For those of us in the User Experience field, we tout the value of research and stand firm that our best design work is built upon a clear understanding of the intended users’ needs and motivations for using a particular product/site/application. As practitioners of user research, we have employed a variety of methods that range from usability testing to focus groups to user interviews to contextual enquiry. Oftentimes, we work with as few as five participants on up to fifteen or twenty and immerse ourselves in the data we collect. At the end of the day, most of our research methods are considered to be qualitative.
As we do our work and engage our clients about the need for this type of user research, it doesn’t take long until we run into individuals who tout the value of market research. The methodologies in this camp are typically found in market segmentation, customer surveys, customer panels, etc. Most often, 100s or 1000s of participants take part in these studies in order to give the research “validity.” This type of research is considered quantitative.
In my interactions with clients and market researchers, the conversations often turn in such a way that it seems as if qualitative research is in a distant second place to quantitative or that the two can’t be used together. Questions such as, “How can you make these recommendations after having only worked with ten participants?” or “How can you conduct that study in our companies’ offices in a branded building?”
I believe one of the key distinctions to make is the actual purpose of the research in the first place. Qualitative research, such as those methods employed by user experience professionals, is conducted to inform a project team about design decisions. By its very nature it is focused in a particular problem space (e.g. create an effective self-service experience so that we have fewer calls into the call center). We want to understand are the users goals, their behaviors, and their attitudes when performing a particular action (e.g. buying X).
On the other hand, market researchers are often looking at a very large scope that looks at the customers for an entire company and how it is placed within its industry. The purpose of this research is often to help decision makers pick a particular spot in the market place for a particular product, measure the effectiveness of advertising, etc. Market researchers want to inform decision makers about the value of a customer to the business, how they behave at this time, and what areas to focus on in order to reach them with marketing messages.
As user experience professionals, we value quantitative research and can often use it as a starting point in our work. However, it does not inform design decisions such as which features to include in the product, or how to prioritize their accessibility or requirements. For example, quantitative research might tell us that customer A uses Google to search the Internet, but it does not tell us how features are most important for her self-service experience when she uses online banking, needs to manage her mobile phone account, etc.
By leveraging both types of research, we gain a deeper understanding of the customer or user. For example, I have used market segments when creating a participant recruiting screener for a qualitative study or when assembling customer personas.
The best way to move forward is for each side to recognize the value that is brought by both quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative often helps us frame the market place and understand the customer at a high level. For project work, qualitative research enables us to build upon these findings to drive towards a deeper insight into the customer or user as we create specific solutions for them.