A Primer On Conducting Qualitative Research

Jeff Sauro, PhD

While our company, MeasuringU, is generally known for quantitative analysis (we wrote the book), we also have no problem using and recommending qualitative research when it’s appropriate.

In fact, we believe in a mixed-methods approach to addressing UX research needs.

It’s not Qual OR Quant but Qual AND Quant.

Here are five points to help you approach and more successfully conduct qualitative research:

1. Decide whether you need a qualitative study.

Consider these reasons when deciding whether your current research needs should involve a qualitative component:

  • Explore: When something isn’t well defined, such as problems customers encounter when using products.
  • Describe complexity: Qualitative research can distill the complexity into manageable parts.
  • Understand the context: Understanding the context and environment a user is in provides for better product direction. Some of the most informative insights can come from observing users.
  • Explain: When you need to explain linkages or mechanisms that cause things (such as usage or purchases).
  • Measures don’t fit the problem well: While there are at least 32 ways to measure the customer experience, many interactions can be hard to quantify. Qualitative data also helps uncover the right things to measure.

2. Choose the right qualitative method for your research goals.

While qualitative methods have a lot in common, different methods address your questions better than others. Consider these five popular qualitative methods:

  1. Ethnography: Involved immersion in a participant’s environment to understand the goals, cultures, challenges, motivations, and themes that emerge (a lot of observing).
  2. Narrative: Conduct in-depth interviews with usually one or two individuals to form a cohesive story.
  3. Phenomenological Study: Using interviews, documents, videos, or visiting places and events to understand the meaning participants place on whatever is being examined. You rely on participants’ perspectives to provide insight into their motivations.
  4. Grounded Theory: Using primarily interviews and existing documents to build a theory to explain events.
  5. Case Study: Gain a deep understanding of an organization, event, or group through interviews, documents, reports, and observations. Case studies can be explanatory, exploratory, or describing of an event.

3. Follow through for effective qualitative research.

After you decide to conduct some form of qualitative research and regardless of the methods you use, you’ll generally follow these steps to get the most from your efforts:

  1. Determine your research questions. Focus your research questions into something manageable; don’t try and accomplish everything with one study.
  2. Design the study. Determine what method you will use, who you will observe, and where and how you’ll collect the data.
  3. Collect the data. Researchers can have different levels of involvement when observing or interviewing participants. A popular role is that of the unobtrusive observer. Take copious notes and record your sessions and events if possible.
  4. Analyze the data. Create a system of codes to classify comments and behaviors into categories. Combine and separate categories as needed.
  5. Generate the findings. Turn the patterns of coded comments and behaviors into themes and insights.
  6. Validate your findings. Consider triangulating your findings by using independent evaluators, coders, or even complementary research; for example, surveys or existing data.
  7. Report any findings. Concentrate on themes that emerge and support them with quotes and the frequency of participants’ comments and behaviors that support the theme.

4. Combine qualitative and quantitative in the same study.

Especially in UX research, you’ll often need to combine qualitative findings with other quantitative research. Here are three “topologies” to help combine the two for a better picture:

  1. Explanatory Sequential Design: Start with quantitative analysis as the main focus and follow with interviews or observation (qualitative measures) to help explain the quantitative.
  2. Exploratory Sequential Design: Start with qualitative research as the emphasis and then use insights gained to frame the design and analysis of the subsequent quantitative component (such as a survey or unmoderated usability test).
  3. Convergent Parallel Design: Collect qualitative and quantitative data simultaneously and independently and then analyze the results into one set of findings.

5. Consider quantifying the qualitative data.

Coding behaviors and comments into categories is a core step in qualitative analysis. Quantifying the frequency of these categories helps you understand the prevalence and even generalizability of your qualitative findings. While it’s not always necessary in a qualitative study, it’s a good next step when using the mixed-methods approach we advocate.

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