Get started with 3 qualitative research techniques

7 min read Optimal Workshop

We take a look at three qualitative research methods which can be started quickly with a bit of planning, and minimal participants while delivering great data insights.

What is qualitative research?

The term ‘qualitative’ refers to things that cannot be measured numerically and qualitative research is no exception. Qualitative research is primarily an exploratory research method that is typically done early in the design process. It’s useful for uncovering insights into people’s thoughts, opinions, and motivations. It allows us to gain a deeper understanding of problems and provides answers to questions we didn’t know we needed to ask. 

Qualitative research can be viewed as the ‘why’ versus quantitative user research which uncovers the ‘how’ or the ‘what’ users want. Qualitative user research helps us uncover why people make decisions (and potentially much more).

Here’s three qualitative research exercises you can start today:

1. Usability testing

Usability testing is a research method designed to evaluate how easy something is to use by testing it with representative users. In most cases, this ‘something’ is a prototype of a website or interface. Or it could just as easily be an existing website or product that requires more understanding of how it is currently used to identify faults or issues.

These tests typically involve observing a participant as they work through a series of tasks involving the product being tested. It’s a good idea to bring a notetaker along, so you can focus on asking questions. After you’ve conducted several usability tests, you can analyze your observations to identify the most common issues.

This can be a very practical start to the user research process. Observing, questioning and noting how a user interacts with your product in a very real environment can offer up some fantastic insights. 

How many participants do I need to get started?

Usability testing is done in a real world environment which means you need your participant to complete tasks on a laptop or mobile phone. Ideally this is in a controlled environment, an office or space that can be managed. Usability testing relies on the facilitator being present. So, to start you only need five participants which helps as it isn’t too many people to find and set up.

What to note: Usability testing is a great way to get an understanding of how exactly the participant interacts with the product. Note how they complete tasks, where their frustrations may be. Also look beyond what they are saying and observing what they are doing. This is invaluable to get the full picture of how they feel and analyzing the user experience.

2. Contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is the observation of behaviours and reactions when users undertake specific tasks. By observing and paying attention to unspoken communication, you can uncover insights into behaviour and even expectations.

Giving the participant a set of tasks and observing how they complete these can be quite enlightening. Often what we do can be quite different to what we say we are doing. 

By noting all of this during the testing session, and keeping our notes factual, they can provide context for why the participant may have changed their decision in a task or even abandoned it entirely. Ensuring that you don’t try and infer why they are feeling a certain way, and how that may influence their decisions is important to gaining insights.

How many participants do I need to get started?

Like usability testing this method only needs a minimal one-on-one environment to get started. A facilitator sets the test and observes the participant interacting with the product. You can start with as few as five participants, which means getting started with qualitative testing can be very quick to implement.

What to note: How they move or act while they complete tasks. Do they cross their arms, scratch their head or  even sigh? Little things like trouble using the keyboard, can be implicit in how well they interpret the website.

3. User interviews

User interviews are one-on-one facilitated conversations that are used to gain in-depth understanding of behaviours, opinions, and attitudes towards a product.

Building a relationship with the participant can be valuable, allowing the conversation to flow, and remove barriers. Interviews are an excellent opportunity to ask questions as well as dig deeper into the detail. They allow for follow up if further clarification be needed. Interviews are usually semi-structured with a list of open questions that are flexible enough to allow the interviewer to cover the required topics but also go wherever the conversation leads. 

Interviews are also quite flexible because they don’t necessarily have to be conducted face to face. If time and resources are tight, they work just as well over the phone or via skype. Sessions can be recorded through note taking audio or video recording.

If you want to find out more about how to do a phone interview, have a read here. 

There can be a flow over of observational insights. This can be as simple as noting throughout the session, how they react to certain set tasks. Are there moments that they are frustrated? Do they turn back and look for another way? Or do they seem irritated by the hardware, the laptop, mouse or even the reflection on the screen? All valuable (unspoken) information on how and why the participant makes decisions.

How many participants do I need to get started?

As with our three qualitative research methods you need a minimal number of participants to really get started with user interviews. They rely on a facilitator that does one-on-one interviews with a set of predetermined questions. You can start with as few as five participants, and depending on the research they can be from inside or outside your company. But they should be as relaxed, and natural as possible, to allow for real responses and observations.

What to note: User interviews are far more conversational than the previous two methods. You should have a script to work from, which will intend to uncover why your participant will want to work with your product a certain way. However, the interview allows some flexibility, with the facilitator able to dig deeper if needed, or change tack. Note the flow of conversation, and the various responses, as well as observed behaviours in a factual way.

Reviewing your research

After completing your session it is just as important to review it. Spend the time while it’s still fresh in your mind filling in any gaps in information by reviewing the audio and/or video. Great note taking is vital and using a digital note taking software (like our very own Reframer) can make the whole process much simpler and easier, to record, review, analyze and share your data.  If you want more tips on how to take great notes in qualitative user research have a look at this.

Delivering your data

So, you’ve gone ahead and researched your product and you’ve got some amazing insights and data. What now? You need to pull it all together in a cohesive manner that breaks down what you’ve discovered and what it means. If you use our digital note taking software, Reframer, this can be fairly straight forward and streamlined. Having all of your notes, audio and video recordings, timestamping and observations in one place will allow the data to be generated and reviewed (and shared) swiftly. Pull together a report that can be shared among key shareholders and product managers. Present it in a way that allows your insights to clearly show where changes are needed, or improvements to the user experience can be made. It’s hard to argue with well researched data!

Wrap Up

If you always thought that qualitative research was too hard, or took too long, think again. Take a look at the Optimal Workshop platform and we can help you through the whole process, taking the pain out, and putting the insights in. 

Ready to get started finding out how your users really interact with your product? Get started now, and lots of our products mean you can start today!