Do Qualitative and UX Research Overlap?

By Susan Fader, FaderFocus, New York Metro Area, susanfader@faderfocus.com

QRCA – 1980s

“We were a group of ‘moderators’, mostly based in the New York area, who did research on consumer products, media, and public opinion issues. We described ourselves as qualitative researchers.”—Judy Langer, a founder of QRCA

QRCA – 2021

QRCA is the world’s largest professional organization of qualitative researchers. Members reside throughout the United States and in thirty-six other countries. While some QRCA members use the term qualitative researcher as their primary descriptor, other members use ethnographer, social media expert, customer experience (CX) researchers, and user experience (UX) researchers, with UX being the fastest-growing descriptor.


The scope of what the qualitative research world entails has vastly expanded in the past forty years and for some—like the over 120 QRCA members who define themselves as UX researchers—the qualitative research skill set is something that a UX researcher draws on. So, it was puzzling to me that there are many UX researchers (non-QRCA members) who are adamant that they are not qualitative researchers. I was curious about this disconnect and at the QRCA 2020 Conference in Austin, I had the good fortune to sit next to Mary Sorber, principal user researcher at Wells Fargo, and the co-chair of the QRCA UX SIG. Thus began a fascinating discussion on how/where UX/qualitative research overlap and disconnect, with Mary, and subsequently with two other QRCA members—Janet Standen, a broad qualitative researcher with extensive UX research experience, and Lauren Isaacson, a UX and market research consultant.

An Opportunity

Ten months later, the four of us had the opportunity to take our show on the road, when we represented QRCA at the 2020 ESOMAR Congress on a panel discussion of Do the Worlds of Qualitative Research and UX Research Overlap? (www.qrca.org/page/industry_partners. www.qrca.org/blogpost/979022/Video-Library.)

Subsequent to that panel discussion, I continued my quest to better understand how UX and qualitative research are interconnected and can learn from each other.

Different Perspectives on Research

“Qualitative is the bigger umbrella, and there are flavors of it. UX research is one flavor, and qualitative market research is another flavor.”—Mary Sorber

“The big difference is that if you meet a UX researcher and they are mainly focused on qualitative practices/methods and you say, “Oh, so you are a ‘qualitative researcher’” they literally say, “What is a ‘qualitative researcher’, I’m a ‘UX researcher’.” They just don’t think of themselves as a ‘qualitative researcher’ in the way a market researcher practicing qualitative methods would call themselves a ‘qualitative researcher’.”—Janet Standen

“In the UX field, there is a general mistrust of marketing and market research. They feel like the marketing team’s only objective is to sell the most product at the expense of the quality of the product.”—Lauren Isaacson

In many cases, UX and qualitative researchers are coming from two different planets. Many UX researchers are coming from a design thinking/graphic design background, while those who define themselves as qualitative researchers are coming from a research background—so the baseline experiences and perspectives that they bring to approaching UX and qualitative research are different. Conclusion: UXers may not realize that techniques and approaches they use have their evolution in qualitative research.

The goal of qualitative research and UX research is generally different. While qualitative researchers are comfortable defining themselves as market researchers, the “market” research nomenclature is anathema for UX researchers. UX researchers see themselves as consumer advocates and their research exploration focuses on making the user experience better, rather than on how to sell the product/service. Conclusion: If a UX researcher believes that the sole focus of qualitative research is on market research, it is understandable why a UX researcher may feel qualitative research has nothing in common with what they do.

Lack of Common Terminology Is a Barrier and Causes Confusion

“I might do an in-context interview as a qualitative researcher, whereas it would be called contextual inquiry if I’m coming more from the product end. Qualitative researchers use focus group; UX researchers use discussion group.”—Janet Standen

“There’s a big misconception that UX research is the same as usability testing…. UX research is much, much broader than usability testing. That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions now that traditional qualitative researchers have…. The other thing that will mark you as a market researcher is if you refer to somebody as ‘client side’; in the UX world people refer to being ‘in-house’.”—Mary Sorber

Translators are also needed when UXers talk to each other. Michele Ronsen, a design and user researcher whose Curiosity Tank is a leader in training UX professionals, discovered that even among UXers there was not common taxonomy. To try to get a consistent terminology usage, she launched “UX Lex” to help define terms (www.curiositytank.com/ux-lexicon). Crowdsourcing with eighty-plus UXers from five continents, she found that even within the UX world there were many different definitions for the same terms and descriptors for the same function.

