When Qual starts to look like Quant

Throughout my career, there has been a steady and troubling blurring of the lines between quantitative and qualitative research as companies look to do more with less. All too often, as market researchers, we are asked to carry out a qualitative study on a relatively small sample, but then conduct the study as if we were doing it quantitatively, in other words a questionnaire-style discussion guide with findings presented as the percentage of respondents expressing any particular opinion.

Small samples sizes are the right approach with qualitative studies; however, with quantitative research, any survey with fewer than 50 respondents is unlikely to yield statistically valid results. As a qualitative researcher, one of my great concerns is that someone in the pharma company will present data from a sample of ten respondents as ‘80% of the respondents expressed concern about the safety’, which is a risky assumption if product managers are going to use that data as a basis for their decisions.

By blurring the lines between two quite different forms of research, companies are failing to take advantage of the insights qualitative research can provide in terms of uncovering unknown unknowns as well as known unknowns.

In the pharmaceutical industry, qualitative research would help companies launching a new drug, to learn more about what doctors are currently doing, which drugs they are using, why they are using them, and how a new product might be viewed by physicians. It is also helpful for gathering patient insights. Qualitative research is open, explorative, and quite labour intensive. In qualitative studies market researchers use what we call discussion guides and it is up to the skill of the moderator to pull information from discussions with subject matter experts. The intention is not to ask every respondent the same questions to quantify opinion, but rather to make sure the full landscape around using that drug is understood. Exploration of tangents is encouraged since they may yield important insights that the client was previously unaware of.

Uncovering new learnings

By way of example, a pharmaceutical company launching a female urinary incontinence (UI) product provided diaries to patients to find out more about the challenges they faced. Typically, UI is associated with social stigma. However, in the diaries researchers noticed a number of patients spoke about tiredness and sleeplessness. To explore this feedback further they brought the women together and said they noticed that a lot had raised tiredness as an issue, and asked them if this was a common problem. It became clear that patients with incontinence were going to the toilet multiple times in the night because they were concerned about the issue, and were therefore always tired.

Without that open-ended discussion they would never have known this was a consideration because previous quantitative studies pre-assumed issues such as social stigma and hygiene but never thought to include fatigue. That’s one of those ‘unknown unknowns’ that require good qualitative discussions that allow companies to uncover important findings that can be fed back into marketing programmes.

Quantitative research on the other hand is closed-ended with the aim of finding statistical validity to quantify a series of opinions, that are already known or assumed to exist. It lends itself well to a survey format with multiple choice questions presented to a large number of respondents, from which you can extract statistically valid graphs.

I believe one of the reasons we are often forced into a more structured interview, which can miss the undiscovered insights of qualitative research, is because of concerns over compliance issues relating to pre-launch medicines. There is a desire to have a discussion guide that is “signed-off” compliance wise and therefore a reluctance to have any deviation from agreed wording.

How we, as market researchers, address the problem of intermingling qualitative and quantitative methodologies, is part of the challenge. Currently we often apply a semi-qualitative approach according to client preferences, but we include caveats as to the way the research should be interpreted. I believe ongoing education is crucial for those in the research community and those in the commissioning pharma marketing departments. There is a huge focus on continually updating our legal, ethical and data compliance training. Maybe we should be seeking to ensure basic theoretical training with the same diligence.