Illustration by Kyle Webster
As more and more companies prioritize creating user-focused products, product teams rely on user research to inform and validate design decisions. User research brings users into the heart of the design process by helping product teams craft a strategy that ensures that a built product fits users’ needs.
The very first stage of user research is planning, when you decide which research methodologies to use. In this article, we will focus on qualitative user research and how to use it to inform product design decisions.
What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?
All user research methods can be divided into quantitative and qualitative methods. In quantitative methods, the researcher measures user behavior in a way that can be quantified, evaluated according to “how many, how often, or how much” questions. Quantitative research can simplify the decision-making process. For example, using results from A/B testing, you can say which version of a landing page works better in terms of conversion.
Qualitative research focuses on the quality or meaning of an end-user’s experience. Qualitative UX research methods collect an in-depth understanding of individual users. In essence, they are focused on understanding the nature of human experience (e.g., Why do users do what they do? What motivates users to complete a particular task?).
If quantitative answers the “What?” then qualitative answers the “Why?” Unlike quantitative data, which can be easily represented in numbers, qualitative data can be collected but not necessarily measured. The results of qualitative research are usually not expressed numerically, but rather as observations that genuinely represent a user’s perspective on their experience.
When to perform qualitative research
The whole product design process can be divided into a few phases—exploration, ideation, creation, and validation. Qualitative user research can benefit all stages of the product design process. Still, it is especially valuable at the beginning of the design process (exploration, ideation, and creation) because it can help you focus on your users and understand what is valuable to them and why. This information will help you better evaluate your design solutions.
Qualitative UX research methods
Qualitative methods are focused on analyzing individual user experience. One thing that many qualitative research methods have in common is that they use a conversation with test participants as a primary tool for getting insights about user behavior. Popular qualitative methods include:
- Interviews. A researcher meets with study participants one-on-one to discuss topics around a product.
- Ethnographic field studies. Researchers meet with test participants in their own natural context (an environment where they would most likely encounter the product), observe how users interact with a product, and ask related questions.
- Diary studies. Test participants are given a mechanism to record and describe aspects of their lives that are relevant to a product. The diary can be physical or online. Typically, test participants document their activities over a prolonged period of time.
- Focus groups. Focus groups are groups of three to 10 participants that gather together in one room to discuss a specific topic (or set of topics). Focus groups are led by a researcher who is present during the session to lead the conversation.
- Moderated usability testing. During usability testing, participants are given tasks to complete, and the moderator tracks the participants’ progress. Moderators observe user interactions with a product and can dig deeper into points of interest.
- Card sorting. Card sorting asks test participants to organize content items into groups. Researchers can provide existing categories and ask test participants to categorize the content into those groupings, or participants can create their own groups.
- Participatory design. Test participants are asked to create their ideal experience using a pen and paper or a prototyping tool. By analyzing the design that test participants created, it becomes easier for UX researchers to understand what matters to them most and why.
No matter what qualitative UX research method you choose to use, a researcher will have to talk with test participants and note their experience. In many cases, researchers don’t have to know precisely what questions make the most sense to ask; they only need to know the areas of interest (e.g., learn why users face problems on certain parts of the user journey). It’s essential to be open minded, ready to explore, and willing to learn from your test participants.
Quantitative vs. qualitative: Which to choose?
Is qualitative user research more valuable than quantitative research? The answer is no. As was mentioned above, quantitative and qualitative research have different qualities and serve different purposes; they often should be used in tandem to provide reliable results. The goal of qualitative research is to understand and describe the meaning of user experience. Quantitative research, on the other hand, is more focused on validating design hypotheses.
Let’s suppose you’re testing how users complete purchases on your ecommerce website. With quantitative research methods, you can say how many people face problems during the product purchase but often can’t say why they experience this problem. Qualitative research can answer not only why users experience the problem, but also how to fix an issue. The following chart illustrates when you should use each type of method in your research:
Best practices for qualitative research
Now that you know the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative research, it’s time for some practical tips on how to conduct it properly:
Be clear about your goals
Even before you start user research, you need to ask yourself why you are running the study: What goal are you trying to achieve? What are you trying to improve? These questions will help you to identify key research goals and form your research question. For example, if you run an ecommerce website, you might want to know why your checkout abandonment is so high.
