Mar 29

Agile qualitative User Research

While it’s been commonly used in product development processes, agile is starting to take root in other areas as well. With usability and UX becoming important product characteristics the need for quick and flexible user and customer research is growing. As a consequence, an agile mindset has increasingly been applied to not only the development of products but also to the connected research processes.

Originally agile development process started to gain popularity because they gave teams the possibility to further refine their products while they were building them instead of firmly adhering to goals and milestones that were defined before they had even started building the product. Agile posed a welcome alternative as it doesn’t rely on one big goal that teams work towards but rather separates the development process into multiple smaller steps with individual goals. Partitioning the process like this gives developers and designers the possibility to adapt or change their strategy multiple times during the development process.

Agile isn’t only characterized by quick processes but also by flexibility

Agile processes are characterized by their transparency, high degree of collaboration and focus on solving problems as soon as they arise. The development process consists of short, iterative cycles with rapid feedback that is used to improve the product according to users’ wishes with every iteration.

Combining qualitative research with agile principles

When products are developed with a user-centric mindset, research is an important factor that needs to happen in sync with the timing of the rest of the development process. In the past more fast-paced ways to conduct user research have been developed to keep up with quick production cycles. However, most of them have been more quantitative in nature. This may be the case because quantitative methods such as surveys usually work better when conducted remotely and can also be automated more easily.

The current need for qualitative agile research arises from a need for deep insight that goes beyond standard surveys. The needed depth of data requires qualitative research but still, results have to be provided quickly in order to keep up with the pace of product development. While the market demands products with a great UX, the traditional qualitative research process is known to be very time intensive. Interviews or usability tests need to be scheduled, participants for tests or interviews have to be recruited, tests need to be conducted and the evaluation may also take longer than evaluating quantitative research since the gathered data usually needs to be processed before it can be evaluated. Even though it might sound counterintuitive, agile and qualitative research can be combined quite successfully-you just need to manage the process a little differently.

Conducting qualitative research the agile way

If you want to get started with doing research the agile way you might have to loosen your grip on traditional research methods a little-especially if you come from a more traditional research field like psychology or social sciences. Doing research in an agile way doesn’t imply that you should simply manage to do everything in the course of two weeks. Rather you need to break down the problem into smaller chunks and try to use your research to figure out how to solve these problems efficiently.

Try to break research down into smaller chunks

For qualitative research to work with agile, aims and objective for every research cycle have to be defined clearly. A schedule for the research cycle should be made accordingly and followed as closely as possible so that no time is lost. As mentioned above the recruitment of participants can take a lot of time. Establishing a process that lets you recruit participants quickly and flexible such as having a pool of available participants or recruiting online can remedy this problem.

Keep in mind that agile research is suited for improving and iterating a product, especially if you have a certain question concerning your product you need to answer. Ideally, you’ll be testing iteratively as well which means running multiple smaller tests in order to solve one part of a problem in one research cycle and turn your insights into actions quickly. That way you can change directions in the development process as well as your research process quickly based on your results if you need to.

When setting the goals for your research cycle you should still keep the whole project and its goals in mind. The individual pieces of knowledge gained during every research cycle will, in the end, contribute to the bigger picture. Since your research process will become iterative you can also answer questions that were left unanswered after one cycle during the following cycle.

So far the focus has been on shifting your qualitative research in a more agile direction assuming you already do qualitative research. If your background is a more quantitative one where you’re used to running surveys to gain quantitative data quickly try the following: focus on running small experiments or usability tests instead of large surveys, switch from questions with a given set of possible answers to unstructured discussions, discover more about users’ reasoning instead of quantifying them, try to find out more about the how and why instead of the what and how many, switch from providing stakeholders with information to collaborative evaluation and discussion of your results’ implications.

When to use agile qualitative research

Agile qualitative research is especially useful if you need to answer smaller questions quickly when you’re trying to iterate a product. If you make use of agile principles for instant reporting and collaborative evaluation, it will drive quick, informed, user-centric decision making with a lower risk of making wrong decisions. You should already have tested what works and doesn’t work for your product after all. Compared to traditional user research this means that decisions and insights will be implemnted more quickly.

When deciding whether to run research the agile way or not, you should keep in mind that you won’t be able to answer “the big research questions” or get a look at the bigger picture with one research cycle. Instead, every iteration will focus on the most important ideas and solve the most painful problems your users may have. However, if you combine all insights you gained after a number of research sprints you will be able to piece together a holistic overview.

As stated above, agile qualitative research is especially useful if you want to answer a certain (small) question. As a consequence, it’s not really possible suited to discover the field within one cycle. This means you won’t be able to start building a product from scratch without conducting some more extensive form of research and getting a good general idea of your target group and their needs. Agile gives you speed and flexibility that can be applied to qualitative research but it won’t give you insights that are quite as deep ar as detailed as the ones gained with traditional qualitative research.

If you want to maximize the benefits of agile research you should not only try to make the process as flexible as possible but also use its results in the most flexible way possible. Use different pieces of knowledge or insights you gain to build a flexible pool of insights you can use to answer various questions that may pop up in the product development process. That way you will not only work with agile development and research but also with agile results.

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About The Author

Anne is interested in all topics around user research, user testing, as well as usability and UX.

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