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How to Conduct Qualitative Research: Interviews, UX Testing, and Focus Groups

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#Analytics 10 august 2023
  • Oleg Korolev

    Director of Product Analysis

Hello! I'm Oleg Korolev, Head of Analytics at imaga. Our department deals with both quantitative and qualitative research to suit any taste. I've already written about surveys and other types of quantitative research. Now it's time to talk about qualitative research. In this article, I'll discuss the most popular qualitative research methods and explain how they can help your business.

What is UX research

To create a convenient and in-demand product, it's crucial to understand why users need it. Good design, user-friendly interfaces, and positive user experiences are all based on UX research. It helps determine the purpose of our product and how users want to interact with it.
UX research is an essential part of the design process. It requires special attention at all stages of development because it can help solve many problems related to product usage. UX research provides the following benefits:

  1. Reduces the risk of creating an unwanted product.
  2. Helps to choose the most successful UI.
  3. Increases user satisfaction and loyalty.

All UX research can be divided into quantitative and qualitative types.

Quantitative UX research measures numerical indicators. It answers questions like "How many?", "How often?", and "How much?". Quantitative research is essential for understanding statistical data. Such methods include:

  • Surveys,
  • A/B testing,
  • Card sorting,
  • Usability testing.
Qualitative UX research helps to understand why users perform certain actions. With this approach, you can gain insights, data about user needs, motivations, and problems. It answers questions like "Why?" and "How exactly?". These methods include:

  • In-depth interviews,
  • Focus groups,
  • Usability tests,
  • Persona synthesis.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are a qualitative research method. The idea is to gather a group of people and discuss the tasks at hand together. This method is used to obtain a broad range of opinions and new ideas in a single interview session. A focus group provides a general idea of how people perceive your brand or product concept.
There are several types of focus groups:


  1. Standard — 8-10 participants.
  2. Mini — 5-6 participants: allows for a deeper and more detailed exploration of the participants' perspectives.
  3. Peer — 2-4: a transitional option between interviews and focus groups, which helps to study behavioral strategies.
The distinctive feature of focus groups is group dynamics. In a group, respondents may engage in conversation and share more information than they would in a personal interview. At the same time, respondents can influence each other, change opinions due to arguments from other participants, or be reluctant to share their ideas, especially if those ideas differ from the majority.
Nowadays, when developing digital products, this method is typically not used, as it doesn't allow for gathering sufficient and reliable information from respondents. Additionally, organizing a focus group can be challenging – the meeting should be conducted offline. Plus, moderating and processing the data requires more effort than, for example, conducting in-depth interviews.

In-depth Interviews

An in-depth interview is a personal interview; essentially, it's an informal, unstructured conversation. During the conversation, the interviewer learns about the respondent's opinions, beliefs, awareness, or habits.
When creating a new product, new functionality, or refining current solutions, it's important to understand the needs and expectations of users. In-depth interviews can help with this. Through these interviews, you'll learn more about the user (gender, age, etc.), their experience, hidden and explicit motives, and their attitudes towards your product and competitors.

The main goal of the interview is to uncover the true reasons and motives behind the user's behavior because people often don't realize why they make certain decisions. In-depth interviews are suitable for almost any business and can be used in various situations.

Areas of application:
1. Gathering information about the target audience.
When a business offers a solution for a broad audience, it is important to conduct segmentation. Then, it is necessary to create a portrait, identify needs, barriers, behavioral patterns, and features of the purchasing experience for each segment, and understand how they differ from one another. All of this is applicable when working on a new product, searching for your niche, or a new target audience.

2. Collecting recommendations.

Any product over time requires improvements and modifications. The best way to understand what to fix or add is to communicate with users. In this case, the interview will help understand how people use the product, what they dislike, what hinders task execution, and their expectations.

3. Competitor analysis.

At any stage of product development, it is important to evaluate your competitive environment. Analyzing competitors allows you to understand the market situation, current trends, and problems. Moreover, analyzing competitors is necessary to use their experience: identifying best practices and successful interaction patterns.

Communicating with users provides an opportunity to learn more about the consumer perception of other companies: the difficulties they face when using products, the pros and cons of competitors, and the advantages of your product.

4. Creating a customer journey map (CJM).

Using in-depth interviews, you can determine the customer's touchpoints with your product and the barriers they encounter at each stage. At the same time, you can find out the emotions triggered by each interaction stage with the product, as well as the growth and development points of the product.

5. New functionality (testing and evaluating new solutions).

Any feature requires thorough testing and evaluation before deciding to make changes. You can test a new solution using interviews, during which you will receive feedback from your product users. This is most often applicable to the creation of a new product and the evaluation of prototypes.

6. Hypothesis testing.

In-depth interviews, like focus groups, can help in forming hypotheses. Once the hypotheses are formed, quantitative research, such as surveys, can be conducted to confirm or refute them using statistical data.

