Why Do Qualitative User Research?

by | Feb 13, 2019 | General

 | 5 min read

Pisture of some diagramms (pie chart and balk graphs)

User research often has a quantitative character. This may have the reason that UX and usability researchers often work in tech-related fields. Most of the professionals, therefore, have a technical background since it’s more common to switch careers than to start out as a UX researcher. But why do they prefer quantitative user research over qualitative research?

Quantitative research is usually considered more valuable (especially by external stakeholders and higher-ups who tend to think in numbers). So why even do qualitative user research?

Qualitative and quantitative research methods can work together well. If you employ them at the right moment, quantitative research will answer “how” and qualitative research will answer “why”.

Qualitative vs. quantitative research

Quantitative research

Surveys or the evaluation of analytics data are quantitative research methods that try to quantify and statistically analyze the given data. It can also measure user behavior in numbers and make conclusions accordingly.

The goal is to make opinions and behaviors statistically measurable and make assumptions that apply to all or most of your users based on the number of participants.

Qualitative research

Qualitative methods such as qualitative interviews, field studies, or usability tests have a more explanatory character. They don’t try to predict what happens when with what probability but are used to gain a deeper understanding of users’ feelings, motivations, and experiences.

Qualitative research also accepts that its results are not always completely objective or reproducible. It doesn’t try to reach representative results by questioning a certain number of appropriate participants. But it’s focused on individual user’s actions and tries to understand their reasoning.

Because of their explorative character, qualitative methods are especially valuable at the beginning of your research process when you don’t have a lot of information about your user group or the topic of research.

Benefits of conducting qualitative research

User interviews aren’t usually structured as rigidly as questionnaires. As a consequence, the researcher can keep an open mind and react to surprising user behavior or unexpected answers. This can be done by asking follow-up questions.

Questions, that deepen or further follow a certain topic the participant might mention during the interview. Another possibility is to circle back to a previous topic and ask for more detail if the participant mentions something especially interesting. You can also be open to all kinds of answers and gain knowledge from everything that has been said.

All of these options are impossible during quantitative research. It often restricts the ways in which participants can answer. If you want to get valuable insights you still need to work methodical and structured while doing qualitative research.

Openness in qualitative UX research

The aim of interviews and related methods is to collect data about your users’ reality while using your product. That means e.g. experiences, feelings, and opinions. But try to eliminate the researcher’s influence and bias as much as possible.

Qualitative research values openness highly. Researchers need to let go of their previous experiences and knowledge. They also need to be aware of any biases they might have and cognitive heuristics they use to see things from the participants’ perspective. It enables researchers to capture users’ opinions and experiences as closely as possible.

This principle of openness includes really exploring your results when evaluating data. Not simply searching for validation for assumptions you had before. Similarly, you shouldn’t ask leading questions or push participants into a certain direction that doesn’t represent their point of view.

When conducting user tests, keep an open mind and look for interesting occurrences in the user’s behavior, even if you already know about certain problems in your interface before.

Stay objective

On top of this principle of openness, qualitative research also relies on inter-rater objectivity.

If you interpret user statements in a certain way, other qualitative researchers should interpret them in the same way or at least very similar. Let other team members take a look at your results and compare your findings and interpretations to make sure you agree. During the interview, if you notice something a participant says can be interpreted in multiple ways, make sure to ask appropriate follow-up questions.

Running qualitative research

Preparing and running interviews, qualitative usability tests, and focus groups require a different skillset than quantitative research methods. The main thing you need to do is to focus on why users act in a certain way. Try to focus less on the question of what they do when.

This means you need to 

  • be honestly interested in why users behave in the way they do (thoughts, feelings) while they interact with your product
  • have a feeling for the right questions at the right time
  • observe, analyze, and interpret nuances in human behavior
  • listen to what people say, analyze it at once and come up with a fitting question

Technical basics for qualitative user research

There’s also quite a bit of planning involved: You need to plan appropriate questions and a way to collect your data (audio/video recordings, taking notes, …) beforehand.

While you don’t usually structure your interviews in detail, you should try to think of four to eight wide research topics you want to cover and maybe break them down into smaller topics. Finally, you need to choose an appropriate research method based on the questions you defined.

Possibilities include:

  1. In-depth/one-on-one interview: You conduct a one-on-one interview with a user to analyze their individual experiences. This method provides you with in-depth insights into participants’ views.
  2. Focus group: Multiple users take part in a moderated group discussion. It’s directed or lead either by you or by a briefed moderator. Focus groups and emerging discussions provide a wide range of views. It will help you understand common issues/problems.
  3. Usability study: Participants are asked to complete certain tasks on your website or using your product while you observe their behavior. This method is suitable to test particular functionalities of a product and less fit to gain a broad understanding of a topic.

Thoroughly analyze your qualitative research results

Apart from whether you chose to gather data using quantitative or qualitative methods, you still need to analyze it in an appropriate way. Using qualitative methods this entails the following: Even if you feel like you have a pretty good understanding of the results of your interview, you should still analyze them properly. This ensures that you don’t overlook results or are led to much by your own assumptions. Look for themes within data sets.

Did one participant mention something frequently? What needs or problems came to light more often than once during the interview? You can also try to find patterns across individuals: Did multiple or even all of your participants mention the same thing or make the same mistake?

These questions can most easily be answered by defining categories based on the data you have gathered and tagging statements made by users.

The traditional way to do this would be to print out transcripts of your data and use color markers to mark everything that fits into one category accordingly. Been there, done that. With consider.ly we’ve built a tool to assist you in tagging your user research data and to help you spot patterns. 

consider.ly is a fast-growing tool for quali­tative data analysis and UX research repository.

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Mara Weingardt

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