Qualitative research is defined as a research method that focuses on gathering insights data or observations about users, products, or services through direct communication. This method is not only about “what” people think in a particular way but also “why” they think so in that specific way. This article aims to provide detailed information about five types of qualitative research methods available. 

When to Use Qualitative Research Methods?

We use qualitative research methods when we wish:

  • To discover a problem
  • To find opportunities
  • To understand a phenomenon better
  • To build/ develop a theory
  • To develop a new product

In UX, qualitative research is an investigation of why something is occurring, then collecting information, and seeking ways to fix it.

Characteristics of this Method

Qualitative research methods usually collect real-time data through interviews, observations, and documents, etc., rather than relying on a single data source. This type of research method works towards solving complex problems by breaking down into smaller chunks and drawing conclusions so that it is easily understood by all. It is more of a communicative method, and in this method, participants can build their trust in the researcher, and the information thus obtained is first hand and original.

1. Data Collection

The data are mostly collected through interviews and observations. At the beginning of the study, researchers have some knowledge about the usage context and that is why “Research Questions” are general in the beginning. With every interview, research questions are refined and become more and more specific and technical. The qualitative research method is straightforward and flexible but time-consuming.

There are no rules for sample size in qualitative inquiry, it depends on whether we are getting the answers to our research question. Therefore, sampling can be stopped when it is observed that no new information was being derived and data is becoming repetitive in nature.  

Researchers take notes about what people say and prepare observation notes about how participants live or work in their natural environments and about their actions or task they do. Sometimes they record and take audio-visual materials like audio or video with participants’ permission.

2. Data Analysis or Consolidating Data

Each interview is transcribed manually or with the help of specialised software like NowTranscribe (for windows and is free) or paid software like InqScribe (Mac/Windows), depending upon available resources and convenience choice mode. Then researchers compare and look for a pattern and identify themes in the data, which makes useful sense. They try to find problems, gaps, patterns, themes, opportunities, design ideas, etc. and these findings are further analysed and grouped or categorised. It requires a lot of time and is usually done in groups.

The final report for qualitative research has a lot of user stories, case study, quotes, work model, flow diagram, journey map, which is generally a narrative type of report. 

Types of Qualitative Research Methods

1. Qualitative Research Methods: Ethnography

This is one of the types of qualitative research methods for UX professionals where one is involved in the target participants’ environment to understand the goals, cultures and challenges. The main focus of Ethnography is on socio-cultural groups where researchers really dig in and get a deep knowledge of cultural groups and how they think or live or do things that are different from what we expected or heard from various sources. This is the key thing that separates Ethnography from other qualitative methods like native, phenomenology or even ground theory.

The research describes and interprets the similar meanings, beliefs, and attitudes of the group’s values, conduct, convictions, and language that are constructed between a group of people in a particular space. (Creaswell. 2013, P. 90) 

When to use Ethnography research?

If researchers want to understand the social culture-sharing group or study a group in their natural environment to understand a larger issue or to capture day to day activities of the social culture group.

The essential components of Ethnography are the terms like field methods employed, qualitative inquiry, or observation by the participants. The main advantage of this technique is that it provides the first-hand study of peoples behaviour in the cultural groups and is flexible. Researchers are required to spend a lot of time in the field to understand a group’s culture and observe them in natural settings in the field.

Researcher’s questions for Ethnography begin with a very broad statement about the whole cultural group – what are the needs and how we solve issues of X communities? Or how to find out the distinct culture, behaviour, belief, and language of the community.

Data Collection and Source of Ethnography Research Method

There are two main methods to get the data collection and source:

  • Participant Observation
  • Interview

Many times Ethnography researchers submerge themselves for a period of time to do study. The study is about people (their behaviour, communication, beliefs, style), place (location, setting, environment) and things (artefacts, objects that have significance and meaning to accepting or rejecting).

The sample size could be 20 or more people from a group, usually, data are in the form of notes, observations, and sometimes artefacts of people’s notes, newspapers cutouts, local articles, and journals, etc. which help researchers understand in-depth knowledge about cultural groups.

Data Analysis of Ethnography Research Method

An Ethnography is very similar to most qualitative research methods when it comes to data analysing. The researcher has a lot of notes, information, and data to analyse the data collected from various sources and build a deeper understanding of the social and cultural group, themes that immerse and interpret their meaning, and significant effect on that group.

The last researcher creates a detailed descriptive report about his/her rich experiences in this cultural group so that it can help readers to see the inner depths of the cultural group without being there.  

Let’s look at a few limitations and challenges with ethnography:

  • Requires a lot of time in the field to understand a social culture group.
  • As an outsider, being able to get into that culture sharing group is a big challenge.
  • It takes a significant amount of time to build trust and rapport with the community

2. Qualitative Research Methods: Narrative

The narrative research methodology allows people to narrate stories about their life and experiences around the world. Narrative research provides an option to explore personal experiences beyond the boundaries of a typical questionnaire.  As a result, we get first-hand information about their own life, experiences, and happening in their daily lives.

