Qualitative vs quantitative UX: when do they work together?

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Article by Jason Stockwell, Digital Insight Lead at People for Research

When we think about user research, one of the first questions we’re often faced with is “qual or quant?”. Why is it this way? We even do it internally at People for Research, splitting projects by qualitative or quantitative research.

These two different types of user research shouldn’t be competing entities, but are often treated as such. So, is there another way to look at these options so that they complement each other instead of competing between them?

What are the differences?

Quantitative research does a great job of putting a finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing. Maybe I’m doing our unmoderated research team a disservice here, but many times with quantitative studies you don’t get to go as deep into questions and insights as you do with qualitative research; however, you get to know what the general consensus is regarding your participants’ behaviours and experiences.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, looks at longer interviews or research activities with a smaller batch of participants. This allows researchers to figure out the “why?” behind decisions and not just focus on top-level statistics.

This overview baseline statistics vs deeper insightful conversations is the core difference between qualitative and quantitative research.

In our opinion, the names of the research don’t help themselves, as they are very much black or white and sometimes you need some grey to help you get to your desired outcome.

So, can quantitative research generate in-depth quality results? Of course! Can qualitative bring quantitative results? Definitely, but only if you have the time!

Working in a cycle

There are methods to help you weave these two tactics together in longer-term research projects. One of the ways to do this is to introduce a cycle of research that alternates between qualitative and quantitative techniques. Here is a basic example.

1. Qualitative benchmarking

Benchmarking in user experience is often done with groups who are familiar with the products or services: this could be via an internal team, looking at existing clients or working with partners to look at potential changes to products or services.

2. Quantitative baseline

After you have the initial outline of what you are looking to analyse, quantitative research can help you get a wider picture of your target audience.

3. Deeper qualitative interviews

Off the back of the insights found, at this stage you can source the right participants to take part in more in-depth interviews and expand on specific questions/processes to help make decisions.

4. Insights to make change (or not)

The cliché “change is the only constant” rings especially true in user research, but sometimes this also means that the biggest change is… to remain on the same path. In other words, the purpose of user research is to inform changes or help us avoid unnecessary ones, as well as ensure the successful implementation of any updates.

A short disclaimer here regarding the cyclic qual + quant process — there is no tried and tested way of making these two methods work together. As far as user research is concerned, there is no magic formula, but by making qualitative and quantitative work together, you can get closer to the right outcomes.

Blending the two approaches

Without the continual cycle, professionals often research and design in sprints or projects with an end goal in sight. The good news is that you don’t need a cycle to put the qual + quant process to the test: you can use quantitative approaches to feed qualitative responses and go deeper into participant responses. Something along these lines:

The initial quantitative research can give you an idea of the wider questions you should be asking. For example, if we’re looking at how many participants use specific software on a device, quantitative research can go a bit deeper to tell us the initial why and how.

Once these responses around their experiences are collected, we can go into more detail with specific questions or testing, selecting participants from the quantitative exercise and expanding on the reasons why they answered a certain way.

But can quantitative research then follow up from qualitative in the same way? Of course. Qualitative research will ask the right questions in depth and can be followed by a quantitative exercise targeting participants with a similar profile and cementing what we now know about this audience’s opinions, behaviours and experiences. Maybe it can even inform a future sprint or round of research.

Qualitative research and quantitative research can work together. If combined appropriately, they can be complementary tactics pulling research in the same direction, towards a better understanding of what users need. As research and products get more and more complex, we see the lines get blurred: for example, we’ve worked on what could be described as a quantitative piece of research with “only” 25 participants, as well as qualitative research projects with more than 50 participants and sessions. All of this to say: defining types of research goes way beyond the numbers.

How are you making the two methods work together and are you using both effectively? We’d be interested to know. Tweet us @people4research or @jj_stockwell and let us know!

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Qualitative vs quantitative UX: when do they work together? was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.