Stop Ignoring Qualitative Research. The definitive guide

Last Modified: Sep 25th, 2023 - Category: Theory, UX Research, UX Theory, UX Tutorials
Stop Ignoring Qualitative Research cover image

Introduction to Qualitative Research

Qualitative methodology provides an avenue for exploring the many facets of human experiences and social interactions that are often neglected by purely numerical or statistical approaches. Therefore, qualitative research is one of the cornerstones of UX research.

While quantitative methods give us valuable insights through measurable and analyzable data, qualitative methods offer a fuller understanding by tapping into the non-quantifiable elements like human feelings, interpretations, and experiences.

Qualitative Methodology Defined

What Is Qualitative Methodology?

At its core, qualitative methodology is concerned with exploring and understanding human behaviors, motivations, and social dynamics. It gives researchers the tools to delve into complex issues that often don’t lend themselves to straightforward numerical analysis. Qualitative research studies not just the facts but also the context and interpretations around those facts.

Paradigms in Qualitative Methodology

This methodology is fundamentally rooted in constructivist and interpretivist (also known as anti-positivism) paradigms. The constructivist approach holds that reality is socially constructed. Hence, what may be true for one individual in a particular context might not hold for another in a different context. Interpretivism, on the other hand, focuses on how people give meaning to their experiences. The social psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen is a prominent advocate of this paradigm, and his work emphasizes the importance of narrative in understanding human behavior.

Qualitative research: Exploring on feelings and emotional design

A Comprehensive Guide to Types of Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative research encompasses a multitude of methods tailored for deeply understanding human experiences and social interactions. This guide will provide an in-depth explanation of the five primary qualitative research methods: Interviews, Focus Groups, Ethnography, Case Studies, and Content Analysis. Let’s take a look to each method’s particularities, the steps involved in conducting them, and their remote or presential (in-person) variations.


Interviews are among the most direct ways to access people’s experiences, thoughts, and opinions in qualitative research. Whether it’s gathering personal anecdotes or understanding attitudes towards a particular issue, interviews provide firsthand information from participants.

Key Steps in Conducting Interviews

  1. Preparation: Research your subject matter and prepare a set of questions or topics you’d like to explore during the interview.
  2. Sampling: Choose your participants based on your research objectives. They could be experts in the field, affected individuals, or a random sample from a specific population.
  3. Question Types: Decide whether to use open-ended, closed, or a mix of question types to obtain the kind of data you need.
  4. Conducting the Interview: Establish a rapport with your interviewee to encourage openness and candor. Record the conversation for accuracy, always with consent.
  5. Transcription: Transcribe the interview recordings for easier analysis.
  6. Analysis: Interpret the interview data, identifying key themes, patterns, or contradictions that may arise.
  7. Validation: It’s often useful to conduct follow-up interviews or share your findings with the interviewees to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the data.

Remote vs. In-Person Interviews

  • Remote Interviews: These are typically conducted over video conferencing software or phone. Remote interviews are useful for reaching participants who are geographically distant or when in-person interaction is not feasible.
  • In-Person Interviews: Conducted face-to-face, these interviews often yield richer data due to the ability to read body language and establish a more personal connection.
Stop Ignoring Qualitative Research. The definitive guide 1
Qualitative research examples: Remote Interviews technique using messaging app

Notable Figures and Techniques

Some pioneers in the realm of qualitative interviews include Carl Rogers, who emphasized the importance of empathy and active listening in the interview process. The “Grounded Theory” approach, developed by sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, often employs interviews to generate theories directly from the data collected.

Focus Groups


Focus groups serve as a powerful tool for acquiring a multidimensional understanding of perceptions, feelings, attitudes, and ideas of participants about a specific topic or product. Unlike one-on-one interviews where individual perspectives are explored, focus groups offer a platform for interactive discussions, making it possible to observe group dynamics and the formation of collective opinions. The interactive nature of focus groups often encourages a rich array of responses, as participants build upon each other’s answers. This collective dialogue is particularly beneficial when exploring new concepts or nuanced topics, as it can lead to insights that might not surface during individual interviews.