Types of in-depth interviews

In-depth interviews can be divided into three groups:

  1. Solution-based: There is a solution (prototype) or a hypothesis about a solution that needs to be tested with real users.
  2. Problem-based: There is a problem or a hypothesis about a problem; with the help of interviews, we can confirm/refute it and find ways to solve it based on user feedback.
  3. Exploratory: To obtain data about the target audience, interaction points with the product, and more.

UX testing

UX testing is a qualitative research method in which respondents complete tasks on a live interface or a prototype of a future interface. This method is used to examine user behavior scenarios in the interface to determine how understandable and functional the user paths are, what blockers arise for users during their interaction with the product, and what emotions they experience during the interaction.
Suitable for:
  1. Assessing how convenient it is to work with an existing product.
  2. Comparing two interfaces, for example, old and new, or your own and a competitor's.
  3. Comparing the convenience of the interface for different user groups, such as beginners and advanced users.
  4. Identifying possible usability issues with the interface before launching the product and addressing them in advance.

Types of UX testing


  1. Moderated: The interviewer gives tasks to the respondent and monitors the progress of task completion.
  2. Moderated with elements of IDI: The interviewer gives tasks to the respondent, monitors the progress of task completion, and conducts an interview with the respondent, for example, about their experience interacting with the interface.
  3. Unmoderated: The user is given tasks without an interviewer.
  4. Quantitative unmoderated.

Sample size

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen once formulated the "rule of five," which states that five respondents will identify 85% of interface problems. This rule does work, but many people start applying it everywhere and always, which can harm the results. For case studies, more interviews are needed—20, 40, 50. Segment the audience and select at least 2-3 representatives with different experiences in each segment.
In qualitative research, the concept of saturation applies: the sample should be sufficient to detect all or almost all configurations of meaning and experience important for the study. However, it should not be too large, as it then becomes counterproductive.

Preparing for the interview

First and foremost, we need to understand the purpose of the study and its objectives. This could be analyzing the current solution, collecting data on the user's previous experience, etc. Based on the research objectives, a list of hypotheses that we want to test must be compiled.
A hypothesis is an assumption about how the user will interact with the product and what barriers they may encounter. It is essential to remember that the hypotheses should correlate with the research objectives.
Hypotheses can be about:

  • Users, their profiles, and their behavior;
  • Possible user issues;
  • Potential or existing solutions;
  • Barriers and triggers related to the product;
  • Clarity of the interface, its elements, and texts;
  • How the interface and its elements will be used.


Once the hypotheses are determined, a list of questions to help verify them should be compiled.

Break down the questions into parts so that they are easier to answer:
The listed topics may seem similar, but each involves collecting different data. That's why it's essential to agree on broad research objectives with your team — this will help accurately define the topics and save a lot of time.

Once the overall interview topics are formed, you need to create questions for each of them. The topics themselves are not questions. If we need to understand why people like online shopping, we do not ask the respondent directly about it. We need to find out why exactly they love or dislike online shopping.

Not ideal: Good: Заголовок 3 Заголовок 4 Заголовок 5 Заголовок 6 Заголовок 7 Заголовок 8 Заголовок 9
Why do people buy online? What products do you purchase online? Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок
What products do you never buy online? Why? What do you like about the online payment process? What don't you like? Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок
Don't use phrasing that can influence the response
A common mistake is trying to quickly obtain the desired answers. Don't think for the client and decide what they might answer. The main task is to get the client's responses, not to impose your own opinion on them.

Not ideal: Good: Does it really annoy you when something doesn't work while ordering a product online? Try to recall the last time you wanted to buy a product online and something didn't work. How did you feel? Заголовок 5 Заголовок 6 Заголовок 7 Заголовок 8 Заголовок 9
Does it really annoy you when something doesn't work while ordering a product online? Try to recall the last time you wanted to buy a product online and something didn't work. How did you feel? Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок
Ask about specific events:
If you ask the user about a specific situation, their answers will be more accurate. Customers talk more sincerely about their real experiences and provide more details. Try to direct the user to a specific situation in their past experience with your question.

Not ideal: Good: What thoughts come to mind when you are unable to complete an online purchase? Can you tell me what you thought when you last tried to buy something online but couldn't complete the purchase? Заголовок 5 Заголовок 6 Заголовок 7 Заголовок 8 Заголовок 9
What thoughts come to mind when you are unable to complete an online purchase? Can you tell me what you thought when you last tried to buy something online but couldn't complete the purchase? Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок
If possible, ask open-ended questions.

