5 Qualitative Research Methods Every UX Researcher Should Know [+ Examples]

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Swetha Amaresan
Swetha Amaresan

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Have you ever heard the phrase, "the numbers don't lie?" Well, they don't lie per se, but qualitative research methods show that numbers don't always tell the full story.

qualitative research methods, hand holding a lightbulb to signify qualitative research insights

Understanding how customers feel, think and criticize your company is crucial to improving your products and services. That's why it's important to include qualitative research during your feedback collection process.

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In this article, we'll take a look at qualitative research methods in more detail.

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What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research ultimately guides the creation of hypotheses, which can then be proved or disproved through quantitative research.

In other words, it compliments quantitative research when analyzing customer behavior, and the two give you a complete picture of your customer base.

The image below outlines the differences between qualitative and quantitative research, and how they meet in the middle to create a mixed methods strategy.

what is qualitative research

We'll explore this in more detail next.

Quantitative research also generalizes data from large sample populations, while qualitative research typically uses smaller ones. That's because numerical findings are stronger when tested on a larger sample size.

Check out the video below from Nielsen Norman Group to learn more about the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research.

In general, quantitative research gathers and measures numerical data to offer narrow, focused results, while qualitative research gathers verbal and open-ended data to offer broader, big-picture results.

Mixed Methods Research

Mixed methods research is exactly what it sounds like. With this concept, researchers combine both qualitative and quantitative methodologies to gather data.

Here's an example of when both types of research are used together.

Mixed Methods: Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research Example

In the early 2000's, Samsung wanted to redesign its televisions. So, the company turned to ethnography reports to see how its consumers were currently using its products and similar ones made by Samsung's competitors.

Samsung found through this research that the majority of its TVs were turned off throughout the day, so they were viewed more like pieces of furniture for customers rather than electronics.

With that in mind, Samsung decided its next TVs would be visually stunning, with speakers that were hidden below the TV to give the product a sleeker, more modern design.

Here's where quantitative research came in. Researchers used feedback tools like CSAT and Likert scales to obtain quantitative feedback which showed empirical evidence supporting their new TV design.

Qualitative Research Approaches

Although all qualitative research shares a common goal, there are several types of research approaches you can use, as shown in the image below.

qualitative research approaches

Let's break each one down.

Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic researchers enter the participants' natural environment to understand how they use a product. This provides context and cultural insights into the everyday lives of customers.

How It's Used

Similar to the Samsung example explained above, businesses typically use ethnographic research when trying to understand customer behavior.

If a company wants to create a new product or feature, researchers can observe how customers are currently using their products and record any points of friction found within the experience.

Narrative Research

Narrative research involves in-depth interviews and document analysis. Typically, one or two participants are interviewed over a long period of time — from weeks to months to years.

This creates a conclusive, individualized story that offers clear themes and insights into how personal goals influence customers.

How It's Used

Narrative research is particularly helpful when creating buyer personas and a customer journey map.

Since you're following the customer experience from start to finish, you can use this information to resolve pain points and optimize interactions for customer delight.

Case Study Research

During case study research, employees read several case studies to gain a deep understanding of a topic or theme. Since these are real examples, researchers can find similarities between their business and the case study.

How It's Used

Case studies are a useful tool for customer advocacy. If you conduct a case study on a customer who has succeeded using your product, you can publish that story to your website for other visitors to see.

That way, potential leads can read about another person or business who has faced a problem like theirs and use that information to find a solution.

Phenomenological Research

Phenomenological research combines a variety of research methods — interviews, observation, reading, and more — to help you describe a place, action, or process.

This description is based entirely on the perspectives of participants as it analyzes people who have first-hand experience with the activity.

How It's Used

One area where this type of research is useful is exploring how employees or customers feel about a particular company policy.

For example: Let's say your employees ask you to remove a "pointless" safety rule because they think it slows down their productivity when it's really in their best interest to keep it.

You can use your phenomenological research to educate employees on why that policy is important.

Grounded Theory Research

Grounded theory research goes a step beyond phenomenological research by uncovering explanations behind certain activities.

To develop a theory, this method involves interviewing large samples of customers and performing in-depth document research to better comprehend how consumers use products.

How It's Used

Grounded theory research is typically a long-term play. As your business gathers more information over time, you start to recognize unique trends regarding customer needs and goals.

Once you know why people are choosing your products, you can confidently create new products and features that encapsulate the core values that your customers are looking for.

Now, let's move on to the qualitative research methods you can use based on your approach.

5 Types of Qualitative Research Methods

Before we dive into the different types, let's back up to discuss what a qualitative research method is.

What is a qualitative research method?

Your qualitative research method will be informed by the qualitative research approach you're using.

The approaches we explored above outline how you can frame your qualitative research. Qualitative research methods highlight the specific activities you can implement to collect information.

For example: If you're conducting narrative research as your exploratory approach, you may use in-depth interviews and observations as your methods for data collection.

