When to do qualitative and quantitative research

In a previous post, I talked about what designers need to know about economic class. How did we learn that economic class can be “seen” in designs? How did we learn that “refined” taste is “upper” class?

In general, use qualitative research at the beginning of a design process to uncover innovations. Use quantitative research at the end of a design process to measure improvement.

It started with qualitative research, and became “refined” (no pun intended) with quantitative research. French sociology Pierre Bourdieu followed a typical arc to the narrative research by first investigating economic class in an open-ended fashion. Once he established what he thought was going on, he tested these ideas with large surveys.

If you know little about the topic, start with the qualitative. This means ethnographic observation and in-depth interviewing. Open ended questions are best. At this stage, you’re trying to find the lay of the land. If you’re designing a new car stereo for example, you may wish to start by watching people use their existing car stereos. Maybe drive around with them and ask them questions about what they like.

Once you’ve learned the basics of car stereo requirements, user needs and pain points, it’s time to test your assumptions. This is where the quantitative comes in. Close-ended questions are best here, including multiple choice, yes/no, or simply number of “successes.” Let’s say you’ve learned through your observations that people don’t like how their stereos require programming their radio stations. It’s too much bother, they told you. You think pre-programmed stations might be a good design improvement, so you create a new stereo with pre-programmed stations.

Did it work? Ask your stereo users how they like the new system after they have bought their new car. But the question is, compared to what? This is where quantitative research gets tricky. You can compare the new stereos on select models (58% of users of the new model are very satisfied, while only 32% of users of the old model are). Or you can compare before and after the improvement — the so-called “pre-and post test.” That requires time, foresight, and — you guessed it — budget.

Below is a diagram that summarizes the research “funnel” from exploration to validation.

Research Process


7 responses to “When to do qualitative and quantitative research

  1. Pingback: Conversations with Dina » links for 2007-11-20

  2. Pingback: Getting meaningful insights from qualitative research « Design Research

  3. Dear colegue
    just tell me what is this emerged issues of qualitaive and quantitative? why are there so many sub classess? Are’nt most of the so called research designs are just approcahes to data collection.

    Prof.Dr.Subhadra Iyengar,PhD

  4. dear Subhadra iyengar!
    the logic behind the so many approaches and designs is based on the paradigms and also on philosophical assumptions that are mainly Positivism, interpretivism and pragmatism guiding towards quantitative, qualitative and Mixed methods research approaches respectivly. any further version are the subdivisions of these three for being specific and narrowed regarding research. so if you go through these basic concepts that sets the grounds for further researches design then you will be clear about.

  5. Shouldn’t the title of that post be “qualitative and quantitative” research? You have qualitative twice.

  6. I’ve just been copy editing my PhD – I must have developed a knack for it!

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