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Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research: Learning The Benefits

Your comprehensive guide to discerning between quantitative vs. qualitative research practices and selecting the best approach for your business needs.

Frequent readers of The Good’s Insights and our clients will often hear us talk about quantitative and qualitative data. At times, though, using these terms can cause confusion. If you’re wondering what these terms mean – and why we use them all the time – you’re not alone. That’s why we’ve developed this summary.

Here’s my promise: if you’ll stick with me until the end, I’ll show you how to tell the difference between qualitative and quantitative research, how you can leverage that difference, and when to use which.

What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative research?

Quantitative and qualitative user research describe two different types of data that can be used to improve website usability and conversion rates.

Here are practical definitions of the two:

1. Quantitative research is primarily concerned with the numbers.

It uses metrics like completion rates, bounce rates, and conversion rate to measure the effectiveness of your sales funnel.

Quantitative research answers the question: 'How much of what is happening, and where?' Click To Tweet

Quantitative research answers this question: “How much of what is happening … and where?” This data is typically used to form and test a theory that it will ultimately support or reject. In conversion optimization, that’s usually best accomplished with A/B testing.

qualitative vs. quantitative screenshot of google analytics report
Google Analytics provides a wealth of quantitative data. (see graph above)

2. Qualitative research is primarily concerned with your website users.

It leverages special tools like heatmaps, clickmaps, and surveys to find out “Who is doing what … and why are they doing that?”

Qualitative research answers the question: 'Who is doing what, and why are they doing that?' Click To Tweet

This data tells you what design features are difficult or easy to complete. Research following a qualitative approach is exploratory and seeks to explain ‘how’ and ‘why’ a particular phenomenon or behavior operates as it does in a particular context.

qualitative vs. quantitative heatmaps screenshot
The screenshot above is a heatmap. It shows you where visitor attention is most centered. You can use that information to optimize page layouts and guide visitors along your sales path.

Whereas quantitative data tells us that a specific number of visitors behaved in a particular way at a certain point along your pathway to sales, qualitative data provides clues about why they did so.

Both types of research are essential to a data-driven design cycle. Much of the time, though, companies collect quantitative data only.

That’s a mistake.

Qualitative data allows deeper insight and can help you quickly determine where your user experience is sagging. The more user-friendly you can make your path to sales, the more customers you’ll have walking it to the end over and over again.

How to apply quantitative and qualitative research: a step-by-step process

Digital marketing managers and conversion rate optimization specialists sometimes disagree over which type of research should be conducted first: quantitative or qualitative.

While the best strategy is always the one that fits your particular needs, conversion rate optimization teams at The Good recommend the following sequence in most cases:

  1. Check to ensure appropriate data collection tools are in place and set up correctly
  2. Begin by observing quantitative data to identify stuck points in your sales funnel
  3. Use qualitative tools and observations to find out why the bottlenecks exist
  4. Propose solutions to the problems, activate those solutions (through A/B and multivariate testing), then observe results
  5. Continue observing, constructing theories (hypotheses), and iterating on the testing to monitor and improve conversion rates across the board

Tool selection can be tricky. Even if you’re the digital marketing manager of an enterprise-level business with in-house conversion optimization capabilities, you’ll probably save money by contracting with a conversion optimization partner to get started.

At The Good, we help businesses work through the development or fine-tuning of their conversion optimization strategy. This includes identifying and recommending necessary tools and helping secure the best price for those tools. Since conversion rate optimization is our business, we stay up to date on the latest developments and can help keep teams from getting mired down with the wrong tools and counterproductive methods.

When should you use quantitative vs. qualitative research?

I’ve touched on this in the process description above. Let’s go a little deeper, though, to make sure you and your team are clear on when to use quantitative research and when to use qualitative research.

Quantitative Research

Conversion rate optimization isn’t a one-stop fix for sales. It’s a series of events and actions occurring between the time a prospect first becomes aware of your company and the point where that prospect makes a purchase.

That means there isn’t just one conversion rate to consider, there are many. Here are some of the most common data collection points in conversion rate optimization that can help you identify trouble spots in your sales path:

  • Bounce rate: Once a visitor arrives on your website, how long does that visitor stay?
  • Opt-in rate: Of the visitors given an opportunity to subscribe to your email list, how many respond to the offer?
  • Search rate: How many visitors take advantage of your on-site search engine?
  • Click-through to a product detail page: How many of those who visit a category page go on to view a product detail page?
  • Cart abandonment rate: How many visitors enter the checkout process but fail to place an order?

That list could be extended to point out dozens of potential ‘micro conversions’ your visitors can take on the way to becoming paying customers.

qualitative vs. quantitative chart from hubspot
Website designers often focus on making your site pleasing to the eye. Your visitors care more about usability. (see graph above)

Website designers often focus on making your site pleasing to the eye. Your visitors care more about usability. (see graph above)

You can compare quantitative to driving on a highway. You’re clipping along at good speed when you come to a spot where traffic stopped completely. Is there an accident ahead? Construction? What’s the problem? Cars begin pulling U-turns and looking for a different route.

When visitors to your website are confronted by confusing or irrelevant sections of your path to the sale, they’ll bail out too. If you can uncover and fix those trouble spots, you’ll keep visitors happier and see sales revenue grow.

Qualitative Research

Once you’ve identified the areas of your website that are of special concern, you need to understand what’s going on and why your website visitors are leaving at that junction. That’s where qualitative research comes into play and user experience is closely examined.

Perhaps you set up live sessions with users who fit your preferred customer personas but have never visited your website. You give them a task to complete, then observe as they attempt to carry out the assignment. User experience studies can provide invaluable feedback.

Do visitors tend to get confused on a certain page? Is your on-site search engine returning irrelevant or misleading data? Is the information you provide clear and helpful? Those qualitative discoveries can help you determine what needs to change to keep visitors engaged and help them find the product that best suits their needs.

Other qualitative tools allow you to observe real-time actions of any visitor you choose, map out exactly where clicks occur (and don’t occur) on your site, see how far visitors are scrolling down each page, get feedback from customers, and more.

The key to making a good forecast is not in limiting yourself to quantitative information – Nate Silver @NateSilver538 Click To Tweet

Which is Better: Quantitative or Qualitative Research?

Quantitative research tells you at a high level what activity is occurring on your website. Qualitative research helps you view your ecommerce website through your customers’ eyes to tell you why those things are happening.

By combining the two correctly, you get a wider view and deeper understanding of customer actions. Armed with that knowledge, you are better prepared to develop effective A/B testing hypotheses that will get quicker results and increase conversions. That is the essence of conversion optimization.

Now that you have a better understanding of quantitative vs. qualitative research, you can pass this article on to your team, discuss how it might inform your conversion rate optimization strategy, and take action to put these principles to work.

When you hit a snag or have questions, call The Good. Helping you streamline your path to sales and boost bottom line revenue is what we do best.


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About the Author

Jon MacDonald

Jon MacDonald is founder and President of The Good, a conversion rate optimization firm that has achieved results for some of the largest online brands including Adobe, Nike, Xerox, Verizon, Intel and more. Jon regularly contributes content on conversion optimization to publications like Entrepreneur and Inc. He knows how to get visitors to take action.