The steps of setting up a qualitative research project

In today’s post, we’re going to go over the process to design and set up a market research project using qualitative research. If you work internally for a company, and you’ve been tasked with research — or if you’re a consultant working in marketing or branding — we think you’ll find this post especially helpful.

Please note that the focus of this particular post is on qualitative market research: the steps may be slightly different if you’re conducting quantitative research. Also, the steps below outline what happens after you’ve submitted a proposal and laid out the basic flow, methodology, and your initial approach to the RFP or research questions.

Step 1 to set up a qualitative research project: Define your objectives

The first step in qualitative research is to get super clear on your study’s objectives. People often make the mistake of trying to accomplish too much in a qualitative research study (e.g. ask about pricing and branding and packaging and competitor preferences and product usage and household composition and social media habits and new product ideas.) Just because you’re taking the time to talk to customers doesn’t mean it’s the best approach to throw the whole smorgasbord of your product’s topics at them; the best qualitative research projects are those that are focused and stick to 1-3 themes to cover.

Therefore: this first step is critically important. In fact, it can help to write out your objectives statement using a format such as: The purpose of this research project is to understand ___ by talking to ___ so that we can develop/refine ____.

If you were to fil this in (hypothetical example of course), you might come up with:

The purpose of the research project is to understand consumer opinions around a new packaging design for Sally’s Extra Crispy Chips by talking to core and somewhat frequent customers, so that we can decide whether to move forward with the new design.

Step 2 to set up a qualitative research project: Get the right stakeholders at the table

Whether you’re working internally or you’re a consultant hired to do research, getting the right stakeholders involved — and getting everyone involved early — is key. If you’re doing research on product design, make sure the product team, design teams, and maybe even marketing and sales have a seat at the table. If you’re working on advertising message development, get the agency/marketing team involved. Similar to Step 1, this is not the time to invite the whole company to the kick-off meetings: Figure out who will benefit from the research the most, and ensure they are able to weigh-in on the process. This will save headaches later down the road if teams get upset that they didn’t have a say, and suddenly they’re stuck with research outputs that they have to figure out how to implement.

Research can be a great team-building and cohesive process — if it’s done correctly. Figure out who will benefit from and use the research, and make sure they’re present during the process.

Step 3 to set up a qualitative research project: Design a kick-off workshop

For step 3, this is where you — the researcher — get to do internal research with the stakeholders (from step 2). At InterQ Learning Labs, we teach our participants how to set up and run research-input workshops. We love them because they’re collaborative, interactive, and the end result is a clearly defined process, set of questions to ask the research participants, and agreed-upon hypotheses to test.

If you’re working virtually and the team is virtual, you can run your workshop on a product like Miro. If you’re in-person, you can use whiteboards and old-fashioned sticky notes.

The goal in a kick-off workshop is to get input from the whole team and guide the team to agreement. So, typically, you’d set up a header by writing out the research objective statement (from step 1) and ensure everyone agrees on it. If it needs to be tweaked, ask for team input — they can write out ideas on their stickies. Make sure this is settled. Then you can focus on gathering ideas for the next topics:

  • What is the hypothesis we are testing?
  • What is the essential question we’re asking? (If we could only learn one thing from the research, what would that be?)
  • Who are the segments we’re talking to? (This will inform who you recruit and how you write the screener).
  • What are the key themes we’re testing? (Bucket them out and gather ideas on sticky notes for each theme — first have everyone write out their ideas individually).
  • Who will be using the research findings/implementing the work?
  • What format should the research findings be delivered in?

All of the above themes can be brainstormed collaboratively using sticky notes (whether on a virtual board like Miro) or real paper. The idea is to have everyone share their ideas, then have everyone vote on the ones they agree are the strongest to move forward with. Then, you– the researcher — will be well-equipped to move forward to step 4, setting up the research design.

Step 4: Set up the research design

You may have already landed on how the research will be conducted prior to this step (often it’s spelled out in the proposal), but sometimes this shifts or new information comes to light in step 3, and you need to adjust your research design.

