Recording sheets and checklists: a list of both pre-set questions and responses. They are the most standardized way of collecting observation data.
  • Observation guides: lists of the interactions, processes, or behaviors to be observed, with space to record open-ended narrative data.
  • Field notes: open-ended narrative data that can be written (on paper or digitally) or dictated (on a tape recorder). This is the least standardized way of collecting observation data, since it doesn’t include preset questions or responses.

Using digital tools (such as a data collection app, tape recorder, laptop, camera, or video camera) can make it much easier and quicker to collect observational data.

Looking for a data collection app that will keep up with even the fastest observation surveys? Check out Collect, our mobile data collection tool, used by over 150 organizations across 17 countries.

Advantages of observation:

  • It allows researchers to collect first-hand data from where the activity is happening.
  • Researchers can get answers from groups that don’t have the time or willingness to answer questions.

Limitations of observation:

  • The insights are susceptible to researcher bias.
  • Observation can be expensive and time consuming.
  • Overt observation may lead to the Hawthorne effect, where people tend to behave better when they know they’re being observed. In covert observation, this may not be the case.

Planning to do observations? Learn more about when and how to collect observational data.

Summing it up

Qualitative research is one of the best tools to identify behaviors and patterns governing social conditions. It goes a step beyond quantitative data by providing the reasons and rationale behind a phenomenon, which often cannot be explored quantitatively.

The qualitative research methods above (in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, and observation) are most commonly used for collecting qualitative data. However, lesser-known qualitative research methods include literature and document review of existing material on the research topic. These can be helpful for identifying if the research questions have been partly or fully answered in the past.


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