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In qualitative research – be it a focus group, in-depth interview (individual interview), or ethnographic project – we are seeking the opinions, motivations, and drivers behind people’s behavior and purchasing habits. Instead of measuring quantity, qualitative research captures the more nuanced, subjective, and less quantifiable aspects that influence people.  And what are behind people’s drives and decision-making processes? Perceptions, Opinions, Beliefs, and Attitudes. In qualitative research, this is exactly what we seek to learn.

Now, not all studies will attempt to delve completely into these four aspects, but the beauty of qualitative research is that, when done correctly, it can tap into these major cornerstones of how people make decisions. For example, a qualitative research focus group project about consumer opinions toward an ad campaign will spend less time on questions related to attitudes and beliefs and more time trying to understand perceptions and opinions. Or conversely, a qualitative research study that attempts to understand how people feel about a particular political candidate may focus more on attitudes and opinions, and less on beliefs and perceptions.

To understand these four main cornerstones that underlie people’s motivations, the research study will ask constructed questions that draw each area out. Let’s explore each area and address how qualitative research understands perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes.

How qualitative research explores Perceptions

When we ask questions in qualitative research that ask about perceptions, we’re capturing a mental image that someone has, knowing that it has been filtered through their experiences. So, for example, if we’re seeking to learn what people think about a new interface design on a phone that incorporates a stylus, we’ll include probes that address the new design we’re exploring and see how people filter this through their previous experiences using a stylus. Their previous use of a stylus (they’re easy to lose, or, they give me more control on a screen) will help us understand the mental framework that people start from when they first see a device touting a stylus’ benefits.

How qualitative research explores Opinions

Opinions are deeply held beliefs that tend to be somewhat rooted in facts, but are still subjective and based on previous experiences. Most qualitative projects spend a good amount of time exploring opinions, and for good reason – opinions are the foundation where people base their reasoning, which, in turn, inspires feelings. Opinions are more than impressions or perceptions but less-firm than hard-distilled facts. For example, a research participant may say, “In my opinion, hybrid cars have less power and therefore are less fun to drive than gas or diesel engines.” In this case, the consumer is basing his opinion on some general facts (which could be distilled from average horsepower ranges, for example), but his opinion is still tilted toward his subjective bias.

We spend a lot of time seeking to understand the strength of consumers’ opinions because they’re so indicative of future behavior. If a consumer has extremely strong opinions on the hybrid versus gas/diesel engine comparison, for example, we’ll know that the client needs to start farther back in the top-down messaging framework, or ensure that their campaign speaks specifically to these concerns. If the consumers seem to be more on the spectrum of “Hybrid engines don’t seem to be as powerful, but they are still fast,” the campaign will work accordingly from this spectrum on the opinion range.

How qualitative research explores Beliefs

Beliefs are tricky because they form people’s values, determine where people place their trust, and are harder to change than perceptions and opinions. People may form their belief systems with little grounding in evidence, and they may not remember or even understand how they developed these belief systems. Early on in the qualitative research process, it’s important to understand what people’s beliefs are, because this helps us get to how they perceive what we’re studying and where their opinions may be coming from.

An example of a belief system is that all fats in food are “bad” fats. The source of this belief system is likely from myriad sources – “low fat” products, magazine articles, various scientific stances proclaimed in the news, etc. If a company is trying to sell coconut-oil products, they first need to understand people’s belief systems about a high-fat product. Will there be immediate resistance because a consumer has formed a belief system that any product with fat is “bad”? And, furthermore, if a campaign attempts to change this long-held belief system, how much education is required to inform the consumer? Are scientific studies better, or anecdotal evidence from people who eat the product and feel more energetic (without gaining weight)? As you can see, beliefs are a fundamental issue to understand in qualitative studies and can inform many of study’s outcomes.

How qualitative research explores Attitudes

Attitudes are the fourth cornerstone that we explore in qualitative research. For our definition purposes, an attitude is an emotional position or mental statement that a person holds about a fact or statement. We seek to understand attitudes by carefully listening to the tones, pitch of voice, and pacing of conversation, and by observing people’s body language when they speak about a topic. Sample questions that help us understand attitudes might include:

  • Do you use the voice-command feature on your phone? (Baseline question to set up topic)
  • If so, what’s your inner dialogue when you use it?
  • If no, what keeps you from using it?
  • What do you need to know about voice-command features versus standard manual navigation features on the phone to use voice-command more regularly?

Attitudes are fascinating – and fundamental to the process of marketing and product development – because people’s attitudes can change while their core beliefs and opinions remain intact. Attitude changes feel less threatening, yet hold a tremendous amount of influence in how people make decisions.

In qualitative research, we see perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes as separate

If you pull up a thesaurus definition for “perception,” you’re likely to see opinions, beliefs, and attitudes as alternates with a similar definition. While similar in many ways, a driving goal in qualitative research is to tease out the differences in these four concepts because they are uniquely responsible in driving human behavior and motivations.

And that, right there, is the heart and soul of why qualitative research is so powerful in answering fundamental questions behind people’s behavior.

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