Tag Archives: sample size

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 peopleĀ  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.

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Sampling methods in qualitative and quantitative research

Why does sample size not matter in qualitative research? Because of the assumptions that qualitative researchers make, namely, that the social world is not predictable. Qualitative researchers believe that people are not like molecules or other objects; people’s actions are not predictable.

But quantitative researchers DO believe that social activity IS predictable. So when they compare their observations of social activity to what would happen in purely random results, the difference says something. Let’s say you were to research people’s preferences for a particular interactive feature. Say you’re wondering if young people will like a radio button more than older people. First, you model what results you’d expect if you’d just flipped a coin. Then you use a probability (random) sample, and compare those results to purely random results. Is there a difference?

If there is a difference between them, you can infer that indeed, something other than chance (in this case, age) affect people’s preferences.

Qualitative researchers don’t agree that such things can be reliably predicted. That’s why they don’t bother with expensive and involved random sampling. See all these details below from my research design course.

Qualitative versus quantitative research, Part II

Thousands of people arrive at this blog wanting to know what is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative versus quantitative research is by far the most popular post on this blog. In that first post, I explained why sample size doesn’t matter in qualitative research. In this post, I explain why qualitative research is generally a better approach for design research.

Notice how the qualitative process is iterative with the going back and forth from data to sense-making or developing theory. It is flexible and can change direction easily.

Qualitative design process

Double click for a larger image

Double click for a larger image

And the quantitative design process is very linear, and does not include an iterative component:

Double click for larger image

If your design process involves an iterative prototyping phase, for example, then qualitative research is likely the best approach for you. Notice also that qualitative research necessarily involves the researcher putting herself in the shoes of the user. Quantitative research does NOT require the researcher to see through the eyes of the user.

Designers often want to empathize with their users. They want to understand their experiences and pain points. They want to know what their users are thinking. This is why qualitative research is often better suited to design research.

See also this embedded slideshow from my research design class. This should give you the basic differences between the two.