Below are brief descriptions of several of the qualitative research methodologies we employ.

Focus Groups

A focus group is a discussion among 6 to 10 individuals (determined by topic), typically lasting 1.5 to 2 hours. A trained moderator guides the discussion by introducing topics and questions (developed with the client) to encourage maximum participation from each individual. The moderator assesses and controls the group dynamics as the conversation develops to gain the greatest insights from the respondents.

As a form of qualitative research, focus groups allow for in-depth exploration of people's feelings and beliefs. They can uncover why people feel the way they do about certain issues and how those feelings influence their behavior, opinions, attitudes and perceptions. Because focus groups are qualitative in nature, numbers and percentages should not be projected to a population as a whole. The typically small sample size of focus groups and the fact that the questions asked vary from group to group, make the results appropriate for general impressions rather than as statistical data.

One-on-One Interviews

We consider one-on-one interviews to be a form of qualitative research, though some define it as quantitative research. The commonality with either usage is that the interview is used to mine the "depth" of understanding that one individual has about a topic. With a greater sense of confidentiality and rapport, respondents can offer more "pure" and unbiased responses to questions, than might occur in a focus group. These "depth" interviews also offer more time for probing the meaning of a respondent's comments and the sources of their beliefs, connotations, and assumptions.

One-on-one interviews are a convenient format for participants and interviewers as well. They can be conducted in any setting, at any time. As an example, the interviewer can conduct the sessions in person or on the phone while the respondent is at home, at work, or while traveling. Clients can listen from any location as well.


This is an adaptation from the field of anthropology, where we develop an approach to observing (and at times interviewing) people as they ‘do what they do’ in the settings of their everyday lives. Ethnography is a methodology of the direct observation of lifestyle patterns, consumer behaviors, belief practices, and reactions to symbols and icons that occurs within the respondents’ day-to-day milieu.

Each ethnography is a real-life encounter within the full frame of the respondent’s life, including at times their family and their community. We may visit their homes, their workplace, or places where they shop or interact with their community. It allows us access to an in-depth understanding of the respondents’ beliefs, attitudes, and daily rituals. This methodology is an excellent way to achieve provocative insights in an under researched or over researched category.

Mystery Shopping

Mystery shopping is a method used to measure and observe the level of customer service provided in a given setting. The researcher poses as a customer/potential customer of the store or service and details the results of the experience following the encounter. This method works well in person or over the phone.

Mystery shopping offers opportunities for improving customer service for businesses in many industries. It is often used by companies to improve their training of sales representatives and customer service personnel. When employees know that mystery shopping audits are being conducted as an ongoing activity, their overall service may show improvement.
Photograph by Stan Sherer
courtesy: Campus Chronicle U of A, Amherst

Usability Testing

Usability tests are a qualitative research method. They are essentially conducted to gather feedback regarding the functionality and design of technology products and services, such as Web sites, ATM machines and software.

Such tests are conducted with participants on an individual basis, though several respondents can be evaluating the product or service at the same time. A trained moderator supervises the testing and commonly the process is videotaped for future review. Clients are able to watch both the respondents' computer screen and their facial expressions at the same time. Professional videotaping is highly recommended for this research.

Usability tests allow for the observation and evaluation of user enjoyment, ease of use and effectiveness of the design of the product or service. A wealth of information concerning navigation difficulties, time and step efficiency and interest can be measured. This method offers clear feedback on potential areas for improvement of the technology.


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