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Our list of qualitative research methods and techniques

An illustration of two people leaning over to look a flower.
13 May 2018
Benjamin HumphreyLisa Nguyen

It’s easy to get swamped by the amount of information on qualitative research available online. Articles about qualitative research methods often use complex academic language and dance around the details of how to use these methods in your projects.

This article lists a range of qualitative research methods. It briefly explains each method and includes rough guidelines on what you need to incorporate each one into your own qualitative research. Each method is linked to an article with more information if you’d like to learn more about a particular qualitative research method.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a qualitative research method used to help determine the relative priority of features, categories, or pages. In a card sorting session, the participant is given small cards with a single word or short phrase on each one. They’re asked to rank the cards in priority order, or group them together and label the group.

For example, a simple card sorting session might involve a list of features like “search”, “notifications”, “dashboard”, “activity feed”, “photos”, and so on. The participant might be asked to “rank each feature in priority order in terms of what matters most to you.”

Card sorting is also used to help design or evaluate the information architecture of a site.

What you’ll be doing: Recruiting, running the session, note-taking, recording, analyzing.

Suggested tools: Index cards or OptimalSort, pen, and paper.

Participants required: 5 – 20 participants.

Time required: Card sorting sessions usually take 15 – 60 minutes each.

Prep and analysis: 4+ hours.

Case Studies

case study is an “up-close, in-depth, and detailed examination of a subject of study (the case), as well as its related contextual conditions.” Case studies are very broad and can take a variety of different forms.

In user research, a case study is often a report detailing how someone at a specific company uses the software. It includes information like their role, a description of a typical day, and demographic details along with information on the company. Case studies go into detail about the subject’s relationship with the software, what they like and dislike. Case studies often include quotes from the subject.

What you’ll be doing: Recruiting, interviewing, note-taking, recording, analyzing.

Suggested tools: Audio recorder, camera, pen and paper, CalendlyDovetail.

Participants required: 1 – 10 participants.

Time required: 2+ hours per participant.

Prep and analysis: 4+ hours.


Co-design is an “approach to design attempting to actively involve all stakeholders (e.g. employees, partners, customers, citizens, end-users) in the design process to help ensure the result meets their needs and is usable.”

Co-design sessions are similar to focus groups in that they involve multiple participants working together at once. However, they’re different in that they’re usually highly interactive and ‘hands-on’ rather than being a back-and-forth question and answer session. In user research, Co-design sessions often involve sketching and wireframing with both designers and end-users of the software.

What you’ll be doing: Recruiting, running the session, note-taking, recording, analyzing.

Suggested tools: Audio recorder, camera, pen and paper, whiteboard, CalendlyDovetail.

Participants required: 3 – 10 participants.

Time required: Sessions typically run for 1 – 3 hours.

Prep and analysis: 8+ hours.

Competitor Analysis

competitor analysis is simply an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the competition. User researchers use competitive analysis as a method to evaluate similar software products, and see how they ‘solved the problem’ or designed specific features.

Familiarity with an interface is an important factor in usability, so using employing design patterns and paradigms present in other related software is important. Competitor analysis is a good way to take note of the design patterns in other products.

What you’ll be doing: Finding and evaluating competitors, note-taking, analyzing.

Suggested tools: Google SearchDovetail.

Participants required: None.

Time required: 1 – 3 hours per competitor.

Prep and analysis: 2+ hours.

Contextual Inquiries

Research often takes place in the researcher’s environment, for example, participants might visit your office for a usability test. A contextual inquiry (and contextual interview) is a qualitative research method where the researcher observes or interviews a participant in the course of their normal activities in their own environment.

For example, a contextual inquiry might involve visiting a customer’s office and seeing how their users interact with your software, or visiting a hospital or school, and observing doctors or students.

What you’ll be doing: Planning, recruiting, scheduling, note-taking, recording, analyzing.

Suggested tools: Audio recorder, camera, pen and paper, CalendlyDovetail.

Participants required: 1 – 10 participants.

Time required: 2 – 3 hours.

Prep and analysis: 6+ hours.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are like interviews, except rather than being one-on-one, focus groups are conducted with a group of demographically diverse people. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to talk with other group members.

Focus groups are often used in market research and political research, but they are heavily criticized in the user research community for their problems with observer bias, tendencies towards groupthink, vocal participants dominating the discussion, and serving as a means to appease stakeholders. Apple’s Jony Ive said focus groups “ensure that you don’t offend anyone, and produce bland inoffensive products.”

