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Is Big Data Getting Humanized?

First came the discussions about the promise of “big data” and how it would revolutionize the way companies listened to their customers. So much more would be known – so much more depth, so much more breadth, so much more accuracy!

Then came the questions about whether qualitative research conducted at quantitative scale could still be considered “qualitative,” as if the only aspect differentiating the two methodologies was sample size.

After that text analytics programs emerged, and with them the suggestion that open-ends in quant studies could become so affordable that classical qualitative market research would become obsolete.

(Seriously – why spend all that time having a conversation with your customer when you could ask hundreds of your customers those same questions expressed as a series of scales, discrete choices, or matrixes and receive an analysis of their answers in a shorter turnaround? …Plus, you wouldn’t even have to leave town!


As a career qualitative market-researcher, I’ve been more frustrated than threatened by these developments.  For one, I’ve never understood how one methodology could be regarded as superior to another – that would be like suggesting a fork is superior to a spoon. Furthermore, I couldn’t figure out why such a zero-sum game was necessary.  In the same way that television didn’t kill the radio star, isn’t the market-research world big enough for both qual and quant?

Given all that, lately I’m delighted and surprised to see discussions of the role of emotions on the agenda at industry meetings such as The Market Research Event.  These presentations unambiguously describe the pivotal role of emotion in consumer decision-making. Rather than dismiss emotion-driven behavior as “irrational,” those behaviors are now regarded as an observable manifestation of otherwise unmeasurable System One at work. And since qual is the ideal method with which to dig deeper and explore drivers behind apparently “irrational” behavior, maybe it’s time to ease up on questioning the viability of qual as a market-research methodology.

So, is big data about to become “humanized?”  Only time will tell, but it should be an entertaining show!

About the Author: Laurie Bredenfoerder, MBA, PRC is a veteran independent qualitative market research consultant based in Cincinnati, Ohio.  She holds a B.S. in Journalism from Bowling Green State University, an MBA from Xavier University, and a Professional Researcher Certification from the Insights Association.  Laurie is a board member of the Insights Association’s Great Lakes Chapter, a national committee chairperson for the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, a wife, and a proud mother of a wonderful son. Reach her by email:

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