The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

“But how many people did you talk to?” If you’ve ever done qualitative research, you’ve heard that question at least once. And the first time? You were flummoxed. In 3 short minutes, you can be assured that will never happen again.

Folks, qualitative research does not worry about numbers of people; it worries about deep understanding. Weber called this “verstehen.” (Come to think of it, most German people call it that too. Coincidence?). Geertz called it “thick description.” It’s about knowing — really knowing — the phenomenon you’re researching. You’ve lived, breathed, and slept this thing, this social occurrence, this…this…part of everyday life. You know it inside and out.

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

You know when it’s typical, when it’s unusual, what kinds of people  do this thing, and how. You know why someone would never do this thing, and when they would but just lie about it. In short, you’ve transcended merely noticing this phenomenon. Now, you’re ready to give a 1-hour lecture on it, complete with illustrative examples.

Now if that thing is, say, kitchen use, then stand back! You’re not an Iron Chef, you are a Platinum Chef! You have spent hours inside kitchens of all shapes and sizes. You know how people love them, how they hate them, when they’re ashamed of them and when (very rarely) they destroy them. You can tell casual observers it is “simplistic” to think of how many people have gas stoves. No, you tell them, it’s not about how many people, it’s about WHY they have gas stoves! It’s about what happens when you finally buy a gas stove! It’s about….so much more than how many.

Welcome to the world of verstehen. When you have verstehen, you can perhaps count how many people have gas stoves. Sure, you could determine that more men than women have them. Maybe you could find out that more of them were built between 1970 and 80 than 1990 and 2000. But what good is that number? What does it even mean?

When you’re designing, you must know what the gas stove means. You must know what it means to transform your kitchen into one that can and should host a gas stove. You must know why a person would be “ashamed” to have a gas stove (are they ashamed of their new wealth? do they come from a long line of safety-conscious firefighters?). You must know more than “how many.”

So the next time someone asks you, “how many people did you talk to?”, you can answer them with an hour-long treatise about why that doesn’t matter. You can tell them you are going to blow them away with the thick description of what this thing means to people. You are going to tell them you know more about this thing than anyone who ever lived, and then, dammit, you’re gonna design something so fantastic, so amazing that they too will be screaming in German. You have verstehen!

See my discussion about sampling methods in qual and quant research for more insight into the reasons why “how many” is irrelevant in qualitative research.


12 responses to “The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

  1. Great post Sam, I couldn’t agree more – it’s an endless battle i seem to face at the beginning of every project.

    there’s nothing more satisfying than explaining why richness is more important in this case than numbers and then watching it all come off.

    I’m always looking for ammunition on this debate so thanks for the steer!


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  3. Good post, and a useful one to have up the sleeve.

    In my market research days as a hybrid quant/qual researcher, I used to be careful in describing the samples for qualitative research as ‘valid’ (enough, of good quality, in depth) whereas quantitative samples were ‘representative’ (generalizable from, statistically-sound)

    • Hi Steph,
      thanks for the post! Yes, I like your contrast between “valid” and “representative.” Does it wash with clients, I wonder?

  4. Ok, sure, “how many?” isn’t relevant in qualitative research, but that doesn’t mean the question is irrelevant altogether. To ignore everything except qual makes us just as narrowminded as those who can’t see beyond the numbers.

    The simple truth is that we need both; we need the thick description (what should we design and why?) but in the real world we also need to know the scope of the opportunity (is it worth pursuing?).

    More often than not we’re designing for a business master, and they need to make decisions beyond just what is going to work best for the audience/users/customers. They need to decide if said product even gets designed, and to do this they very much do need numbers. To tell them it’s not qual from some research high horse is not really good enough.

    That’s why I’m a firm believer in giving them both qual and quant. It’s not always easy (or even achievable) but it gives the best results.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love qual, and if I had to choose one or the other I’d go with qual…but I think we shouldn’t have to make such a choice if we’re smart about using all the items in our tool kit (including building bridges with our brethren in market research and customer intelligence).

    • You’re absolutely right, Patrick. I’m a hybrid, like Steph: I do both qual and quant. We DO need to do quant but what we DON’T need is people asking the WRONG questions about research. Ask, “how do you know your interpretation to be true?” is a great question for qual study. But to say “Oh, that’s not valid because you didn’t talk to enough people,” is silly. It’s actually irrelevant.

      Basically I would say it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Generalizability? Then “how many” is probably the ONLY question you should ask. But designers rarely need to answer that need — they need to design innovative features that resonate deeply with social life. So “what does this mean?” is much more relevant. Down the road, you want generalize? Ok, sure, let’s do a survey or some form of analytics. But dammit, if I hear that question one more time BEFORE anyone knows anything about the subject at hand….why I…You know.

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  7. Sam Ladner. I love your writing!

    I feel much better about my thesis project after reading this post. You’re so right. How many is NOT important for qualitative research. What I’ve been trying to achieve with my thesis is pemeable description, rather than thick. Description that is rich, but still moves and can be moved.

    Thanks for this amazing reminder.

    • Hi Riva! So glad to hear from you! I’m glad you got even an ounce of inspiration from this – I hope others get a little too. Hope the thesis is going well.

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