8 qualitative user research methods to know

Marine Wolffhugel
May 26, 2020

Do you remember when I told you in a previous article about the differences between qualitative and quantitative research? We saw then that, although different, they are complementary. Today, let's go into a little more detail about qualitative research. What are the different qualitative research methods and how do you choose which one to use for your project? Let's look at it together...

A quick reminder about qualitative research

In qualitative research, we try to exchange, meet or observe directly with a small number of people. The objective is to focus on the "why", to try to understand in depth the needs or problems of the users. To do this, the questions asked are open-ended and the focus is on emotions. The result will be expressed in words and phrases and not in numbers. Exchanges with users are generally long (for example, it is common to conduct one-hour interviews).

Who do you use for qualitative research?

It depends on the method and what you want to know! You can choose to conduct a qualitative research session :

  • with your users: they already know your product or service. You can have them test a new feature, get their opinions, observe their behavioural patterns. And you already have them on hand!
  • with people you don't know: they may be using your competitor's product, they may be in your target group or they may not know you at all. Their point of view is "brand new". It can be complicated to find them, as they are not in your close circle, but this source considerably diversifies your learning.
  • with your prospects: they are interested in your product/service but are not yet using it. So their opinion is neutral but they are part of your target. Turn to your sales team to contact them.

Teams that initiate a user approach first focus on customers, possibly their prospects. When they go further in the process, they integrate research on externals. This allows them to get a head start on the competition.

Methods for each stage of a project

The objective of user research will depend on the stage of the project in which you are:

  • Exploration phase: in this case, the objective is to generate hypotheses, to learn more about the subject, the problems. You come away with a lot of findings and ideas that you then have to sort out.
  • Confirmation phase: you already have hypotheses or solutions that you want to check/validate with users.

All qualitative methods are different and have certain advantages and disadvantages. Each has its own purpose and will be used more at one stage of a project than another.

The design process is divided into 4 stages which alternate between the exploratory phase and the confirmation phase (often called Double Diamond, see more explanation by the Nielsen Norman Group). In this scheme, user interviews or focus groups will be particularly useful in the exploratory phase. During the design phase, you can involve users in the thinking process through a co-design workshop. User testing will then enable you to validate your hypotheses in the production phase.

Each stage has its preferred method(s):

Overview of the different qualitative research methods

User testing

Illustration est utilisateur

A user test, or better known as a usability test, allows you to test your product or service under real conditions with a participant. To do this, you ask the participant to carry out certain tasks on your site or application and observe how they use it and the difficulties they encounter.

The aim is to evaluate your product and how well it meets the needs of users. In general, a usability test allows you to validate one or more hypotheses, to confirm the choice of a solution.

It is the most widely used method of user research in UX. You can carry out your user test on a prototype, on mock-ups or on your current product, depending on your needs (the main thing is to clearly define your study objective before embarking on it).

The user test can be carried out :

  • Unmoderated: the test is carried out by the participant independently, on a specific platform and following given instructions. You get the result back after the test (a video for example, or written answers to questions). There is no direct exchange between you and the participant. Platforms such as Usertesting, Testapic or Ferpection allow you to conduct such studies. Unmoderated tests save you time (you launch your session and come back once the tests are completed) but do not allow you to go into detail with the participant.
  • Moderated tests: as you will have understood, in this case the aim is to have direct interaction with the participant. You guide the participant by giving them instructions and can ask them additional questions if necessary to explore a specific point. They can be conducted face-to-face: at your place, at the participant's place, in a specific test room or in an external meeting room. It is also possible to conduct them remotely by videoconference, using tools that allow the sharing and/or recording of the screen, sound and video.

Specific tools exist (such as Lookback, Validately or Marvel) but it is also possible to use classic video-conferencing devices such as Zoom, Meet or Skype. It all depends on the expected result: seeing the participant physically allows you to be more attentive to their actions, and therefore more focused on observing their behaviour; the remote mode will focus more on the participant's thoughts (and therefore more on the attitude). If you wish to meet participants from different geographical locations, for example, remote testing may be a good intermediate option.

