Qualitative user research: do it early, often, and right

By RocketAir Crew
January 19, 2023

Businesses need feedback. Whether you’re a grocer wondering if your produce is tasty or a multinational eager to know why your latest campaign flopped, the key to building a brand or a product that your audience genuinely enjoys is hearing from them. We believe that one of the most effective ways to gather that feedback is through qualitative user research.

Why it matters

At its most basic, quantitative research relies on statistics and measurements to provide an understanding of a particular phenomenon; it's about discovering how often, how many, how much, and how fast. An efficient method for generalizing results and for identifying patterns and trends in the data, quantitative research fails to account for the “why.” Brandon Fiksel, Product Strategist at RocketAir, puts it plainly: 

Quantitative data can tell you that there's a problem, but it doesn't tell you how to fix it.

On the other hand, qualitative research focuses on collecting in-depth, open-ended data in order to understand the complexity of human behavior and experience. The goal is to explore and understand a particular phenomenon in a natural setting, to understand how people feel and think about a particular brand or product, and to use this understanding to inform design and strategy decisions that will improve their experience.

The benefits of qualitative research are that it's more flexible and adaptable to new information, and it allows for a more human understanding of complex and nuanced issues. 

The when and how of qualitative user research

Qualitative user research is good at any point in the project—and should in fact be conducted over and over again throughout the life of any product or brand—but it’s especially useful at the outset, before you go too far in potentially the wrong direction. At RocketAir, we typically conduct at least two user research studies during a given project—early on to uncover insights that will help inform our design solutions and then again part-way through in order to test those solutions with their target audience.

Some examples of qualitative user research methods:

  • User interviews – Directly asking users about their experience
  • Usability testing – Moderated or unmoderated testing of a product by people who represent the target audience; letting them actually use the product
  • Contextual inquiry – Observing how users interact with a product in their environment
  • Guerrilla testing – Gathering user feedback by taking a prototype into a public place like a café and asking people for their thoughts
  • Focus groups – Inviting a small group of people who represent the target audience to discuss their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product or brand

No matter what method you choose, just like in scientific research, there has to be a high standard. No rigor means no validity, no objectivity, no credibility; without rigor, your results are meaningless. Make sure your findings and recommendations will stand up to the toughest client scrutiny. Dovetail, a tech company specializing in customer understanding, sums it up: “We need rigor for our insights to have influence.”

Human-centered design needs humans around which to center

To provide a human experience, you need truly human feedback. This is where moderated user research comes in. When the research is conducted by a moderator, it becomes a dialogue, a two-way conversation that invariably yields much more insight than a one-way survey or questionnaire.

Through natural human discussion—including open-ended questions and prompts—the moderator builds a rapport with the subject and creates an environment in which they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. That, combined with the ability to ask follow-up questions and explore new avenues of thought, gives the researcher a deeper understanding of the participant's wants and needs, which is the whole point of qualitative user research.

These are your people, the ones who, if you do everything right, are going to be using your product and enjoying your brand; you want to know exactly what they think. Moderated qualitative user research lets you do that.

Qualitative user research in action

When edtech company Coursera asked us to evolve one of their products, we knew that user research was going to be a huge component of getting the job done right. To understand the best UX and content that would appeal to learners, we led a series of moderated interviews to hear directly from Coursera’s target audience. Using both the existing design and our prototypes, we ran preference tests that revealed several actionable insights that informed our ultimate design solution—and culminated in a comprehensive research report as a lasting resource for Coursera in the future. 

User research is a crucial part of how we help companies Win by Design. If you want a brand or product that people embrace over your competitors, it needs to effectively resonate with them, solve their problems, and exceed their expectations.