A 10-Step Guide: How to analyze qualitative research

Dec 18, 2023

Conducting interviews and focus groups is a common qualitative research method to gain insights into consumer perspectives. But what are the steps to analyze qualitative research to truly get at the insights that will drive the business forward? In this article, we share the steps.

"It all starts at the beginning," said Isabelle Landreville, president and chief insight seeker at Sylvestre & Co.  She explained that context is key throughout a project. "You can't conduct analysis in a vacuum and then try to contextualize it afterwards. Your analysis needs to be contextualized from the very start."  

In this guide, we’ll walk through the 10-step approach to qualitative research analysis, using excerpts from her interview as examples.

The 10 Steps: How to Analyze Qualitative Research

1. Analyze as You Moderate

The analysis should begin happening in real-time, as soon as you start collecting insights through questions and probes. Don’t wait until after the interview - start identifying potential themes and making connections then.

“I moderate and analyze at the same time, because I’m always thinking, what does that mean for this project, in this context, for the business challenge at hand?" Isabelle said.  

Read next: The role of the empathy in research  

2. Consider Context

A key mistake is taking interview statements out of context. It’s crucial to consider:

  • What was said
  • When it was said
  • How it was said
  • By whom it was said
  • Who it was said to

Without understanding the full context, your analysis will suffer.

3. Observe More Than Words

In qualitative interviews, what participants say is just the tip of the iceberg for analysis. You also need to consider:

  • Silence
  • Tone of voice
  • Body language
  • Facial expressions
  • Timing

In one focus group there was a full minute of silence after asking about perceptions of a brand. That silence itself was revealing and became a key part of the analysis.

4. Identify Underlying Meaning

Don’t just focus on the surface of what participants say. Keep asking yourself: what does this truly mean?

Analysis isn’t just focused on “what are you telling me.” Instead, it's about “What does that mean in the context of this research? What does that mean for the client or brand?”

5. Connect Insights to Business Objectives

A common mistake in qualitative analysis is spotting an interesting insight but failing to connect it back to the original business or research objectives.

The analysis should tie findings back to “what does this mean for this client, this brand?” and how it relates to what problem you are trying to solve.

6. Identify Patterns and Themes

As you analyze across multiple interviews and focus groups, start clustering and categorizing findings into broader themes and patterns. Are there similarities in how different segments talk about a topic or product? What language or analogies do they repeat? What are the speech patterns or key words being used? Where do perspectives align or differ? Clustering reveals the bigger picture.

7. Develop Storylines

Structure the analysis into compelling storylines, almost like a “page-turner novel.” Build narratives from the research using creative framing to build engagement and make the insights easy to digest and actionable.  

8. Seek Out Surprises

Qualitative analysis relies on curiosity and being open to surprises that emerge from the research. Allow yourself to learn something new from every interview and focus group. If you think you already know all the answers, your analysis will likely just confirm your assumptions.

9. Iterate Your Approach

Your analysis should evolve iteratively over each phase of research. Start by speaking to a company’s core consumer segment to understand brand perceptions. Then probe a potential growth segment, while referencing back to the core. Finally, go back to the core group to stress test potential new brand directions that emerged. Each round of analysis builds on the next.  

Overall, the key is to look at it as a learning journey where each focus group or interview is a building block.

10. Articulate Recommendations

The final step is moving from analysis to action. The team at Sylvestre structures reports to always connect back to recommendations in the final chapter. If readers just read the headlines and recommendations, they should understand the gist. Don’t make your stakeholders read paragraphs of quotes – tell them what it means and what to do next.