Have you ever gotten into a discussion with a strong proponent of either quantitative or qualitative research? If so, you have probably heard that people do not want to read through reports that are laced with quotes and are just too touchy-feely to tell you anything. Or you have heard that numbers and charts over-simplify matters and are not meaningful. However, quantitative and qualitative research are both very useful tools if you know when to use which.
What are the differences between quantitative and qualitative research? In short, where quantitative research is all about numbers, qualitative research is all about words. Quantitative research asks “how many” and qualitative research asks “how much.” The focus in quantitative research is to get breadth (i.e., a little information on many things) . The focus in qualitative research is to get depth (i.e., a lot of information on a few things). While you rely on statistics in quantitative research to analyze your data, you rely on coding and themes in qualitative research. Examples of quantitative research are surveys (mail, online, or phone) and studies (descriptive or experimental). Examples of qualitative research are interviews, focus groups, and observations.
When to Use What? If you are at the beginning of a project and you do not even know which questions to ask, you are probably better off with a focus group, a series of interviews, or a few open-ended questions in a survey. In general, the less details you know about a situation or topic, the more likely qualitative research is to give you the answers you are looking for. If you are trying to get an idea of how many people feel a certain way, a survey with multiple choice questions might be your best bet. In general, the more you already know about a topic, the more likely quantitative research is to give you the answers you are looking for.