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In market research studies, we frequently conduct studies using a two-step process: A qualitative study, followed by a quantitative survey to statistically validate the themes we learn through the qualitative interviews (typically focus groups or in-depth interviews). This layered approach results in higher confidence levels of the findings. However, we can also use a layered qualitative research approach for a qualitative study that doesn’t involve quantitative validation. Let’s explore why this process can be useful, and discuss what it can unveil.

Layered qualitative research approach number 1: Developing a hypothesis

Qualitative market research studies are typically a large undertaking for a company to take on: A standard study, with 30+ participants, multiple cities, and with a multi-disciplinary team from the sponsoring company (i.e., product, marketing, engineering), requires an investment of at least two months, as well as a budget that will cover the time the market research company requires to design and oversee the study. For this type of study, therefore, we often recommend a layered qualitative research approach that allows us to confirm and solidify the hypothesis before we embark on crafting the discussion guide for the main study. We can assemble an exploratory hypothesis project by doing a handful of in-depth interviews with the target market; this allows us to further explore what the client is seeking to answer, and it often presents new areas for us to research in the main study.

Layered qualitative research approach number 2: Iterating the study

A second method of conducting a layered qualitative research study is to be open to iterate as the qualitative research is being conducted. For example, often, after a few of the initial sets of focus groups or in-depth interviews, we’ll learn unexpected themes or sets of ideas that were not in the original discussion guide. Frequently, the client teams, such as the engineering team, will develop further ideas that they want tested with the remaining research participants. Therefore, we always leave ourselves time and room to go back to the drawing board, re-work the discussion guides, and even test out the new questions by pulling in a few additional participants to help us refine the new study direction.

One of the main advantages of qualitative research (as opposed to a strict quantitative study), is that we come in with an open-slate; our job is to explore, rather than define what the themes and variables will be. Therefore, we always recommend, and let our clients know upfront that we may need to pause mid-way through to iterate the study’s goals by using a layered qualitative approach.

Layered qualitative research approach number 3: Social media listening

A third method of conducting a layered qualitative research approach is to explore consumer feedback and probe existing data prior to developing the study’s goals and writing the discussion guide. To do this, we employ techniques such as social media listening, where we comb through customer forums, social media brand pages, and review sites to see what customers are saying about the company’s product and services. It is qualitative in nature, as we are going through written responses and feedback. This often provides direction that then allows us to develop more tailored questions and goals in the main qualitative research project.

Letting the market guide us

As qualitative researchers, our approach is to listen, not assume, and to be open to new directions, based on what the target market is saying and doing. Layered qualitative research approaches are one of the many approaches we use to ensure that we’re capturing all of the possibilities in a project.

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