We definitely live in exciting times. Companies like AirBNB transformed the hotel industry allowing people to rent holiday rooms at a fraction of the cost of hotels.

Nike released the FuelBand, which measures our fitness and allows us to visualise, share our progress and even encourage support via social network channels.

Memoto released a life camera and service that records every single moment of our lives, another transformational product that adds value into our lives.

What do all these innovative products and services have in common?

There is one interesting common denominator: qualitative research. Some of the founding teams might have not undertaken a formal process of qualitative research however these brands would never have experienced that velocity without a profound investigative process that capitalised on humans.

What is qualitative research?

In this article I will argue that ‘qualitative research’ is an essential part of any professional production process and outline three main benefits.

Qualitative research should really be engrained within the essence of the business and marketing strategies from the outset of a project and is second nature to user experience (UX) design professionals.

The issue is that UX professionals or UX focused digital agencies are often commissioned or consulted too late in the design or development process.

What we are seeing evidently in today’s age of the lean start-ups and agile development are both start-ups and corporate organisations blowing the minimal viable product (MVP) trumpet with a view to build, measure and learn.

While there is nothing wrong with MVPs and the lean concepts (the contrary is true), some organisations may skip a human orientated research process, which would result in an inferior user experience.

Perhaps the main myth surrounding research is that it is time consuming and expensive. The truth is far from that as it is much cheaper to find and fix problems during the design phase, before build. For us, it takes several days not several weeks to do research.

Interestingly, it’s impossible to create a superb user experience without some form of research. Some will argue that this is incorrect, as anyone can mock up a great interface (directly within the code as HTML or a design in Photoshop) without research.

But these designers and developers are either using other people’s research (that results in a tangible deliverable much faster) or using ‘unstructured research’ from their own head. In short, if you want the ‘edge’ qualitative research is required.

According to Martin Källström of Memoto you only need an idea, a team, a market and colourful socks to create a compelling dibougital business. We know how important teams are, there have been countless papers on this.

We also know that even if you don’t have a market, you can create one similar to NetJets or Cirque De Soleil by moving out from the red ocean into the blue ocean. So what are colourful socks? Perhaps this is the chutzpa of being quirky and using a more compelling thought process to really find the value.

What I mean here is taking a step back to dare, challenge, observe and bounce ideas off individuals and only execute after that ‘breath of fresh air’ and enlightenment.

If research is conducted using a structured qualitative methodology (and as part of a wider design process) it can be a powerful system for product development speeding up the development and keeping everyone focused.

It’s simply not possible to go away and design, develop and execute a compelling product without researching your subject matter first. Clearly, you need to have an idea before you research and this is the first step.

As Seth Godin wrote in the Icarus Deception:

Creating ideas that spread and connecting the disconnected are the two pillars of our new society, and both of them require the posture of the artist.

Connecting the disconnected is something that can be achieved by investigative methods and by this I mean interviews, ethnography, contextual enquiries and UX led (not market research) focus groups where ideas are presented and collaborative workshops are undertaken.

It is then down to the ‘artists’ to execute. Below are the main reasons why using qualitative research methods and acting on its findings are so important to UX:

1. Customer validation 

A thorough design and research process via ethnography, usability testing and focus groups will obtain customer verification and ideation before a product is developed and goes to market.

It’s vital to remember that we are designing for humans within a variety of different environments using a plethora of technologies, so it’s essential to obtain representative human behaviour (at arm’s length) and incorporate user feedback into your decisions throughout the design process.

Ethnography can be one of the best forms of gaining clear and honest user insights helping to get customer validation before, during and after product development. If you are designing a B2C product you can ask your customers to review your (or a competitor’s) product by keeping a paper or electronic diary of their thoughts and experiences of using your project within their natural habitat.

If you are producing a B2B product aimed at a professional sector, you can even run contextual enquiries research in situ, within a work place by quietly observing the user or using video equipment and then having Q&A sessions later.

UX professionals can obtain crucial customer insights via usability testing. By inviting typical customers into a user testing lab, you can test your website, system or mobile app.

While there are many online solutions, we feel that nothing beats ‘face time’ (preferably using eye tracking technology to get extra insights) with a customer as you can engage in open-ended probing retrospectively, enabling deeper insights from their experience.

Further to individual customer testing, focus groups and brainstorming activities can identify participants ‘wants and needs’ to generate the desired functions of your product. 

2. Clarity  

A key benefit of using qualitative research is the clarity you get. By curating multiple stakeholder opinions into one vision and developing ‘project personas’, you can obtain an edge in UX design.

Qualitative research helps to avoid analysis paralysis, as many project owners will focus on analysing data from sales and marketing to make their project decisions. While it’s vital to look at this data, your product development cannot rely on statistics alone.

In many instances you can spend weeks curating and analysing data, without knowing the true requirements of intended users. Quantitative data (if analysed correctly) generally tells us ‘how much’ whereas qualitative research will tell us “how” and “why” people use your product, which can encourage creative sparks.

Via a set of stakeholder interviews, UX professionals gauge, analyse and obtain a lucid comprehension of the product’s vision. This simple technique is probably the most important part of the design process and recommended with multiple stakeholders.

As an output, the UX professional will highlight the key findings, the vision, the personas, the competitors, the opportunity, the desired features and the project’s objectives. If relevant, timelines, budgets and expectations are summarised contributing towards the project management process.

After this, it’s recommended to create up to four archetypical personas. These are created via input from real customers so that designers can craft the user experience based on real user motivations and concerns.

Learn more about stakeholder interviews on Erika Hall’s articles interviewing humans on A List Apart.

3. A thorough process

If you are after a qualitative methodology that can also be shaped to help to form (or aid) a project management methodology, it is recommended on using user centred design (UCD).

The benefits of UCD are well documented and it is known that a UCD process forms the basis of the content, behaviour and ‘form’ strategy via a solid information architecture and interaction design process. Although UCD might be interpreted as being a waterfall process and separate to the development process; this is a myth.

While UCD is definitely not pure scrum, it is possible to fuse the UCD and agile into one coherent process where qualitative research is done upfront as a phase 0, involving developers.

This way specialist UX professionals or a UX focused digital agency are involved early on and regularly consulted throughout the project adding value at arm’s length without extensive data crunching.

The project is then developed with users and stakeholders in mind and will produce the desired results. User input should not scare development teams as UCD also helps to cap scope and feature creep by keeping the teams focused on what really is important to the end user.

From our experience, test driven development (TDD) and technology research can all happen alongside the UCD process and actually, be incorporates as part of it.

Ultimately it’s all about involvement and how your team work together as well as having a solid project management process.


Sometimes information collected via qualitative research can be tainted and biased. This is why it has to be undertaken by impartial and experienced professionals who will know how to filter the outputs of the research.

It’s important to combine quantitative and qualitative research together to obtain conglomerate results.

We live in the age of research and it’s so easy to forget that human research is a key part of the ‘R’ within R&D. By engaging with UX professionals and UX focused digital agencies that are experienced in qualitative research techniques, you will unleash winning projects and products that are of tremendous value to your customers, no matter what size the project is.