May 31

How to pose questions for user research

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. This natural setting is observed by researchers who visit their participants in their given situation. But this isn’t always possible when conducting qualitative user research. It’s all about asking the right questions in qualitative research.

Qualitative research conditions

Usability tests and user research, in general, are often conducted in a UX lab or in some meeting room. However, researchers often try to mimic the natural setting of their product as closely as possible. E.g. by making the UX lab look like a living room or office setting.

Qualitative research is also not as objective as quantitative research. 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. Read more about bias on another post on this blog.  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.

Qualitative research aims to figure out what your users' reality looks like.
Qualitative research aims to figure out what your users' reality looks like.

How your users think

Contrary to quantitative research, qualitative research isn’t necessarily about what is a fact. It’s 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 you 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. 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. One of the key steps for your research process: formulating a good research question. It 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 help define the goal of your research and formulating appropriate questions as well.

Asking the right questions in qualitative research

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 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?”).  Then you can start to break your themes down into questions you need answers to, to find out more about your themes.

Photo by Matthew Henry

Tips how to ask questions in qualitative research

  • Try to make your questions as specific as possible
  • Avoid broad, generic answers
  • Also try to keep the outcome of your question open
    e.g. “How”, “What”, “Describe”, and “Outline”
  • Avoid asking questions that start with “Why” (puts pressure in them)
  • Better: “Describe how you did X.” or “Walk me through your way of doing Y.”
  • Avoid questions that can be answered in one short sentence or with a simple yes or no
  • Avoid asking questions that influence the answer in any way. (“How motivated were you when you did Z?” as this implies that the user was motivated.
    Instead, try “What was your experience with doing Z like?”)

Extra Tip: Watch them in action! If you have to ask questions about their behavior, ask about an event or moment in the past. It helps 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 understand your user’s feedback correctly, paraphrase what you heard. 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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About The Author

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

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