As shown in the image below, these are the five most common types of qualitative research methods.

types of qualitative research methods

We'll explore each below.

1. In-Depth Interviews

In-depth interviews allow you to ask people questions on a more personal level, one-on-one and typically face-to-face or over the phone. Interviews typically last anywhere from one to two hours and are meant to be conversational in nature.

Why This Works

The major advantage of this method is that it gives you the opportunity to dig deeper into your respondents thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors because of the level of intimacy it creates.

2. Focus Groups

A focus group is similar to an in-depth interview, but it includes more participants at one time — typically six to ten people. Everyone in a focus group is demographically similar in some capacity (e.g., by age, education level, etc.).

Why This Works

The major advantage of this method is that it allows you to create a forum for discussion among a group of people to learn more about how participants in your target audience feel about and interact with your products and services.

3. Surveys

Survey methodology can be used in lieu of interviews and focus groups to gather information from customers.

Surveys are typically distributed in the form of questionnaires with a combination of close-ended, demographic questions and open-ended research questions on a particular topic.

Why This Works

The major advantage of this method is that it's less time-consuming than others. Plus, surveys allow you to gather information from a large population of customers quickly and effectively.

4. Observations

Observation research creates a detailed recording of your participants' actions. Through observation, researchers are paying careful attention to how people behave in a particular environment.

Why This Works

The major advantage of this method is that it facilitates a more natural and realistic data collection experience. Customers won't feel the pressures of a formal study and can instead simply behave as they normally would.

5. Secondary Research

Companies can draw relevant conclusions from secondary research data — like case studies, previous research findings, and other reference documents — to supplement a new or existing research study.

Why This Works

The major advantage of this method is that, well, you're letting someone else do the work for you. Instead of recreating the wheel, you're tapping into existing research to help analyze your target consumers.

Let's take a look at some of these qualitative research approaches and methods in action.

Qualitative Research Method Examples

Here are a few examples of how business may use the qualitative approaches and methods that we discussed above.

Using Ethnography to Understand Your Target Audience

A clothing store wants to understand why its customer base is mostly men when it markets its products as unisex.

After performing an ethnographic study using the observation method, researchers discovered that unisex products aren't as appealing to women due to the shapeless fit and duller colors.

Now, the store can rebrand itself as a men's and women's clothing store and produce offers that better align with women's tastes.

Building Buyer Personas from Narrative Research

A start-up company selling baby products wants to build a buyer persona to better understand its target audience.

To do this, the company decides to record the lives of two individuals who fit into its market: a woman, 32, married with a newborn baby and a man, 36, married with three young children.

After conducting in-depth interviews with these participants for over two years, the company has a complete picture of every roadblock their customers face when raising a child.

Analyzing Customer Needs Based on the Grounded Theory Framework

A government agency wants to better support communities that have survived natural disasters.

After holding focus groups with several survivors, watching videos, and reading case studies on the topic, the agency realizes that these communities require more emotional support than physical support.

While donations are extremely beneficial, many of these families are traumatized by the experience and aren't sure how to restart their lives.

Now, the agency can put into place emotional support options for these people, such as free counseling and hotline services designed specifically for natural disaster survivors.

After understanding the benefits of qualitative research, you can start building questions to guide your team's research.

Qualitative Research Questions

When asking qualitative research questions, it's important to ask effective questions that keep participants focused on the topic.

Below are the two types of questions you can ask when obtaining qualitative data: central questions and sub-questions.

Central Questions

This is the overarching question that guides your research. It identifies the main theme you're researching, the target audience, and any other information relative to the study.

Example: "How do you feel about our rewards program?"

Sub-Questions

Sub-questions complement the central question and focus on specific aspects of the overarching topic. These questions direct the participant to an individual detail that your team wants to know more about.

Example: "What type of rewards would you like to see in our loyalty program?"

While combining these two types of questions will give you an organized structure for obtaining data, your research will be useless if your questions are ineffective.

If you're not sure where to start, take a look at the next section to review the universal qualities found in excellent qualitative research questions.

Qualities of Good Qualitative Research Questions

Here are some best practices you should keep in mind when creating qualitative research questions.

Open-Ended

The questions should be open-ended as this leaves more opportunity for participants to offer their own opinions rather than being constrained by preset answers.

Simply-Worded

Participants shouldn't have to work to understand what researchers are looking for. Make sure that the question is phrased simply and excludes any confusing jargon.

Offers Necessary Insights

As obvious as it might seem, the questions should bring in answers that will help you gain more information about the overarching topic. If a question is supplemental and not beneficial to your research, it's best to nix it.

Leveraging Qualitative Research Methods at Your Company

Qualitative research can offer a wealth of customer knowledge for your business. And it helps that qualitative research methods give customers the opportunity to express their motivations, perceptions, and attitudes about your products and services to you directly.

After all, the more you know about your customers, the easier it becomes to provide delightful experiences at every stage of the buyer's journey.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in August 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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