What Is Grounded Theory And How Does It Work?

You may have come across the term “grounded theory” in qualitative and quantitative research. Typically, grounded theory is discussed in academic research, though as market researchers, we find that we often use this framework when developing studies. In this post, we’ll try to break grounded theory down for market research usage and help provide an understanding of how impactful this mode of framing research can be for B2B and B2C studies.

First off, what is grounded theory – in real-speak?

Let’s explain grounded theory in non-academic jargon to make this simple to digest:

Use grounded theory methods when you’re not sure what you’re looking for in a study or there is no clear theory as to why certain behaviors or patterns are occurring.

Or to make it even more clear:

Use grounded theory methods when you don’t know what you don’t know.

In typical research methods (both quantitative and qualitative), teams come together with a clear hypothesis about what they’re studying.

For example, “When travelers are booking flights online, they will go for the best prices and flight times.”

That’s a clear hypothesis, likely based on previous data and studies. The research team may be tasked with investigating this hypothesis further and adding more details to it – or even disproving it, to uncover whether there are other factors at play in how people choose and book airline flights. To test the hypothesis, the research team would design a user experience study, where they observe how people book flights online (with screensharing), while asking them questions as the traveler goes through the process. This will help gather essential data that can be analyzed, thematically, to further prove or disprove the initial hypothesis.

However, that’s not what grounded theory would do, because in this case we just described, the hypothesis was set from the beginning.

What if, however, the researchers instead had a situation such as this: A product team wants to understand how people react to working from home exclusively during the pandemic so that they can develop software tools for remote teams.

In this example, the team doesn’t have a clear hypothesis to work from. For this specific case, the study question was posed in early 2020, when working from home for entire teams was new. The pandemic situation was unprecedented in the modern tech age, so the development team wasn’t sure exactly what hypothesis question to pose – or, to put it more simply – they didn’t know what they were looking for exactly, but they did know that there were likely software tools they could develop that could be helpful for remote teams.

This is a perfect example of when to apply grounded theory research. Let’s explore this example further, through the lens of grounded theory.

How to set up a grounded theory study

When you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for, using grounded theory methods helps you explore themes, in an iterative research style.

So let’s go back to our remote-team software example.

Because the research team wasn’t sure exactly how people were adapting to at-home work, they first assembled a small sample to study. Using mobile ethnographies, the team had a sample of at-home workers record their daily work patterns. They were asked more general questions about highs and lows, efficiencies, and inefficiencies, and where they were feeling frustrated or lost by not having in-person collaboration. They also explored “workarounds” that teams were doing to stay productive.

Once they received the data back and did follow-up in-depth interviews with the participants, the team then sorted the themes into “codes.” Codes essentially sum up patterns in the data that are reoccurring. For example “workers are less efficient when brainstorming new creative ideas” was a code that came out of the initial round.

From the initial round, some ideas started to take place and patterns emerged. The research team realized they needed to expand their participant pool to also include in-house designers, and not just product managers. The research team then devised a second round of research, also using mobile ethnographies and in-depth interviews, but this time with in-house designers and product managers.

After this second round, even more themes and codes emerged, and the product design team felt like they were getting closer to specific issues that they could develop software to address.

But they needed more data.

After analyzing the second round, the research team decided to hone in on a specific topic: in this case, how to improve brainstorming and enhance the creative process for remote teams. So they developed a third round of research, and they pulled in creative design teams, product managers, and upper-level managers.

The questions the researchers posed in this third round were now quite specific, and they designed exercises around remote creative brainstorming (also using mobile ethnographies and in-depth interviews). This round was especially illuminating because they now were much closer to proving and disproving new hypotheses that had emerged from the initial research rounds.

After analyzing the third round, the product team felt ready to design software prototypes that would address some of the issues they found in the exploratory research phases. In short: They had come up with a hypothesis, which was “Remote teams are struggling to collaborate creatively using their current software.” Now they had a hypothesis (a problem statement) and a mission for their software design work.

Let’s now break down that case study to uncover the steps of grounded theory research

We just took you through a real-world example of using grounded theory research methods to uncover patterns and arrive at a hypothesis. Grounded theory, as you can see from this example, is the opposite of typical research projects, where teams know what they’re looking for, so they recruit participants, design specific questions and exercises, and then spend the bulk of the research proving or disproving the hypothesis they’re testing.

In grounded theory, it’s exploratory, from the very beginning. Teams start with some initial ideas, recruit samples to test, and from the early tests, start to see patterns. They then may have to shift and recruit different personas and start to ask questions specific to the themes from the first round of research. In each subsequent round of research, the team uncovers ideas and then tests and poses hypotheses based on what they’re learning.

Grounded theory is a great method for specific types of research issues

Grounded theory is best applied when research teams come into a problem with uncertainty about the full landscape and situation. Because it requires multiple rounds of research, it’s more costly and time-consuming than studies where the hypothesis and testing is clear, from the very beginning. However, hopefully as the example we used illustrated, it’s a fantastic method to generate new product ideas. The key is to have an open mind and be able to first cast a wide net of ideas, before narrowing down on emerging themes to test.

Do you have a study that could benefit from grounded theory research? Request a proposal today >