8 Essential Qualitative Data Collection Methods
Qualitative data methods allow you to deep dive into the mindset of your audience to discover areas for growth, development, and improvement.
British mathematician and marketing mastermind Clive Humby once famously stated that “Data is the new oil.” He has a point. Without data, nonprofit organizations are left second-guessing what their clients and supporters think, how their brand compares to others in the market, whether their messaging is on-point, how their campaigns are performing, where improvements can be made, and how overall results can be optimized.
There are two primary data collection methodologies: qualitative data collection and quantitative data collection. At UpMetrics, we believe that relying on quantitative, static data is no longer an option to drive effective impact. In the nonprofit sector, where financial gain is not the sole purpose of your organization’s existence. In this guide, we’ll focus on qualitative data collection methods and how they can help you gather, analyze, and collate information that can help drive your organization forward.
What is Qualitative Data?
Data collection in qualitative research focuses on gathering contextual information. Unlike quantitative data, which focuses primarily on numbers to establish ‘how many’ or ‘how much,’ qualitative data collection tools allow you to assess the ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’ behind those statistics. This is vital for nonprofits as it enables organizations to determine:
- Existing knowledge surrounding a particular issue.
- How social norms and cultural practices impact a cause.
- What kind of experiences and interactions people have with your brand.
- Trends in the way people change their opinions.
- Whether meaningful relationships are being established between all parties.
In short, qualitative data collection methods collect perceptual and descriptive information that helps you understand the reasoning and motivation behind particular reactions and behaviors. For that reason, qualitative data methods are usually non-numerical and center around spoken and written words rather than data extrapolated from a spreadsheet or report.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Data
Quantitative and qualitative data represent both sides of the same coin. There will always be some degree of debate over the importance of quantitative vs. qualitative research, data, and collection. However, successful organizations should strive to achieve a balance between the two.
Organizations can track their performance by collecting quantitative data based on metrics including dollars raised, membership growth, number of people served, overhead costs, etc. This is all essential information to have. However, the data lacks value without the additional details provided by qualitative research because it doesn’t tell you anything about how your target audience thinks, feels, and acts.
Qualitative data collection is particularly relevant in the nonprofit sector as the relationships people have with the causes they support are fundamentally personal and cannot be expressed numerically. Qualitative data methods allow you to deep dive into the mindset of your audience to discover areas for growth, development, and improvement.
8 Types of Qualitative Data Collection Methods
As we have firmly established the need for qualitative data, it’s time to answer the next big question: how to collect qualitative data.
Here is a list of the most common qualitative data collection methods. You don’t need to use them all in your quest for gathering information. However, a foundational understanding of each will help you refine your research strategy and select the methods that are likely to provide the highest quality business intelligence for your organization.
One-on-one interviews are one of the most commonly used data collection methods in qualitative research because they allow you to collect highly personalized information directly from the source. Interviews explore participants' opinions, motivations, beliefs, and experiences and are particularly beneficial in gathering data on sensitive topics because respondents are more likely to open up in a one-on-one setting than in a group environment.
Interviews can be conducted in person or by online video call. Typically, they are separated into three main categories:
- Structured Interviews - Structured interviews consist of predetermined (and usually closed) questions with little or no variation between interviewees. There is generally no scope for elaboration or follow-up questions, making them better suited to researching specific topics.
- Unstructured Interviews – Conversely, unstructured interviews have little to no organization or preconceived topics and include predominantly open questions. As a result, the discussion will flow in completely different directions for each participant and can be very time-consuming. For this reason, unstructured interviews are generally only used when little is known about the subject area or when in-depth responses are required on a particular subject.
- Semi-Structured Interviews – A combination of the two interviews mentioned above, semi-structured interviews comprise several scripted questions but allow both interviewers and interviewees the opportunity to diverge and elaborate so more in-depth reasoning can be explored.
While each approach has its merits, semi-structured interviews are typically favored as a way to uncover detailed information in a timely manner while highlighting areas that may not have been considered relevant in previous research efforts. Whichever type of interview you utilize, participants must be fully briefed on the format, purpose, and what you hope to achieve. With that in mind, here are a few tips to follow:
- Give them an idea of how long the interview will last
- If you plan to record the conversation, ask permission beforehand
- Provide the opportunity to ask questions before you begin and again at the end.
