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  • Writer's pictureKristin Harper

7 Characteristics of High-Impact Qualitative Research

High-Impact Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is a method designed to study people in the context of a specific topic. Combining disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, moderators lead participants through a series of in-depth questions, and in-the-moment probes, to draw meaningful conclusions. There are seven important characteristics to consider when developing high-impact qualitative research.

7 Characteristics of High-Impact Qualitative Research

The goal of qualitative research is to understand perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and motivations of a particular target audience. This article highlights seven characteristics of high-impact qualitative research. Using the appropriate qualitative research methods, the researcher or moderator will design a study to answer specific questions, validate or invalidate hypotheses, and make unexpected discoveries along the way.

Characteristic #1 - Exploring Different Qualitative Research Methods

There are numerous qualitative research methods, including in-person and virtual focus groups, in-depth interviews, ethnography, in-store shop-alongs, and other observation methods, case studies, content analysis, phenomenology, and grounded theory.

The process is determined by the type of participants or respondents, the nature of the topic, and the content to be evaluated. Each qualitative research method has a different significance and is used for different scenarios and research situations. High-impact outcomes combine qualitative and quantitative methods to gather information, discern insights, and inform conclusions.

Below is a brief description of a few qualitative research methods:

In Person and Virtual Focus Groups

A focus group is one of the most commonly used qualitative research methods, usually consisting of 5 to 8 respondents within your target market at a time. Multiple groups will provide sufficient content to conduct a thorough analysis of the topic at hand. This method is best used to explore topics through discovery, solicit meaningful feedback through open-ended questions, and gain deeper insights into an audience.

Prior to the pandemic, focus groups were most often conducted in person in a third-party facility. Since the pandemic, the process has been modified to go virtual, which has several benefits. Implementing virtual focus groups:

  • Saves Time and Money -- it’s common to select a metropolitan area, which requires the client, their colleagues, and the moderator to incur travel time and expense traveling to one or more geographies. Virtual research can be conducted anywhere a respondent or observer has a computer or mobile device.

  • Diversifies Respondents -- instead of relying on a single geography, respondents can be recruited from multiple locations.

  • Increases Inclusion -- Unlike the back room of a facility, virtual research enables multiple clients, advertising agency partners, and sponsors to observe simultaneously.

In-Depth Interviews

An in-depth interview is a conversational style qualitative research method conducted with one participant at a time. Also known as IDIs, one advantage is gathering precise, unfiltered viewpoints of participants, especially if the conversation is led by a skilled moderator. Unlike focus groups, bias and groupthink are not factors in the process.

IDIs can occur face-to-face, online, or over the phone, and last between 30 minutes to two hours. IDIs are an effective way to engage c-suite executives and participants in discussing sensitive topics that could be negatively influenced by strangers or competitors being part of the conversation.


Ethnography is an observational qualitative research method designed to understand the behaviors, challenges, motivations, and factors that influence people within their natural environment, and to derive conclusions based on participants’ answers and behaviors.

Conducting ethnographies in a real-world setting of participants will lead to high-impact qualitative research. Whether consumers are in their homes, shoppers are in the retail store, or healthcare providers or patients are in the medical facility, engaging participants when and where they engage with your product, service, brand, or category creates a more natural experience to engage in rich conversation.

Ethnographies can range from a couple of hours to days or years. Therefore, this approach can be time-consuming and expensive since it involves in-depth observation. Hiring a skilled firm that can design a comprehensive yet concise research design, conduct thorough analysis, synthesize data and insights, and draw actionable conclusions can streamline the process.

Observational Research

Observational research occurs in the context of the participant’s natural environment. A keen researcher guides the conversation and uses the major senses -- sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste -- and intuition. This qualitative research method can unearth nuanced insights that are less obvious and more difficult -- if not impossible -- to detect using other types of research.

For example, accompanying shoppers in the retail environment provides brands with contextual clues such as the competitive set, placement within the aisle and shelf set, claims, packaging, pricing, promotions, and other characteristics in the natural environment.

Characteristic #2 - Asking Insightful Questions

Based on the objectives, moderators will pre-define a set of questions to facilitate the conversation and collect meaningful data for the study. This is a guide, and not absolute since participant comments cannot be predicted. Astute moderators pick up on both spoken and unspoken context clues to probe more deeply and implement an emergent design that develops as the research progresses. Whether it’s words, a change in tone of voice, eye contact, or a shift in a respondent’s disposition, as the study progresses, moderators should gain richer insights from the conversation. Being flexible while asking insightful questions is one of the important characteristics of high-impact qualitative research.