The method is valuable for various research purposes, be it market research to gauge consumer reactions to a new product, social science research to understand the perspectives of a community, or user experience research to test out new features or interfaces.

Here at Dorve UX, we tend to use focus groups mainly for usability testing.

Qualitative Methodology: Image showing a focus group
Focus groups is perhaps the most known Qualitative Methodology technique

How to Conduct Focus Groups

  1. Topic Guide: It’s essential to prepare a topic guide, which outlines the areas you want to explore without setting strict question sequences. This allows for a more natural and dynamic conversation.
  2. Participant Selection: Ideally, participants should share some common characteristics relevant to the research question but differ enough to ensure a diversity of opinions.
  3. Moderation: A skilled moderator is key to a successful focus group. The moderator should be trained to guide the conversation while being neutral, making sure all participants get a chance to speak, and keeping the discussion on track.
  4. Setting: The setting should be comfortable and non-threatening to encourage open discussion. In a corporate setting, it’s generally advisable to hold the focus group away from the workplace to reduce potential biases or distractions.
  5. Data Collection and Analysis: Focus groups are generally audio or video recorded for later analysis. Post-session, it’s critical to transcribe and examine the data, identifying common themes, conflicting viewpoints, and noteworthy observations.

Remote vs. Presential Focus Groups

  • Remote: Conducted via online platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, remote focus groups allow for participation from diverse geographical locations. They are logistically easier but may lack the nuance that physical cues provide.
  • Presential: Conducting focus groups in person allows researchers to pick up on non-verbal cues and offers a different level of interaction and engagement. However, they may be more challenging to organize and can limit participation to a specific locale.

Ethnography: An In-Depth Look

Qualitative research examples: Image illustrating Ethnography concept
Ethnography explore the different cultural, sociological and geographical views of users

Ethnography is a qualitative research method focused on studying cultures and communities by immersing oneself in the setting under study. Originating in anthropology, this approach aims to offer a detailed account of daily life and practices within a particular social or cultural environment. The strength of ethnography lies in its commitment to understanding an environment from the viewpoint of its inhabitants. By spending extended time in the setting, researchers can uncover nuanced insights into social behaviors, traditions, and communal relationships that may not be immediately apparent or accessible through other research methods.

If you’re interested in this subject, you should read our article about Inclusive UX and Universal UX since it’s based on ethnography.

Key Elements in Conducting Ethnography

  1. Preliminary Research: Before the immersion process begins, it’s essential to conduct background research to understand existing literature, cultural norms, and social dynamics related to the community.
  2. Participant Observation: This fundamental technique in ethnography involves both taking part in and observing the day-to-day life of the community.
  3. Field Notes: Detailed notes should be kept throughout the research, recording observations, informal conversations, and significant events.
  4. Interviews and Surveys: In addition to observation, researchers may use interviews or surveys to gather specific information or clarify observations.
  5. Ethical Considerations: Given the in-depth nature of ethnographic research, ethical aspects like informed consent and confidentiality are highly important.
  6. Data Analysis: Once fieldwork is complete, the researcher analyzes the collected data to form a coherent narrative or interpretive explanation, often applying coding methods to identify key themes and patterns.

Remote vs. In-Person Ethnography

  • Remote: Remote ethnography, also known as “netnography,” is focused on studying online communities and cultures. Research activities are adapted to suit a virtual environment, such as observing interactions on social media platforms or online forums.
  • In-Person: Traditional ethnography is conducted face-to-face and allows the researcher to gather rich contextual and non-verbal data. It provides an immersive experience but can be logistically challenging and time-consuming.

Pioneers and Theoretical Frameworks

Significant contributions to ethnography have come from anthropologists like Bronisław Malinowski, who emphasized the importance of full immersion in the culture being studied. Clifford Geertz later added to the field by promoting the idea of “thick description,” a method that focuses on detailing not just behaviors but also the context and interpretation behind them.

