The Research Design Quandry

It’s time to talk to your customers! So where do you begin?

Sometimes it is difficult to decide what the best approach is for any given project, because there are so many good research design options. The big question is, what is the best environment that would yield the most insightful results? Here are a few questions top market research companies consider to determine an optimal research design from the innovation perspective:

  1. Should we use a qualitative or a quantitative approach?

Qualitative research techniques help direct your innovation efforts toward unmet or poorly met needs. The results of the study will be directional, not prescriptive, because only a small sample can be interviewed or observed. To cast a wide net and see what types of solutions may exist, or to observe unmet needs, a qualitative research design may be your best solution.

Quantitative research methods allow for polling a large sample for a more specific research question. If you are looking to find out customers’ preferences in a set of options (such as marketing language or choosing one packaging design over another) a more quantitative approach may be needed.

Most quantitative approaches are done in a more impersonal type of way. Therefore it is most efficient and effective to use a facility, for keypad response testing for example, or use online approaches. Qualitative research can be done in the field or in a facility.


  1. Is it important to see the customer in-context?

In-context research, such as ethnographies or shop-alongs, allow the researcher to observe as well as speak to the respondent. This can help to reveal what the respondent actually does, as opposed to what they say they do. Sometimes, respondents skip steps without realizing it or use a product incorrectly but in a way that solves a problem. This can prompt questions that the researcher would never have otherwise thought to ask.

Focus groups in a facility are advantageous for both exploratory and developmental group discussions. Focus group research has come under criticism for what it can sometimes devolve into, however, when discussions are well-planned, and are effectively moderated, they can be just what a project needs. The focus group moderator will use open-ended questions to lead a discussion and allow respondents to express preferences and feelings and explain in more detail why they feel the way they do. This can prompt insights for new ideas or lead researchers to poll a wider audience to see if others feel the same way. If you just want to have a discussion, sometimes it is not efficient for your research to see the respondent in-context.

Surveys, polls and other types of quantitative research are useful for capturing yes or no, this or that, closed-ended questions, and again lend themselves to online or other quick technical data gathering tools.


  1. How many customers do we need to interview or poll?

Surveys, polls and other types of quantitative research will allow you to get the most data points in your research with the smallest budget. However, if they are not being asked the right question in the right way, your research has the potential to be useless.

Ethnographies, focus groups and other types of qualitative research will reach a smaller sample, but they can be crucial in pointing you in the direction of a truly great solution. Focus groups are usually done in multiple cities in different facilities to yield a representative sample. They usually allow you to talk to between 8-12 respondents at once, but still offer an environment where you can drill down into detail. Research projects benefit from doing at least 4 groups. Ethnographies work well when you reach about 9-14 respondents in one study. The trend in recent years has been toward fewer, deeper interviews. Like focus groups, they are usually done in multiple locations, but the researcher must go to the respondent instead of vice versa, so it is much more time-consuming and sometimes more expensive. However, using power of observation can make the difference in sparking that breakthrough insight.

The old adage states that “well begun is half done,” and that is certainly true when you are deciding on a research design and environment. Starting with the end in mind will help you to reach your goals and beyond.

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