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The Value of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is possibly the least understood type of primary research at most companies. In fact, most companies have never performed it before. If you grew up in the user experience or service design disciplines, you will likely be familiar with qualitative research and in-the-field ethnographic studies.

Unlike quantitative statistical studies, which attempt to reach “valid” populations of very large, remote participant populations, qualitative studies are more personal, with small, focused populations, specifically chosen to represent larger audience segments. In a qualitative study, customers and/or users are interviewed one-on-one, observed in their own environments, and are even involved in helping formulate products, policies, processes, and metrics.

The value of qualitative research is in completing the picture of customer understanding by getting to the why and how of what customers are doing. What are their habits and emotions in relationship to your products, your brand?

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will share details on the techniques and methods you can employ for performing qualitative customer research. But first let’s look at why you should, and how valuable it can be.

How P&G went Qualitative to Save Febreze

A classic case study that shows the value of qualitative research was originally published as part of a larger New York Times article in 2012. It’s the story of how Procter & Gamble (P&G) brought Febreze to market. It reveals how qualitative research can help understand customer psychology for greater customer engagement. The shorter version is here on Forbes.

In brief, Febreze launched as a complete flop with consumers, even though all the data pointed to the product being hugely successful in the marketplace. It failed miserably because P&G did not understand customer habits, emotions, and psychology when it comes to cleaning homes, and P&G had marketed the product as an odor-eliminator, a cleaning tool to be used among others.

To find out why the marketing wasn’t working, they went in to the field and visited customers in their homes, observing their cleaning habits and talking to them about why they weren’t using the product, or if they were using it, how and why were they using it.

The results were game-changing, and could never have been discovered without qualitative research. Those who didn’t use the product as cleaning tool felt their homes did not smell. One woman had an impeccable home– and nine cats. She had become so used to the pungent litter box smell that it never occurred to her she needed an odor killer. On the other hand, those who did use the product did not use it as a cleaning tool. Researchers observed a woman who used the product regularly, but only after fully cleaning a room, as if it were the final stamp on a job well done. To her, it wasn’t a cleaning tool at all. It was a reward.

With this new understanding of customer habits and emotions, P&G modified the product and altered their marketing, repositioning it to fit into customer routines. It is now the household name we all know and love.

Adding Qualitative Research to Your CX Toolkit

Of course, you should not abandon quantitative tools for understanding customer sentiment and behavior. But to complete the picture, you really need to employ qualitative research as well. It’s easy to add qualitative research to your toolkit of CX and CEM research methods. In fact, all of these methods can be combined with your current Six Sigma, Agile Development, Lean Startup, or other existing CX improvement systems, and they integrate well into any SDLC.

Every time I have introduced clients to qualitative research, I have seen immediate benefits. In most, if not all cases, it reveals issues that can be acted upon right away – often before the research is even finished.

Next Time: Qualitative Research Methods

In my next few posts, I will review some of my favorite customer research methods and tools, and their pros and cons. I will also share some case studies and personal stories that will help you understand what methods you can apply and when, including:

  • Customer Interviews
  • Contextual Inquiry and Observation
  • Employee Shadowing
  • Service Safaris
  • Customer Journey Mapping
  • Cross-Functional Design Workshops
  • Co-Created Design (or participatory design)

Until next time, keep being customer-centric!