2. Focus Groups
Focus groups share much in common with less structured interviews, the key difference being that the goal is to collect data from several participants simultaneously. Focus groups are effective in gathering information based on collective views and are one of the most popular data collection instruments in qualitative research when a series of one-on-one interviews proves too time-consuming or difficult to schedule.
Focus groups are most helpful in gathering data from a specific group of people, such as donors or clients from a particular demographic. The discussion should be focused on a specific topic and carefully guided and moderated by the researcher to determine participant views and the reasoning behind them.
Feedback in a group setting often provides richer data than one-on-one interviews, as participants are generally more open to sharing when others are sharing too. Plus, input from one participant may spark insight from another that would not have come to light otherwise. However, here are a couple of potential downsides:
- If participants are uneasy with each other, they may not be at ease openly discussing their feelings or opinions.
- If the topic is not of interest or does not focus on something participants are willing to discuss, data will lack value.
The size of the group should be carefully considered. Research suggests over-recruiting to avoid risking cancellation, even if that means moderators have to manage more participants than anticipated. The optimum group size is generally between six and eight for all participants to be granted ample opportunity to speak. However, focus groups can still be successful with as few as three or as many as fourteen participants.
Observation is one of the ultimate data collection tools in qualitative research for gathering information through subjective methods. A technique used frequently by modern-day marketers, qualitative observation is also favored by psychologists, sociologists, behavior specialists, and product developers.
The primary purpose is to gather information that cannot be measured or easily quantified. It involves virtually no cognitive input from the participants themselves. Researchers simply observe subjects and their reactions during the course of their regular routines and take detailed field notes from which to draw information.
Observational techniques vary in terms of contact with participants. Some qualitative observations involve the complete immersion of the researcher over a period of time. For example, attending the same church, clinic, society meetings, or volunteer organizations as the participants. Under these circumstances, researchers will likely witness the most natural responses rather than relying on behaviors elicited in a simulated environment. Depending on the study and intended purpose, they may or may not choose to identify themselves as a researcher during the process.
Regardless of whether you take a covert or overt approach, remember that because each researcher is as unique as every participant, they will have their own inherent biases. Therefore, observational studies are prone to a high degree of subjectivity. For example, one researcher’s notes on the behavior of donors at a society event may vary wildly from the next. So, each qualitative observational study is unique in its own right.
4. Open-Ended Surveys and Questionnaires
Open-ended surveys and questionnaires allow organizations to collect views and opinions from respondents without meeting in person. They can be sent electronically and are considered one of the most cost-effective qualitative data collection tools. Unlike closed question surveys and questionnaires that limit responses, open-ended questions allow participants to provide lengthy and in-depth answers from which you can extrapolate large amounts of data.
The findings of open-ended surveys and questionnaires can be challenging to analyze because there are no uniform answers. A popular approach is to record sentiments as positive, negative, and neutral and further dissect the data from there. To gather the best business intelligence, carefully consider the presentation and length of your survey or questionnaire. Here is a list of essential considerations:
- Number of questions: Too many can feel intimidating, and you’ll experience low response rates. Too few can feel like it’s not worth the effort. Plus, the data you collect will have limited actionability. The consensus on how many questions to include varies depending on which sources you consult. However, 5-10 is a good benchmark for shorter surveys that take around 10 minutes and 15-20 for longer surveys that take approximately 20 minutes to complete.
- Personalization: Your response rate will be higher if you greet patients by name and demonstrate a historical knowledge of their interactions with your brand.
- Visual elements: Recipients can be easily turned off by poorly designed questionnaires. Besides, it’s a good idea to customize your survey template to include brand assets like colors, logos, and fonts to increase brand loyalty and recognition.
- Reminders: Sending survey reminders is the best way to improve your response rate. You don’t want to hassle respondents too soon, nor do you want to wait too long. Sending a follow-up at around the 3-7 mark is usually the most effective.
- Building a feedback loop: Adding a tick-box requesting permission for further follow-ups is a proven way to elicit more in-depth feedback. Plus, it gives respondents a voice and makes their opinion feel valued.
5. Case Studies
Case studies are often a preferred method of qualitative research data collection for organizations looking to generate incredibly detailed and in-depth information on a specific topic. Case studies are usually a deep dive into one specific case or a small number of related cases. As a result, they work well for organizations that operate in niche markets.
