5 Types of Qualitative Methods

Jeff Sauro, PhD

When we speak about a qualitative research study, it’s easy to think there is one kind.

But just as with quantitative methods, there are actually many varieties of qualitative methods.

Similar to the way you can group usability testing methods, there are also a number of ways to segment qualitative methods.

A popular and helpful categorization separate qualitative methods into five groups: ethnography, narrative, phenomenological, grounded theory, and case study. John Creswell outlines these five methods in Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design.

While the five methods generally use similar data collection techniques (observation, interviews, and reviewing text), the purpose of the study differentiates them—something similar with different types of usability tests. And like classifying different usability studies, the differences between the methods can be a bit blurry. Here are the five qualitative methods in more detail.

1. Ethnography

Ethnographic research is probably the most familiar and applicable type of qualitative method to UX professionals. In ethnography, you immerse yourself in the target participants’ environment to understand the goals, cultures, challenges, motivations, and themes that emerge. Ethnography has its roots in cultural anthropology where researchers immerse themselves within a culture, often for years! Rather than relying on interviews or surveys, you experience the environment first hand, and sometimes as a “participant observer.”

For example, one way of uncovering the unmet needs of customers is to “follow them home” and observe them as they interact with the product. You don’t come armed with any hypotheses to necessarily test; rather, you’re looking to find out how a product is used.

2. Narrative

The narrative approach weaves together a sequence of events, usually from just one or two individuals to form a cohesive story. You conduct in-depth interviews, read documents, and look for themes; in other words, how does an individual story illustrate the larger life influences that created it. Often interviews are conducted over weeks, months, or even years, but the final narrative doesn’t need to be in chronological order. Rather it can be presented as a story (or narrative) with themes, and can reconcile conflicting stories and highlight tensions and challenges which can be opportunities for innovation.

For example, a narrative approach can be an appropriate method for building a persona. While a persona should be built using a mix of methods—including segmentation analysis from surveys—in-depth interviews with individuals in an identified persona can provide the details that help describe the culture, whether it’s a person living with Multiple Sclerosis, a prospective student applying for college, or a working mom.

3. Phenomenological

When you want to describe an event, activity, or phenomenon, the aptly named phenomenological study is an appropriate qualitative method. In a phenomenological study, you use a combination of methods, such as conducting interviews, reading documents, watching videos, or visiting places and events, to understand the meaning participants place on whatever’s being examined. You rely on the participants’ own perspectives to provide insight into their motivations.

Like other qualitative methods, you don’t start with a well-formed hypothesis. In a phenomenological study, you often conduct a lot of interviews, usually between 5 and 25 for common themes, to build a sufficient dataset to look for emerging themes and to use other participants to validate your findings.

For example, there’s been an explosion in the last 5 years in online courses and training. But how do students engage with these courses? While you can examine time spent and content accessed using log data and even assess student achievement vis-a-vis in-person courses, a phenomenological study would aim to better understand the students experience and how that may impact comprehension of the material.

4. Grounded Theory

Whereas a phenomenological study looks to describe the essence of an activity or event, grounded theory looks to provide an explanation or theory behind the events. You use primarily interviews and existing documents to build a theory based on the data. You go through a series of open and axial coding techniques to identify themes and build the theory. Sample sizes are often also larger—between 20 to 60—with these studies to better establish a theory. Grounded theory can help inform design decisions by better understanding how a community of users currently use a product or perform tasks.

For example, a grounded theory study could involve understanding how software developers use portals to communicate and write code or how small retail merchants approve or decline customers for credit.

5. Case Study

Made famous by the Harvard Business School, even mainly quantitative researchers can relate to the value of the case study in explaining an organization, entity, company, or event. A case study involves a deep understanding through multiple types of data sources. Case studies can be explanatory, exploratory, or describing an event. The annual CHI conference has a peer-reviewed track dedicated to case studies.

For example, a case study of how a large multi-national company introduced UX methods into an agile development environment would be informative to many organizations.


The table below summarizes the differences between the five qualitative methods.

 Method  Focus
 Sample Size  Data Collection
Ethnography Context or culture  — Observation & interviews
 Narrative Individual experience & sequence  1 to 2 Stories from individuals & documents
 Phenomenological People who have experienced a phenomenon  5 to 25 Interviews
Grounded Theory Develop a theory grounded in field data  20 to 60 Interviews, then open and axial coding
 Case Study Organization, entity, individual, or event  — Interviews, documents, reports, observations


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