Most user experience research falls into one of two categories: quantitative research and qualitative research. While both are concerned with data collection, gaining insight into the problems that might exist within a product or service, and understanding the experience of users, the qualitative approach is more focused on understanding user motivation and behavior. 

Where quantitative methods might answer the question of where a problem lies and how many users are affected by it, qualitative methods explain in greater depth what the problem is and why it’s affecting users. In some cases, qualitative research can also unearth how the issue can be resolved.

Qualitative user research plays a critical role in the development and improvement of products and services because it helps designers identify user pain points, understand why a design decision might not be yielding the desired results, and test possible solutions. When coupled with quantitative methods, it can help a research team paint an accurate picture of how users are experiencing a product or service. But even on its own, qualitative research can offer valuable insights. 

What Is Qualitative Research?

Qualitative research involves collecting data that sheds light on users’ behaviors, psychology, motivations, and opinions. Where quantitative research methods focus on numerical data in order to determine the statistical significance of an issue—i.e. How many people are affected by the problem? Where does the problem keep cropping up? Is it wide enough to warrant a fix?—qualitative research methods attempt to reveal the nature of an issue so that the design team can understand what’s going wrong, how users feel about it, and what might need to be changed in order to address the problem.

For example, a social media platform might use quantitative research methods such as web analytics to identify a significant drop-off in users; the research shows that people are logging out and not returning, but it doesn’t explain why. This is where qualitative research methods come into play. Using research methods related to ethnography, anthropology, and sociology, qualitative UX researchers recruit participants and attempt to understand a phenomenon through user interviews, focus groups, diary studies, social research, and observations. These methods can often reveal what quantitative data obscure, such as changing user attitudes towards a platform, loss of value or usefulness, or the arrival of a competitor. 

Why Is Qualitative Research Important?

Across every industry where user experience research is used, qualitative data is critical to the understanding of user experiences because they address the how and why in ways that other research methods simply cannot. Returning to the example of a social media platform that might be seeing a dropoff in user numbers—without qualitative research, it might never become apparent to product developers what is causing users to turn away, which, by extension, makes it nearly impossible to resolve a problem if they don’t know what they’re dealing with. The fix for a technical glitch is going to be different from a fix for changing user attitudes and trust issues; qualitative research takes the guesswork out of the equation.

Qualitative research also allows product developers to hear different user perspectives and delve into complexities that might be harder to explore in yes/no surveys and web analytics. In essence, qualitative research is about understanding the user, which in turn guides design decisions in a direction that will meet users’ needs.  

3 Principles of Qualitative Research

Principles of Qualitative Research

The Interaction Design Foundation highlights fifteen guiding principles for user experience researchers, which range from increasing sample size for greater accuracy to the importance of measuring what people say and do and exploring reasons for any disconnects between the two.

Researcher and consultant, Sarah Faulkner, who has led consumer and market insights at Procter & Gamble, offers three additional principles specific to qualitative research. These principles include:

1. Set qualitative objectives for qualitative research. This is another way of saying choose the right methodology for your case study. For example, it doesn’t make sense to perform a qualitative study if you want data that will confirm whether a feature works or how many users are successfully completing a task—a quantitative study would be much more efficient for such analysis. Likewise, a close-ended user survey that doesn’t invite respondents to go in-depth won’t be as helpful to a researcher trying to understand user behaviors and attitudes as an open-ended survey or focus group.

2. Make the most of every respondent. Given that qualitative research typically relies on smaller sample sizes, Faulkner stresses the importance of putting in the effort to screen for the right participants, then spending enough time with them to go beyond surface-level responses. “These two are inextricably linked because to extract the full value from each respondent and make it worth spending significant time with each other, requires the investment of time upfront to ensure precise and rigorous selection,” Faulkner said.

3. Debriefs are important. “Rushing out of your research without the diligence of an in-depth debrief session with your team is like spending hours preparing a multi-course gourmet meal, taking a couple of bites, and then throwing the rest of it in the trash,” Faulkner said. Qualitative research and debriefing sessions should be planned in tandem, accounting for time spent analyzing the data, mind-mapping, creating consumer hierarchies of need, and other models. Researchers should also choose the most relevant and effective way to present their findings so that the hard-earned data isn’t lost on stakeholders.

8 Types of Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative user researchers have dozens of methods at their disposal. Some of the more common qualitative research approaches include:

1. Grounded theory. Developed by sociologists Glaser and Strauss in the 1960s, grounded theory is a qualitative research method in which researchers come up with theories and hypotheses that are grounded in empirical data/observations. Instead of researchers developing a theory before examining data, the grounded theory works the other way around, where researchers come up with theories after examining the data and finding patterns along with categories.

2. Focus groups. Focus groups typically bring together six to nine participants to discuss issues and concerns with a user interface. They can be effective at measuring users’ attitudes and learning what users want, although they should be used in conjunction with other methods if the goal is to understand product usability because there can often be a disconnect between what users say and how they actually interact with a product or service.

