Mar 06, 2023
6 min read
Qualitative research methods are essential in UX research. We'd lack context or insights into the users' experiences without them. Check out exactly what they are and how we use them!
What is qualitative research?
Qualitative research refers to research methods that collect information about people's views, experiences, and behaviours. They gather non-numerical data, such as observations, interviews, and focus groups, that are later analysed to see if there are any common themes and patterns.
Qualitative research methods are used in various fields, including sociology, psychology, anthropology, and marketing. We also use it in UX research to deepen our understanding of the users and see what motivates them, how they behave, what their goals are, and why (you can find more about UX research and its methods in the article "What is UX research – a guide for UX researchers").
What are qualitative research methods?
Qualitative research methods involve in-depth interviews, focus groups, observations, and content analysis. And there are plenty more, such as ethnography and case studies. Still, we'd like to give you a more detailed introduction to those we usually use while conducting UX research.
During an in-depth interview, a researcher has a semi-structured conversation with the participants to understand their perspective on a specific topic. Researchers gather detailed, rich data about a person's thoughts, opinions, and experiences on the subject (in UX, usually on a digital product and its features). The interview's flexibility allows them to ask questions and follow up on more interesting or unexpected responses. In-depth interviews offer high-quality data that would be difficult to obtain otherwise.
Researchers organise focus groups to get feedback and opinions from multiple participants simultaneously and how those opinions change through group dynamics. Focus groups can be described as group discussions where researchers act as moderators to keep the conversation on track. This research method provides insights not only into what participants may think of something (e.g. an application) as separate individuals but also into how other people can potentially affect their opinions.
Observations are fairly self-explanatory: researchers observe the participants when they perform a task. In UX, this usually means watching how users interact with a product or a service. Observations aim to provide insights into how people behave in their natural environment so that the researchers can understand better how a person would act if they had naturally come across having to perform a certain task (or in terms of UX, a digital product). UX researchers usually make notes during the observations and look for patterns that could help determine potential pain points in the product. Observations are an excellent way for researchers to see how a person would behave in their natural environment.
Content analysis refers to analysing large quantities of qualitative data like texts, images, or videos. In UX, the content analysis focuses on user-generated content. Researchers look closely at customer reviews or social media posts to gain insights into user behaviour and attitudes. A significant advantage is that the analysed data wasn't prompted by a researcher but given by a user out of their own volition; however, it's time-consuming and requires a lot of planning.
Advantages of qualitative research
Qualitative research methods – as quantitative research methods – have their advantages and disadvantages. What definitely speaks in favour of qualitative research is the in-depth understanding it offers. In qualitative research, participants are not just numbers and variables; their perspective matters. Researchers focus on collecting and interpreting their opinions, experiences, and behaviours. Since qualitative research is based on non-numerical data collection, qualitative research methods are the best choice to explore complex and subjective topics that quantitative research methods simply can't examine.
Qualitative research methods also allow for more flexibility. Researchers can adapt qualitative research methods to the needs of their study or the questions it proposes. For example, if a researcher prepares questions for interviews and focus groups, they can modify the questions as they need or change data collection methods altogether after collecting the participants' answers.
Qualitative research methods also tend to be more participant-centred. In qualitative research, the degree of control participants have is certainly bigger than in quantitative research methods. The feeling of control and collaborative nature of the research environment can very well lead to more honest responses and, therefore, higher quality of the results.
A researcher can also decide to choose qualitative research when they look to gather rich and detailed data. After all, human experiences, feelings, or perspectives are rarely simple and straightforward. Human life is complex, and how people experience it can only be touched upon with qualitative research methods. The data collection and analysis in qualitative research lead to more nuanced findings that show the richness of people's experiences. This is something you won't find in quantitative research.
Finally, qualitative research methods are great for exploratory research. When a research team is stuck or simply needs to determine new questions and subjects, qualitative research can help with that. It's perfect for exploration: it can generate new ideas and provide insights that can inform the direction of future research on the topic.