These data are usually gathered in the form of interviews or sometimes in the form of personal diaries, letter writing, email, or video diaries artefacts. All of these things tell the researcher the story of an individual and some sequence of events.  In many disciplines, this approach has been used to learn the culture, historic experiences, identity, and the narrator’s lifestyle.

Data Collection and Source for Narrative Research Method

Data for a narrative analysis can be collected through field notes, interviews transcripts, journal records, own personal observations and others observations, storytelling, letter writing, and autobiographical writing. 

In-person interviews often take place over months or even years but this can be presented as a story with topics. Collection of stories by individuals or small individual groups are the characteristics of the narrative approach. The sample size for this could be really small to 3 cases in a narrative.

Data Analysis of Narrative Research Method

For data analysis, researchers should collaborate with participants to organise and verify information that has been collected. We can use narrative thematic analysis for the same:

First step is to listen to the stories, by telling and retelling their first-hand experiences so that the voice of the subject could be preserved and integrity is maintained.

Second step is the interpretation of the information so that data becomes more and more relevant, factual, and personal, depending on the similarities, differences, and experiences of the participants. From these similarities or differences, we create a theme or structure.  

For example, because of COVID-19 teachers and children started online education, the best way to gather stories is a narrative research methodology. Assuming that we interview three different teachers asking their stories about the online class experience, issues faced, etc. The information collected with these measures is rich and is more subjective from an individual teacher’s perspective, so we can analyse information to compare and find their relation to a single event.

We can use multiple sources of data so that it gives you that reliability and real picture.

The final step is “restorying” – writing phase, by creating visuals including words and images about the event and final expression of the experience. That is retelling the story with a proper beginning, middle, and end.

Limitations of Narrative Research Method

Before considering the narrative approach, one should be aware of its limitations:

  • The researchers have to collect extensive information for the analysis, which is extremely slow and time-consuming.
  • Sometimes it is hard to qualitatively assess the information in narrative research.
  • This method involves the study of one person, who represents only culture or domain.
  • Sometimes researchers’ own belief system influences the interpretation.

3. Qualitative Research Methods: Phenomenological

Phenomenology is the interpretive research study of the human life experience. The main objective of this study is to look for the commonality nature of experience. As the name suggests phenomena that arise spontaneously from the living experience of everyday life, could be due to unusual events or people. 

This research is more descriptive in nature. Through interviews with participants, we get an insight into human experiences, situations, events, etc. This is the best way to understand the essence of universal commonality in shared experience and to allow us to explore solutions to the problems.

For example “How COVID patients experience relationships with their friends and family? Or what is the experience of being treated for COVID? This could be the research question for Phenomenology. 

Researchers get the information through in-personal interviews, participants’ blogs, or their personal diary and then examine their views on who has experienced that phenomenon. While doing this they use Bracketing. Bracketing means when the researchers keep themselves distant from the previous understandings, past knowledge, and assumptions so that their own biases, notion, experience, and perception could be kept aside. Usually bracketing is done by discussing with other researchers and colleagues and taking notes.

Data Collection for Phenomenological Research Method

Participants who have had a living experience with a particular phenomenon, which the researchers are studying are recruited. Data usually comes from in-depth interviews, observation documents, and examined data of an event or phenomenon. The recommended sample size for phenomenon research are at least 5 interviews or until the researcher is not finding any new information.  

Data Analysis for Phenomenological Research Method

In phenomenology, the data analysis process is called Horizontalization, where significant statements of commonality in live experience or quotes, are transcripted to describe elements of how the participants experience the phenomenon. These described elements are kept in clusters so as to generate different themes, about participants’ experiences with the phenomenon. 

Final Reports are textual descriptions about what the participants experience with the phenomenon, with a structural description of the context and setting that influences. Researcher writes a long descriptive passage which is usually an imaginative variation about how the participants experience the phenomenon which helps the reader to dig deeper.

Limitations Phenomenological Research Method

  • The time required to gather data analysis and getting participants for this category could be difficult.
  • Recruiting participants on the same phenomenon of interest is a big task. Also, requires a lot of time in gathering data interviews and video recordings, etc.
  • While interpreting and analysing data, it can be difficult to keep their personal biases aside, there is no method for the same, in fact, bias can happen even with Bracketing as well.  
  • Needed larger samples size of participants, as with only 4-5 participants experience, we cannot say that these experiences are universal in nature all across the world.

4. Qualitative Research Methods: Grounded Theory

In 1967, the Grounded theory was introduced by Glaser & Strauss. This is the most popular theory among researchers. Grounded theory starts from collecting actual facts form the data and based on that generates or discovers a theory or discovers a theory, which is “Inductive”, means it is a bottom approach to understanding a social process or rule of the world. 

In grounded theory researchers examine people’s experiences and collect data. This data doesn’t come from resources like books, articles, or researchers’ personal opinions but come from grounded facts and interviews. This collected data study forms a theory. Ground theories are used when there are no existing theories or limited theories or information about research areas. For example, a research question could be about how COVID – 19 has affected the diet and exercise of elderly people. There are no theories or research done in this area, this is a totally new scenario/field.     