Conclusion: In conversations with other researchers and with the people who have commissioned research, do not assume that what you believe is a “well-understood term” means the same thing to others as it means to you. Also, recognize that while the UX and Qualitative Research world use different terms to describe the same methodologies, there are some specific terms that mean significantly different things to each of them.

What Can a Qualitative Researcher Learn from the UX World?

Because many UXers do not come from a traditional research background, coupled with the goal of being consumer advocates, their approach to research is different from a typical qualitative research mindset. Three things that qualitative researchers can learn from the UX world are:

  1. Consider moving from the traditional qualitative research project mindset to more of a collaborative mindset.
  2. Recognize the strength and importance of UX’s use of the iterative process, which entails numerous consecutive sprints (rounds) where concepts/products quickly incorporate learnings into the next round of research.
  3. Where possible, embed (or at least allow) the researcher to work directly with the development team, per the UX model.

What Can a UX Researcher Learn from the Qualitative Research World?

“UX can benefit from better utilizing traditional qualitative resources and formal training on how to be a better interviewer and moderator.”—Lori Walker, vice president, Hiner & Partners

“I consider UX as part of the brand experience, and it should be relevant to a brand’s value proposition and identity. In this context, UX is highly related to semiotics as part of qualitative research.” —Serdar Paktin, founder and head of Sensemaking, Pakt, London

“This distrust between UX and market research is a missed opportunity to learn from the history of market research, which has been around for seventy-five years… a lot of expertise and learning with very sophisticated tools and services that can help UX research incredibly.” —Lauren Isaacson

UX can benefit from better utilizing traditional qualitative research resources, specifically the extensive support infrastructure (recruiters, focus group facilities, panel providers, transcribers, etc.), as well as training in interviewing and moderating skills.

Looking to the Future: Get Rid of Research Silos

“In our work today, we tend to see CX, UX, and consumer research as being watertight and separate from each other. At the end of the day, we are studying people and their behaviors, be it in whatever context (and in reality, they flow into each other).” —Shirsha Ganguly, freelance user experience researcher based in Brussels

Ari Zelmanow, director of analytics, research and insights, Panasonic, who will be featured in the summer issue’s Luminaries column, believes that the future of research is to break down the silos that separate the different research functions. He is a strong proponent for companies creating one unified insights function, which is what he has done at Panasonic. He describes this unification as having three components which by working cross-functionally—under one umbrella—will allow you to have a “better 3-D image” of what is happening:

  • Market research (competitive intelligence)
  • UX research (customer experience and consumer analytics)
  • Data science (quantitative research, data science, and data engineering)

Looking to the Future: Change Hiring Practices

“The continued narrowing of hiring requirements to make the résumé sift easier has also blockaded collaboration. There is a need for cross-hiring, and training reduces internal ‘them versus us’ to benefit the entire enterprise.”—Nancy Cox, research and story consultant

Qualitative and UX researchers can each enhance the ability to conduct research by realizing that they can learn from each other and that while they may do different types of research, they draw on many of the same skill sets. There also needs to be better recognition that UX and qualitative researchers can each provide the other with different ways of thinking about how to approach research.

A quick aside: Among the benefits QRCA offers its members is that QRCA has affiliations with other marketing and research organizations. That helps QRCA expand its reach, as well as giving members an opportunity to be spotlighted at other organizations’ events. One of QRCA’s newest associations is with ESOMAR, which is a European-based global organization whose focus is on data, research, and the insights community. ESOMAR has a large client-side corporate membership and is very active in working with the European Union on legislation that impacts the research community.

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