Rethinking the Qualitative Research Paradigm: Embracing Expertise Over Generalization

In the dynamic world of market research, qualitative researchers often find themselves navigating through diverse industries, exploring topics ranging from disposable diapers to deep tech and healthcare. For decades, the industry has favored the archetype of the qualitative researcher as a generalist—a versatile individual capable of rapidly adapting to various domains. Paper towels this week, edge computing the next. I ought to know. This was my life for many years.

But—and I’m veering into hot-take territory here—this approach may not always yield the most insightful results, particularly for B2B companies with complex products and services. I posit that subject matter expertise is the quality that matters most in qualitative research. Matter of fact, I bet my career — and my company — on the conviction that expertise should be at the forefront of qualitative research. Here’s why.

The Advantages of Expertise

Why is expertise crucial in qualitative research? For myriad reasons. Entrusting your complex research to subject-matter experts specific to your industry yields several significant advantages: faster learning curve; more meaningful and revealing conversations; an understanding of rapidly evolving industries and topics; and increased trust and credibility between researcher and client. All of which leads to better, deeper, actionable insight that generates enduring results. Let’s explore further (after all, that’s what researchers do).

Faster Learning Curve

The more complicated the research, the more time it takes for a generalist to become comfortable enough to lead productive discussions about it. Researchers who bring an already-substantial foundation of industry knowledge can get up to speed faster and dive into the research more quickly and confidently. This research readiness is especially valuable for clients who need insights sooner rather than later to make business-critical decisions.

More Meaningful Conversations

Specialized researchers possess firsthand experience and knowledge within specific industries or fields, enabling them to approach research from a peer-to-peer perspective. Interviewing a group of highly specialized doctors? Bring in a researcher who once led cardiac and neurosurgery ICUs. Conducting a focus group of Linux kernel developers? Helps if your moderator is also a software engineer. This industry-insider insight fosters deeper connections with participants and facilitates the exploration of nuanced questions that might otherwise go unasked.

Deeper Understanding of Ever-Changing Fields

Nowhere is the need for specialization more apparent than in industries like technology and healthcare, where the pace of innovation is relentless. In these domains, having someone fluent in the industry is not just advantageous—it’s imperative. Technologies evolve rapidly, and healthcare landscapes undergo constant transformation. Without researchers who live and breathe these sectors and follow their changes, valuable insights risk being overlooked or misinterpreted.

Increased Trust and Credibility

Expertise lends credibility to the research process. Clients are reassured knowing that their projects are in the hands of individuals who not only understand their industry but are deeply immersed in it. This trust becomes the foundation upon which fruitful collaborations are built, ultimately leading to more actionable insights and informed decision-making.

Embracing the Expert

Given these clear advantages, why then has the qualitative research industry clung to the generalist model for so long? Perhaps it’s rooted in tradition, or maybe it’s simply a matter of convenience. My guess is that it’s because there are simply not enough subject matter experts out there who turned to qualitative research. Regardless of the reasons, it’s time for a paradigm shift—a reimagining of what qualitative research can and should be.

One last thought: it’s essential to acknowledge that specialization exists within the realm of consumer packaged goods (CPG) research as well. CPG researchers are their own breed of specialists. They possess a unique understanding of consumer behavior, brand perceptions, and market trends within the CPG space. Their expertise enables them to unravel complex consumer dynamics and deliver actionable insights tailored to this specific domain. So the specialized researcher isn’t just for high tech and healthcare; it benefits clients across industries and audiences — B2B and B2C.

By embracing specialization, we can elevate the quality of our research and deliver more impactful insights to our clients. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences on specialization vs. generalization. Reach out and let’s discuss.