We often talk of qualitative OR quantitative research.

You needn’t think of this as an either-or situation. You can often optimize customer research with a mix of the two.

While it might seem unorthodox to mix seemingly different fields, it turns out to be a common practice.

Mixing qualitative and quantitative methods is neither new nor controversial. In fact, there’s a journal dedicated to mixed-method research, aptly named, The Journal of Mixed Method Research.

Customer research lends itself well to the triangulating that a mixed-methods approach offers: identifying areas of convergence among methods to, in turn, increase the usefulness and validity of the findings.

While you can combine qualitative and quantitative methods at various points—data collection or data analysis, for example—we typically use the following three research designs (also called topologies).

Explanatory Sequential Design

An explanatory sequential design emphasizes quantitative analysis, which we follow with interviews or observation (qualitative measures) to help explain the quant findings.

For example, we conducted a large comparative branding study with an internet retailer on attitudes toward the shopping experience on five mobile websites. After statistical analysis and cross-tabbing on experience levels to gauge brand attitudes, we came up with topics to further explore. We then recruited a new set of 16 participants for 1-on-1 sessions in which participants interacted with the sites used earlier and discussed their attitudes toward those sites.

This enabled us to look more closely into trends we observed in the larger sample. In this study we used a new set of 16 participants; you can also use a subset of participants from the first survey phase and dig deeper into any interesting patterns. To remember, the explanatory sequential design, think of qual explaining quant.

Exploratory Sequential Design

An exploratory sequential design starts with the qualitative research and then uses insights gained to frame the design and analysis of the subsequent quantitative component.

For example, to develop a new questionnaire, start with a qualitative phase where you interview participants and identify phrases, questions, or terms used to help derive the items used. We used this approach to develop the SUPR-Q.

Exploratory sequential design lends itself well to usability testing. We often start with 5 to 10 participants in a classic think-aloud, moderated usability test. This exposes problem areas for which to create new tasks and survey questions, which in turn helps us refine our understanding of customer attitudes. We then launch a larger-scale, unmoderated study to get a better idea of the magnitude of the problems in the larger customer population.
To remember the exploratory sequential approach, think of qual to enable research questions followed by quant for validation.

Convergent Parallel Design

If you collect qualitative data and quantitative data simultaneously and independently, and if you then analyze the results, you’re executing a convergent parallel design. In the analysis phase, you often give equal weight to the quant and qual data—you look to compare and contrast the results to look for patterns or contradictions.

For example, one team may conduct ethnographic research at customer locations while another launches a survey to a set of global customers on the same product experience. The teams then converge and compile the findings to generate insights.

In Summary

If you’re setting up a customer-research project and wondering whether to take a quantitative or a qualitative approach, consider a third option: use both, and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by mixing the two methods.