Qualitative user research is an invaluable tool in designing digital services. Our design anthropologist Anna shows how the approach can provide insight where mere numerical data fails.

Are you in the process of building an awesome new digital service? If yes, you probably wouldn’t mind gaining some invaluable user insight as you go.

Fear not – qualitative research is here to help. But what does it mean in the context of service design?

Qualitative research focuses on content insight instead of huge amount of numerical data. The goal is to analyse the right kind of information from the right kind of customers and users.

As a design anthropologist, I constantly get to see how qualitative research pays off big time in digital service design. Thus, it is always something worthy of investment, even when the budget is tight.

Interviewing vs. tracking

There are various ways to collect insight from users. In already existing services, user data is most often collected via services like Google Analytics. With a solid customer base this is obviously a must, since it enables you to analyse how, who and where people are using your service. You can, for example, track the bottlenecks of your service: knowing where people drop out is vital in analysing the quality of the user experience.

One cannot overstate the importance of actually sitting down with the members of your target audience and carefully watching how they interact with the service.

But what this numerical data does not necessarily tell, is why your customers act the way they do. And that is where talking with your users and gaining qualitative insight comes into play.

One cannot overstate the importance of actually sitting down with the members of your target audience and carefully watching how they interact with the service.

Case in point: technology ethnographer Tricia Wang used to work for Nokia at the company’s peak and saw firsthand how neglecting the human experience in customer research played a part in contributing to the rapid downfall of the mobile giant.

The job of the qualitative researchers is to observe, ask questions and – most importantly – listen. They should go where the users are, ask them to try out the service in authentic situations and see how the user experience works in real circumstances. This is where, as the saying goes, the magic happens. I can damn near guarantee you’ll be surprised by the results. In many cases, you’ll even stumble upon pieces of information that will make you re-think your whole approach and save your mortal soul.

How much research is enough for my project?

There are several ways to gather qualitative data. As a rule of thumb, ethnography is usually the heaviest, most time-consuming approach, whereas qualitatively structured surveys are the lightest. And of course, there are many options in between. When it comes to deciding which method is the most relevant to your specific needs, consulting the design team and/or design anthropologist you’re working with is your best bet. Also, make sure the people you ask know their stuff, i.e. have a background in academic research.

It is a good idea to start by determining the key issue and the questions you want answers for. If you’re simply looking to field test a specific feature, A-B testing, surveys or short focus group interviews will most likely be more than enough to do the trick. If, on the other hand, you seek to understand your customers’ behaviour or the phenomenon at hand on a deeper level or identify customer segments, more time and resources are needed.

Before long, all studies reach a so-called saturation point where they no longer produce any new insight. Some studies suggest that in many cases, it can take as few as 5 test subjects to reveal most of the problems in your idea or service. The more complex the problem, the more people you need to study in order to reach the saturation point.

Summa summarum: work within your budget, but do not make the mistake of neglecting user research altogether – even the most basic qualitative studies will most likely save you a lot of sweat and tears in the long run.

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