How to use qualitative research

Qualitative research is used when you want to understand “why” your target audience thinks, feels or acts in a certain way. With this deeper understanding of attitudes and behaviours, you can identify opportunities through unmet needs or problems with existing products. And you can identify barriers to overcome to influence a new purchase decision. 

How to use qualitative research

How this guide raises your game

1. More informed on innovation ideas, purchase decisions and brand perception.

2. Understand qualitative research methods. 

3. How qualitative results shape marketing activities.

From your research brief (see the market research process) you should have a main research question. When this starts with “why”, qualitative research will most likely be the recommended way to answer the question.

Qualitative research (often shorted to ‘qual’) is based on getting rich quality of information about your consumers.

It looks to go deep with a relatively small number of consumers rather than go broad with a large number of consumers. It will probe to find underlying attitudes and behaviours that can generate hypotheses and new insights.

When you look at how to use qualitative research for your business, you should have in mind one of these three research goals.

  • Identify innovation or new product ideas based on finding unmet needs or issues with an existing solution.
  • Understand drivers and barriers around the way existing purchasing decisions currently take place.
  • Uncover perceptions of your brand and your competitor brands identity and activation.

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge on qualitative market research?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-brains qualitative research quiz and see how much you know about qualitative research already.

Case study introduction - IT professional services

We will use a case study approach to explain how to use qualitative research. We’ll cover the research methods used and with examples how they can generate ideas and answers. 

Let’s imagine you run a small IT services firm. Your target audience are the Heads of IT at mid to large size companies who make purchasing decisions. 

Let’s also assume that the basic quality level of service delivery and price levels between you and your competitors is similar. 

So, your overall research question for this case study will be something like this,

“Why would our target audience choose us over competitors if quality and price are similar?”

Qualitative research would be helpful to answer your “why” research question. Research is needed to understand how decision makers make their decisions and why they choose the products and services they currently do.

From research question to interview questions

Part of the challenge is ask directly “why”, your target audience might not always be able to articulate the reason. A skilled interviewer will be able to pull out the underlying thinking through a series of open-ended questions. 

In an actual research interview that might be carried out with an IT decision maker, for our case study the actual interview questions could look like this.


Research goals - coffee mug
  1. When you are renewing the agreement on (the services offered), can you talk us through the way you identify potential suppliers? What steps do you take? Where do you look? Where do you gather information?
  2. When you have a list of potential suppliers, can you talk us through the way you evaluate potential suppliers? What criteria do you use? How formal is the process? Who is involved in the review? Who makes the final decision?
  3. If you have two suppliers that seem to offer a similar level of quality and price, how do you then decide between those two suppliers? What other criteria tend to be used.


These are just example questions that might be used in a qualitative interview. And you may have spotted, that in this list, we haven’t used the word “why”. That’s deliberate. Because “why” isn’t often used as an opening question. Asking someone “why” can be quite challenging and put them on the defensive. It’s like asking someone to justify their behaviours or attitudes.

Softer questions to build trust

Softer questions like “can you explain …” and “can you talk about …” are helpful to build empathy and make the interviewee feel safe and not threatened. “Why” questions are better placed as a response to something the respondent has said.

The aim of the qualitative interview is to let the interviewee lead the direction of the conversation. It requires strong listening skills from the interviewer to probe on the answers given.

So for example, the interviewee might say they chose between two different suppliers because one supplier seemed friendlier and more informal during the proposal. If the interviewer then asks them “why” that would be important, they might say … 

well, we’ll be working with this supplier on a regular basis and spending a lot of time with them, so it’s important that there’s good rapport among the team”.

If you unpick that statement, there are opportunities to influence your marketing there. Let’s go back to the 3 areas we mentioned before on how to use qualitative research.

Innovation / new ideas

Obviously, this buyer considers team morale and motivation as part of the decision-making process. IT projects can be stressful and it’s important to build team work in. If we were the supplier here, we might add the way that we focus on teams and team-building into our “sell” proposal rather than only including the actual services and the price.

Drivers and barriers around current decision

How teams will operate together will not be the only decision making criteria, but there’s a good chance it will not be one that was top of mind for the supplier. So, in the interview, you would expect the researcher to probe a little more and understand the trade-offs and priorities the buyer puts to each potential criteria.

A great follow-up line of questioning to the above response for example would be

“that’s interesting. So if one supplier were slightly more expensive than the other, but you felt more confident the teams would work better together, would you pick the more expensive one? How much more expensive would you go before you thought they were too expensive?”

