The skills required to be a great qualitative researcher

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The purpose of this article

To be honest, there are already lots of articles out there that explore what it takes to be a great qualitative researcher. So why on earth do we need another one?

The reason is that most of them just focus on the skills required to actually moderate qualitative research (usually in the form of focus groups, depth interviews and online communities), whereas, in reality, moderation actually accounts for no more than 25% of the qualitative researcher’s working week!  

The purpose of this article is to ensure some light is also shed on the other 75%!

What exactly is qualitative research and what is its role?

Before focussing on the skills required to be a ‘super-qualie’, we should spend a bit of time considering the definition of qualitative research – and its role within marketing.  

Qualitative research can be described as the exploration of attitudes, opinions, relationships feelings, priorities and behaviours.   Its role is not only to understand the ‘what and the ‘how’ but also the why’. It’s a journey through the conscious and sub-conscious mind of the research subject.

In a commercial context the purpose of qualitative research is to help the marketer:

  • maximise brand relevance and impact
  • create marketing communications that resonate
  • ensure customer needs, behaviours and expectations are at the heart of new product development
  • deliver customer experiences capable of creating brand loyalty and advocacy

Great qualitative research has the power to change the dynamics of entire marketing campaigns, brands and businesses.

The core skills of a qualitative researcher

The researcher who is capable of having this sort of commercial impact doesn’t succeed because of great moderation skills alone.

They also have:

  • an innate interest in people and their relationship with brands
  • a finely-tuned understanding of a wide range of qualitative research methods and how to apply them to best effect.
  • great analysis and interpretative skills, to turn research findings that are merely interesting in to research insights that are truly powerful
  • the ability to communicate research outputs in a way that gives them resonance and makes them highly actionable

The wider responsibilities of the qualitative researcher

Of course, the super-qualie won’t be applying these core skills 24/7. Unless the agency for which they work has dedicated Project Managers they will typically be spending the majority of their time performing more mundane tasks that are nonetheless vital to the quality of the final research ‘product’, including;

  • Prospecting 
  • Proposal writing – including costing
  • Client relationship management
  • Research scheduling
  • Discussion guide generation
  • Respondent recruitment specification
  • Stimulus material generation
  • 3rd party supplier relationship management (e.g. recruiters, facilities providers) 

Five distinct areas of the qualitative researcher’s role

To make it easier to appreciate the full range of attributes required to be a super-qualie, the A-Z of the role can be broken down in to these 5 areas:

  1. Managing relationships (e.g. the relationship with the client and with suppliers)
  2. Managing project logistics (e.g. 3rd party supplier management)
  3. Doing the actual research (e.g. project design, discussion guide and stimulus material generation, moderation of research)
  4. Analysing the findings and compiling the presentation
  5. Presenting to the client

In the remainder of this article we’ll take a look at each of these areas in turn.

1. Managing relationships 

At the end of the day,as a research supplier the key thing to remember is that its all about the client, meaning the researcher’s ability to manage that relationship is key.

For starters, it requires communication and relationship skills, combined with a natural sense of authority if the client is to feel they are in safe hands.  

However, to really stand out in the area of relationship management the researcher also needs to be proactive, helping the client stay ahead of the competition by regularly bringing to their attention the latest qualitative research thinking, methodologies and news. 

2. Managing project logistics

For any given research project this role may involve:

  • Managing the development of appropriate research stimulus material  
  • Specifying and recruiting research respondents via a recruitment agency partner
  • Booking of suitable research facilities (e.g. bespoke research viewing facilities, hotel meeting rooms or private homes) in which to hold any face-to-face research  
  • Arranging video links for research clients who are unable to attend but wish to accompany the face-to-face research in real time
  • Sorting out the means by which research respondents will be paid for their participation in the research
  • Ensuring that all aspects of the qualitative research conform to GDPR regulation and the Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct

Such tasks require the researcher to be highly organised and have a real eye for detail, particularly as that individual may well be running 2 or more projects simultaneously, meaning the logistical tasks really begin to pile up. 

When this happens, the ability to compartmentalise each separate project becomes a sanity-preserving skill!  

3. Running the research 

As we’ve already discovered, for our super-qualie running the research is about much more than just moderation! It’s highly likely that our qualitative hero or heroine will also be responsible for identifying the appropriate qualitative methodology at the outset, costing it and then writing the research proposal around it.

a) Research design

Not surprisingly, the researcher’s ability to identify the most effective, qualitative research approach is critical to the project’s success.  

Not only will the qualitative approach determine the project’s overall cost,  it will also decide the extent to which the research is ultimately able to address the strategic and commercial objectives of the client. 

It requires a blend of experience and judgement, as well as real understanding of the sort of approach that will resonate most the client.

b) Moderating the focus group, depth interview, online community…..

Whether the focus of the client’s business is B2C or B2B, both the qualitative research agency and researcher will typically be expected to have a good grasp of the subject matter – particularly if it is technical in nature.

However, to actually run the research session effectively and get the most out of it, an altogether softer set of skills are required, including:

i) Natural curiosity

It’s a fairly obvious one, but if you aren’t the sort of person who is interested in others, what they think and why they behave the way that they do, then this isn’t going to be the career for you!  