Case Studies

Case studies are a qualitative research method aimed at conducting an in-depth analysis of a specific subject, which can be an individual, group, organization, or event. This research approach allows scholars to explore complex phenomena within their real-life context. Case studies are often exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory in nature, seeking to offer rich insights and in-depth understanding.

One example of Case Studies with full methodology, insights and results can be accessed in the article Ariel Gaster wrote about Generative AI, which is split in 4 parts that include data collection, methodologies, research and final reports

How to Use Case Studies

  1. Research Design: Before diving into data collection, it’s essential to frame a research question and determine the scope of the case study.
  2. Data Collection: Various forms of data can be collected, including interviews, surveys, observations, and archival records.
  3. Contextual Analysis: Understanding the wider context of the subject under study helps in interpreting the data effectively. This could involve studying external factors that influence the case.
  4. Case History: Providing a detailed background or history of the case prepares the groundwork for the subsequent analysis.
  5. Triangulation: Using multiple sources of data ensures that the findings are as robust as possible.
  6. Ethical Considerations: Obtaining informed consent and maintaining confidentiality are critical in case study research.
  7. Analysis and Interpretation: Qualitative coding techniques are often used to identify patterns or themes in the data, which are then analyzed to answer the research question.

Remote vs. In-Person Case Studies

  • Remote: Remote case studies can be conducted by leveraging digital tools. Virtual interviews, online surveys, and digital archives can all be used for data collection. This approach is useful when the subject is geographically distant or when gathering in-person data is not feasible.
  • In-Person: In-person case studies involve direct interaction with the subject, often leading to more detailed and contextual insights. However, this method can be resource-intensive and may require significant investment in terms of time and logistics.

Content Analysis

Qualitative methodology: discourse analysis

Content Analysis is a qualitative research method focused on identifying and interpreting patterns in textual, visual, or auditory material. This method can be applied to a variety of sources, such as newspapers, websites, advertisements, social media posts, or even transcripts of interviews and conversations. The objective is often to identify themes, patterns, or specific characteristics that are reflective of the subject being studied.

How to Perform Content Analysis

  1. Research Question and Objectives: Clearly define what you aim to discover through the content analysis. This will guide your data collection and interpretation.
  2. Data Sampling: Determine where you’ll gather your data and the criteria for including or excluding specific pieces of content.
  3. Codebook Development: Create a codebook that outlines the different codes or themes you’ll be identifying in the data. This step ensures consistency during analysis.
  4. Coding: Manually or digitally annotate the content based on the codes defined in the codebook. Multiple rounds may be necessary to refine the coding scheme.
  5. Reliability and Validity: Ensure that the codes are consistently applied. This often involves having multiple coders and measuring inter-coder reliability.
  6. Data Analysis: Use the coded data to build narratives or identify patterns. This could involve simple counts of specific codes or more intricate thematic analysis.
  7. Findings and Conclusions: Compile the results and discuss what they mean in the context of your research question.

Remote vs. In-Person Content Analysis

  • Remote: Much of content analysis can be conducted remotely, especially if you are dealing with digital or already archived materials. Automated tools for content analysis, like software for textual data mining, can also be used.
  • In-Person: Some forms of content analysis, such as real-time analysis of non-digital materials (e.g., printed newspapers, flyers, etc.), may require in-person work.

Notable Figures and Approaches

Klaus Krippendorff and Harold D. Lasswell are among the notable scholars who have significantly contributed to the field of content analysis. Krippendorff, for instance, has provided comprehensive guidelines and standards for content analysis in his seminal works.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Methodologies

Nature of Data

One of the foundational distinctions between qualitative and quantitative research is the type of data collected. Quantitative research is primarily concerned with numerical data that can be subjected to statistical analysis. Qualitative research, however, deals with non-numerical data like interviews, observations, and textual or visual analyses.