Disadvantages of qualitative research
As was mentioned, nothing ever is just beneficial, and qualitative research also has its negative side. The first one that comes to mind is subjectivity and the potential for research bias. Due to the nature of the data, qualitative research methods are more subjective. A researcher's bias or own opinions can easily find their way to the data collection and analysis. Even the most self-aware researchers have to take appropriate measures to minimise the influence of their biases and preconceptions on data collection and analysis.
Another disadvantage of qualitative research is its limited generalisability. Qualitative research methods usually involve a small sample size, and a sample size like that isn't enough to be representative of the whole population. And if it can't be generalised for the population, then it's hard to draw broader conclusions from the results.
Qualitative research methods are also time-consuming. Any data collection in qualitative research methods takes time; interviews, focus groups, and observations usually take a while. However, large-scale studies or data collection on a tight deadline is almost impossible because of that.
Researchers also face difficulties in data analysis in qualitative research. The analysis of qualitative data can be a long and arduous process. Researchers have to use specialised techniques to identify patterns and themes in data; it's again time-consuming and requires a lot of expertise.
Qualitative research process
How to properly conduct qualitative research? The answer depends mostly on what you need to know or wish to explore, but we chose some steps without which you couldn't deliver quality results.
1. Define your research question
The most important part of any study is determining what questions you want to be answered and what subject you want to focus on. It will help you narrow the area you devote your research to and create a clear research plan.
2. Choose your research method
As was mentioned, there's plenty to choose from; qualitative research methods include interviews, focus groups, observations, and content analysis. Choose the data collection method whose results can answer your research questions.
3. Recruit participants
You can skip this step if you choose a method that doesn't require participants. However, most qualitative research methods call for participant recruitment. Start by determining who your target population is, then recruit participants from it for your study. Remember to choose people who can give meaningful insights. You can directly contact the people you want to recruit or use a sampling method to select a representative sample from a larger population. You can use social media, online surveys, or even word-of-mouth for recruitment.
4. Collect data
Once you've chosen the data collection method and recruited participants, you can start data collection. Depending on the chosen method, this is where you have interviews with your participants, conduct focus groups, observe behaviour, or collect user-generated content.
If you've chosen interviews or focus groups, remember that taking notes or recording the meeting (in audio or video format) might be helpful.
5. Analyse the data
Data analysis should be performed systematically and in a rigorous way. You can use various techniques, including coding, categorising, and finding patterns. However, a researcher usually combines them all: they start with a coding process, identify crucial concept, patterns, and themes, and then categorises the data accordingly.
6. Interpret data and draw conclusions
After data collection and analysis, a researcher starts interpreting the data by drawing conclusions and establishing what insights they've found. Any conclusions or insights should be clear, relevant to the study's subject, and data-driven.
7. Report the findings
A crucial step in qualitative research is properly communicating what has been found. This can be done in many ways: by writing up a report, giving a presentation, or preparing other materials suitable for the people involved. Truthfully, it's less about the format and more about how you convey it. Regardless of how a researcher chooses to tell about their results, the findings should always be presented clearly and in an accessible way.
Those seven steps – defining a research question, choosing a research method, recruiting participants, data collection and analysis, data interpretation, and reporting the results – are a part of every qualitative research process in one shape or the other. Well-seasoned researchers go through them every time. However, it's important to keep in mind that the process can change, be split into smaller steps, or even go back to a stage after completing another. The best, most reliable results can only be achieved if the process serves the researchers, not the other way around.
How to report qualitative research?
As was mentioned: the key is to communicate the research findings clearly and in a way that allows the audience to understand what they're reading or listening to.
Begin with an introduction. Explain why and how you decided on the research question and give some background information on the subject. It will provide your audience with the context for your study and help them understand why it's important.
Describe your research method. Try to give as many details about your research method as possible. Don't forget to mention your sample size and the technique you used for data analysis to show your audience how you conducted your research and analysed gathered data.
Show your results and findings. Present the audience with your results and explain how they answer the research questions. Make sure your audience understands how you drew your conclusions and what your findings mean.
