Quantitative vs. qualitative research: what's the difference?

Learn the key differences between quantitative and qualitative research, so you know exactly which method to use and when.

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What’s the difference between quantitative research and qualitative research?

Quantitative and qualitative methods are terms we use to describe broad research strategies. They don’t refer to specific data collection techniques or analysis methods, but they are useful in deciding how you plan to tackle your research.

So, first up, a definition of each of these research styles.

The quantitative approach

As the name suggests, quantitative research is based on numbers. It might appeal to the logical tendencies of left-brain thinkers.

Think percentages, statistics, population data, economic figures, or any other type of raw data that you can't dispute. It’s the brass-tacks of research methods.

A quantitative question gives you a black-and-white, often numerical answer. Quantitative answers might sound like this:

  • 53% of millennials would quit their job if they had to return to the office full-time.
  • One-third of all holiday shopping sales were made from a smartphone last year.
  • 61% of employees find it hard to commit to workplace training.

You could also do quantitative studies to test relationships between variables that aren’t necessarily numbers, like:

  • Flexible working and higher employee retention
  • Increased salary and greater job satisfaction
  • Age of lead and marketing type.

Quantitative research methods help you make predictions, draw conclusions from a larger audience, and identify patterns in their behaviour. If you’re working with concrete or numerical variables and data, odds are you’re doing quantitative research.

The qualitative approach

Qualitative research relies on non-numerical data such as language, concepts, beliefs, and trends. It moves away from raw data and focuses on things that are up for debate.

Here’s another way to think about it: if quantitative research is done with measurements, qualitative research is done with observations.

Qualitative questions allow you to dig deep into a topic, study the relationships between variables, and find potential patterns. Where we can use quantitative research to test hypotheses, we can depend on qualitative research to create them.

Qualitative research methods may uncover personal, difficult-to-measure attitudes and behaviours you wouldn't necessarily assign a number to. But as it's highly subjective, one researcher's interpretation of the data may differ entirely from another.

A qualitative research question might sound like this:

  • How do employees feel when they work from home?
  • What pain points are our target audience struggling with?
  • How is the recession affecting small business owners?

As you can see, these types of questions don’t have concrete, numerical answers. The researcher must sift through a goldmine of intel to uncover the unique perspectives of their research participants.

Quantitative research 

Qualitative research 

Ideal for proving or disproving hypotheses 

Ideal for creating hypotheses 

Based on numerical data 

Based on language, concepts, and ideas

Analysis relies on maths and statistical analysis 

Analysis relies on categorising and interpreting

Inexpensive to run and easy to scale 

Requires vast resources 

Uses closed-ended questions 

Uses open-ended questions 

When to use quantitative vs. qualitative research

There is some overlap between quantitative and qualitative research. After all, they’re both driving forces behind evidence-based outcomes.

So how do you know when to use each research strategy? Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow if you’re stuck: use qualitative research to develop a theory, and use quantitative research to test it.

Use qualitative research to understand a problem, opinion, or experience

Want to understand the decision-making behind customer journeys? Or anticipate if your new product will be a hit? Qualitative research is the way to do it. It allows you to untangle complex topics by first observing, and then understanding the general mood or vibe that's otherwise challenging to quantify.

Qualitative insights help you spot issues that could otherwise be missed with raw data, like the unmet needs of potential customers. They can also pinpoint gaps in the market, help you understand how to tackle a policy change or uncover how competitors engage with their audience.

Sometimes your qualitative research will throw up ambiguities and contradictions. Not everyone will have the same opinion and it can be tricky to nail down the trends you're looking for.

This can make it seem like your qualitative data set doesn't make sense, but in actuality, your data probably just illustrates the complexities of social reality. Even if your qualitative studies give you mixed results, you’ll end up with a deeper understanding of whatever it is you’re studying.

There are a few biases to be aware of when working with qualitative questions. The validity of the research may be threatened by, including:

  • observer bias: when the researcher's existing perceptions influence the results
  • social desirability bias: when participants want to please the researcher by giving them the ‘right’ answer rather than admitting to behaviour that may be deemed socially unacceptable.

Use quantitative research to test a theory

You can use quantitative methods to put your qualitative observations into context through measuring, counting, and analysing. If you suspect that a particular theory has merit, quantitative research can help you prove or disprove it.

It's an efficient way to measure the success of campaigns and strategies, test hypotheses, and take the guesswork out of decision-making processes.

Let's say you believe that you'll boost your business productivity by increasing employee retention. You may have come to this hypothesis based on qualitative survey questions you asked your team.

To test it, first look at your employee pulse surveys, performance reviews, exit interviews, and job satisfaction data. Then you can use this quantitative data to make more concrete predictions about how these variables might interact with each other in the future.

