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Article Summary:  Sample sizes in qualitative research are much lower than those needed in quantitative research because of careful audience segmentation, study design, and the principle of data saturation.

Everyone wants to know the magical number for sample size when doing qualitative research.

Of course, when you’re doing quantitative research numbers matter more – especially when you’re aiming for statistically meaningful results. But when doing qualitative research, several factors must be considered before blindly accepting an arbitrary number. Here are some important points that should be kept in mind when thinking about sample size:

Point #1: Quality over Quantity

Whether your company is targeting moms from the Midwest with household incomes of $70k+, or teens who use Facebook more than 8 hours a week, or B2B decision makers in HR – you are most likely looking for insights on your services from a very specific audience type. That being said, the first objective when conducting qualitative market research should be to ensure the right people are recruited for the study.

The right respondents for the study are those who meet each and every criteria line-item identified from quantitative research studies, and also the criteria that the clients have identified through their own research. Thus, a high quality panel includes much more than just members who are pulled from a general population that falls within broad parameters. Only those participants who match the audience specifications and background relevance expressed by the client should be recruited.

Point #2: Choose an appropriate study design

The type of qualitative study is another important factor to consider when choosing sample size. There are various methods that can be used to gather insightful data, but not all methods may be applicable to your study and its aim. In-depth interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic research are the most common methods used in qualitative market research, each method being unique in the information it can provide and the setting it can be used in. Moreover, the types of questions being studied have an equally important role to play in deciding sample size. Thus before choosing a sample size, make sure all the parameters, aims, and controls are clearly outlined.

Point #3: Keep in mind the Principle of Saturation

A sample size should be large enough to sufficiently describe the phenomenon of interest, and address the research question at hand. But at the same time, a large sample size risks having repetitive data. The goal of qualitative research should thus be the attainment of saturation. Saturation occurs when adding more participants to the study does not result in obtaining additional perspectives or information. One can say there is a point of diminishing return with larger samples, as it leads to more data but doesn’t necessarily lead to more information.

The objective of qualitative research is to lessen discovery failure; whilst quantitative research aims to reduce estimation error. As qualitative research works to obtain diverse opinions from a sample size on a client’s product/service/project, saturated data does not serve to do anything. One respondent’s opinion is enough to generate a code, part of the analysis framework.

The goal of a qualitative study should be to have a large enough sample size to uncover a variety of opinions, but to limit the sample size at the point of saturation.

So… is there a magical number to aim for in qualitative research?

After bearing in mind all the factors mentioned above, there is a number you can aim for. Based on research conducted on this very issue, 30 seems to be a good number for the most comprehensive assessment. Some studies have noted having a sample size as little as 10 can be extremely fruitful, and still yield applicable results. This would of course be only after a rigorous recruiting process is put in place.

Our general recommendation for in-depth interviews is to have a sample size of 20-30, if we’re building similar segments within the population. In some cases, a minimum of 10 is acceptable – assuming the population integrity in recruiting.

If you would like to learn more about sample sizes and learn how to set up studies and perfect your moderating and interviewing skills, check out our InterQ Learning Labs training programs.

Let’s discuss your project and the type of sample size that would work best. Request a proposal >

Author Bio: Sakshi Shetty was an intern with InterQ Research, working as a coder for qualitative data. She now works as a product manager.