Qualitative research is data-led, meaning priority is given to new information rather than imposing any existing knowledge. It offers the ability to acquire a deeper understanding of your situation by collecting and analysing information which is more relevant to your current situation. These new insights are vital for making future decisions, whether these concern commercial or social applications. Qualitative methods often involve direct interaction between the researcher and participants, whether this be in person or via some form of technology. In addition to any formal report, clients usually get data in various formats so they can verify the researcher’s interpretations, apply further analysis or keep it for future reference.

Qualitative practitioners seek to understand why people make the choices they do so this new knowledge can be acted upon by their clients. The qualitative paradigm involves some of the best ways to understand the state of our ever-changing realities. As well as generating fresh primary data through various investigative strategies, research can also analyse existing secondary data such as customer feedback, magazines, advertisements, reports, cultural or visual media. Traditional interviewing styles are still highly regarded, even at the boutique end of market research, and new technologies can provide some very ingenious ways of designing research and generating insight. With extensive agency practice and advanced professional training, I offer many years of conducting research to high ethical standards.

Dealing with subjectivity, qualitative research is often contrasted with quantitative research which simply looks at statistical relationships between pre-defined variables. Crucially, qualitative methods promote inductive thinking which can even influence the process of research, whereas quantitative methods are limited by their deductive approach. However, qualitative findings can provide the stepping-stones for investigating something on a larger scale and can be combined with quantitative methods to provide even broader understandings. A professional qualitative researcher will be able to highlight any key findings in order to meet the overall objectives of their client.

Focus Groups

A qualitative methodology which actively uses the social context to produce more naturalistic data compared with other interview styles. A group of people recruited from your target audience will discuss your issue or respond to any research stimuli. They commonly employ six to eight participants and last anywhere between one or two hours. The real power of focus groups lies in the way participants draw upon each other’s knowledge in order to go beyond their own understandings or any common stereotypes. As well as discovering any poignant new issues, differences of opinion are just as valuable and thought-provoking as any new or previously unrealised consensus. The end results are much easier to understand than complicated statistical data.

Participants also value group discussions as they often learn from the experience or simply enjoy sharing their opinions. Highly skilled moderators are needed to raise key questions, confirm new insights and manage the group on different levels. They commonly work closely with their client to develop a topic guide or other activities which can give an extra dimension to the research. There are different focus group formats which can be used for varying purposes or even modified to create original ways to understand your target audience. They are also renowned as an alternative to surveys because they are more cost-effective and can even be conducted online if geographical location or mobility is a concern.


Depth interviews and group discussions are common methods for generating qualitative data and there are numerous techniques emerging from research providers. Commercially, qualitative strategies are often used to understanding people’s emotional and behavioural connection with a particular brand, and are crucial for product development and consumer insight. Socially, they can help governments inform their policy-making and charities deliver better services.





Essential for planning larger projects, these also help focus the thinking of both the client and researcher, as well as reducing consultancy time and costs. These documents need not be too complex or lengthy and are very useful for establishing a professional relationship. If you need any advice on clarifying your research needs please get in contact.

How to write a research brief
This is a formal document that sets out the reasons why you want to conduct the research. Why are they important?

  • To communicate the requirements of your research project so I can really understand what you want to investigate.
  • To ensure you gain relevant and actionable insights from the project.
  • To allow everyone involved to be aware of the exact specification and objectives.
  • To keep the focus of the project on track.
  • To inform me if I am in a competitive situation or who I may need to work with.

The more detail you include at this stage the more efficient I can be in providing you with a clear, well-structured and costed proposal that will best meet your needs. A research brief should cover these key areas:

  • Background information: to place the problem or opportunity being researched into context.
  • Objectives: to define the exact nature of the research problem and what you want to learn from the research. Many clients find it easier to write this in terms of any questions they want answered.
  • Target audience: to specify which group of people you wish to investigate.
  • Constraints: to inform me of any limitations affecting the project, such as timeframe or budget. Please mention any major reviews or deadlines so I can let you know if I can meet your requirements as early on as possible.

What to expect from a research proposal
This is a formal document which outlines how I will achieve the research objectives as laid out in your research brief. Why are these needed in addition to research briefs and what does a proposal cover?

