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

Now, not all studies will seek to delve completely into these four aspects, but the brilliant thing about qualitative research is that, when done properly, it can tap into these foundations of how people make decisions. A qualitative research focus group project about consumer opinions toward an ad campaign, for example, will spend less time on questions related to beliefs and attitudes and more time trying to understand opinions and perceptions. Alternatively, a qualitative research study that attempts to identify how people feel about a political candidate may concentrate more on opinions and attitudes, and less on perceptions and beliefs.

To understand these four main cornerstones that are the foundation of people’s motivations, a research study will pose constructed questions that draw out each area. The following sections will explore each area and address how qualitative research understands opinions, perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs.

How qualitative research explores Opinions

 Opinions are deeply held beliefs that, while often moderately grounded in facts, are still subjective and shaped by previous experiences. Most qualitative projects spend a good amount of time exploring opinions, and for good reason – opinion is the cornerstone upon which people base their reasoning, as well as that which inspires their feelings. Opinions are more than perceptions or impressions but less-firm than absolute facts. For instance, a research participant may say, “In my opinion, as hybrid cars have less power than gas or diesel engines, they are less fun to drive.” In this case, the consumer is basing their opinion on some general facts (which could be distilled from average horsepower ranges, for example), but their opinion is still colored by a subjective bias.

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

How qualitative research explores Perceptions

 When we ask questions in qualitative research about perceptions, the aim is to capture a particular mental image that someone has, knowing that it has been influenced by their past experiences. If we’re seeking to learn what people think about a new interface design on a phone that uses a stylus, we’ll include probes that address the new design we’re exploring and see how people filter this through their prior experiences with a stylus. Developing an understanding of their past experiences with styluses (they give me more control on a screen, or, they’re easy to lose) will help us be aware of the mental framework that people start from when they first see a device extolling a stylus’ benefits.

How qualitative research explores Attitudes

 Attitudes are the third cornerstone that we explore in qualitative research. For our definition purposes, an attitude is an mental statement or emotional position that a person holds about a statement or fact. We work to understand attitudes by listening to the pitch of voice, tones, and pacing of conversation, and by observing people’s body language when they speak. 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 no, what keeps you from using it?
  • If so, what’s your inner dialogue when you use 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 product development and marketing – people’s attitudes can change while their opinions and core beliefs remain intact. Attitude changes feel less threatening, yet hold a tremendous amount of influence in how people make decisions.

 How qualitative research explores Beliefs

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

An example of a belief system is that all fats in food are “bad” fats. The source of this belief system is likely from a myriad of sources – magazine articles, “low fat” products, 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”? If a campaign tries to manipulate or change this established belief system, how much education is required to inform the consumer? Are scientific studies more effective, or anecdotal evidence from people who have eaten the product and felt more energetic (without gaining weight)? As you can see, beliefs are a key issue to understand in qualitative studies and can inform many of studies’ outcomes.

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

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

And that is the heart and soul of why qualitative research is such a powerful tool in answering fundamental questions behind people’s behavior.

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