There are also biases to be aware of when doing quantitative research. These include:

  • Information bias: when people provide incorrect data.
  • Selection bias: when the 'wrong' people are included in your survey or research sample and don't reflect the target population.

Use a combination to get the whole picture

A mixed methods-based research approach gives you the best of both worlds. There are two main ways to do it:

1. Qualitative followed by quantitative research: in this model, you'll use qualitative research to explore an idea and develop a set of hypotheses. Then you can use quantitative research to prove or disprove your theory (the way we outlined previously).

2. Quantitative followed by qualitative research: let’s say a stat has taken you by surprise. You’ll start by looking at the numerical values in question, and then use qualitative research to get a sense of what exactly is shaping those numbers.

How to gather quantitative and qualitative data

Once you've chosen your approach, the next step is to determine the collection method for your quantitative or qualitative data.

Quantitative data collection methods

Quantitative data works best when you gather data from a large sample set and a range of sources, including:

  • Experiments: these are a great way to test multiple variables and isolate the effect of each one on the outcome.
  • Surveys and polls: quantitative questions are typically closed-ended using a Yes/No format, but any question with a clear rating scale or easily categorised answers will do.
  • Interviews: as above, you may structure face-to-face, telephone, or video interviews with predetermined questions that allow you to compare answers easily.

Qualitative data collection methods

Qualitative data collection brings non-numerical evidence into the mix. Companies usually use a smaller sample size to save money, as this type of research requires plenty of time and resources.

Along with text-based research, you can also work from photos, videos, and audio recordings. Your data might come from sources such as:

  • Focus groups: these are a popular style of market research where targeted groups discuss a topic in-depth, uncovering insights that would be difficult to surface individually.
  • Case studies: this qualitative method allows you to immerse yourself in the history and context of your customers through a series of in-depth interviews. The aim is to ditch the formalities and encourage your expert interviewee to speak openly about their experience and perspective.
  • Ethnography: this type of research looks at the cultures and social groups that shape behaviour, and is usually conducted by a professional or scholarly researcher.
  • Surveys: one of the more common methods, surveys pose a series of questions to a broader audience to gain deeper insight into a given topic. These questions are usually open-ended, like "how do you view our customer service?" as opposed to closed questions like "do you view our customer service positively?"

Analysing quantitative vs. qualitative research

Unanalysed data is like a stack of bricks without a builder—not much use. It’s important to learn how to turn raw data into valuable insights based on your research style.

Analysing quantitative data

Since quantitative data is numerical, it’s a great idea to use spreadsheet software to assist with analysis. For example, you can export your Paperform survey data to Excel or Google Sheets to perform valuable calculations like:

  • Average scores
  • Percentage of respondents
  • The number of times respondents selected an answer
  • Correlation between variables
  • Validity of results (including removing duplicates)

From here, it’s easy to filter your results, test your hypotheses and display your quantitative data as charts or graphs.

Analysing qualitative data

The output of qualitative data is usually displayed in the form of a report, whitepaper, or thought leadership content. Expect plenty of quotes, descriptions, explanations, and even images to support your research.

The following techniques will help you turn mountains of text-based data into meaningful output.

  • Content analysis: this process divides data into categories or themes based on interpretation or inference. Market research teams may analyse focus group transcripts to search for bias or partiality.
  • Grounded theory: this is an iterative process where you collect and analyse “grounded” real-world data, from which you’ll derive your hypothesis. It’s a useful research method when there’s no existing theory to explain an observed phenomenon. HR pros might use grounded theory to understand why employee engagement has dropped.
  • Thematic analysis: this method is typically applied to text-based research such as interview transcripts. It follows a six-step process developed by Victoria Clarke and Virginia Braun: familiarisation, coding, generating and reviewing themes, defining and naming themes, and finally writing up. Marketers can research how social media has changed over the past five years by taking interviews with current and historical users to find patterns in their usage.
  • Discourse analysis: this interpretative method analyses text-based data but also considers social and historical context to guide the results. L&D teams can study how communication works in virtual and in-classroom training environments.

Whichever analysis you choose, qualitative data can be painstaking to sift through. Luckily, integration platforms like Zapier or Make can make it easier.

Is your survey qualitative or quantitative?

Still wondering whether your survey is qualitative or quantitative? The answer is it depends. If you ask rating, scale, or close-ended questions where your participants provide answers that fall into categories, then you have a quantitative survey.

If you use text-based or open-ended questions about people’s experiences, and the answers are non-numerical, you’ve got yourself a qualitative survey.

No matter what kind of survey you’re making, Paperform can help you do it. With 650+ templates and question types suitable for either qualitative or quantitative research, we’ve got you covered.

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