Measuring impact series: Different ways to carry out qualitative research

by Aviva Community Fund | Sep 15, 2020 | Learn, Skills for success

Measuring impact series: Different ways to carry out qualitative research

Ultimately, qualitative research is used to explore and understand a research problem (rather than quantitatively measure it). It focuses on attitudes, feelings, language and expression.

  1. Qualitative Research Approaches

Broadly speaking, there are three types of qualitative research….

A. Groups e.g. focus groups, co-creation workshops, online bulletin boards
B. Depth interviews e.g. one-to-one interviewing, in pairs or threes
C. Observation e.g. passive observation and ethnography

Groups and depth interviews can be conducted both online and face-to-face. As there are several techniques, here’s a brief overview of the most well-known and frequently used ones.

Focus Groups

A standard face to face focus group includes 6-8 participants per group. The attendees are normally recruited on certain criteria e.g. they all live alone for example. Focus groups are usually 90-120 minutes long. An online focus group will hold fewer participants but can still last an hour and a half.


• Range of views in a short space of time; highlights similarities and differences quickly
• More creativity and debate – participants spark off one another
• Can be observed by others from your organisation
• Can be relatively quick turnaround, and cost efficient


• Strong personalities in the group can dominate, affecting other’s willingness to talk or open up and be honest
• Group affect – can lose individual differences, in preference for group consensus
• Hot-housing – focusing too narrowly on an issue, losing perspective

Depth interviews

Depth interviews are often used when independent recollection is needed, for decision making processes, e.g. how they accessed your services, or for intimate and personal subjects. You can conduct 1-2-1 depth interviews or have paired / triad interviews. This will depend on the research aims, nature of the topic, locations, budget etc.


• More depth of information; more probing
• Less sense of embarrassment / more sensitivity
• Understand the individual story without fear of what a wider group think
• Useful for independent, individual experiences and where peer discussion isn’t needed


• Time-consuming – travel, conducting the interviews, analysis; therefore more costly per participant
• Less opportunity for creativity and interaction
• Sometimes one-to-ones are mistakenly viewed in a quantitative way


A typical qualitative observation is when data collection is usually a passive process where the researcher does not interact with the observed person. The researcher needs to remain objective when interpreting ambiguous behaviour. Qualitative observation can also involve other aspects of customer behaviour e.g. accompanying a participant whilst they use an aspect of your services, observing their behaviour, audio / video-recording as well as using a guide for discussion.


• Can reveal discrepancies between what people say and what they actually do
• Can be conducted as an observation therefore removing interviewer effect


• Subject to observer’s interpretation
• If observation only with no other interaction, reasons for behaviour can be missed

Creating a discussion guide

What is a discussion guide? Why is it useful, and typical length

A discussion guide is used to provide structure to the interview / group. Qualitative research should still be unambiguous, clear and concise, unbiased, and rigorous and reliable. This is so the research can be replicated by other interviewers or facilitators if need be.

The guide is used by the person leading the group to help direct the flow of questions (with prompts and probes as required) and allows the researcher to follow a consistent path across groups / depths.

Discussion guides can be creative, and a wide array of stimulus can be used, e.g.
• Existing materials, communications (websites, newsletters, email) or promotional materials (adverts, brochures). These are easiest to use.
• New ideas (concepts, pack designs, storyboards), which can be valuable to test before launch.

Moreover, projective techniques (replacing direct questions with inventive / creative ones) can be used in qualitative research and gives participants the opportunity to talk more openly about the subject. These techniques are particularly helpful when participants feelings are subconscious, irrational, too personal or embarrassing. An example of a projective technique is ‘personification’ – If our charity was a celebrity, who would they be?

Further reading & information
Additional information and guidance on qualitative research approaches can be found here:

  1. MRS events and conferences
  2. Yvonne McGivern. 4th Edition (2013). The Practice of Market Research: An Introduction
  3. Get in touch with a market research specialist

This article was kindly contributed by Hannah Kilshaw, Research Director at ICM Unlimited.