  • Background information: describing in more detail the section laid out in your brief. This should demonstrate that I fully understand the context of the research.
  • Objectives: summarising the overall aim in one clear statement and may include specific research questions.
  • Research methodology: describing the framework and suitability of whichever methods will be used or modified for bespoke research.
  • Deliverables: a clear strategy that explains the research outputs. This is provided at a detailed level so it is clear what you get for your money.
  • Recruitment: specifying the target group and how it will be accessed for the research.
  • Analysis and reporting: which indicates how all the new information will be delivered and communicated to you.
  • Schedule: setting out a timeframe for the project.
  • Costs: based on the budget indicated by you in the research brief, with clear descriptions of any additional or excluded costs.



It is the moderator’s role to manage the group interaction whilst simultaneously enabling all the participants to interact with each other. There are high and low levels of moderating styles where the moderator can prompt and probe to varying degrees, according to the nature of the research design.



Thematic analysis is historically a conventional practice in qualitative research which involves searching through data to identify any recurrent patterns. A theme is a cluster of linked categories conveying similar meanings and usually emerge through the inductive analytic process which characterises the qualitative paradigm. The exploratory power of this popular technique can be enhanced by the analyst lacking previous knowledge of the research topic as they are not guided by any preconceptions. Thus, the analyst does not have to be an expert in the research topic. However, in order to begin analysis a researcher must have at least some conceptual understanding to guide the insight processes.

There is no simple distinction between qualitative (naturalistic, contextual, idealist) and quantitative (experimental, positivist, realist) methodologies. Since analysts move back and forth between new concepts and the data, all research involves processes of induction and deduction, especially thematic analysis whereby induction creates themes and deduction verifies them.

Thematic analysis and grounded theory are methodologically similar analytic frameworks but the manner in which themes, concepts and categories are managed varies considerably between these approaches. They both attempt to represent a view of reality via systematically working through text to identify topics that are progressively integrated into higher order themes, via processes of de-contextualisation and re-contextualisation. Their procedures are more conceptually demanding than content analysis which employs a much simpler ordering of data. However, thematic analysis and content analysis are often confused. The former, through focusing purely upon meaning, promotes a more discursive interpretation since individual codes can cross-reference multiple themes, whilst the latter employs predefined mutually exclusive categories to count the frequency of a theme and is more appropriately used to statistically test any hypotheses.

Analytic process

1. Prepare the data for analysis
Transcribe the interview into text and format the document so the margin could be used for identifying individual bits of data. This can be done by assigning line numbers as identifiers for cross referencing.

2. Read the text and noting items of interest perform:

i. Initial reading of the text
An inductive approach to thematic analysis allows themes to emerge from the data, rather than searching for pre-defined themes. During the first reading make note of major issues as they come to mind in order to acquire a sense of the various topics embedded in the data.

ii. Re-read the text and annotate any thoughts in the margin
Examine the text closely, line by line, to facilitate a micro analysis of the data. This also promotes open coding which identifies any new information by de-contextualising bits of data embedded within the primary material.

3. Sort items of interest into proto-themes
This is where themes begin to emerge by organising items relating to similar topics into categories. Computers are great for pasting the line references together. This should be a fluid process so categories can be modified, developed and new ones allowed to emerge freely. At this stage keeping the themes as simple as possible assists flexibility in the categorisation process whereby any re-ordering of the clusters of categories can help create and re-define the initial themes.

4. Examine the proto-themes and attempt initial definitions
This phase of trawling back through the data examines how information was assigned to each proto-theme in order to evaluate its current meaning. A provisional name and flexible definition should now be created for each emerging theme.

5. Re-examine the text carefully for relevant incidents of data for each proto-theme
This second process of trawling back through the data is also called axial coding. It involves re-contextualisation whereby any data is now considered in terms of the categories developed through this analysis. Taking each theme separately and re-examining the original data for information relating to that theme is a vital stage in the analytic process because human perception is selective and the relevance of data can be easily overlooked. Furthermore, pieces of data previously assigned to a theme may in fact be contradictory.

6. Construct the final form of each theme
The name, definition and supporting data are re-examined for the final construction of each theme, using all the material relating to it. This stage of re-contextualisation focuses more closely upon the underlying meaning of each theme.

7. Report each theme
Finalise the name of each theme, write its description and illustrate it with a few quotations from the original text to help communicate its meaning to the reader.




Subvista Qualitative Research & Consultancy – www.subvista.com

Association for Qualitative Research – www.aqr.org.uk

Market Research Society – www.mrs.org.uk

Market Research World – www.marketresearchworld.net

Research – www.research-live.com

British Psychological Society – www.bps.org.uk

Social Research Update (University of Surrey) – www.sru.soc.surrey.ac.uk

Economic & Social Research Council – www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

Stimulating articles from the author of this blog

Thematic Analysis & Critical Discussion

Foucauldian Discourse Analysis