Case studies typically involve several qualitative data collection methods, including interviews, focus groups, surveys, and observation. The idea is to cast a wide net to obtain a rich picture comprising multiple views and responses. When conducted correctly, case studies can generate vast bodies of data that can be used to improve processes at every client and donor touchpoint.
The best way to demonstrate the purpose and value of a case study is with an example: A Longitudinal Qualitative Case Study of Change in Nonprofits – Suggesting A New Approach to the Management of Change.
The researchers established that while change management had already been widely researched in commercial and for-profit settings, little reference had been made to the unique challenges in the nonprofit sector. The case study examined change and change management at a single nonprofit hospital from the viewpoint of all those who witnessed and experienced it. To gain a holistic view of the entire process, research included interviews with employees at every level, from nursing staff to CEOs, to identify the direct and indirect impacts of change. Results were collated based on detailed responses to questions about preparing for change, experiencing change, and reflecting on change.
6. Text Analysis
Text analysis has long been used in political and social science spheres to gain a deeper understanding of behaviors and motivations by gathering insights from human-written texts. By analyzing the flow of text and word choices, relationships between other texts written by the same participant can be identified so that researchers can draw conclusions about the mindset of their target audience. Though technically a qualitative data collection method, the process can involve some quantitative elements, as often, computer systems are used to scan, extract, and categorize information to identify patterns, sentiments, and other actionable information.
You might be wondering how to collect written information from your research subjects. There are many different options, and approaches can be overt or covert.
- Investigating how often certain cause-related words and phrases are used in client and donor social media posts.
- Asking participants to keep a journal or diary.
- Analyzing existing interview transcripts and survey responses.
By conducting a detailed analysis, you can connect elements of written text to specific issues, causes, and cultural perspectives, allowing you to draw empirical conclusions about personal views, behaviors, and social relations. With small studies focusing on participants' subjective experience on a specific theme or topic, diaries and journals can be particularly effective in building an understanding of underlying thought processes and beliefs.
7. Audio and Video Recordings
Similarly to how data is collected from a person’s writing, you can draw valuable conclusions by observing someone’s speech patterns, intonation, and body language when you watch or listen to them interact in a particular environment or within specific surroundings.
Video and audio recordings are helpful in circumstances where researchers predict better results by having participants be in the moment rather than having them think about what to write down or how to formulate an answer to an email survey.
You can collect audio and video materials for analysis from multiple sources, including:
- Previously filmed records of events
- Interview recordings
- Video diaries
Utilizing audio and video footage allows researchers to revisit key themes, and it's possible to use the same analytical sources in multiple studies – providing that the scope of the original recording is comprehensive enough to cover the intended theme in adequate depth.
It can be challenging to present the results of audio and video analysis in a quantifiable form that helps you gauge campaign and market performance. However, results can be used to effectively design concept maps that extrapolate central themes that arise consistently. Concept Mapping offers organizations a visual representation of thought patterns and how ideas link together between different demographics. This data can prove invaluable in identifying areas for improvement and change across entire projects and organizational processes.
8. Hybrid Methodologies
It is often possible to utilize data collection methods in qualitative research that provide quantitative facts and figures. So if you’re struggling to settle on an approach, a hybrid methodology may be a good starting point. For instance, a survey format that asks closed and open questions can collect and collate quantitative and qualitative data.
A Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey is a great example. The primary goal of an NPS survey is to collect quantitative ratings of various factors on a score of 1-10. However, they also utilize open-ended follow-up questions to collect qualitative data that helps identify insights into the trends, thought processes, reasoning, and behaviors behind the initial scoring.
Collect and Collate Actionable Data with UpMetrics
Most nonprofits believe data is strategically important. It has been statistically proven that organizations with advanced data insights achieve their missions more efficiently. Yet, studies show that despite 90% of organizations collecting data, only 5% believe internal decision-making is data-driven. At UpMetrics, we’re here to help you change that.
UpMetrics specializes in bringing technology and humanity together to serve social good. Our unique social impact software combines quantitative and qualitative data collection methods and analysis techniques, enabling social impact organizations to gain insights, drive action, and inspire change. By reporting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data in one intuitive platform, your impact organization gains the understanding it needs to identify the drivers of positive outcomes, achieve transparency, and increase knowledge sharing across stakeholders.