Purpose of the Study

Quantitative methods are generally employed to test hypotheses and theories. They can be highly controlled and are often used to establish causality between variables. Qualitative research is more exploratory in nature and is used to uncover trends in thoughts and opinions, dive deeper into the problem, and create hypotheses for future quantitative research.

Approach and Flexibility

Qualitative research is inherently flexible. It allows for the inclusion of new research questions or the adjustment of existing ones as the study progresses. Quantitative research, meanwhile, requires a fixed design that is established at the beginning of the study.

Analysis of Data

In qualitative research, data analysis is generally text-based and involves identifying patterns, themes, or theories. In contrast, quantitative data are analyzed using statistical models.

Specific qualitative techniques

The following is a list of some of the most common techniques. Do NOT confuse them with the methodologies mentioned above! These techniques are what you’ll use to perform the direct research, but then they may fit on some of the methodologies above. For example, you could use Think-aloud technique in the context of Case Studies, or Discourse Analysis in teh context of Ethnography OR Interviews.

In short: research techniques are not the same as methods, and methods are not the same as methodologies.


Surveys, while often associated with quantitative research, can also serve a qualitative purpose. Open-ended questions allow participants to express their thoughts and feelings in their own words.

How to Conduct a Qualitative Survey

  1. Design: Develop your survey with a focus on open-ended questions to gather descriptive data.
  2. Sampling: Choose a target group that aligns with your research question.
  3. Distribution: Use online platforms, emails, or in-person methods to distribute your survey.
  4. Data Analysis: Code the responses to identify patterns and themes.

Think-Aloud Protocols

In a think-aloud study, participants verbalize their thoughts while performing a task, offering real-time insights into their cognitive processes. This is a very common research technique in UX design.

How to Conduct a Think-Aloud Study

  1. Setup: Clearly define the task and instruct the participant to verbalize their thoughts.
  2. Recording: Use audio or video equipment to record the session.
  3. Data Analysis: Transcribe and analyze the recordings to identify behavioral and cognitive patterns.

Semantic Analysis

Semantic analysis is concerned with understanding the meanings that individuals attribute to words, phrases, or sentences in a given context.

How to Conduct Semantic Analysis

  1. Data Gathering: Collect textual data from interviews, observations, or documents.
  2. Coding: Identify keywords and code them based on their contextual meaning.
  3. Analysis: Examine how the coded terms contribute to the larger message or theme.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis is used to analyze written or spoken language within its social context. It can be particularly useful in studies involving power dynamics or social structures. If you want to learn from a real example or case study, you can read how we predicted the elections outcome using a mix of AI, Quantum UX and discourse analysis.

How to Conduct Discourse Analysis

  1. Data Collection: Collect samples of the discourse you want to study.
  2. Coding and Categorizing: Identify linguistic features, rhetorical devices, or recurring themes.
  3. Contextual Analysis: Analyze the data within its social, cultural, or historical context.

Additional Methods

  • Narrative Analysis: Examines the stories or accounts of individuals to understand their experiences.
  • Phenomenological Research: Focuses on understanding human experiences from the perspective of those who experience them.
  • Visual Methods: Uses photographs, video, or other visual content as a means of understanding human behavior.
  • Personas: this method is specific to marketing and User Experience, but it’s one of the most important techniques before starting a UI design or user experience design.

The importance of Qualitative Methodology

Qualitative methodology is what allows UX researchers to understand human experiences and societal interactions. By prioritizing depth over breadth, it uncovers layers of meaning not immediately visible in numerical data. As we embark in research journeys, a myriad of qualitative methods provides us with tools to explore the rich tapestry of human existence and society. Recognizing when and how to utilize each of these methods, either in isolation or in tandem with quantitative approaches, is instrumental in our work as UX specialists.

While simple quantitative research might be easier for those starting in research, we must never forget that qualitative research is what gives us the full and more accurate answers to most user experience problems.

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