In most cases, it’s easier to start with a set of questions that you want to explore, prioritize them according to severity, and select the most important topics for your research. This approach will help you to pinpoint a qualitative research method that will serve your needs.
Recruit relevant test participants
It’s essential to recruit participants who match your target audience. If you skip this rule and hire people who are not truly representative of the whole user base, you can end up with unreliable research findings. Thus, invest in creating user personas and evaluate your candidates accordingly. The good news is that qualitative (qual) testing involves a small number of participants. A qualitative study with five test participants is likely to uncover 85% of the usability problems in a design.
Choose the research method that best fits your research topic
Different user research methods have different purposes. Generally, it’s possible to subdivide qualitative methods into attitudinal and behavioral research.
- Attitudinal research. This research is based on the self-reported information from test participants (what people say). The interview and focus groups are attitudinal methodologies. These methods are best suited for reflecting the participants’ memories and opinions about the interaction with a product. Researchers can get all this information by asking users directly for feedback about their experience. For example, the user interview can help you gather user opinions and expectations about your product.
- Behavioral research. This research is based on direct observation of test participants (what people do). Moderated usability testing is a behavioral methodology. The moderator observes how test participants interact with the user interface during a usability test and, based on that observation, the moderator makes a conclusion about user behavior. The behavioral analysis helps the product team understand what people really do with and where they get stuck while using your product.
Attitudinal and behavioral research methods complement each other, which is why they are commonly used together during qualitative research.
See how users interact with a product in their environment
It’s recommended to perform research in the context of how a test participant normally would use your product so you can see how your product fits into their real life. This additional information will help you understand the constraints that users have in their environment and create better design solutions for your users.
Use think-aloud protocol
Think-aloud protocol is asking research participants to express their thoughts out loud while they interact with a product. This protocol helps the researcher understand the rationale behind individual user actions. It also creates an opportunity for the researcher to ask further questions to clarify behavior while the participant is walking through their tasks.
Do not influence test participants during the research process
Influencing test participants while running a study is one of the critical mistakes that many researchers make. When this happens, researchers make user search results less reliable. Thus, even when you, as a researcher, have a personal opinion about something, do not tell that to the test participant. Strive to make your research represent the participants’ perspectives as much as possible.
Here are three rules to follow:
- Do ask open and explorative questions. Follow up with questions such as multiple “Why?” questions to clarify user behavior.
- Don’t interrupt test participants. Let them speak as long as they want.
- Don’t put words in the participant’s mouth. Don’t ask leading questions (such as “Why do you think this product design is great?”).
Systematize your research result analysis
People have a tendency to misinterpret things, and researchers are no exception. When you analyze the user research data, don’t just search for the results that you expected to get at the beginning of the research. Instead, try to focus on the things that contradict your expectations. This will help you prevent overlooking problems that you did not expect. Remember, if you are not open to the participant’s point of view, there is no reason to carry out the qualitative user research in the first place.
Here are a few things to remember when ensuring that the interpretation of data is valid:
- Practice peer debriefing. Peer debriefing is inviting other people in results analysis. Another person might have a different perspective, and this will help you analyze your data. Simply share your analysis with other people to see if they have any comments or objections to your findings.
- Ensure that you have enough data. Do not draw conclusions based on isolated or limited data. Ensure that you have sufficient details about the user experience.
- Use triangulation. Triangulation is a technique of using multiple data sources to build a complete picture of user interaction with a product. Use multiple qualitative methods to assess the user interactions.
- Practice member checking. Validate your interpretation of data by presenting your findings to the original test participants. Test participants will tell you whether they believe your assumptions are valid or invalid.
Qualitative user research is a powerful method of studying people using your product. It focuses on personal perceptions of the world and the experiences in it. To get the most out of qualitative research, you need to consider your design objectives and select the method that better fits your goal.