Similarly, if you find it difficult to accept cultures, points of view or lifestyles that may be different from your own then walk on by!

 ii) Approachability and empathy

The success of any form of qualitative research depends on the willingness of participants to contribute (and keep contributing) to a qualitative discussion in a way that is honest , thoughtful and constructive. 

This can be particularly challenging if the subject matter is complex  or in some way sensitive.  

To encourage respondents to keep on contributing under such conditions the moderator needs to have an ability to put people at their ease and voice thoughts and opinions they might not normally feel confident expressing.  

iii) Focus

Ironically, the greater the moderator’s success in getting respondents to open up, the harder it can then be to then keep the discussion on-track – particularly if it is on a topic that the moderator also finds engrossing!  

An experienced moderator will keep the project’s commercial objectives in his or her mind at all times, to ensure that conversation doesn’t become an enjoyable but irrelevant distraction.

iv) Objectivity 

In projects that address socially or culturally sensitive topics the moderator will often find that the views of the respondents are completely at odds with his or her own.  

Whilst such situations can be extremely challenging it is up to the moderator to maintain total objectivity, revealing no bias whatsoever.

v) Sensitivity

Sensitivity is crucial.  Not just sensitivity in terms of managing individuals and groups, but also in terms of being able to pick up on sub-texts, body language other the non-verbal nuances which can reveal a very different story from the one the respondents are actually telling.

vi) Resoluteness

Moderators need to be resolute in different ways.   

For example, in a focus group situation, individual respondents may occasionally monopolise the conversation and prevent others from voicing their thoughts and opinions.  

On such occasions it is the job of the moderator to tactfully ‘manage’ that individual’s contributions.  If not, the whole dynamic of the group can be ruined.

Infrequently, it can also be the case that a particularly disruptive participant must be asked to leave the group prematurely.  This obviously requires an approach that combines resoluteness with high levels of tact!

vii) Mental dexterity

Whatever the form of qualitative research being undertaken, the moderator will have prepared some form of discussion guide designed to ensure that all the research topics are covered appropriately.

However, when the research is actually underway it may turn out that sections of the guide lack relevance, as the discussion takes a different turn.

In these instances the moderator needs to be able to swiftly identify the issue and be prepared to go ‘off-piste’,  in order to steer the conversation towards more relevant, fertile (but potentially unprepared) subject matter.

viii) Boundless energy

The qualitative researcher’s job is a physically demanding one, meaning that physical and mental stamina are required!  

In addition to spending a full day at work, qualitative researchers will often find themselves moderating research sessions in the evening – possibly up to 11.00 pm.  During exceptionally busy periods this will happen 3-4 days per week.

Many agencies will have time-in-lieu arrangements to compensate their qualitative researchers for working such long, anti-social hours.

4. Analysing the research findings and compiling the presentation

Qualitative research is an inherently messy business and its at its most messy at the beginning of the research analysis phase!  

i) Analysing the research findings

When the research fieldwork has finished the moderator must start to comb through possibly hours of research recordings, transcripts or web pages in order to identify and isolate the relevant, clips, comments and insights.

At this point the researcher’s greatest asset is arguably his or her ability to see the wood for the trees, finding and extracting real insight from a tangled mass of (often contradictory) qualitative data.  

Once extracted, the researcher’s next task is to work out if and how these insight  ‘fragments’ fit together, what the story they tell and what that story means in terms of the client’s strategic and commercial objectives.

The approach must be systematic,whilst the moderator will need to apply an eclectic blend of social and cultural awareness, interpretive skill, objectivity and commercial-mindedness if they are to create order out of research chaos!

 ii) Composition of the research debrief 

No matter how compelling the researcher’s insights, conclusions and recommendations might be, if the debrief isn’t able to convey them with simplicity and impact their power is undermined.  

Story-telling becomes key at the debrief stage, as does the researcher’s ability to put themselves in the shoes of the debrief audience, to understand what their debrief priorities and expectations will be and then to compile a suitable debrief.

This will avoid focussing on the merely interesting, at the expense of what is actually relevant and important.

5. Presenting to the client

Typically, a debrief presentation slot will last 1-2 hours.  It will involve the client’s core project team and may also include more senior client directors who haven’t had hands-on involvement in the project to this point.

Unfortunately, a presenter who lacks confidence in front of an audience can do much to undermine the power of the research and its findings and it is up to the research agency to ensure that more junior researchers aren’t exposed in this way.  

Presenting skills will be learned over time, but there are several practical steps that junior researchers can take to increase their confidence – and the quality of their presentations.  These include: 

  • Learning the content of the debrief inside out
  • Anticipating the real needs and expectations of the audience so they can identify any obvious questions or objections – and prepare for them
  • Ensuring the first five minutes of the presentation are pacey and engaging.   It is during this short period of time that many in the audience will be evaluating the quality of the research – and the presenter  
  • Using respondents’ quotes and video footage to help substantiate more challenging points made in the debrief. Its very hard to argue with the end customer!


If you are reading this article because you are considering a career in qualitative research you may feel daunted by what you have just read.

If so, please don’t be!  

The reality is, with such a long and eclectic list of left-brain-meets-right-brain attributes required to be a super-qualie, no one is going to tick all the boxes, even after years of experience.

However, If you find that are endlessly curious about what makes people, cultures and brands tick and you constantly find yourself asking ‘why?’ then a career in qualitative research might just be the one for you. 

Updated January 2019



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