Qualitative and quantitative research may go together like peanut butter and jelly but, as any sandwich fan knows, there are numerous nuances to consider. What kind of nut butter is being used – is it crunchy or smooth, peanuts or almonds, ready-to-use or in need of stirring? The same is true with types of research. While it’s easy enough to determine that a question or problem should be explored further with qualitative research, determining the specific type of qualitative research you'll use is an important first step.
Qualitative research balances out quantitative research. If quantitative research answers questions like “what,” “how much,” and “how many,” qualitative research answers questions like “why” and “how.” Not only are qualitative and quantitative research methods often used in combination with each other, multiple styles of qualitative methods may be combined – using interviews and deep historical research to build out a phenomenological study, for example. The key to successful research is choosing the right frameworks and methodologies to complement each other.
Understanding qualitative research
Qualitative research is a methodology that uses non-numerical data to better explore the motivations, responses, and experiences of people. This data can be obtained through techniques like interviews, observations, or open-ended surveys, and it produces insights that can, in turn, inform decisions in fields like UX research, marketing, product management, and UX design.
Qualitative research can help answer questions like:
What do target users need, specifically, when interacting with our website/product?
Why do users feel the way they do, and what do happy and unhappy users say about their experiences?
How do consumers feel about our brand, and what might strengthen our brand appeal?
What do heavy users of our application think about a dramatic visual overhaul proposed by marketing?
Characteristics of qualitative research
Before we dive into specific types of qualitative research, let’s run through some of its characteristics from a high level, to help differentiate its utility from more quantitative methods.
It’s exploratory: Qualitative research helps us better understand a phenomenon. It describes and interprets rather than quantifies. (Leave the quantifying to quantitative research.)
It’s non-numerical: Qualitative research deals with data types such as text, audio, images, and video, focusing on the variety of human experiences. While this data can be tagged and eventually quantified, that’s not its primary utility. If you want numbers, go for quantitative research.
It uses smaller sample sizes: Qualitative research uses smaller samples chosen for their relevance to the research question. The answers aren't intended to be extrapolated to the broader population, but rather used to better understand more quantitative trends in the broader population.
It’s highly contextual: Qualitative research emphasizes the importance of understanding the context in which behaviors or experiences occur. The background and context of a person’s experience matters.
It’s highly subjective: Not only are participants’ subjective experiences being collected, but researchers' own perspectives and biases must be acknowledged. The way in which you interpret nonverbal cues and ethnographic details are undeniably influenced by your own lived experiences.
It can be time-intensive: Qualitative research can be time-consuming due to the thorough data collection and analysis processes involved. More time spent working can also increase costs. For this reason, picking the right approach matters.
Types of qualitative research
One thing to reiterate about the types of research listed below is that some are high-level approaches to the research and others are methods to conduct that research. Also, many of these can be combined.
If that seems confusing, don’t let it get in the way – follow the steps for qualitative research and you’ll be fine. But just know that, say, interviews can be used to execute an ethnographic approach to qualitative research, and technically a case study could also be a type of phenomenology. All of these types listed below are just lenses to think about qualitative research.
Ethnographic research involves being immersed in participants’ natural environment over a period of time, aiming to gain a more in-depth understanding of their experiences. Taking into account cultural differences, ethnographic research provides contextually rich data about participants’ behaviors and beliefs, and can reveal unarticulated needs and pain points.
For example, a product manager working on a running app could spend several weeks working alongside users who are training for a marathon, observing daily mileage, dietary habits, and interactions with the app. This could provide insights into how marathon runners may want to utilize the app, informing future product enhancements.
Sometimes the solution to a question is already out there, waiting to be uncovered. Historical research, true to its name, involves examining historical records, documents, and artifacts to gain insights into past events, contexts, and social phenomena, providing a more longitudinal perspective.
In a UX context, historical studies can help uncover user preferences or market dynamics that have evolved over time, informing branding strategies or product design decisions.
Let’s say a UX designer working on personal budgeting software wanted to figure out how user preferences have evolved in financial software over time. They could conduct a historical study by examining the user interfaces and features of banking apps from the past decade. By tracing the evolution of these design choices, they can identify trends in user preferences, navigation patterns, and security features.
Phenomenological research explores the lived experiences of individuals. It gets its name through its interest in how people perceive and make sense of various phenomena in their lives, whether these phenomena are everyday occurrences or specific events. It provides deep insight into the subjective experiences of individuals, which can help build empathy, leading to the creation of better user personas or more user-centered products.
