ARTICLE: Sarah Freitag

UX research methods (part II): Unlocking user insights with qualitative testing

Good product design starts with a keen understanding of your users’ needs, expectations, and goals.

But you can’t arrive at those key user insights without doing your homework. And that means user testing. Researchers regularly deploy two distinct and complementary UX research methods to gain these vital insights: quantitative and qualitative.

In this article, we’ll dig into qualitative UX research and explain what it is, why it’s important, and how your team should approach it.

First, though, it’s important to note that there is a time and a place for both quantitative and qualitative research methods. However, qualitative testing is the preferred method for UX researchers much of the time. The reason is that qualitative UX research is the key to unlocking the “why” behind what drives your users.

Here’s what you need to know to begin harnessing this incredibly valuable form of user testing.

UX Research Methods: Qualitative vs. Quantitative

The word “research” often calls to mind hard numbers and raw data. If that’s where your head went, too, you’re thinking of quantitative research methods.

Quantitative research is used to measure specific metrics in concrete ways. For example, quantitative research can tell you what percentage of users in a test setting successfully completed a specific task within a certain time. It’s helpful (if disheartening) to know if your success rate is only 40%. But this metric alone doesn’t tell you anything about what’s causing your problem or how to actually fix it.

You know you have a problem, but not what to do about it.

Qualitative research methods, by contrast, are observational and interpretive. They are all about asking users the right questions in the right way to get genuine, unbiased feedback. In addition, qualitative studies give weight to real-time observations of users as they navigate a test product, not just what they report about it.

Qualitative research strives to get at the root of user behavior, desires, preferences, and thought processes. Because of that, it yields deeper, richer insights that have the power to meaningfully shape successful products.

Though it’s sometimes disparaged as “soft science,” qualitative research is actually more broadly useful than quantitative research when it comes to usability testing and design.

Let’s look again at the same “task completion” problem identified earlier in our discussion of quantitative research. In this instance, qualitative researchers should consider employing a combination of observational research, as well as, asking users a series of questions to reveal why so many of them struggled to complete the task. With that knowledge, they could identify how exactly the workflow should be changed to reduce user difficulty.

Quantitative data is appealing because it’s tidy and easily digested. Stakeholders respond well to statistics, and concrete numbers are compelling for product teams looking to make fast, accurate, and efficient decisions.

But quantitative research doesn’t tell the full story. For that, you need qualitative research.

How to Approach Qualitative Research

Any usability testing that involves having a conversation with users is technically qualitative, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good qualitative research.

Good qualitative research not only shines light on why users fail tasks, but more importantly, whether the tasks themselves are relevant to users. Not all tasks should even be tasks. Not all features should even exist.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to get you going in the right direction.

  • Invest enough time and resources in testing. It can be tempting to skimp on user testing. Maybe you’re concerned that too much testing will bloat your budget or unnecessarily slow down your product development timeline. Or perhaps you think you already have a firm grasp of what your users want and need from your product. Make no mistake: devoting adequate resources to qualitative UX research is key to producing a successful product. If you short-change research and don’t give it the time and resources it deserves, you’re likely to end up drawing the wrong conclusions from what little knowledge you have. The good news? Effective qualitative research doesn’t have to be terribly costly or time-consuming.
  • Make sure your research methods are neutral. In order to gain truly valuable insights, your qualitative research should be designed and implemented by a neutral, unbiased team that understands how to conduct research in a neutral way. Avoid leading questions at all costs. Pretend you don’t know what answer you expect to hear–don’t offer expected options or use expected phrases in your question, and don’t sell your ideas.
  • Structure your questions to reduce user bias. Research participants are often eager to please. In addition, they are inherently motivated to be seen as competent. These innate desires can unintentionally lead to user biases that can skew your test results. Trained researchers understand how best to frame questions and observe users to reduce bias. This includes making users feel at ease, reassuring them that everything they say will be confidential, and letting them know that they aren’t being graded for their behaviors.
  • Get deeper insights with the right questions. Construct questions carefully to encourage participants to share specific details about their lives and how your product fits into it. Relate questions to key moments in their lives so they can speak in specifics rather than make generalizations. For example, you’re likely to get more detail by asking “what did you do at work today?” instead of “what do you typically do at work?”  
  • Give more weight to user behavior than what they say. Remember, actions speak louder than words. People often say things they don’t really mean, even with the best of intentions Think: “I’m start going to the gym tomorrow.” Good qualitative research is carefully attuned to participants’ behaviors and how they differ from what those same people are saying. Ask for user preference, but give more weight to user behavior when making final design decisions.
  • Recruit just five to ten participants for each target user group. The rule for qualitative testing is to include just five to ten participants in each target user group. In fact, qualitative tests with just five participants typically identify 85% of a product’s problems (source). If you go beyond ten participants, the rate of return diminishes as the same problems are identified over and over by multiple participants.
  • Consider hiring an agency. There are several benefits of hiring an agency to perform your qualitative research. First, your research will be designed and conducted by trained professionals who have specific expertise in this sort of user testing. Likewise, you’ll get to harness their broader experience to gain more incisive insights about your specific product. And finally, you’ll benefit from working with a neutral third party to keep your testing neutral, too.

Are You Using the Right Language When Talking to Your Users?

We’ve created this guide that features tactics and questions designed to help you prepare for your next user testing session.

  • Photo of Sarah Freitag
    Sarah Freitag

    As Director of UX Research, Sarah draws on her deep understanding of EdTech users and her background in research, design and business strategy to enable our clients to make confident decisions that result in products that solve real needs and create demonstrable impacts on their business’ bottom lines. Like her design-side counterpart at Openfield, Sarah is responsible for fostering collaboration, team development and for bringing new strategic initiatives and methodologies that allow our company to stay ahead of the curve of what EdTech users truly need to realize higher levels of learning and teaching success. Sarah is an avid reader and an adventurous explorer. Highlights from her favorite travels include Morocco, Peru, Italy, Denmark and France. With the recent pandemic-induced reduction in travel, she makes it a point to fulfill her wanderlust with another one of her passions, cooking and baking, by experimenting with recipes inspired by cultures around the world.

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