UX research: why numbers aren't the only thing that matters

#Analytics 06 may 2024
  • Kate Patrickeeva

    UX researcher

Hi there! I'm Kate Patrickeeva, a UX researcher at Imaga. It's fascinating to work in this relatively young field of business, where I've noticed that different companies have varying views on UX research. Some believe it's mainly about qualitative studies, which they perceive as less reliable than digital data. In this article, I'll delve into why that's a misconception and how we can effectively communicate this to clients.

Myths Surrounding Qualitative Research — A Challenge Across UX

Sometimes, explaining research benefits to clients or recommending a method is necessary. It's crucial to be open-minded about qualitative research. After all, the method is just a tool. Using the wrong method for a problem won't yield results. It's like taking cough medicine for a stuffy nose; you need nasal drops. Different problems require different solutions.
Clients may sometimes request trendy methods like interviews, believing they'll solve everything. But often, the real issue lies elsewhere. While some clients are savvy enough to navigate UX and their product, only some are.
In reality, things often unfold pretty differently:
  • Some clients need to become more familiar with UX research and need help understanding its concept.
  • Others deem it useless because research is only sometimes numerical.
  • Some have heard of its benefits and arrive with their preconceived solutions, then find out that research is conducted differently.
  • And lastly, some seek validation for their viewpoints.
To help the client understand UX, it's often essential to explain the following:
  • How and at what stage UX research can benefit a business.
  • Why UX research is necessary.
  • The research process and the client's role within it.
  • Research may only sometimes align with the client's initial opinions.
One common obstacle in these discussions is the undervaluation of qualitative research compared to quantitative methods. When we choose a qualitative approach, we often need to convince the client and even our colleagues that it is just as valuable as providing numerical data, such as web analytics.
This presents a significant challenge for UX across agencies.
It's a common scenario: a client approaches us with a goal or issue, and we recognize that UX research would be beneficial, but the client declines the service because "there are no numbers involved." As a result, the client moves on to purchase something else, such as design or web analytics, without considering UX research anymore.
In the meantime, research helps mitigate the risk of making the wrong decision. Identifying and rectifying errors in the project’s late stages will be exponentially more expensive.

The difference between qualitative and quantitative research

Quantitative research deals with numbers, addressing questions like: "How many?" and "To what extent?". Qualitative research, however, focuses on words, facts, and opinions. It addresses questions such as "Why?" and "How?"

However, this formal categorization of methods doesn't explain why qualitative and quantitative methods are essential in research. Theory can be invaluable in tackling objections. Above all, researchers must understand it to clarify fundamental concepts to clients.

What quantitative research overlooks

Businesses crave numerical validation. Therefore, it can be difficult for some clients to grasp the research concept without numbers and representations. In these cases, you may benefit from outlining the formal differences between approaches and providing a brief insight into the worldview and philosophy underlying each.
Imagine this: a user couldn't finalize a purchase and closed the page. We have a clear event from a quantitative standpoint—the user closed the tab without completing the purchase. However, the reasons behind this behavior remain unknown. Was it due to a clunky purchase form on the website? Did the user struggle to find the checkout button? Did they have issues with shipping options? Or did they just change their mind?
We can only speculate, and we’d most likely miss the mark. What matters here is the unique user experience, their thoughts, and many factors, including physiological and psychological ones. Additionally, different users may encounter different issues during the same stage, and the reasons behind abandoning a purchase can vary.
It turns out that every objective event has many subjective meanings. Interestingly, if we rely solely on quantitative research, we won't be able to uncover the reasons behind an event. This was noted at the end of the 20th century when a wave of criticism emerged against the quantitative approach that had dominated social research until then.

Advocates for qualitative research challenged the notion that the social world is objective and exists independently of our consciousness. This concept was foundational to the quantitative school approach.
This approach is entirely borrowed from the exact sciences and is fair, for instance, for physics and chemistry. However, the issue pops up when applying it to sciences concerning human consciousness, as it fails to acknowledge that humans possess consciousness and the capacity to attribute personal meanings to events. By disregarding this fact, we overlook significant information about the world.

Two perspectives on the same reality: a holistic approach

Our reality is intricate and diverse, requiring research that allows us to explore products and businesses from various angles.
Quantitative research is needed to uncover what users think about a product, why they navigate away from a page, or how they make product choices. While undoubtedly valuable, it only offers a partial view of the picture. Qualitative research fills in the rest.

Qualitative research has distinct requirements that aren't related to sample representativeness. They encompass the need for transparent interpretations, documented analysis, substantiation, the author's reflexive stance, and its distinction from respondent judgments.
The necessity of complementing methods has been discussed for a long time. There isn't a sharp contrast between quantitative and qualitative approaches. Ultimately, UX research is about comprehensively understanding a product. Therefore, rather than debating which approach is superior, it is best to utilize all available methods.
You can find this idea discussed, for instance, by one of the key figures in UX research, Jeff Sorrow. He suggests three different research designs where methodologies can be combined:
  • Explanatory Sequential Design emphasizes quantitative analysis followed by interviews or other qualitative methods. This is done to clarify the quantitative data obtained.
  • Exploratory Sequential Design starts with qualitative research and then uses the acquired knowledge to develop quantitative research.
  • Convergent Parallel Design involves simultaneously and independently gathering qualitative and quantitative data and analyzing the results.
Undoubtedly, this work is more commonly assumed in large product companies.
However, clients often believe that one study can resolve all their issues. And then, we're compelled to choose an approach: qualitative or quantitative research. But that's a whole different story for another day.
  • Kate Patrickeeva

    UX researcher


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