Understanding meaning: How mallowstreet interview reports complement survey research 

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In a previous article, I outlined what it takes to produce a mallowstreet Insights report. But some questions cannot be answered with statistics. This article explains how we think about qualitative research, and the role interview reports can play in research projects.  

What is the purpose of qualitative research? 

A survey report comes packed with statistics, which allows our Insights clients to say things like: 

  • “45% of UK pension schemes are worried about the low return environment” (source
  • “46% prioritise the quality of investment opportunities when selecting private debt managers” (source
  • “Only 2% invest in impact funds and strategies” (source

But what if they want to know how schemes define the quality of investments, or why impact investing is so unloved? These concepts are difficult to unpack in a multiple-choice question, and this is where qualitative research comes in. 

Qualitative research is not about quotable stats, but about developing a theory which covers all possible explanations. In other words, qualitative research is about understanding meaning. 

How does mallowstreet go about qualitative research? 

Our approach to qualitative research is based on something called grounded theory with iterative non-naïve inductive coding. Given that most people might not be familiar with this, here is a breakdown: 

  • Grounded theory means doing research via the methodical gathering and analysis of data 
  • Iterative means that we go from talking to people to thinking about what they said and back 
  • Coding means extracting keywords and understanding how they relate to each other 
  • Non-naïve means that we use our existing knowledge of the pensions industry when doing this 
  • Inductive means that we don’t let this knowledge bias what we hear in people’s comments 

How does this work in practice? 

My work starts with formulating five research questions, and I apply the same rigour to these questions as I do to survey questions – they need to be relevant and unambiguous. I think about possible answers, which helps me note the keywords that might come up, and how they may relate to each other. 

I then pick 10 interviewees which are as different from each other as possible – trustees and CIOs from schemes with different sizes, priorities and circumstances. This makes perspectives more varied, allowing me to both cover as many cases as possible and look for the consensus between them. 

I speak to each trustee for about 30 minutes. I ask them the same questions, in the same order. I ask the first few interviewees to explain as if I knew nothing about the topic. What I look for is called ‘theoretical saturation’ – that moment of clarity when I hear things repeating. In my last few conversations, I ask trustees to confirm these repeating topics. 

Each transcript takes a couple of hours to produce and is about 1,500 words long. I use keywords to summarise each point and note how I think they relate to each other. This process is repeated after each call, as interconnections between keywords evolve with each new conversation. 

What does an interview report look like? 

A survey report will be full of data-rich charts and key stats – this is not the case for an interview report, which instead focuses on drawing out the ‘why’ and ‘how’, and not the ‘what’. 

An interview will be filled with detailed analysis, anonymous quotes and key recommendations in the areas that are most important to our clients, ultimately helping them understand the challenges and needs of the UK pensions industry much better. 

How does your organisation conduct and apply qualitative research in marketing and product development? Comment within our online community or send us an email on albena.georgieva@mallowstreet.com.