True confession from a Ph.D. dropout: It took me a long time to appreciate and [somewhat] understand the beauty, art and nuance to qualitative research. For some reason the “engineering” side of my mind wrestled to come to grips with this approach compared more specific experiment-collect data-analyze, or quantitative methods. What I later came to realize was that, particularly in behavioral spaces, quantitative research isn’t as deterministic as it might sound. Sure, when you’re observing what two chemicals do when they’re combined it might be but humans are complicated. Certainly there’s a place for all methods but done well product research interviews can take you on an amazing journey of learning.
At a high level there are 2 types of research – Generative and Evaluative. At usertesting.com, they define them as follows:
Generative – Research that helps develop a deeper understanding of users to find opportunities for solutions and innovation
Evaluative – Research that assesses a specific problem to ensure usability and ground it in wants, needs and desires of real people.
I recently listened to an interview with Amy Chess, UX Researcher for Amazon with some great advice on conducting research. I took away 6 key points.
- Research questions are what you want to learn or decisions you want to make. Interview questions are what you’ll ask participants to get those answers but they’re not the same questions. If your interview questions are too specific, they take the user out the role of user and into the role of designer. Ask things like “what would you expect to see here” or “what would you expect to happen next” and not “tell me what order these 5 tabs should be in” for example.
- Start with the research question you want to answer first, then worry about methodology. This sounds very meta but it’s the same concept as starting with the problem in mind not the solution.
- Generative research should be to learn not validate what you already think you know. It’s often the unexpected gems that come up that lead to a truly novel learning.
- The research should be anchored to a decision you need to make or a problem you want to unpack. There is a sweet spot between breadth and narrowness of research. By tethering your interview questions to your research question and decision to be made we maximize potential learning and this won’t happen if you’re fixated on a solution more than the problem.
- If your struggling to get started, ask the product team “what are the things that keep you up at night?” [regarding product/user interaction]. “What are the big debated points amongst the team or stakeholders?”.
- Research is continuous. It should lead to more questions and more areas to explore and is ongoing. There’s a tendency of a lot of companies to think we can go out and ask a few questions and then go back into a cave and build something but this learning and refinement of what we know is ongoing. You can’t exercise for a month and expect to be in shape 12 months later anymore than you can interview for a month and expect to have a great understanding 12 months later.
There’s a time and a place for every research method. In my own experience though, generative qualitative research has been the birthplace of the most ideas that led to products and innovation.