A UX researcher seeking to understand how to improve a project management app might first try to learn how project managers and team members experience collaboration features within existing software. Perhaps team members view these features as rote busywork while project managers love them. The UX researcher could then use these subjective experiences to create collaboration tools that better appeal to team members, increasing user satisfaction and leading to an uptick in buy-in.
Grounded studies seem like quantitative research, in that they involve the collection of raw data. However, where quantitative studies test predetermined hypotheses, grounded studies develop theories or models through the ongoing, systematic collection of data, generating new insights and theories based on observed patterns and themes. It allows for the development of new theories and models inspired by the participants’ ongoing usage, making it a flexible and iterative approach to qualitative research. The findings of a grounded study can be doubly credible because they’re based on empirical data rather than just subjective user experiences.
Imagine a UX designer working on a social media platform who is interested in understanding how users develop online relationships. Through interviews and content analysis, the designer could identify patterns of interaction and communication that lead to the development of a grounded theory about the stages of online relationship formation. This theory could then inform the design of features that facilitate these stages for users.
Narrative research centers on the collection of stories shared by individuals. It aims to understand how people construct and make sense of their experiences through storytelling. It’s similar to phenomenological research approaches, in that it emphasizes the subjective experience of individuals, but differs in where it places the emphasis. Narrative research focuses on the stories people use to make sense of their experiences, whereas phenomenological research is focused on better understanding the experiences themselves.
Narrative research is remarkably human-centered, making it a natural fit for UX research. Recurring themes and patterns in the narratives can inform user-centered design decisions.
Let’s say a marketing manager for a healthy-habit tracking app wants to collect user stories about experiences with the app. Analyzing these narratives, they may uncover common themes, like success stories or motivations. These can then inform marketing campaigns that resonate with the aspirations of the app’s users, ultimately aiding in the company’s goal of inspiring people to achieve their health goals.
Case studies take an acute approach to qualitative research, zeroing in on a specific instance to explore in greater depth. This could mean isolating an individual, a group, an organization, or an event, and exploring it intensively as a way to better understand the broader whole. By comprehensively collecting data and insights on this narrow instance, it generates findings and illustrative examples that can be directly applied to other practical scenarios.
For example, a marketing manager at an enterprise resource planning solution may wish to use a case study framework to explore the impacts of their software on a manufacturing company’s operations. By detailing the full narrative of the manufacturing company’s transition from a previous ERP platform to the new one, the marketing manager may uncover areas for improvement (like a rocky transition) as well as metrics the new platform improved (like new efficiencies in logistics).
Interviews are one of the most common methods of qualitative research, and can be used as part of almost any of the research approaches listed above. They’re just what they sound like: one-on-one conversations between a researcher and a participant.
Interviews can be conducted face-to-face or remote, and follow a structured format (in which each interviewee is asked the same set of questions), a non-structured format (in which all interviewees are asked different questions), or a semi-structured format (in which a loose structure is followed but deviations are encouraged).
Interviews provide in-depth insights and generate useful direct quotes from participants on their experiences. They’re also wildly scalable and flexible, generating insights about practically any aspect of the user experience.
For example, if a product manager for a shopping app wanted to uncover specific reasons for user churn, they could talk to users who have recently canceled their subscriptions to uncover added nuance beyond what raw data analysis might provide. They could then use these insights to address pain points and hopefully retain future users.
Focus groups are similar to interviews, but they involve interviewing small groups of participants simultaneously. These structured discussions are typically led by a moderator and aim to take advantage of the group dynamic, gathering diverse perspectives, opinions, and insights on a particular topic.
Focus groups help gather diverse perspectives on a particular topic by encouraging group interactions and discussions. They can provide immediate feedback to concepts, ideas, and product prototypes, and are particularly useful in the exploratory phase of research, identifying issues and gut reactions before conducting more extensive prototyping and testing.
For example, if a clothing outlet wanted to field test some new branding, they could gather representative users from the target audiences and encourage them to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about the proposed direction of the brand. These conversations could generate lots of quick feedback about possible tones and themes for the re-brand, which could be fed back to the marketing team for immediate iteration.
Explore qualitative research for deeper insights
Qualitative research is a vital companion to quantitative methods, offering deeper insights into user experiences and motivations. Understanding the nuances and applications of various qualitative research types can empower you to make more informed decisions.
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