Qualitative vs. Quantitative UX Research—What’s the Difference?

Camren Browne, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

The idea of user-centered products is a focal point across a variety of industries—tech-related or otherwise. Companies are seeing the benefits of placing their users at the forefront of their design decisions. But how do you know what your users’ needs actually are?

The best way to ensure a final product delivers on users’ needs is to conduct lots of user research throughout the design process. There are a variety of ways to conduct user research, but most methods fit into one of two categories: qualitative and quantitative user research.

While one is generally in no way better or more useful than the other, there are key differences that make qualitative data more useful at certain times than others—and vice versa. In this article, we’ll focus on the differences between these research methods as well as when and how to use each type.

We’ve broken down this guide to qualitative versus quantitative user research as follows:

  1. Quantitative vs. qualitative UX research
  2. More about quantitative UX research
  3. More about qualitative UX research
  4. When to conduct qualitative or quantitative user research
  5. Examples of qualitative and quantitative research methods
  6. Making qualitative and quantitative UX research work together
  7. Key takeaways

Let’s get started!

Two UX researchers sitting next to each other at a desk, looking over research data
Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

1. Quantitative vs. qualitative UX research

In short, quantitative user research is research that yields numerical results, while qualitative research results in data that you can’t as easily slot into a calculation. 

The type of research you conduct is very much reliant on what your research objectives are and what kind of data will best help you understand your users’ needs.

Our one, overarching piece of advice: Don’t underestimate either type of research. Both can offer invaluable insights that can guide your design process to incredible outcomes.

2. More about quantitative UX research

Let’s start with the numbers. What is quantitative UX research, what does it look like, and what are the benefits of conducting this type of user research?

Definition

Quantitative user research is the process of collecting and analyzing objective, measurable data from various types of user testing.

Quantitative data is almost always numerical and focuses on the statistical, mathematical, and computational analysis of data. As the name suggests, quantitative user research aims to produce results that are quantifiable.

Examples of quantitative data

Quantitative data answers questions of:

  • How many?
  • How often?
  • How much?

In UX design, analytics are a huge source of quantitative data. Page visits, bounce-rates, and conversion rates are all examples of quantitative data that can be gathered using analytics.

User testing sessions can also be great wellsprings for quantitative data. Task completion times, mouse clicks, the number of errors, and success rates are all forms of quantitative data that you can obtain by including some quantitative elements in your user testing.

Benefits of quantitative user research

Due to the objective nature of quantitative user research, the resulting data is less likely to have human bias as it’s harder to lead participants to a certain outcome and has well-defined, strict, and controlled study conditions.

Quantitative data is also often simple to collect, quicker to analyze, and easier to present in the form of pie charts, bar graphs, etc. Furthermore, clients may prefer to see hard statistics and find it easier to link them back to their KPIs as a way to justify investment for future improvements.

A UX researcher conversing with a user, gathering qualitative data
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

3. More about qualitative UX research

This leads us to our second type of research: qualitative user research. What is it exactly, and what are the benefits of incorporating it into your research process?

Definition

Qualitative user research is the process of collecting and analyzing non-numerical data in the form of opinions, comments, behaviors, feelings, or motivations. Qualitative data aims to give an in-depth look at human behavioral patterns.

Examples of qualitative data

Qualitative data cannot be as easily counted and funnelled into a calculation as it’s quantitative cousin. Where quantitative research often gives an overarching view, qualitative research takes a deeper dive into the why.

Qualitative research often takes the form of user surveys, interviews, and observations or heuristic analysis and focus groups. Just as with quantitative data, user testing sessions offer tons of opportunities to gather qualitative data.

Benefits of qualitative user research

Qualitative research gives a more in-depth look at your users and will often reveal things that quantitative data can’t. Qualitative testing employs a “think-aloud” approach that allows you to get inside the mind of the person using your product and see how they use it in their own environment and what sort of response they have to it.

Qualitative data helps you make accurate, informed choices for your users instead of guessing about causation. Obtaining this empathetic and emotionally-driven evidence may make it easier for stakeholders to invest in changes to the product.

4. When to conduct qualitative or quantitative user research

While qualitative user research can be conducted at any point in the design process, quantitative user research is best done on a final working product, either at the beginning or end of a design cycle. This is due to a few reasons, which we’ll cover in this section.

The goals of quantitative research are summative and evaluate metrics on an existing product or site. Companies often use quantitative research to evaluate if a redesign of a final product is needed, to track a product’s usability over a period of time, and compare a product with its competitors. It’s also used to calculate ROI (return of investment) in order to understand how efficient a product is at making an appreciable profit.

Conversely, qualitative user research is both formative and summative and is used to inform design decisions at any point in the design cycle, help ensure that you’re on the right track. Qualitative research identifies the main problems in design, pinpoints usability issues, and helps uncover possible solutions for them within the design process.

Furthermore, because quantitative user research usually involves large numbers of users (>30 participants), conducting quantitative usability tests too early or too often in the design process can be costly, whereas the more intimate and smaller qualitative testing (5-8 participants) is often more affordable and easier to justify.

A UX researcher working from home, near a window, looking over research plans
Photo by manny PANTOJA on Unsplash

5. Examples of qualitative and quantitative research methods

Here, we’ve listed some examples of qualitative research methods, quantitative research methods, and research methods that fit into both categories.

Qualitative

  • User interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Diary studies
  • Shadow sessions

Quantitative

  • Analytics
  • Funnel analysis
  • Mouse or heat maps
  • Cohort analysis

Both qualitative and quantitative

  • Surveys
  • A/B testing
  • Card sorting
  • Tree testing
  • Storyboarding
  • Visual affordance usability testing

6. Making qualitative and quantitative UX research work together

As you may have noticed, there are many research methods that render both quantitative and qualitative data. Furthermore, it’s uncommon for designers to run just one form of user research. This is because quantitative and qualitative user research data are best used together in order to obtain a more comprehensive idea of the issues at hand and their possible solutions.

Conducting both quantitative and qualitative research helps you form hypotheses as well as come up with the metrics on how to test it. Using just one type of research often leads you with unanswered questions and vague or false metrics. When used in conjunction, quantitative data will answer your “what, how many, and how much?” questions while qualitative data gives you the answers to “why?”

7. Key takeaways

Quantitative and qualitative user research are both necessary in the process of designing products and experiences that truly meet users’ actual needs and goals.

Quantitative research are larger tests that give a summative evaluation of the overall usability of an existing product and are always reported in numerical form through metrics like satisfaction ratings, task times, number of clicks, and bounce or conversion rates.

Qualitative user research are smaller sessions that give non-numerical, formative information as to what the main issues of usability issues of a product are and are reported as quotes, emotions, or observations.

While quantitative and qualitative user research methods have different goals, they are complementary to each other and give designers a fuller, more comprehensive idea of the success of their product design.

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

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