When we speak about a qualitative research study, it’s easy to think there is one kind.
But just as with quantitative methods, there are actually many varieties of qualitative methods.
Similar to the way you can group usability testing methods, there are also a number of ways to segment qualitative methods.
A popular and helpful categorization separate qualitative methods into five groups: ethnography, narrative, phenomenological, grounded theory, and case study. John Creswell outlines these five methods in Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design.
While the five methods generally use similar data collection techniques (observation, interviews, and reviewing text), the purpose of the study differentiates them—something similar with different types of usability tests. And like classifying different usability studies, the differences between the methods can be a bit blurry. Here are the five qualitative methods in more detail.
Ethnographic research is probably the most familiar and applicable type of qualitative method to UX professionals. In ethnography, you immerse yourself in the target participants’ environment to understand the goals, cultures, challenges, motivations, and themes that emerge. Ethnography has its roots in cultural anthropology where researchers immerse themselves within a culture, often for years! Rather than relying on interviews or surveys, you experience the environment first hand, and sometimes as a “participant observer.”
For example, one way of uncovering the unmet needs of customers is to “follow them home” and observe them as they interact with the product. You don’t come armed with any hypotheses to necessarily test; rather, you’re looking to find out how a product is used.
The narrative approach weaves together a sequence of events, usually from just one or two individuals to form a cohesive story. You conduct in-depth interviews, read documents, and look for themes; in other words, how does an individual story illustrate the larger life influences that created it. Often interviews are conducted over weeks, months, or even years, but the final narrative doesn’t need to be in chronological order. Rather it can be presented as a story (or narrative) with themes, and can reconcile conflicting stories and highlight tensions and challenges which can be opportunities for innovation.
For example, a narrative approach can be an appropriate method for building a persona. While a persona should be built using a mix of methods—including segmentation analysis from surveys—in-depth interviews with individuals in an identified persona can provide the details that help describe the culture, whether it’s a person living with Multiple Sclerosis, a prospective student applying for college, or a working mom.
When you want to describe an event, activity, or phenomenon, the aptly named phenomenological study is an appropriate qualitative method. In a phenomenological study, you use a combination of methods, such as conducting interviews, reading documents, watching videos, or visiting places and events, to understand the meaning participants place on whatever’s being examined. You rely on the participants’ own perspectives to provide insight into their motivations.
Like other qualitative methods, you don’t start with a well-formed hypothesis. In a phenomenological study, you often conduct a lot of interviews, usually between 5 and 25 for common themes, to build a sufficient dataset to look for emerging themes and to use other participants to validate your findings.
For example, there’s been an explosion in the last 5 years in online courses and training. But how do students engage with these courses? While you can examine time spent and content accessed using log data and even assess student achievement vis-a-vis in-person courses, a phenomenological study would aim to better understand the students experience and how that may impact comprehension of the material.
4. Grounded Theory
Whereas a phenomenological study looks to describe the essence of an activity or event, grounded theory looks to provide an explanation or theory behind the events. You use primarily interviews and existing documents to build a theory based on the data. You go through a series of open and axial coding techniques to identify themes and build the theory. Sample sizes are often also larger—between 20 to 60—with these studies to better establish a theory. Grounded theory can help inform design decisions by better understanding how a community of users currently use a product or perform tasks.
For example, a grounded theory study could involve understanding how software developers use portals to communicate and write code or how small retail merchants approve or decline customers for credit.
5. Case Study
Made famous by the Harvard Business School, even mainly quantitative researchers can relate to the value of the case study in explaining an organization, entity, company, or event. A case study involves a deep understanding through multiple types of data sources. Case studies can be explanatory, exploratory, or describing an event. The annual CHI conference has a peer-reviewed track dedicated to case studies.
For example, a case study of how a large multi-national company introduced UX methods into an agile development environment would be informative to many organizations.
