Qualitative research is a very useful methodology for an in-depth understanding of a number of questions, especially when it comes to product development, whether it be for an existing product with incremental changes or a novel product that will change the industry. The main concern with qualitative studies, however, is the relatively small number of respondents who will participate, and the degree to which the results will be applicable to the wider population that is your target audience. On par with the need for a well-trained moderator and a focused interview guide, a critical success factor for a qualitative study is ensuring the correct participants are recruited. How you choose your respondents can make or break your qualitative study; done correctly it can give you more direction than you might have originally considered.
1. Start with the Basics (and Communicate Them)
As the saying goes, "Best to start at the beginning." When designing your recruiting plan, always make sure you completely spell out who will be invited to participate and who will not. The quickest path to failure is assuming that all involved parties understand the qualifications. I'm talking about basic specifications like job titles and responsibilities, institutions, workplace types, or geography. Second level criteria may include age, experience (i.e. length in practice), gender splits, etc. Articulate your standards and then make sure everyone involved knows them.
2. Be Specific
After deciding the basic criteria and communicating them to the team, it's time to add additional criteria to your recruitment screener. This part will obviously vary depending on your industry and the nature of your research, and may be behavioral or even attitudinal. For example, we recently conducted one-on-one interviews with programmers who held specific experience in deep learning technologies. Some orthodontic product companies need orthodontists who use a specific type of bracket. Maybe you need consumers who have home security systems with a certain type of keypad. The point is that respondents must have the necessary experience to actively participate in an interview or focus group.
This is relevant to the most frequently asked question regarding qualitative research: “Do these results represent my audience?” Two answers here:
- Statistically, probably not. However, to ensure the answers come back as you would expect (consistent with your hypotheses), screening for the right participants is crucial for small samples.
- If you make up your qualitative sample from individuals who are best equipped to answer questions about your product or service (because they are the best targets for your products or services), you will get the most relevant feedback and insights. Period. This may not apply to a purposeful exploration of non-customers or trier-rejecters, but their screening is equally as critical.
3. Be as Inclusive as Possible
This may sound counterintuitive, but there is such a thing as being too specific. It makes sense to be sure that your participants know enough to be helpful to your research endeavor, but be careful that you don't just talk to the "experts" or those with too narrow a focus or experience.
Good participants can speak to their experience with specific products or technologies like those you are researching. Great participants know about the specific product or technology, but also know what else is out there, and why each is better or worse than another. They do not stare at the same four walls (product-wise) all the time, with little chance for creativity, competitive comparisons, or original thoughts. They are able to speak about alternative ideas, other products that may be used by their colleagues, or alternative methods. They are knowledgeable about your product, but that's not all they know. This is especially key if you are looking to sell your new product to market newcomers. How will you know what new entrants need if there aren't any of them in your research?
4. Screening Can Be Trial and Error
No matter how much you plan ahead, craft a beautiful screener, and communicate your needs to your research team, there will always be a portion of the effort that will be new ground to cover. No matter how thorough you thought you were, there will always be someone who doesn't fit neatly into one of our categories. The key: do not quickly dismiss these people. If you do, you may be missing out on potentially excellent participants by not looking at exceptions and considering the insights they may be able to bring to the table.
The good news is that qualitative research allows for decisions like this to be made since the interview or focus group part usually takes place at some point in the future (in contrast with surveys that are usually done all at one time). I would not recommend that you overpopulate your sample with exceptions, but be open to looking at unique participants and thinking critically about how their experience might provide color or perspective that you might otherwise miss.
5. Never Forget the Importance of Screening!
Any way you look at the issue of screening appropriately, it is imperative that you keep in mind how important the task is. Qualitative research is usually more expensive per respondent and involves far fewer respondents than a quantitative survey, so it is very important to spend your resources on respondents who meet your basic criteria, have the experience you need, and can offer additional insights outside of your core product or service. If you remember to set and communicate your minimum criteria, be specific but not too specific, and take your time deciding whether to include someone or not, you can be confident that your respondent pool will give you the insights you need to consider your qualitative study a success.
At Actionable Research we have the real-world, in-field experience necessary to help you determine your research screener. We have conducted research in the medical, dental, and digital technology fields for more than 17 years. Our comprehensive knowledge of your field and our consultative approach will help you make the most of the market research process.