3. Qualitative data analysis. Also known as thematic analysis, this method involves analyzing qualitative data for themes that can help answer a research question or find meaning within a data set. The results of a thematic analysis can influence design decisions by helping developers zero in on user needs.

4. Participant observation.
User observations are a form of usability testing in which researchers watch a participant perform a series of tasks in order to see firsthand how they interact with a product or service, what problems they encounter, and what benefits they get from it. Participant observation can take place in controlled environments (e.g. participants are invited into a lab) or “in the wild,” the latter of which is usually more reliable because users are more likely to engage with a product or service as they normally would outside of a lab environment.

5. Interviews. An in-depth interview is most useful when researchers are interested in exploration. Interviews give researchers a chance to go in-depth on a subject with a participant, ask follow-up questions, gather opinions, and be open to surprises and unexpected trains of thought. They also provide data that might otherwise be impossible to glean from other methods, such as a participant’s body language and other cues that might shed light on how a participant feels about a product or service.

6. Card sorting. Another way of getting into users’ heads, card sorting typically presents users with a series of categories or topics written on cards and invites them to organize them in such a way that makes sense to them. Card sorting is a great way to understand what might be intuitive to users and what web or platform design structure users expect. It is also a relatively quick, easy, and cheap method to execute. 

7. Surveys. While surveys are a commonly used quantitative research tool, open-ended survey questions are qualitative in nature because they invite respondents to share a story or experience, offer an in-depth opinion, or elaborate on their responses, which often sheds light on why they chose to answer a certain way.

8. Diary studies. By getting users to log their habits over time, diary studies offer a research approach that yields longitudinal data that can then help businesses understand users’ daily habits, needs, and behaviors. It also meets users’ where they are—having them document their day as it’s happening, instead of asking for them to recount an interaction after the fact.

Examples Of Qualitative Research Methods in UX Design

In addition to helping companies find and solve problems, qualitative UX research can also identify opportunities for new features and improvements that a design team may not have considered.

For example, German e-commerce company Zalando used a diary study in 2017 to better understand its customers’ shopping behaviors and decision-making processes. Instead of surveying or interviewing its research participants after the fact, the diary study enabled researchers to hear from customers at the moment when they were making purchasing decisions, giving them a more accurate picture of the shopper’s state of mind and motivations.

In another example, UX researchers at Microsoft used qualitative research methods such as interviews to better understand how users understood trust in the context of software. The study came off the heels of a surge in viruses and privacy-reducing software, which themselves were a result of users not understanding the implications of their online actions. Researchers recruited a dozen participants, inviting them to create “trust maps” that illustrated what privacy meant to them. This then formed the foundation of one-on-one interviews where researchers could get a better understanding of what users actually cared about.

The combination of trust mapping and interviews was important because it “became apparent that the experiences that users described contradicted their earlier statements about whom they trust with various levels of personal information,” according to UX consultant Chris Nodder. By digging into the difference between what people said and what they did, researchers learned that “users’ rational thoughts about their behavior were overpowered by emotional criteria such as who had suggested they visit a site, or how much they wanted the thing that the software offered them,” Nodder said. “They would make one-off emotional trust decisions without necessarily considering the rational consequences.” Based on these findings, Microsoft was able to develop a slew of privacy features to improve the trustworthiness of its products among users.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of Qualitative Research Methods

In helping companies understand user behaviors and answer the why, qualitative user research can be invaluable. Some of its advantages include:

  • Providing clarity. Where quantitative research methods might reveal where a problem lies and the degree to which it is statistically significant, qualitative research can provide clarity into the nature of the problem, how users feel about it, and even offer possible solutions. 
  • Requiring fewer participants. Compared to quantitative research, which requires large numbers of participants in order to be useful, qualitative research can be successfully completed with as little as a half-dozen participants.
  • Understanding user needs. Qualitative research methods can be especially useful in the early stages of product development because it allows researchers to understand what is valuable to users before designs are set in stone. In addition to guiding the development of products and services, qualitative research can also help companies avoid the pitfalls of creating something that no one wants or needs.

Qualitative user research does have limitations, though. 

  • It’s time-consuming. Where surveys and web analytics can be disseminated and generated quickly and often without recruitment, qualitative research methods typically require researchers to recruit participants, prep them for studies or interviews and take the time to conduct the research. If the sampling of respondents doesn’t help paint a clear enough picture of user attitudes or behaviors, the process might need to be repeated over the course of weeks or months. 
  • It’s not always representative of the whole. While researchers can glean a lot from small sample sizes of research participants, it can be hard to see the size, scale, or issue without also engaging in quantitative research. A qualitative study might capture only outlier responses, which could skew the findings. As insightful as qualitative methods can be, their findings are not statistically representative of all users. 
  • It can be hard to spot patterns. The range and breadth of possible responses to qualitative research questions and methodologies mean that it can be hard for researchers to spot trends and patterns among responses. All respondents within a study might give wildly different answers to a question, which makes it difficult to categorize responses and arrive at tidy conclusions. 

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This post was written by Tracey Lien.