If you still want to run a focus group, here’s what you’ll need:

What you’ll be doing: Recruiting, running the session, note-taking, recording, analyzing.

Suggested tools: Audio recorder, video camera, CalendlyDovetail.

Participants required: 5 – 15 participants.

Time required: Focus groups usually take 1 – 3 hours.

Prep and analysis: 12+ hours.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is a “systematic methodology in the social sciences involving the construction of theory through methodic gathering and analysis of data.” Basically, grounded theory is a qualitative research method that starts from scratch.

A grounded theory approach starts with a single question about a topic the researcher knows nothing about, for example, “what makes a couple re-marry after divorce?” The researcher then collects data, analyzes using ‘coding’, learns more, and repeats.

Grounded theory is used heavily in social sciences and academia, but, due to its time-consuming nature, is not used often in commercial user research.

What you’ll be doing: Asking questions, collecting data, analyzing with codes, reporting.

Suggested tools: All the tools!

Participants required: Varies.

Time required: Varies.

Prep and analysis: Varies.

Persona Development

persona is a fictional character that is a realistic representation of someone in your audience. Personas have a name, an appearance, opinions, emotions, and demographic data like a location, job, income, etc.

Personas are used as a method in qualitative user research to help focus decisions by adding a layer of real-world consideration to the conversation. They also offer a quick and inexpensive way to test and prioritize features throughout development.

Personas are created based on real user research using the methods listed in this article.

What you’ll be doing: Researching, analyzing data, and creating personas.

Suggested tools: Audio recorder, camera, pen and paper, Dovetail.

Participants required: 5 – 20 participants.

Time required: Depends on the methods used.

Prep and analysis: 12+ hours.

Structured Interview

One of the most common qualitative research methods, especially in a commercial setting, structured interviews are interviews with a participant where the set of questions, the wording of questions, and the order of questions are consistent between each interview. Structured interviews are considered a means by which researchers can increase the reliability and credibility of their research data.

Structured interviews are a straightforward way to collect high-quality research data without the time-consuming aspects of other qualitative research methods.

What you’ll be doing: Planning, scheduling, taking notes, analyzing.

Suggested tools: CalendlyDovetail.

Participants required: 6 – 12 participants.

Time required: 30 – 90 minutes per interview.

Prep and analysis: 3+ hours.


survey is a list of questions aimed at extracting specific data from a particular group of people. Questions can result in quantitative data (e.g. single choice, multiple choice, likert scale) or qualitative data (open-ended questions).

Surveys are often used in market and user research to determine thoughts, feelings, and opinions from a sample of people. The design of your questions and the relevance of respondents greatly affect the quality of your data, however, creating effective surveys is an enormous topic that we won’t try to cover here.

Surveys are a frequently used qualitative research method.

What you’ll be doing: Creating a survey, finding people, analyzing responses.

Suggested tools: TypeformDovetail.

Participants required: 20 – 1,000+ participants.

Time required: Surveys typically take 5 – 30 minutes to complete.

Prep and analysis: 2+ hours.

Unstructured Interviews

Unstructured interviews are similar to structured interviews, however, they follow a looser format. The set of questions, wording, and order may vary dramatically between each interview. Unstructured interviews are more like a free-flowing conversation, and as such, they’re more prone to go down rabbit holes. However, due to their relaxed nature, it might be easier to get truthful information out of a participant.

What you’ll be doing: Planning, scheduling, taking notes, analyzing.

Suggested tools: CalendlyDovetail.

Participants required: 1 – 12 participants.

Time required: 15 – 60 minutes per interview.

Prep and analysis: 3+ hours.

Usability Testing

Usability testing (also known as user testing) is used to measure the ease of use of a software user interface or a product. It’s a form of systematic observation focusing on measuring a human-made product’s capacity to meet its intended purpose. Examples of products that commonly benefit from usability testing are food, consumer products, web sites or web applications, computer interfaces, documents, and devices.

Participants are given a task to achieve and are observed trying to complete the task. The testing session can range from rigorous (taking place in a ‘lab’ setting), to fast and dirty, which is sometimes called ‘hallway testing’ or ‘guerilla testing’.

What you’ll be doing: Planning, scheduling, testing, recording, taking notes, analyzing.

Suggested tools: CalendlyLookbackDovetailInVisionSketch.

Participants required: 5 – 20 participants.

Time required: 30 – 60 minutes per session.

Prep and analysis: 8+ hours.

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