Perceptions of brand identity and activations

Qualitative research is also great to understand how your target audience perceives previous and existing marketing activity. If you have ideas on what your future marketing activity will be, it’s also a great place to test out their reactions.

In this case, maybe you probe on advertising and ask them if they’ve seen any of your ads? What did they think? Would it make them do anything? Maybe you probe on new services? Would those appeal? What would make them choose those services?

Your business context may not be exactly the same as this category / company. But the above example should give you food for thought of the types of questions and thinking that go on between the market research brief and qualitative research taking place.

Qualitative research methods

It’s worth taking some time to cover the basics of how qualitative research is normally conducted. 

Qualitative research is usually done one-to-one (often called a depth interview) or with a group of around eight people (usually called a focus group).

Each interview or group session typically lasts sixty to ninety minutes. You may come across other types of qualitative research (e.g. ethnography studies) but depth and focus group interviews are by far the most common methodology used.


Note taking

Think about the depth interview as like your brand having a coffee with your target consumer.

Think about the focus group as more like your brand having a dinner party with a group of your potential customers. 

Who is interviewed is usually defined by the target audience you have defined in the brief.

The market research company will use specialist recruiter firms to find consumers who meet the criteria – based on the demographics like age, gender, where they live or behaviours and attitudes – current buyers of a product or service for example.

Observing interviews

Usually, as the client, you will be able to observe some or all of the interviews taking place. This can either be through the interview being recorded or you being able to ‘view’ the discussion live. This is often done behind a two-way mirror, which can be a slightly weird experience as we’ve shared in a blog post.

There are a few exceptions to this. If the topic is particularly sensitive in nature, or the interviewee knows the client well, it may be that observation is not the way to go as it may distract of bias the results.

In qualitative research, the name of the client hiring company is usually held back so as not to bias the results. If you know “Brand X” is behind the research, you may hold back on being critical for fear of offending them. But if you only know it’s a company from “Industry X”, you’ll be less likely to hold back talking about any specific company.

How to use qualitative research - outputs

The final stage of qualitative research is when the research company presents the results in a debrief session. You should go in to this session with your original brief, and make sure that the presentation covers the question you asked in the brief. 

Typically, these sessions might include actual quotes of video clips of interviewees talking. Quotes and videos can be helpful to bring to life the consumer when you start to use the research to write briefs for any marketing activation.

These can be built into your brand identity documents for example. These can be shared with agencies when briefing them on marketing communications or digital marketing. 

Qualitative research results example - quotes from market research respondents on IT account manager service

You can see from the (hypothetical) example here a number of typical verbatim quotes that might come out from research in the IT services example we gave above.

This might generate hypothesis on how Account Managers could offer better services by how available they are. Or how quickly they respond for example. Or the way they conduct themselves.

How to find a qualitative research company

We cover the topic of finding and working with market research companies in another skill guide. But as a quick solution to close off the topic of how to use qualitative research, we recommend as a first step a visit to the market research industry association website in your market. 

In Australia where we are based, this is the Australian Market and Social Research Society. (AMSRS). It currently has 202 members offering various types of market research services including qualitative research.

Online research

From the links of the industry site, you can start to look at and compare the different services available. Try to get a feel for the style of the market research company and if it suits your style and business needs.

It is worth looking at articles and news that the agency post on their websites.

We don’t recommend any specific qualitative research company because each has their own specialities. But here ere are three example research agencies in Sydney that share good articles around qualitative research.

How to use qualitative research – Conclusion 

Qualitative research companies will be able to guide you through the methodology outlined in this guide in more detail. And do it in a way more specific to your industry.

But don’t be afraid to challenge and ask questions.

And do remember when it comes to how to use qualitative research, the value is not in the research itself, it’s in your ability to use the outputs to create better marketing strategies and activities

Remember that you should be looking for innovation new ideas, insight into the purchase decision and perceptions of your brand and your competitors.

Three-brains and market research

We coach and consult on market research and often include market research skill development and market research project delivery as part of our services. We help businesses commission, manage and apply market research.

If you’d like to talk about raising your game in market research as part of our coaching and consulting services, click on the button to fill out the contact form.

Use this market research brief template when working with your market research agency to brief them on market research related tasks.

3 pages including a blank template, a guide to completing each section and an example brief from the vegan ice cream case study in our secondary research skill guide.

Download it here or from our resources section. 

Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

Market research brief template
Click to download the pdf

Latest market research blog posts