Not ideal: Good: What have you recently purchased online? Tell me about the last time you bought something online? Заголовок 5 Заголовок 6 Заголовок 7 Заголовок 8 Заголовок 9
What have you recently purchased online? Tell me about the last time you bought something online? Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок Нужен блок Нужен блок с табличкой для статей на вихре Нужен блок
Signs of a good interview:

  • There are questions about the respondent's specific life experiences.
  • There are questions about the client's past and present needs.
  • There are few or no closed-ended questions.
  • The interviewer does not try to sell the product directly during the interview.
  • There are clarifying questions for understanding the reasons.
  • Only one question is asked at a time.
  • Pauses are maintained.
  • There is no small talk.
  • The conversation is recorded on a voice recorder.
  • Questions are asked sequentially. There is no rush or interrogation.
How many questions do you need to get everything right? For an interview, the important questions are those that help engage the respondent and get as much information as possible about the product and their experience. So don't focus on numbers. Ask everything that will help you better understand the user's motivation. But keep in mind that the respondent may get tired. Tired people often give formal answers, which are not suitable for us.

A few more tips for in-depth interviews


  • Don't offer the respondent answer options. It is always easier for a person to choose a given option than to think and understand the reasons for their choice.
  • Don't ask questions about the future. When you ask a question, the person is in one life situation, and this situation may change by the time the product is launched or updated.
  • Specify evaluative statements. Evaluative statements are things like "it's convenient for me", "it's clear to me", "it's comfortable for me". Everyone may have different definitions of these concepts, and it's important for us to understand what exactly a specific respondent means.
  • Don't assume things for the respondent. If you're not sure you understood the answer correctly, it's better to clarify.
  • Don't interrupt the respondent, but at the same time, don't forget to moderate the conversation so that the person doesn't stray from the topic.
Before starting the interview, tell the respondent a little about yourself. It will be easier for the respondent to share details of their life if they know something about you. You can talk about your experience or your role in the company. Explain what you're researching, what you want to improve, and why you're conducting the interview.
Always listen to the client, even though the interview is being recorded. People can sense when you're not interested in them, and they become closed off and unwilling to share. During the interview, we're having a conversation with a person, and any word can lead the dialogue in a different direction, so it's important to learn to listen.
During the interview, especially if it's a video call or face-to-face conversation, show interest in what the person is saying. Rely on individual phrases, express emotions with facial expressions, and react to the respondent's answers. This will let them know that they're talking to a real person who is genuinely listening and interested in what they have to say.
If the client is talking about something off-topic, you shouldn't interrupt. Let them finish their thought. Leading and clarifying questions help to bring the conversation back to the right direction. Also, a polite request to return to the research topic can be used, but only after the interlocutor has finished their thought. If a person is interrupted, they may think they said something wrong and become closed off. They begin to carefully weigh each word and embellish their answers, which may threaten the credibility of the data obtained.
Clarifying questions are always good. They help to obtain complete answers. The more clarifying questions you ask, the more information you will get. If the interviewer sees that the respondent can elaborate on a particular topic more deeply, they may ask additional questions about it. Conversely, some questions can be skipped if the respondent does not have such experience.

During the interview, you should not express your opinion. You need to be on the respondent's side, even if you understand that they may be wrong about something.

How to process interview results

Once all the interviews are conducted, you need to gather all the information. Then, understand what conclusions were reached, whether the goal was achieved, and if further interviews are needed. That's why it's important to identify insights right away. And not just the most popular and common ones, but also unique ones.
In the research results, you can distinguish several types of information:

  • Real problems – what caused negative emotions in the respondent.
  • Advantages – the reasons why the respondent uses the product.
  • Assumptions – when the respondent is unsure of the answer or has made a hypothesis.
Initial results can be presented in a table format:

  • A block with general information about the respondent: their name, age, place of residence, and gender.
  • Answers to the main questions: each cell contains an interview fragment with a specific user scenario. The text in the rows can be concise: "yes" or "no", or it can contain larger interview fragments.
  • Additional block, notes: this is outside the script, outside the list of interview questions; here we record what is not related to the topic of a specific interview but is still important to mention.
When preparing the research results, you need to understand how many respondents answer similarly – this should be highlighted in the general conclusion. For example, you have 20 respondents. 10 of them do not use a personal account, while the others use it occasionally or every day. In this case, in the general conclusion, you would have to indicate that the majority of users do not visit their personal account.
Conclusions should be made carefully and accurately. This is the most important part of the research, as other departments will base their decisions on improving the product or service on it in the future. There is no universal template for an in-depth interview report. It is more of a set of hypotheses that still need to be tested.

Conclusion

Conducting research is necessary to better understand users, their desires and pain points, as well as how and why they use products.
Before the research, it is essential to understand what problem we will be addressing with it and with whom among our clients we should speak.

Before the research, you need to determine which method we will use. Each research method is suitable for its own tasks.

Most often, analysts use in-depth interviews, during which they obtain insights from the client through questions.

The list of questions should be prepared in advance – before inviting clients; it should include a plan divided into several blocks.

All main questions are supplemented by clarifying ones – they help to better understand the clients' answers.

The research results will help form hypotheses that should be tested later, or a list of ideas and improvements for the current solution.
  • Oleg Korolev

    Director of Product Analysis

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