Qualitative research is the collection of non-numerical insights. Subjects are studied in their natural setting to uncover insights about their opinions, emotions, and motivation regarding a certain situation or action. While this natural setting is usually observed by researchers who visit their participants in their given situation, this isn’t always possible when conducting qualitative user research.
Usability tests and user research, in general, is often conducted in a UX lab or at some meeting room or other space in the company’s building. However, researchers often try to mimic the natural setting of their product as closely as possible by making the UX lab look like a living room or office setting.
Qualitative research is also not as objective as quantitative research. in order to evaluate the data as thoroughly as possible, researchers usually need to interpret what the participants are saying. Because of this, researchers need to be conscious of their own opinions, positions, and biases. While we already dedicated another post on this blog to biases, this also means that you need to recognize that humans often only see what their background allows them to see. Researchers who already have a strong theory of what will happen may only see behavior that fits this theory. Always be self-reflected, keep your background in mind and try to work against your biases.
Contrary to quantitative research, qualitative research isn’t necessarily about what is actually a fact but about what the people being interviewed or observed believe to be true. This also leads to a certain point of view that researchers need to adopt when interpreting the raw data: they should aim to interpret the things they discover in terms of the meanings that the people being observed bring to them. This means, in the end, your goal is to figure out how your users think things work and why they do things in the way they do them.
As a result, qualitative research gives you the “why” to your quantitative research’s “what”. This means you don’t have to figure out certain patterns in your quantitative data but can try to let your users answer the question of why they behave the way they do. If they aren’t able to directly answer this question, you can watch them complete a certain task and try to interpret their actions. That way you don’t have to make up your own narrative for your analytics data but can base your decisions on facts.
Defining your Field of Research
As you may have gathered from the fact that qualitative researchers try to view reality from the viewpoint of their subjects: qualitative user research can get very complex very quickly. In order to make your research field less complex and more defined, it’s necessary to formulate appropriate research questions. Your research question should deal with a problem you have, When planning and conducting your research, only take a deeper look at this issue so you don’t get sidetracked. Getting sucked into a different path of research might be interesting but ultimately won’t get you very far.
Research questions serve to narrow the purpose of your research. Therefore formulating a good research question is one of the key steps for your research process as they will be the main influence on your research’s direction. Questions should be neither too broad, nor too narrow. You also have to be able to examine your question by conducting interviews or watching people interact with your product. Depending on your research question acquiring participants or gaining access to the research field can be harder or easier. This shouldn’t usually pose a problem in user research as you will generally be able to recruit participants from your user base.
Usually, every kind of (academic) research starts with consulting related literature or previous research done in your field. In academic research, this means paying the library a visit or reviewing journals. The user research equivalent of doing this would be taking a look at your teams or even better your company’s existing user-related or UX research data. This can be helpful for defining the goal of your research and formulating appropriate questions as well.
Asking the right questions
Formulating questions for qualitative research is not as easy as it seems. And while we’ve written before, that it makes participants more comfortable if you treat the user interview more like a conversation, you still need to think about the questions you’re going to ask to get said conversation started and keep it moving in the right direction. The questions you ask are extremely important for your research process.
The first step to good questions to ask your participants is to really think about what you want to get out of your interview so you don’t accidentally miss the point. Start by defining themes you want to discover information about. (E.g. “How do people behave when they try to contact a company?”). Having done this you can start to break your themes down into questions you need answers to, to find out more about your themes.
Try to make your questions as specific as possible to avoid broad, generic answers that won’t get you very far. Also try to keep the outcome of your question open by using words such as “How”, “What”, “Describe”, and “Outline”. Avoid asking questions that start with “Why” as this implies cause and effect. Even if there is, in fact, a reason for certain behavior, users might not be conscious of it. Asking a “Why” question puts pressure in them to come up with a specific reason for their behavior. A better way to inquire about motives for certain kinds of behavior is “Describe how you did X.” or “Walk me through your way of doing Y.”.
Other questions to avoid are questions that can be answered in one short sentence or–even worse–with a simple yes or no. You should also avoid asking questions that influence the answer in any way: even if you already have an idea of what the answer to your question might be, let your participants answer as freely as possible. For example don’t ask “How motivated were you when you did Z?” as this implies that the user was, in fact, motivated. Instead, try “What was your experience with doing Z like?”
One thing to also keep in mind is that generally asking users about their behavior isn’t as ideal as watching them in action. If you absolutely have to ask questions about their behavior, ask about an event or moment in the past to help them remember how they did a certain thing. Always give participants enough room to answer in any way they would like to. If you’re unsure whether you understood your user’s feedback correctly, paraphrase what you heard and repeat it for them to confirm your assumption or correct you if necessary. Also try to pay attention to non-verbal cues such as facial expression, the tone of voice and their posture.
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