Step by step method for conducting qualitative research

Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent.

Thomas A. Edison.

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!

Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt

Why is market and user research necessary?

From inventing light bulbs, changing names of football teams, to testing out reception of Super Bowl commercials, to deciding features in a new car or a phone, market and user research conducted behind the scenes is an invaluable ingredient in guiding strategy, marketing and innovation.

Products need to provide value to customers and the customers must be willing to pay for that value. As a product manager and innovator , hearing  and learning directly from the users through a guided , methodical and strategic research framework is essential for giving your product the best shot at success and meeting its objectives. In larger organizations, this can be through dedicated research or marketing divisions.

Speaking of objectives, they are vital to think through before undertaking any form of research, especially the more time consuming (and expensive) in depth user interviews.

Two types of research

Let’s first start with understanding two major research categories

Quantitative research: At a high level, this deals with conducting a data driven research to quantify findings and perform analysis based on numerical and statistical methods. The questions are generally closed ended , even multiple choice. The most common form of approaching it is through running a survey through a representative sample of respondents.

Qualitative research:  This is usually performed to understand the emotions, behaviors, psychology, attitudes and perceptions of the users. The top two common techniques used are focus groups and in- depth individual user interviews. This can help us not just understand what the users think and how they act but also WHY they think and act in a certain way.

The focus of this post is qualitative research, however setting up the overall research strategy is independent of the underlying method use.

There are some great textbooks on the topic of qualitative research, which provide an in depth coverage of the value, techniques and pitfalls , but there are some key practical areas that can be easily incorporated methodically to create the foundation of a successful research strategy.

Designing the research strategy- 3 Key elements

Here are the elements we can incorporate into designing and formulating an outcome oriented research strategy. This will result in not just research data but also actionable insight and intelligence.

  1. Strategic intent: As simple and important as this sounds, it is surprising that this not always articulated formally. This is determined by asking “why are we conducting this research to begin with” . For example, simply stating “To understand the customers better” isn’t focused enough. If you’re a product manager and innovator you could state the intent more correctly as “To aid the launch of a new product offering in the market” .
  2. Target : This should be aligned to what you already defined as the original innovation opportunity hypothesis (See Opportunity Hypothesis: First step towards creating successful products) but now lay out a targeted outcome for the research. For example, a specific research target for an innovator looking at creating a CRM product offering for sales people, could be “Determine if there is a product market fit for a digital CRM offering ” .
  3. Measures: When you have a target established that clearly states what needs to be explored by the research, next step is to list down some measures which will enable a breakdown of the target into smaller topics for an effective execution of the research. These can also help with the actual construction of the interview. More on that in the next section. The measures can be constructed by asking questions such as:
  • What is the significance and magnitude of the user’s current pain points?
  • How difficult has it been to find the solution?
  • What impact would finding a solution have on the users?

How to conduct an actual qualitative research interview

After you have laid out the above strategy, identify the relevant audience (user/respondents) that you’ll work with.

In a qualitative research study (let’s say through a 1-1 in depth in person user interview), especially as a product manager, you may want to explore, unravel and research the customer needs . Some of these needs may be latent and only an in-depth discussion will surface them. Overall though, while the approach is methodical, this is not a strict survey where you stick to a given script. A good user researcher will keep the interview informal yet incisive. Observe their reaction, body language and attitude keenly to learn their motivations (“WHY”), behavior and needs even better.

The interview must always be guided by your specific research target and measures.

Possible set of user research questions for a product manager looking to create a new product offering

  1. How long have they been performing the activity/working in the area you are discussing with them? What do they like the most about it ?
  2. What does their typical day look like? 
  3. How do they perform the task (that you’re focused on for the research) currently? What methods/solutions do they use? How often do you have to perform it?
  4. How much time/and money do they spend on it (perhaps they use a competitor’s service)
  5. What are the biggest pain points? What do they dislike the most about the current solution and how do they feel about it?
  6. How do they measure success in this area/activity?
  7. If they had a solution that could address these pain points, how would that make them feel?
  8. What are some other areas preceding or following the core activity . How would they rank them in order of priority/problem areas?