The budget associated with a user testing session can vary widely depending on how you decide to organise it:

  • A special testing room requires a larger budget (around €600 per day) and has the advantage of allowing other people to attend the test in a hidden way (behind untinted glass) so as not to disturb the participant.
  • Recruiting participants from an external panel will cost you around 100 to 150€ per participant in B2C (including compensation) and ensures that you meet neutral participants. By recruiting from your users or acquaintances, the feedback is biased due to the participants' interest in your product or in you. Nevertheless, always remember to provide compensation to thank them for their time (for more information, our previous article on the amount of compensation will tell you everything or our quotation page will quickly show you which compensation we think is suitable for your target).

User interviews

illustration entretien utilisateur

The user interview consists of a simple discussion with the participant, during which he or she is asked open-ended questions to get him or her to talk about his or her habits, needs, way of understanding a problem or the process of adopting a solution. Any subject can be raised, the interviewer must delve into a particular subject or problem (identified beforehand).

This is also a qualitative method that is widely used in UX, particularly in exploratory research, to determine the problems of users.

Like the user test, the user interview can be conducted :

  • Remotely: via videoconferencing tools or simply by telephone
  • Face-to-face: at your place, at the participant's place or in a third place (café, specific room...)

The budget for a user interview will also vary greatly, as it does for a user test, depending on the final quality you wish to obtain (depending on the location, the possible compensation for the participant, the type of participant met, etc.). Be sure to provide compensation for your participants.

You should also make sure that your participants are compensated. In agencies, all-inclusive services for a session of 6 user interviews start at 2,500€.

Guerilla tests

guerilla test illustration

Guerrilla testing consists of going to a busy public place (the hall of a station or a café, for example) and quickly testing a prototype/product/functionality with people who have a little time. An exchange with a participant lasts about ten to fifteen minutes (for example, a team we know goes to the nearest tram stop and has the habit of doing guerrilla test sessions of 7 minutes on the clock because that is the waiting time between two trams!) Of course, you have to dare to approach passers-by but most people will respond positively if they are waiting.

This qualitative research method is very quick to implement: it requires preparation of the hypothesis(es) to be tested, the tasks and the prototype, but no logistical organisation (places, participants): you just have to go to the nearest passing place and that's it!

In terms of budget, it won't cost you anything. If you still have a bit of budget, offer the participant a coffee or give them discounts on your site, that will always be a pleasure!

In reality, this is a research method on the borderline between qualitative and quantitative: qualitative because the exchange times are relatively short and a guerrilla test session allows you to meet many different participants, but also qualitative because there is still a direct exchange with the participant, allowing you to explore certain points with him or her and to focus on the "why". Bear in mind, however, that the time spent with the person is very short, so you will not go into the subject in depth. Use this technique to validate some very simple hypotheses (such as a new small feature).

Co-design workshop

co-conception illustration

In a co-design workshop, several participants (usually between 5 and 8) are invited to participate in the design of the product. In groups, the participants think about solutions to their needs on specific themes defined by the facilitator.

This method is of course particularly used in the design phase of a new product or service, at the beginning of the reflection process.

It is a method that requires logistics and anticipation: selection of participants, reservation of a suitable room and preparation of the venue, preparation of the workshop and facilitation (by a specialist if necessary). A co-design workshop can therefore be time-consuming (if you opt for the Do It Yourself version) or costly (if you opt for the "I delegate" version).

Facilitating a co-design workshop can be tricky: you have to know how to involve the different participants, distribute the floor fairly, and keep the framework defined while remaining as neutral as possible. If you are not used to it, we advise you to get help from a specialised facilitator. In return, you will come away from such a workshop with many different ideas - this will ensure that you do not lock yourself into a solution that is not adapted to the needs of the users.


observation illustration

Observation is, as the name suggests, observing the behaviour of users and how they interact with the product in their natural environment. Unlike a user interview or a user test, we do not try to guide the participant with instructions or questions. The objective is to let them behave naturally, without interacting with you, and to observe them.

This qualitative method makes it possible to identify users' needs and problems, as well as their expectations, which makes it a particularly suitable research method for exploratory research.

