5 Reasons to Perform a Qualitative Study

Jeff Sauro, PhD

While we’re known in the industry as a quantitative research firm, much of the research we do is actually a mixed-methods approach.

That is, we mix both quantitative and qualitative methods to provide a comprehensive picture of the user experience.

Such an approach answers “why” and “how much,” among other things; answers difficult to get with a quantitative study alone.

We like quantitative approaches, which includes surveys, large scale unmoderated benchmarks, and prioritization methods such as conjoint analysis. However, there are times when a qualitative approach is a better fit for the research needs and questions. Here are five reasons to perform a qualitative study:

  1. Exploration: When something isn’t well defined, qualitative methods are helpful. For example, you can explore in a qualitative study the problems customers encounter, the needs users have and can’t articulate, or misunderstandings customers have in finding information or using a product.
  2. Complexity: While complicated problems can be quantified, when you need to describe the complexity and subtlety of how users interact with a product or accomplish goals, qualitative research can distill the complexity into more manageable parts.
  3. Context: Understanding the context and environment a user is in provides for better product direction. What are the products, places, people, and challenges customers deal with when accomplishing their goals? Some of the richest qualitative data isn’t collected in a contrived lab; it comes from observing and collecting data in person.
  4. Explanation: When you need to explain linkages or mechanisms that cause things, a qualitative method can be fruitful. For example, when you want to know why people aren’t paying their bills via the mobile app or calling customer support because of an error, hearing customers’ own words help form theories and establish a testable hypothesis.
  5. Measures don’t fit the problem well: While there are good ways of measuring usability, many interactions can be hard to quantify. Observing users as they struggle to accomplish a goal and probing on the source of the problems helps define what ultimately needs to be measured. It’s not very helpful to precisely measure the wrong thing. Qualitative data  helps uncover the right things to measure.

Qualitative research isn’t an excuse to be sloppy, avoid using numbers, or justify your opinions. It should be rigorous like quantitative research. Qualitative research in fact has an equivalent to the quantitative concepts of reliability and validity (for example, having different evaluators code observations independently). For more information on qualitative data collection, see Creswell 2012, from where this information was derived.

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