01 UX Qualitative Research

Learning with Lee Anne

Lee Anne Mercado
4 min readOct 21, 2020

I graduated with an HCI degree and a minor in design in 2018. I (naively) believed that I was fully equipped to understand UX in business, outside of school, but it turns out I wasn’t! (Surprise!) Luckily, we never stop learning due to our peers, mentors, and random articles on the internet like this one. Since this is a time where my vulnerabilities and struggles are leading me to better understand research, I thought I’d document my learning process of how UX Research works in my everyday world of business!

To be honest, in college, I never thought about the difference between quantitative versus qualitative research in UX. Distinguishing their different purposes was never emphasized, especially because as college students, our main form of conducting research was talking to students around campus to collect data aka qualitative research. As a result, when I started my first job, I realized my quantitative research skills were lacking. I also realized that there are a lot of hidden details in qualitative research I didn’t know about that make it successful.

For this post, we’re going to focus on qualitative research exclusively. (I’m still building my quantitative research skills, so stay tuned for that!) Here are a few questions I had about qualitative methods and what I’ve learned so far:

How many participants do we recruit?

Qualitative research is typically with a much smaller sample compared to quantitative research. Exactly what this smaller number should be depends on the project (everything always depends on the project!!). This was another key factor that I didn’t really get much information on in college, but I’ve realized is a very important part of research projects. I’ve also realized that various researchers have various ways to determine this number.

For our team, we often determine this based on the number of segments we’re planning to incorporate in the research project. Segments are different classifications of groups — it can be a segment of adults and a segment of children or maybe a segment of gamers and a segment of non-gamers. We often have a few different segments in per research project to get a variety of perspectives. Recruiting around 4–5 people at the minimum per segment is a good start.

Also important are accounting for floaters/ over recruits! Life is life so sometimes people cancel or cannot make it to their appointed interview session. As a result, in order to keep our targeted recruit goal, we often make sure to over recruit 1–3 more people per segment than we needed. And if all our original participants made the sessions and there is no question about the results so far, we simply pay those over recruits without interviewing them. They’re sort of a safety blanket.

What are the different types of qual research methods can we do?

There are also various types of qualitative research methods, but just to name a few:

  • Individual Interviews — the name speaks for itself, it’s a conversation between a moderator (the researcher) and a participant, one on one.

This is the research method I’m most familiar with. It’s like having a conversation with someone, but the questions are curated to produce relevant answers to the goal of the research. Seemingly simple, moderating can actually be quite complicated. There’s a fine balance between being the moderator and being a welcoming “friend” to the participant. I’ll talk about this in more detail on a different post.

Individual interviews are also the basic framework for other research methods like usability tests and participatory design sessions. At its core, individual interviews are conversations with someone else! Because of this, this type of research can be flexible and you can be creative with the way you have these conversations (i.e. bringing stimuli in, doing activities in the interview).

  • Diary studies — this is a long-term research session in which participants are asked to document their activities, interactions, or feelings over a period of time. This research helps show how people do something or how they react to something in the context of their real life.

Though this requires a lot more time and effort in comparison to individual interviews, this type of research is sometimes necessary. Bringing people in to do interviews has the “lab-like” setting that can make things feel a little unnatural. The best way to get feedback is sometimes in the moment of someone’s everyday life. This idea of getting data in-context of someone’s life also leans into another qual research method known as ethnographic research.

  • ….and much, much more!

Part of the fun of research is the innovation of the research designs. There is no cookie cutter answer of how to do qualitative research and when to do which method. Though there are guidelines of best practices, there is still room for creativity. At the very basic level, qualitative research is a conversation about a specific topic with someone. From there, you can mix and match and build a research plan as you see fit for your specific objective!

I want to emphasize this previous point because in the beginning, I kept getting caught up on making sure to choose the perfect research method for a particular project. There’s no such thing as perfect ((anywhere))! This previous mindset held me back more than it pushed me forward, so once I learned to be okay with the idea that there is no one right answer, I started allowing myself to be more creative. I’ve also learned that experience helps this a lot because referring back to old research and mixing and matching what you’ve done before is an easy way to get creative.

I still have a ton to learn on the different qualitative research methods, but I’m learning everyday. So join me as I continue this journey!