The table below summarizes the differences between the five qualitative methods.
|Method|| Focus||Sample Size|| Data Collection|
|Ethnography||Context or culture||—||Observation & interviews|
|Narrative||Individual experience & sequence||1 to 2||Stories from individuals & documents|
|Phenomenological||People who have experienced a phenomenon||5 to 25||Interviews|
|Grounded Theory||Develop a theory from grounded in field data||20 to 60||Interviews, then open and axial coding|
|Case Study||Organization, entity, individual, or event||—||Interviews, documents, reports, observations|
Unlike positivist or experimental research that utilizes a linear and one-directional sequence of design steps, there is considerable variation in how a qualitative research study is organized. In general, qualitative researchers attempt to describe and interpret human behavior based primarily on the words of selected individuals [a.k.a., “informants” or “respondents”] and/or through the interpretation of their material culture or occupied space. There is a reflexive process underpinning every stage of a qualitative study to ensure that researcher biases, presuppositions, and interpretations are clearly evident, thus ensuring that the reader is better able to interpret the overall validity of the research. According to Maxwell (2009), there are five, not necessarily ordered or sequential, components in qualitative research designs. How they are presented depends upon the research philosophy and theoretical framework of the study, the methods chosen, and the general assumptions underpinning the study.
Describe the central research problem being addressed but avoid describing any anticipated outcomes. Questions to ask yourself are: Why is your study worth doing? What issues do you want to clarify, and what practices and policies do you want it to influence? Why do you want to conduct this study, and why should the reader care about the results?
Questions to ask yourself are: What do you think is going on with the issues, settings, or people you plan to study? What theories, beliefs, and prior research findings will guide or inform your research, and what literature, preliminary studies, and personal experiences will you draw upon for understanding the people or issues you are studying? Note to not only report the results of other studies in your review of the literature, but note the methods used as well. If appropriate, describe why earlier studies using quantitative methods were inadequate in addressing the research problem.
Usually there is a research problem that frames your qualitative study and that influences your decision about what methods to use, but qualitative designs generally lack an accompanying hypothesis or set of assumptions because the findings are emergent and unpredictable. In this context, more specific research questions are generally the result of an interactive design process rather than the starting point for that process. Questions to ask yourself are: What do you specifically want to learn or understand by conducting this study? What do you not know about the things you are studying that you want to learn? What questions will your research attempt to answer, and how are these questions related to one another?
Structured approaches to applying a method or methods to your study help to ensure that there is comparability of data across sources and researchers and, thus, they can be useful in answering questions that deal with differences between phenomena and the explanation for these differences [variance questions]. An unstructured approach allows the researcher to focus on the particular phenomena studied. This facilitates an understanding of the processes that led to specific outcomes, trading generalizability and comparability for internal validity and contextual and evaluative understanding. Questions to ask yourself are: What will you actually do in conducting this study? What approaches and techniques will you use to collect and analyze your data, and how do these constitute an integrated strategy?
In contrast to quantitative studies where the goal is to design, in advance, “controls” such as formal comparisons, sampling strategies, or statistical manipulations to address anticipated and unanticipated threats to validity, qualitative researchers must attempt to rule out most threats to validity after the research has begun by relying on evidence collected during the research process itself in order to effectively argue that any alternative explanations for a phenomenon are implausible. Questions to ask yourself are: How might your results and conclusions be wrong? What are the plausible alternative interpretations and validity threats to these, and how will you deal with these? How can the data that you have, or that you could potentially collect, support or challenge your ideas about what’s going on? Why should we believe your results?
Although Maxwell does not mention a conclusion as one of the components of a qualitative research design, you should formally conclude your study. Briefly reiterate the goals of your study and the ways in which your research addressed them. Discuss the benefits of your study and how stakeholders can use your results. Also, note the limitations of your study and, if appropriate, place them in the context of areas in need of further research.
Chenail, Ronald J. Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. Nova Southeastern University; Heath, A. W. The Proposal in Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report 3 (March 1997); Marshall, Catherine and Gretchen B. Rossman. Designing Qualitative Research. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999; Maxwell, Joseph A. "Designing a Qualitative Study." In The SAGE Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods. Leonard Bickman and Debra J. Rog, eds. 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009), p. 214-253; Qualitative Research Methods. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Yin, Robert K. Qualitative Research from Start to Finish. 2nd edition. New York: Guilford, 2015.