27 Jul 2015 18:43 IST

How qualitative research offers insights

In the hands of a skilled moderator, they can provide in-depth insights into consumer behaviour and choice

Here are some questions that, one assumes, would be on the mind of anyone, say, a student who hasn’t been exposed to qualitative research. Hence, I have styled this article, like many previous ones, in the form of a dialogue with a student. Hopefully, by the end of it, I should be able to address some of the questions you may have on the subject.

Student: Hi, I'm back with more questions. Are you familiar with group discussions?

Yes, I am. It is a core part of my livelihood, you know. But where did you hear about it? In your MBA selection process?

Yes, went through that then of course. But I'm hearing a lot about it at work. My manager keeps saying at meetings that the GDs done by the research firm indicate that we should do this and not do that. So I wanted to learn more about them.

Ok, good. Group discussions, or GDs, are a part of qualitative research, a specialised area within the field of market research.

Group discussions are the most commonly used form of qualitative research.

When do we use qualitative research?

Qualitative research is used when the requirement is not for numerical data but for in-depth insights into the consumer’s mind, motivations and choice criteria.

Quantitative research, the other major arm of market research, is good at endorsing the numerical and statistical validity of a study’s findings, and at identifying the rational motivations and choice criteria for a consumer behaviour pattern or opinion. But it cannot provide insight into the underlying motivations.

For instance, if a housewife is asked why she gives her children Horlicks, she may say – in a quantitatively structured interview – that Horlicks is good for health and she wants the best for her children. Qualitative probing into her motivations may throw up an additional finding – that her mother used to give her Horlicks when she was a child, and that ever since then Horlicks has been strongly associated in her mind with being a good and caring mother.

This one example should serve to explain why qualitative research is so sought after by marketers.

Ok. So it elicits underlying reasons and motivations?

Yes, that is a very good way of putting it

How do GDs work?

Group discussions typically involve between 7 and 9 respondents participating for about an hour and a half; these discussions are moderated by a researcher / moderator, whose role is to ensure that the discussions stay on track, and to probe deeper, where relevant.

So this moderator asks the questions in the questionnaire?

There is no questionnaire here. The moderator uses a discussion guide rather than a questionnaire to ensure that the information coverage is complete

How does one become a moderator? Sounds like an interesting job.

It is a very interesting job, but it is not really for everyone.

A trend in the research industry in India these days is that freelance moderators are often used to moderate these discussions, mainly because of logistical and language constraints. While many such moderators are highly skilled, some are not and merely read out the questions noted down. This defeats the very purpose of group discussions as the quality of the results is largely a function of the quality of moderation.

One of the reasons why GDs work better than one-on-one interviews is that the interaction between the respondents throws up fresh insight; if the moderator is not highly skilled, he/she would be unable to take advantage of the group dynamics.

A highly skilled moderator can also take full advantage of a range of questioning techniques known as projective techniques. Projective techniques are very powerful in their ability to elicit underlying reasons and opinions, sometimes not known to the respondents themselves on a conscious level.

Now the job sounds difficult! What makes a moderator good or bad?

The moderator must have an excellent knowledge of marketing concepts and consumer behavior. He / she must be very good at thinking on their feet and probing deeper into any new angle that emerges during a discussion.

Above all, the moderator must have excellent listening skills and be the kind of person that other people feel comfortable talking to.

For the advanced techniques to work well, the primary requirement is that the respondents are put into a relaxed frame of mind and feel comfortable enough to open up and talk freely. When the respondents have not lightened up, the same techniques tend to look frivolous and invite derision.

Can you give me some examples of these probing techniques so that we can look them up?

Some of the techniques used in traditional research include sentence completion, word association, grouping, etc. Not all are projective techniques, some are direct but work well in certain situations.

Is it a commercially vibrant field?

Very much so, but there are problems as well.

Though the qualitative research industry in India is showing good growth, it is beset with recruitment problems. Recruitment executives are finding it increasingly hard to persuade people – especially working professionals – to take time off to attend a group discussion. This sometimes leads to corners being cut and quality being affected. The industry needs to get together and evolve strategies to solve such problems.

To read more from the FundaMental section, click here .