Qualitative research methods

Alan O'Neill

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Interested in qualitative research methods but don’t know where to start? This article gives you a solid introduction with practical tips, definitions, and a look at our qualitative research software tool, Reframer.

Qualitative research definition

Let’s start with the basics—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 and is 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 is a science, and the design and techniques range from being completely open and unstructured to something that is open but grounded in a semi-structured way.

Difference between qualitative and quantitative research

Where qualitative research is about exploring and discovering things we cannot measure numerically, quantitative research is the opposite. The key difference between qualitative and quantitative data is the former is expressed in words and the latter expressed using numbers.

Qualitative research examples include:

  • Contextual inquiry
  • Interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Document studies   
  • Usability testing

Quantitative research examples include:

  • clickstream analysis
  • remote and unmoderated card sorting
  • first-click tests
  • A/B testing
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys

When conducting qualitative research, the sample size tends to be on the small side (approximately 5-50 people) but for quantitative research that number can run into the thousands. These two might be opposites but they complement each other and work together towards a common goal. You might discover something during a first-click test that you want to explore further in a contextual inquiry for example. A contextual inquiry is an observational qualitative research technique where the user is observed performing a task or using a product or service in the context of the environment that they would normally do this in eg their workplace or home.

It is also worth noting that there are many research techniques that will produce both qualitative and quantitative data. A great example of this would be a survey. A survey can contain closed questions that a participant can only provide a single answer to using predetermined multiple choice options but it can also contain open questions with free text response options where a participant has the freedom to provide a detailed response. It all depends on how you structure the study and how you interpret the results. For further information on open and closed questions, this article is well worth a read.

Common qualitative research methods

Observations

Observational techniques are used to gain first hand insights into behaviours, processes, and experiences. As the name suggests, this method is about actually observing your participant complete a task or process rather than talking about it. Often what people say they’ll do in a given situation and what they actually do are two completely different things. Observational techniques can help you understand what’s really going on. You might be observing them in their contextual environment such as their workplace or you run your study in a lab environment—it really depends on what you are doing and what resources are available.

Interviews

Interviews are one-on-one facilitated conversations that are used to gain in-depth understanding of behaviours, opinions, and attitudes. They are an excellent opportunity to not only ask questions and also dig deeper into the detail and they allow for follow up should further clarification be needed. Interviews are usually semi-structured with a list of open questions that are flexible enough to allow the facilitator 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 or video provided you first seek permission from your participant.

Focus Groups

Focus groups combine elements of both observation and interviews. This technique involves rounding up a group of 8-12 people who meet a certain criteria eg your user and bringing them together to discuss their thoughts on a specific topic or idea. Focus groups sessions are facilitated by a researcher and are usually structured around a set of questions for the group. The success of a focus group hinges on its group dynamic and it is the facilitator's job to keep the conversation flowing while also drawing out information and expanding on key themes as they emerge. Due to its group discussion based nature, this method easily allows for an observer to sit in on the session unobtrusively and take notes. Just like with the interviews, you can also film the session provided you ask your participants for permission and allow them to opt out.

Document Studies

Not all data collection methods for qualitative research involve starting from scratch- there’s a lot of value to be gained by looking into what already exists. A great way to do this is to conduct a document study. The term ‘document’ is quite open (examples below) and you can learn a lot about a person or an organisation’s opinions, attitudes, values and behaviors simply by reviewing what’s already there. This technique is easy to do and it often has little to no costs associated. It is especially useful for research done early in the process because it often leads to more questions and can serve as a foundation for further qualitative research studies. There are two different types of document studies: public record documents and personal documents.

Public record documents include things like:

  • annual reports
  • news articles
  • company blogs and newsletters
  • media releases
  • minutes
  • transcripts
  • census data
  • historical records

Personal documents can include:

  • diaries
  • journals
  • portfolios
  • photographs
  • personal blogs

Advantages and disadvantages of qualitative methods

Advantages of qualitative research

  • Gain valuable insights that cannot be obtained through quantitative research alone
  • It’s flexible and allows the researcher to reframe or revise their approach at any time
  • It’s an opportunity to have a face to face interaction with an actual human being who is going to have to use this product or service which can help build empathy and understanding
  • It’s scalable and doesn’t have to cost the earth
  • Provides a greater understanding of the contextual environment of your subject
  • Provides the opportunity to ask questions and follow up on issues
  • It’s fun!

Disadvantages of qualitative research

  • It can be time consuming to organise and conduct the study, analyse the results and synthesize an output such as a report
  • It can be tricky to communicate the value of the research to stakeholders because it cannot be measured numerically
  • Researchers or participants may introduce bias into the study potentially tainting the results
  • No shows and uncooperative participants can cause issues eg a focus group participant who doesn’t contribute
  • Participants may not behave as the normally would in circumstances where they are not being observed
  • The skill and experience level of the researcher can have an impact upon the quality of the study and the analysis of the results

How to do qualitative research using Reframer

Reframer is an online qualitative research tool that allows you to record, collaborate, store, and make sense of your observations all in one place. Regardless of which qualitative research method you use, you’re likely to end up with a messy pile of post-its, written by multiple people,  along with other random bits of paper. It is easy to lose track.

Reframer helps you to keep track of all your observations to reduce your analysis time and improve the effectiveness of your team. It’s easy to use and you can take it along to any qualitative research activity and use it to record everything you see and hear. You can also tag and score your observations in real time while your team does the same.

All you have to do is:

  • take a laptop or tablet device along to your next qualitative research study (eg a focus group)
  • log in to Reframer and create a new project (or access an existing one if this isn’t the first day at the carnival)
  • add a new session to that project
  • type your observations into the text box tagging anything that you find significant with a hashtag
  • optionally score each observation from 0-5
  • save each observation as you go
  • head to the results section to find the patterns

As a qualitative data analysis software tool, Reframer does the heavy lifting for you by making it quick and easy to spot trends and themes as they emerge. It does this by collating all your notes for you and surfacing the important information via tables, bubble charts and chord diagrams. For more information, please visit our Reframer page and sign up for a free trial.

Qualitative research methods are an excellent way to uncover insights that will help you design amazing experiences for your user. What is your favourite qualitative research method? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Further Reading:

Alan O'Neill
  • Alan O'Neill
  • Alan is Optimal Workshop's marketing manager and digital lightbulb. He's Irish, loves surfing, and has a weird fascination with Red Pandas. Find him on @optimalworkshop or @optimalAlan

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