Depending on the case, it can be complicated to implement, as it is not always easy to obtain the right to follow a participant at his or her workplace or home. This depends very much on your target group and the field in which you operate. On the other hand, the results obtained are very enriching because this method allows you to study the behaviour of users in their usual environment.

Focus Group

illustration d'un focus group

Durant un Focus Group, quelques participants (entre 5 et 8 en général) sont invités à discuter, en groupe, d’un sujet, de leurs problématiques en rapport avec ce thème et de réfléchir ensemble à des solutions éventuelles. Un animateur les guide pendant ces 2 ou 3h d’échanges et d’exercices.

Cette méthode qualitative s’est particulièrement développée pour les études de marché en marketing. En recherche utilisateur, elle reste peu utilisée car on lui préfère généralement les entretiens utilisateurs, plus personnels. Elle est efficace en phase de recherche exploratoire, pour déterminer les problématiques des utilisateurs et arbitrer les priorités.

Lors du recrutement, attachez-vous à composer des groupes hétérogènes représentant votre cible au plus proche de la réalité : vous pourrez observer les différences de besoins et de priorités entre les uns et les autres. Comme l’atelier de co-conception, un Focus Group peut être complexe à organiser (logistique) et à animer. Mieux vaut passer par un organisme spécialisé même si cela peut être coûteux : le temps que vous gagnerez le revaudra. Comptez pour cela un budget minimum de 4000€.


illustration journal de bord

Participants are asked to use a product or service over a long period of time (several weeks) and to record or log their impressions, results or any other information needed for the study. This diary can be in the form of a real logbook or by camera for example.

This type of qualitative research is used in experimental testing. It is a very expensive technique, firstly because you will have to recruit the participants and most probably compensate them, but also because it is very time-consuming: you will have to spend time with each of the participants to accompany them, collect the data, sort it and analyse it. However, the feedback obtained is particularly qualitative because you are monitoring the use of a product or service over the long term.

Spontaneous customer opinions and feedback

Illustration des avis et retours clients spontanés

A simple qualitative research method consists of studying and analysing direct customer feedback on your product or service.

This feedback and needs are collected by the customer service team or by the sales team. They can be in the form of emails, tickets, call reports, or requested directly on the website with tools like Hotjar for example. They are there, somewhere in your company and quite easy to get, you just need to know where!

As far as the budget is concerned, it all depends on your aspirations: as you will have understood, by collecting existing feedback, it is easy to get customer feedback without spending a penny. The more you want to integrate this approach and therefore centralise customer feedback from various sources, the more analysis time or budget you will need to invest in tools that make this possible, with tools like Productboard for example, whose subscription starts at €50/month.

This method is the first step if you want to implement a user research approach in your product team. Once organised, it is used recurrently throughout the life of the product.

There are many other methods, including this article by Nielsen Norman Group on the different user research methods. In particular, some methods are on the borderline between quantitative and qualitative, such as eye tracking or card sorting for example. I have chosen not to present them to you in this article but do not hesitate to ask about them.

Summary of qualitative methods

Are you a bit lost in all these methods and don't know which one to choose? Don't panic, here is a short summary of the main techniques:

Method Allows testing Budget When to use
User testing Behavior $ (DIY)
$$ (unmoderated testing via a platform)
$$$$ (laboratory test)
Test and implementation phase
User interviews Attitude $$-$$$ Exploratory research phase
Guerilla test Behaviour $ Test and implementation phase
Co-design workshop Attitude $$ Exploratory research phase
Focus Group Attitude $$$ Exploratory research phase
Logbook Attitude $$$ Testing and implementation phase
Customer feedback Attitude $$ Testing and implementation phase and then in production phase

Just as quantitative and qualitative research are complementary, so are qualitative methods. Don't settle for just one method. Mix them: your results will be all the richer for it, as Arthur Boulanger, Head of User Experience at Evaneos, says in his interview: "You have to vary the methods. I really believe in the complementarity of the different techniques because they all have a bias, they all have their limits." The trick is to be aware of these biases and to take them into account in your analysis of results. Don't hesitate to experiment with new methods! And that's good news: you can recruit participants for any method on Tandemz!

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