The goal in this step is to figure out which methodology of qualitative research you’ll use (in-depth interviews, focus groups, mobile ethnographies, social listening studies, user experience testing– or hybrid approaches). Then you’ll need to understand which segments should be involved, the sample sizes, the locations (if some is done in person, or geographic locations you’ll pull from if researching virtually), the timeframe, incentive amounts to compensate participants with, recruiting resources, and any technology tools you may want to use (mobile ethnography platforms, online diaries, user experience testing software, etc.).

Step 5: Put together the research logistics

If you’re an organized/type A type of personality, you’ll love the next step. Or you may have a research operations team member who can run this part — the key is to pay close attention to the details, as they can be a lot in this step, especially if you have a project with numerous segments and sample sizes.

This is the step of figuring how how you’ll interview/observe participants, in which locations or formats, which qualitative research recruiting partner you’ll use, how you’ll compensate participants, the timelines for exact interviews, and, if you’re using research facilities, which locations, dates, and times.

Often companies work with external companies to manage the recruiting and scheduling of participants. Regardless of how you do it, the logistics are really important, because you want to ensure you get high-quality participants who will actually show up. So spend time (or hire-out) the logistics part.

Step 6: Write the screeners and discussion guides — and get input

Step 6 often happens while step 5 is taking place. But the key here is to get stakeholder signoff/approval. Namely: is the client/internal team in agreement of the exact screening criteria for the participants in the study? Does your screener clearly define this? Make sure it’s approved before it’s put into the field by your recruiters (trust us on this one!).

While this is happening, this is when you start writing the discussion guide — the questions you’ll be asking participants. Discussion guides can take many forms, depending on the project. If you’re doing user testing research, you’ll likely have prototypes and ideas to show and get feedback on, so these will need to be developed and included. If you’re conducting focus groups, you’ll want to be sure to include exercises and projective techniques. If you’re conducting research using mobile ethnographies, this is where you’ll write out the tasks and questions to include. And, finally, if you’re conducing in-depth interviews, this will be your guide for those questions.

Fortunately, if you did a thorough job in step 3, with a robust workshop, writing the guide(s) will be easy — as you’ll have plenty of stakeholder input to go from.

Step 7: Research time!

Once the sign-offs are complete (the guides), the participants are screened and scheduled, and the venues are secured (if doing in-person), it’s time to don your moderating hat and start conducting the research. For me, this is my favorite part. If moderating is intimidating for you, hone up your skills with classes that teach moderation training skills.

Make sure you have your recording devices set up to capture the information. This may include video and audio (if done in facilities) or, if done online, simply recording the screen and interviews. For report writing, you’ll want to make sure you have your transcription company lined up, too.

During the actual fieldwork, in this process, have frequent check-ins with your clients and stakeholders so they can give input on the research — you may need to adjust your questions or tweak the stimulus, based on what you’re hearing from participants.

Step 8: The analysis process

Whew! After all that fieldwork, it’s time to now roll up your sleeves and start going through the data. If you’re working from transcripts, there are numerous ways (and technologies) to code and analyze the themes. Every researcher has their own method here, so use what works best for you. If you need help with how to construct the research story and find the key insights, consider taking training workshops on research reports and writing — this can be super helpful in helping you come up with a narrative that will resonate with your audience. Remember to guide your deliverables toward who your audience is and how they’ll use the research findings (which you will have learned from the research input workshop, in step 3).

Research deliverables can range wildly, based on how the research will be used. Examples can include traditional written reports, video reports, decks with quotes and findings, infographics, and even a podcast-style that reads out the key results. The most important determinant of the deliverable is knowing how your audience will best receive and use the findings.

Step 9: Presenting the research

How you present the research is critical: You want to leave your audience stakeholders with a compelling story that will help them empathize and relate to who you interviewed. Call out the key stories that really capture the journey, process, or anecdotes you heard. Don’t be afraid to use emotion and bring your audience along for the ride — humans connect more to emotional stories than just those that spit out facts and figures.

There are multiple ways to ensure stakeholder buy-in during this stage. At InterQ Learning Labs, we teach participants how to workshop the findings (in our Research & Reports class). The most successful projects end with a clear way to grab your audiences’ attention and ensure they have a clear path to put the research to use.

Interested in learning more? Sign up for a workshop today and refine your qualitative research skills >