A Beginner’s Guide to Qualitative UX Research

Camren Browne, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

The ability to empathize with the user is at the heart of UX design. One of the most effective ways to understand what your user is experiencing is by conducting UX research. Qualitative user research is particularly useful for getting into the mind of your users and obtaining anecdotal evidence of how your product can be improved.

Unlike its counterpart, quantitative research, qualitative research is all about collecting and analyzing subjective information that helps designers make formative decisions about their product designs. There are many ways to utilize qualitative user research and many instances during the design process when it can be especially beneficial.

We’ve created this comprehensive guide to help you better understand qualitative user research and how to use it. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is qualitative UX research?
  2. When do you use qualitative UX research?
  3. Qualitative UX research methods
  4. Understanding mixed methods in UX research
  5. Key takeaways

Let’s get started!

Two UX researchers sitting on a couch near a large window, looking at data on a laptop
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

1. What is qualitative UX research?

The goal of qualitative user research is to obtain and analyze non-numerical, subjective information from various kinds of user testing. Data from qualitative user research usually takes the form of quotes, anecdotes, observations, or narrative descriptions and is used to assess how usable a product is. Qualitative user research helps explain numerical or quantitative data. For instance, if your quantitative research shows that 30% of users are deleting your app after one month of use, qualitative data can help uncover why and give clues about how to remedy this drop-off.

2. When do you use qualitative UX research?

Qualitative user research is both formative and summative, meaning it can help inform design choices while a product is being created as well as analyze how effective the final design is. Because of this, qualitative user research is often conducted at many points in the design process, during redesign, and when you have a final working product. Here’s an overview of the benefits of qualitative research, some potential downsides, and situations when you should apply qualitative methods in your user research.

Benefits of qualitative UX research

  • Easy to organize as you only need 5-8 participants and study conditions can be flexible and less controlled
  • Participants are encouraged to think aloud during usability testing so researchers can see inside the minds and emotions of their users when interacting with a product
  • Reveals information that quantitative data cannot, and explains why numerical or statistical trends are occurring
  • Data obtained from qualitative user research is emotionally-driven and may be more convincing for stakeholders to invest in design choices
  • Users may find it easier to give feedback in their own words rather than assigning a numerical value to their feelings.

Potential downsides to qualitative UX research

  • Analysis can be more time-consuming and complex and difficult to present in graphs or visual form
  • Smaller number of participants may mean that you’re missing out on crucial information from other users, leading to the need for repeat testing
  • Researchers must be adept at reading emotional and non-verbal cues
  • Certain investors or stakeholders may prefer numerical or statistical data as opposed to anecdotal, qualitative research
  • More subject to human bias or researcher influence, and results are difficult to replicate

When to use qualitative UX research

  • When you’re making formative decisions about design choices, early in the process
  • To identify usability issues within a prototype (toward the “end” of the design process) or a final product
  • As a means of discovering solutions to usability issues
  • During a product redesign, when there are typically more resources available and more capacity to consider a broader range of possibilities

Two UX researchers at a desk, looking at a computer screen.
Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

3. Qualitative UX research methods

There are many ways to conduct qualitative user research. We’ll cover four primary methods here: user interviews, focus groups, shadow sessions, and diary studies.

User interviews

User interviews are a great source of qualitative user data and help researchers and designs gain a greater understanding of their user’s motivations, needs, and behaviors. It’s important to ask quality open-ended questions in order to gain relevant and useful information about the user’s actions and frustrations.

User interviews are one of the most frequently used qualitative UX research methods. If you’d like to learn more about how to conduct a user interview, check out this video:

Focus groups

Focus groups are just like interviews but with multiple users participating at once. These are great for getting lots of qualitative data at once from various user viewpoints. These sessions are likely to feel more conversational and generative since participants may feel more at ease with other test subjects around them—and therefore more willing to express concerns, thoughts, and emotions.

Shadow sessions

Sometimes called immersive or observational research, shadow sessions allow designers and researchers to observe a user interacting with a product in real time and in the user’s own environment. This is one of the most accurate ways to assess usage and usability but also requires a high level of observational skills and empathy in order to analyze verbal and non-verbal cues without interrupting the user’s natural process.

Diary studies

In diary studies (sometimes referred to as diary records), researchers ask a user to keep a diary record of their usability patterns with a certain product over a given time period (usually a day or week, but sometimes more). Users take note of how they use a product, when they use it, and how they feel when interacting with it. Diary studies are a great way to see what patterns emerge over time—patterns in user needs and feelings, as well as any usability problems or other pain points.

Close up of a UX researcher's hands. They are working at a laptop with a phone and open notebook nearby
Photo by Headway on Unsplash

4. Understanding mixed methods in UX research

The UX research methods we’ve just outlined are solely qualitative in nature. But there are loads of research methods that yield both qualitative and quantitative user data within the same testing parameters. Paper prototyping, card sorting, and visual affordance testing are a few examples.

Utilizing user research methods that offer both qualitative and quantitative UX research is referred to as mixed methods research. Mixed methods research is key to obtaining a complete picture of the usability of a product and is best practice when it comes to conducting accurate user research. Combining qualitative and quantitative user research methods helps designers dig deeper in answering the questions of “What? How much? How many? And why?”

Relying too heavily on either qualitative or quantitative user research can prevent you from gaining key insights about your users and possible pitfalls in your product. Taking advantage of mixed methods research is a more holistic approach to user research, and often lends more accurate and complete information about a product’s overall usability and effectiveness.

5. Key takeaways

Now you’re better equipped for your next UX research project!

Qualitative user research can take on many forms, yet each method can offer invaluable insights about the usability of a product.

The subjective and non-numerical data obtained from qualitative testing helps designers and researchers see into the minds of their users when interacting with a product. Through quotes, descriptions, and observations, qualitative research aims to further explain statistical or quantitative results by looking at why those trends may be occurring, and gives a more in-depth interpretation of the usability and success of a product.

If you’d like to learn more about UX research, check out these articles:

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