Moderators can also use theoretical perspectives in conducting research to understand nuanced differences among various segments of the target audience, such as cultural concepts, gender differences, race, and others.

Characteristic #3 - Building Rapid Rapport with Researcher and Participants

One of the characteristics of high-impact qualitative research that cannot be understated is building rapid rapport with respondents. After all, the nature of research is to ask questions to gather rational and emotional answers to the what, why, and how of the topic at hand. Therefore, researchers and moderators should seek to quickly create a psychologically safe environment where people feel comfortable being honest, open, and even vulnerable at times. Using reflexivity to share their background, the purpose of the work, and preferably their objective role in the context of the study leads to more openness.

Characteristic #4 - Recruiting the Right Participants for the Study

Identifying, recruiting, and incentivizing the right people is another one of the critical characteristics of high-impact qualitative research. This process begins with a screener that narrows down potential respondents based on a series of demographic, psychographic, and other types of questions. Recruiting a diverse group of respondents across age, gender, race and ethnicity, geography, ability, and beyond is another one of the characteristics that should not be overlooked.

A full-service market research firm will recruit, moderate, report, and handle incentives for qualitative respondents. It is important to recruit an appropriate base size that effectively addresses the diversity of the target market and to over-recruit qualitative respondents as no-shows are often inevitable.

Characteristic #5 - Engaging Multiple Senses

According to a report by the University of California–San Diego, the average American consumes about 34 gigabytes of data and information every day. Therefore, it is important to engage multiple senses to conduct high-impact qualitative research – another of the seven characteristics. There are various techniques to engage respondents -- using visual or multi-media stimuli, capturing emotions and facial expressions, and hands-on activities, to name a few. High-impact qualitative studies rely on studying the respondents’ meaning from their point of view.

An equally important characteristic is the report from the moderator. Qualitative methods are a process of discovery that can answer intended questions and generate both one-off and trend-based insights along the way. Combining storytelling with a concise, action-oriented report is key to engaging the client and other decision makers and influencers.

Characteristic #6 - Capturing Useful Content

There are various approaches to gathering useful content. Some clients are searching for the bottom-line answers to specific questions or hypotheses. Others are interested in the key themes across respondents. Still others want to document the fine details and intricacies of each person’s feedback and experiences.

Skilled moderators will clarify the objectives, situational context, and deliverables at the start of a project. Qualitative methods are interpretive -- the moderator and observers make interpretations of what they see, hear, and understand. While the moderator’s role is to remain objective, it is helpful to have periodic debrief conversations with clients throughout the study to ensure important findings are in the final report.

Inductive data analysis occurs when researchers build categories, patterns, and themes from the ground up or from separate data into a complete conclusion. For example, participants’ responses during qualitative research can be coded and summarized in key themes for future reference. Other stimuli such as respondent diaries, pictures, and verbatim quotes can bring insights to life by engaging the head and heart. Therefore, capturing useful content is an important one to include in the list of characteristics of high-impact qualitative research.

Characteristic #7 - Compliments Quantitative Data Analysis

The final of the seven characteristics of high-impact qualitative research is using complex reasoning to explain the outcome of quantitative research methods and to conduct ongoing data analysis. Data tells the “what,” and is gathered at scale through quantitative analysis. Conversations uncover the “why,” and are captured through qualitative methods. Both methods are necessary to gather multiple sources of data and give a holistic account of a target audience and the topic at hand.

Qualitative research can follow quantitative analysis, such as consumer segmentation, purchasing behavior, or market trends. Qualitative research can derive meaning from data-based trends.

In brand market research, qualitative research can also precede quantitative studies by uncovering new ideas for potential products, services, and advertising campaigns, for example. The base size of qualitative research is generally smaller and insufficient to draw definitive conclusions; therefore, quantitative studies can quickly validate the hypothesis at scale and at a fraction of the cost of qualitative research. However, be careful not to shortcut or eliminate qualitative research from the process since some of the richest insights come from conversations that best happen with high-impact qualitative research.

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Driven to Succeed is an award-winning global market research and consulting firm that compliments data (the “what”) with empathetic research and conversations (the “why”) to help Fortune 500 companies and high-growth brands uncover insights to innovate and grow. Our team has walked a mile in your shoes with over 100 years of experience in Market Research, Marketing, and P&L Management for global iconic brands and startup companies across diverse B2B and B2C industries. Learn more at

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