The goal of the above questions is to cover the following aspects

  • Observe their motivations and drivers
  • Understand the user/industry terminology better and the breakdown of activities to create a user journey
  • Significance of the problem or paint points
  • How the main activity fits into other tasks they perform
  • Existing solution/competitive product analysis
  • Help determine the value of a proposed solution
  • What impact can a solution bring to their lives
  • Other innovation ideas for potential product extensions/bundles(secondary goal)

Again, all of the above must be focused on the strategic intent and target of the research. This is not conducted for getting to know just any pain points and needs. It is conducted to understand thee pain points within your original product opportunity hypothesis

The findings and subsequent analysis can be used to guide further quantitative research. It also creates the foundation for creating more formal needs statements through methods like journey mapping and JBTD (jobs to be done) for product and solution conceptualization.

Some quick tips to consider during the user interview

  • Record the meeting if you can. Ask them first, of course.
  • Introduce yourself and your broad intent and objective.
  • Don’t treat this as a predefined survey. Go with the flow, but always stay focused on the strategic intent and opportunity you’re trying to research
  • Ask open ended questions. Example instead of asking “do you think it could be of value ?” , ask “how do you think this will be valuable to you?”
  • Stay in touch with them if they want. You never know, they may become your first clients.

What are some of the other aspects /tips you’ve used for conducting an insightful research ?

8 thoughts on “Step by step method for conducting qualitative research

  • Tanmay

    Insightful article Vipin!
    I agree with your point that user interviews should be kept informal and yet incisive.
    Apart from all the excellent methods, you mentioned above for conducting qualitative research, there is one more method that I found extremely useful in my previous role as a PM.
    Sometimes users are not available for interviews or maybe they are not available in the quantity we need in order to have a good sample set. In this situation, I found that analyzing call center calls made to companies is a great way to hear what the users have to say. It goes without saying that all of this needs to be done with the utmost respect for privacy and compliance with the regulations.
    This is a simple exercise where stakeholders (not necessarily from the Product Management team) can sit together with a list of questions to answer and then listening to customer calls (again, after appropriately masking the private information). These calls provide some great insights into why customers are calling, what problem they are facing, what is the solution they have tried, what they would want, etc.

    • Vipin Makhija

      @tanmay Very interesting. I can definitely see how that can prove to be invaluable (again as you pointed out, strictly within what is allowed by privacy rules). I’d be keen to know if you’ve seen technology being used to parse consumer calls for this specific purpose.

      • Tanmay

        I worked on a platform called which would pull calls from the company database.

  • Rahul

    This is a good article, Vipin. On the surface, it feels like you have a script and you know what to ask. There is no real flow to a user interview in my opinion. As you pointed out – you just have to ride the tide with the user and probe them enough to really understand the WHY behind the questions you are asking. The biggest takeaway for me while conducting user interviews is that as an interviewer you need to be comfortable with the awkward silence that may ensue. It’s important to not get restless and ask the next question you have in mind if there is a pause in proceedings. You’ll be surprised how many times interviewees get uncomfortable with the silence and start talking more about their experience.

  • Rajandeep

    This is really an insightful article Vipin.

    I being a Management Consultant, we have to conduct workshops with clients to understand their As-Is state and current challenges/ pain points/ opportunities to improve their businesses. In my experience what works well for me as you also have rightly pointed out is doing a pre-study of the industry to understand the terminologies and value chain specific to industry. This has helped me a lot to make the workshops more productive and be in sync with what interviewee has to say about.

    I have one follow-up query to the type of interview questions you have mentioned above. Can we term the interview questions as validation queries where we are trying to validate if the Problem we are trying to solve is actually a Pain point and will our innovation be of value to the customer.

    • Vipin Makhija

      @rajandeep : There are some similarities in workshops conducted as a consultant v/s those conducted as a researcher/product innovator. However there are also some significant differences. To your question around whether this can be treated as a validation query, it really depends. In many cases, the research can be very exploratory and the researcher is trying to surface that, so in those cases, possibly not. However, at times there may be an opportunity hypothesis that researchers want to validate. There is also recommended practice by experts to call these “empathy sessions” and not interviews at all.

  • Raoul

    Good and insightful article Vipin!

    I’m looking forward to conduct the first interviews these week and this article gives a good structure.

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