Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About a Career in Qualitative Research

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About a Career in Qualitative Research
July 13, 2017 Upwords

I’ve had an interesting career path. I’ve always managed, whether by design or accident, to be in the right place at the right time. I think that’s why I love The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell so much (if you haven’t read it – do!). My early days were filled with online message boards – talk about the first “Big Data”! Essentially, these boards are online communities for like-minded people on a variety of topics. In some ways one might argue that I was a prime candidate to make the move to qualitative research, since one facet of that job was to report to marketers on topics that were most popular within the communities; like market research “light”.

As with any career change, there are things you just cannot prepare for when diving into qual research. There’s always a learning curve involved in a switch, and if I could do it all over, I might ask more questions of my colleagues. I was taken by surprise at just how much I love this environment; isn’t a job supposed to be just a job, after all? Not when you’re a data-obsessed person with access to tons of it and the ability to make a difference, it turns out!

Here are my top five “Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About a Career in Qual”:

  1. There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Data
    In fairness, this one could probably be argued if you’re a slow reader – luckily, I am not! When you’re running an online qual study, you can sometimes feel overwhelmed at the sheer amount of information you’ve got in front of you.  There are times where it would be easy to lament, “there’s just too much!”. While I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been caught up in that way of thinking, the reality is that never, not one time, have I ever not leveraged every bit of data in my results to tell the story of the project. That data you’re pouring over, printing out, highlighting, sorting and theming? It’s all part and parcel of the bigger picture – the context – and you will learn to embrace every last word (yes, even the misspelled ones).
  2. Presentation Decks Are Friends, Not Enemies
    Probably the most difficult part of starting a career in qual research for me was learning to analyze the information and present it in the form of a story using a presentation deck. (Confession: my first few decks were not pretty, and if ‘Present Me’ saw the work of ‘Past Me’, there would be much head-shaking.) I found myself becoming more and more entranced with my decks; is the imaging correct? Is my wording clear and concise? Have I told the story of the data truthfully and without my own bias? At some point I realized that it was as important to me to present my clients with a deck that allowed them to see the data turned into a strategic document with actionable insights as it was that I fully understood and interpreted what my participants said during the study. Many clients don’t see the study while in-field or see glimpses of it, and without a clear and actionable presentation deck, they simply aren’t getting the whole story.
  3. You’ll Actually Make a Difference
    The first time I saw advertising in-market that was based on research I had personally done was nothing short of a life-changing event for me. Hours and hours of hard work, discussions with participants, analyzing verbatim, tending to that deck and getting it just right, then finally presenting to the client. I felt like an artist giving a beautifully crafted sculpture to a museum and hoping beyond hope they’d find the perfect placement for it, then visiting the museum and seeing it had been placed in a spot of honor and beauty. The pride that comes from knowing that the work you do will actually make a difference is phenomenal. Equally important, I have the opportunity to see the look on a client’s face that comes with that “Aha!” moment that the kind of clarity my work is able to provide them; everything from feedback on a product idea to an insight they weren’t aware of previously to learning of a pain point among their customers. The opportunities for answers are as endless as the questions our clients can come up with!
  4. You’ll Have Favourite Participants
    Unlike in quant, which is generally done in the form of a survey and is anonymous, participants in a qual project come with personalities and names. Back in my online forum days, I would find the more engaged participants and invite them to become community leaders. They simply love to engage, and they’re not at all shy about telling you what they think. Participants like this are an utter joy and often work hard to help illuminate the insights.
  5. You’ll Start Seeing Brands Differently
    I can no longer go into a store and see “just products”. Instead, I look at packaging and shelving displays through the eyes of someone who knows exactly how much time and effort goes into creating them. I cringe when I see poorly labelled items; I inwardly cheer when I see someone choose one product over another due to placement or colour. I nod silently in agreement when I hear someone commenting on a new product, or how a newly formulated one has positively impacted their life. After all, I now get work with those teams of people who exist to make sure that consumers have the products they want and deserve – and that’s a pretty big deal.

Qualitative research has changed the way I think – my brain has been trained to think in a much more creative, critical way. One of the things I love about collaborating with companies like Upwords is the enjoyment in every project we work on. It means we’re all constantly striving for our very best work to be delivered to richly benefit clients and the consumers they serve. Maybe it’s because we love knowing why people do the things they do; maybe it’s because we take such pride in making a difference. Either way, it means that we’re bringing something exciting to the table for every client we work with: Passion for our work. I guess that’s the number one thing I wish someone told me about a career in qualitative research: that I’d love what I get to do each day!


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