What Are Qualitative Indicators?

M. McGee

Qualitative indicators are non-numerical factors for determining level of progress towards a specific goal. Qualitative data is based on opinions, feelings or viewpoints rather than hard facts or numbers. These factors are used to measure things that have no numerical constant, like a group’s sense of hope for the future. An indicator is a segment of information that gives a sense of the direction to the information — such as whether the feeling of hope is greater or less than in the same time in the previous year. Indicators are used to determine how quickly a process is happening or how close a process is to completion.

Qualitative data is based on opinions, feelings or viewpoints rather than hard facts or numbers.
Qualitative data is based on opinions, feelings or viewpoints rather than hard facts or numbers.

The term ‘qualitative indicators’ is made up of two very important research concepts. Qualitative and quantitative information make up the two types of discoverable information. Quantitative is generally the easiest to understand and manipulate since it is based on numbers and hard facts. When information can’t be measured or reproduced, then it is typically qualitative. Knowing that a jar contains 3,745 jellybeans is quantitative but comparing the taste of the jellybeans to chocolate cake is qualitative.

The second term, indicator, refers to a step along the developmental process. During an ongoing research process, the people involved have a general idea of where they think the process will end up. This end goal is based on the hypothesis the researcher used when designing the experiment. Along the way, the researcher will determine small steps, the indicators, which show the direction of the experiment. For example, in testing a new drug, the researcher may use a measurement of the symptoms relating to a condition as an indicator.

The combination of the terms, qualitative indicators, are small and non-measurable steps. To continue the medical test example, a qualitative indicator would be the number of people that feel better while on the new drug. A quantitative example in the same experiment might be a change in blood pressure, at rest heart rate or physical tumor size. When the qualitative indicators are used within the study it would read as, ‘23% of patients reported feeling better within one week and 56% were feeling better at the end of week two.’ The sense of wellness cannot be measured directly but it is assessed at the end of each week.

Since qualitative indicators do not lead to hard facts or numbers, they are often seen as a marketing tool or a way to hide failed experiments. While this is likely true in some cases, many fields use qualitative data above quantitative. Understanding a subject’s reaction to a product or situation is often of more use than knowing how many minutes it took for someone to calm down after a scare. This is especially true in anthropology, marketing and social work, where the numbers can often hide a deeper issue.

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