By Alison Greco, Head of User Research
I recently had the pleasure of giving a talk at the World Congress Health Plan Consumer Experience and Retention Summit in Boston. To an audience of experienced marketers, product folks, and health plan executives, I staked out a position on the inherent value of qualitative research when presenting “Leveraging Qualitative Research to Shape the Member Experience.” My goal was to challenge some assumptions about the validity of qualitative research that I have heard over the years (and even during some of the other presentations!) and demonstrate some of the uses for rich, detailed non-numerical data.
Is qualitative data valid? Oh yes! Since validity is at its essence measuring what you intended measure, ensuring you have the right research question and the right technique for answering that question are key to validity. Qualitative data are not valid for quantitative research questions but are entirely required for understanding root cause problems. Additionally, qualitative research is not a first step that is then “validated” by quantitative methods. Research questions build on the findings of prior work, be they qualitative or quantitative, and are used to give a full picture when used together but each can stand alone.
How do you know which research questions need qualitative or quantitative data? Here is a short-hand rule:
- If your research question asks Why or How, you are looking for qualitative data.
- If you need to know How much/many, Which option, or Predictions of behavior, you need quantitative data
Usability research is a qualitative method for uncovering task completion problems in a website or application. Because the research goal is finding problems, it is possible to use only 5 people to discover 85-90% of the problems. This method does not tell you the frequency of occurrence of those problems (how many people have the problem). Instead, it tells you the number of issues and gives detailed information about why they exist and how to remediate them. It is a business/product decision about which problems to prioritize and work to solve.
What do we do with the data? We use qualitative data to understand how our users work with our tools and why they need them. We create user-need profiles (called archetypes) and document interview findings in journey maps. We pair our usability findings and voice of the customer comments with quantitative analytics and informatics to understand the full picture of our customers – the why, the how, the what, and how many – so we can continuously improve our understanding, our products, and our processes to meet their needs.