One of the key rules of grounded theory is the constant comparison of different participants’ data. 

Let’s take the same example where researchers recruit elderly people whose diet and exercise has been affected due to COVID – 19, this recruitment process is called theoretical sampling.

Data Collection  for Grounded Theory Research Methods

Data comes in the form of interviews, diaries, focus groups, videos, etc.  Interview questions are mostly open-ended and are about the core phenomenon, its influence, and action taken in response. Recruitment sample sizes are between 20 to 30+ to establish a theory better.  

Data Analysis for Grounded Theory Research Methods

The first stage of analysis is called open coding when data is analySed and transcribed line by line. This data is further contextualised based on the condition under which the interaction occurred, the nature of the interaction and its effects. This is called coding.

Researchers then write memos that are field notes on the concepts in which their observations and insights are presented. Memos include information and data regarding how the categories were created at the beginning and explain how they prioritise and how those categories can be formed into a theoretical model.

This includes the constant comparison method, which continues in the process of grounding theory. Researchers compare data and categories over and over until no new categories are found. At this point, they CODE the data.

The next Stage is Axial Coding, where researchers use memos and code to think about each category and their correlation with each other. This is the stage of analyzing actual data and develops or forming a theory.  These relationships and connections are represented through a logic diagram or coding paradigm. It’s basically a visual model which shows categories, with lines and arrows to show an explanation of how the process works.

After that Selective Coding is done by researchers in the form of writing a storyline about the overall explanation of the theory. Finally, Discriminant Sampling is done which is the final step of grounded theory. Here researchers recruit a fresh group of participants who are similar to the original participant and repeat the same study with this group of people and then analyse and determine to find any new experience.

Limitations of Grounded Theory Research Methods

It is difficult to recruit people depending upon the research question. The time required for the study is very high and analysis could be difficult.

5. Qualitative Research Methods: Case Study

It is the study about examining the phenomena within its context in real life using multiple sources of evidence. This is a study bound with time and place. In the case study research method, researchers don’t do experiments and are not a part of that context, they just observe and study the relationship with the context and other causes of the same context.   

When the focus is on questions of ‘how’ and ‘why then most probably this method is chosen. Furthermore, it is used when the behaviour of participants should not be manipulated and the boundaries between the selected event and the context are unclear.

In the case study research method, researchers cannot explain using simple research methods, so they use the case study to explain what they are figuring out, the reason for the problem, and under what circumstances that problem arises. Here’s an example of a case.

Users: Students who are in secondary school between the ages of 13 and 22.

What: Students between these ages should have attended online classes so the first thing that defines the boundary of the system is the age of 13 to 22 years. The second boundary is that they have attended online classes.

Where: Only Students of secondary school from the metropolitan city between the ages of 13 and 22+ years.

Why: We are doing this study to define hypotheses.

Case study research helps researchers to study both simple and complex situations. It allows the researcher to answer questions “how” and “why,” while considering the context in which a phenomenon is situated affects a phenomenon. Case studies are considered useful in research as they enable and provide researchers to examine data at the micro-level.

So, the students from secondary school living in a metropolitan city with ages between 13 to 22 years are included in the study. If they’re living outside of the considered parameters, then we don’t count them in our study. This is an example of a boundary. This is a classic example of how we create a case study for studying.

The next step is selecting the type of case study. The study could be a single case study or multiple case study. A single case study could mean when we are recruiting only one school or one small group of students and multiple case study means when we include multiple school students from the same metropolitan city within the ages of 13 and 22+ years.

Then a researcher can go with a holistic case study approach or embedded case study. In Holistic case study researcher studies the whole process (start to end) of a single school system and it’s a single case study whereas in Embedded case study we examine only a part with multiple schools. It’s a multiple case study.   

Data Collection for Case Study Research Method

In case study data is collected from multiple sources like interviews, field observation, documents, artifacts, archival records, participant observation, etc. In the single case study, data is collected in one period of time, could be month/week/day. In multiple case study, data could be
a) Sequential case that is investigated one-by-one or
b) Parallel Case (Investigated at the same time).

Data Analysis for Case Study Research Method

Similar to most qualitative research methods, we can use the Thematic Analysis for generating Themes. It’s a detail description within-case analysis and cross-case analysis.

Limitations of Case Study Research Method                                                                                                    

  • Finding a case itself is a big task in this method and further to decide between studying single case or multiple case studies is another difficult aspect of this method.
  • Difficult to decide the boundaries of the case.

After reading this article, we hope that the picture would be very clear about selecting a particular research method for your future study depending on research questions, requirements, settings and constraints. If you’re looking to learn qualitative research methods and want to build a career in UI/UX design, consider Springboard’s UI/UX design career track. This 9-month program offers comprehensive learning across all the required skills sets, as well as 1:1 mentorship, personal career coaching and a job guarantee!