The Days of Numbers in Qualitative Research Are… Numbered

Alt: Several doodles with cat head, phones in hand, stand below text reading: “Most participants said they liked the new cat head management app’s interface.” One remarks, “That’s some smoooooth UX!” Another says, “Wow, this is hecka intuitive!” A final doodle with an angry looking cat laments, “Whyyy did I updaaaate?!”

We’ve written in the past about banishing some words (POBAs, to be specific) from your research reports. Today, we’re continuing the theme of word choice in research writing. Have you ever noticed how qualitative research reports use words that represent quantities — like many, some, several, few — and wondered why the writer didn’t just use a number instead?

Well, dear readers, that’s because the findings of qualitative research are just that — qualitative, not quantitative. Remember, this type of research looks at things like people’s beliefs, behaviors, and experiences. That’s pretty tricky to represent in numbers!

Let’s look at an example. Say you did a study with 8 participants, and you found that half of them understand how to enroll in Medicare. People reading that result may well assume that 50% of the millions of people eligible to enroll in Medicare already understand how to do so — which is definitely not what you’re saying! The numbers in a study like this aren’t representative of the larger population, which is why it’s not a good idea to report them.

Now this isn’t to say numbers are left out of the qualitative research party altogether. They can be super helpful behind the scenes during the analysis process — we can use them to help interpret the meaning of descriptive data, like what participants said or did during a study. But when it comes to reporting qualitative research, numbers generally don’t cut it.

So is it ever appropriate to report numbers in qualitative research reports? Occasionally! For example, you might use numbers to:

  • Emphasize an important outlier viewpoint (“At least 1 participant said they didn’t understand the main message”)
  • Describe the demographics of your study sample (“5 out of 8 participants were female”)
  • Report the number of participants who completed a task during usability testing (“4 participants failed to complete the second task”)

The bottom line: When reporting on qualitative research, use numbers sparingly — and only when they add nuance to your findings.

Tweet about it: Reporting on qualitative findings? @CommunicateHlth has tips for using numbers (or not) to add meaning to #HealthLit research:


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