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Qualitative research is bunk

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

If you're a qualitative UX researcher, or a qual researcher of any kind, you've probably heard all of the following and then some:

"Qualitative research is anecdotal."
"It's not generalizable."
"You didn't talk to the right people."
"We can't make decisions based on the opinions of 20 randos."
"My mom said she would buy it, so let's build it!"

😖 Grrrr, right!? Yep. Been there, done that. It gets old quickly.

Unfortunately it's a reality for most qual researchers, especially those working in organizations oriented in a quant data and analytics paradigm (i.e., pretty much all of them). It's hard to get people to believe what we have to say, especially when what we learn and recommend isn't based in what people consider to be "data" (i.e., numbers) that come from quant surveys, data analytics, etc.

We work in organizations where our coworkers have a hard time thinking outside of their own lives and experiences, or who simply don't care to understand or believe in the experiences of other human beings because they don't see any benefit to it. This is especially true of people in positions of power, who don't want to absorb anything that goes against their agendas, quarterly goals, annual bonus, or reputation. Can you tell I'm jaded?

The ability to speak to the validity and importance of qualitative studies is one of the most important skills for user experience professionals.

I wasn't good at this early on in my career, because I wasn't trained in how to talk about it, and it wasn't modeled for me. I would work really hard to make my case, and end up feeling defeated and deflated when someone didn't believe or value my work (see qual researcher and sociologist Sam Ladner's profound article on the tragic Greek myth of Cassandra).

But I experimented and learned, and got better at it over the years. I had no choice because I couldn't just continue complaining without trying to do something about it. Really what it comes down to is considering how to address these challenges from different angles, including language and communication methods, knowing your shit, and building trust through regular engagement and collaboration. Confidence and poise are also essential for making change and having impact, and getting the respect you deserve as an expert.

It's inevitable that all researchers will encounter people in our workplaces who need some education and persuasion. Sometimes it's not as difficult, and other times there's no point in trying. It's annoying, but necessary, to at least try to deal with these conversations and confrontations. You get better at it over time as you figure out what works and doesn't. Or you give up (like I did), because it can become a great way to waste your energy and your life. It doesn't help if you hope to get some fulfillment and impact in your job.

If this is something you're experiencing, check out this article by researchers Kayla Heffernan and Caylie Panuccio, which provides a helpful list of rationales and responses to common questions and inaccurate claims.


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