Mind the gap: qualitative insights and strategy

It’s very common to turn to numbers first when strategizing about new products, policies, or social movements. But nuanced, sideways or “integrative” thinking often requires more than just numbers. This is where qualitative research can help you.

Most people are trained to think of “research” as numbers and “hard facts.” That approach will lead to very specific, numerical questions when crafting new strategies. What are the most popular products consumers want? What are the top five frustrations with our current policy? What are the top Web sites that progressive people visit?

But imagine there was no such thing as numerical “evidence.” Imagine instead that you were trying to figure out how to innovate without the benefit of any kind of counting. What kinds of things would you consider to be insight?

Why do consumers get frustrated with their telecommunications service providers? How and in what ways do citizens react to our policy on childcare? What kinds of digital tools do progressive people use in everyday life?

These second sets of questions are far more likely to yield what qualitative researchers call “thick description.” Thick description fills the gaps between numbers. If I told you Superbowl 36 ended with a score of 20-17, you’d miss all the detail and the drama of the late-in-the-game push by the Rams, and the final Patriot field goal that ultimately won the game. Thick description tells you the entire story, not just the numerical summary.

If policymakers know that 49% of parents are frustrated with no childcare policy, that doesn’t begin to explain a day in the life of a working parent. Spend a day with a working parent and a sick child, and you will begin to understand all the detail and the drama of childcare.

If you spend time with person who is interested in progressive causes, you may learn that they spend more time using their mobile phone than their computer. Or perhaps you learn that for them, computers = work. That may lead you to think that mobile campaigns are better than Web-based campaigns.

Qualitative research intended to fill the gaps that numerical data inherently possess. If you rely too heavily on numerical data, you miss a great deal of nuance that could ultimately result in true innovation.


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