Give examples. Don't just show your results. Use examples from collected data to demonstrate your findings. You can do this by presenting quotes, narratives or data excerpts. It will help your audience follow the patterns and themes you found.
Discuss the implications of your research. You should thoroughly explain how your findings can affect the design of a digital product or service. Don't let your study's limitations slip from your memory either; you should inform your audience about both implications and limitations.
Top it off with a summary. Whether you present your findings in person or in writing, a good summary is crucial to reporting your research. A synopsis of your findings and their implications will help your audience remember the key points of your research and your entire study in general.
One last piece of advice on reporting qualitative research: do it in a clear and organised way. Organise the content and use headings and subheadings if it's a written report. Make sure it's not cluttered but straight and to the point if it's a presentation.
How to combine qualitative and quantitative research?
You'll often find people putting qualitative and quantitative research methods or data against each other to see which is better. The trick is abandoning this versus that approach and combining both methods. This way, you'll get both the numerical (quantitative) data and their context (qualitative data). No reason to choose one when you can get the best of both worlds!
How to combine qualitative and quantitative research? The process is fairly similar to any other research process, but it definitely takes more work and effort.
Research design development
Start by formulating a research question that can be answered using both qualitative and quantitative methods. Establish which qualitative and quantitative data collection methods you want to use.
With research questions in place and methods chosen, you can develop a research design. Outline your questions, the study's purpose, data collection methods, and data integration methods.
Collect data through both quantitative and qualitative research methods.
The data you collected from quantitative methods, such as surveys, experiments, or other standardised instruments, will provide the data you can analyse statistically. Qualitative research will give you in-depth data to contextualise your statistics.
Data analysis and integration
When you analyse data, analyse both sets, qualitative and quantitative, separately using the proper methods for each type. After data analysis is done, integrate the data. Determine what patterns and relationships appear between qualitative and quantitative data. Try comparing and contrasting them and search for similarities or differences between data sets.
We covered that thoroughly already – be clear and precise when you report your findings, and ensure everyone understands what you're trying to convey. Don't shy away from visualisations – take advantage of charts, tables, and graphics to make your results easier to understand.
As a seasoned researcher, I recommend the combination. While quantitative data can be generalised for a larger population, qualitative data gives you the context and more detailed insights into the individuals and their experiences. Together, they provide a comprehensive perspective and understanding of your research question.
What is qualitative research?
Qualitative research focuses on non-numerical data: people's views, experiences, and behaviours. Qualitative research methods include observations, interviews, and focus groups. In UX, qualitative research is used to understand why users do what they do, what motivates them, how they behave, and what their goals are.
What are 5 examples of qualitative research?
- Interviews – when a researcher has a conversation with one or many participants to gain insights into their experiences, opinions, and beliefs.
- Focus groups – when a researcher conducts a discussion within a small participant group to explore a specific subject.
- Observations – when a researcher observes one or many participants in their natural environment to understand their behaviour better.
- Content analysis – when a researcher performs analysis of different types of content (e.g. text, media) to establish patterns and themes related to a certain subject or question.
- Case studies – when a researcher investigates one participant, participant group, or organisation to understand a certain issue better.
What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?
Qualitative and quantitative research are two completely distinct approaches that differ in the following:
- Data collection: qualitative research collects non-numerical data (words, images, observations), and quantitative research collect numerical data;
- Sample size: due to the different nature of qualitative and quantitative research methods, qualitative research usually covers a small sample size, while quantitative research reacher much larger samples needed to generalise the findings for the general population;
- Research question: qualitative research questions are often more exploratory, trying to understand the context, and quantitative research questions are often formed as hypotheses;
- Data analysis: qualitative data uses coding and theme analysis to establish patterns and themes in collected data. In contrast, quantitative research uses statistics to analyse the data.
All those differences stem from their different purposes. Qualitative research aims to explore a particular subject and provide an understanding of the participants' context and experiences. In turn, quantitative research's purpose is to test hypotheses and find relationships between variables.