Aren’t we all just quallies under the skin?

Peter Totman, September 2023

What happens when a traditional qualitative researcher is drawn into the world of UX?

When I told colleagues I was writing a conference paper on UX research and UX researchers, strong surprise was expressed. Apparently, UX just didn’t seem like my “sort of thing” … in fact they couldn’t “think of anyone less like a UX researcher” than me. I knew exactly what they meant – it was exactly this that drew me in.

I had become attuned to these differences through eavesdropping on UX chatter, both online and around the office. The conversations were full of baffling words and phrases; ‘wireframe’, ‘A/B testing’, ‘interface’ … even ‘dogfooding’! It really was another language. Yet these were also my fellow researchers?

Welcome to the blog version
The study as it finally turned out included a broad range of researchers, with varying levels of UX expertise and commitment. This ranged from the agency qualitative researcher who did the occasional UX project, right through to the dedicated UX specialist, trained and working in a design or tech environment.

As this is (merely) the blog version of the paper, I’ll focus on comparing the two ends of the spectrum the traditional quallies with the dedicated UX-ers.

OK then, so what did I discover about this alien-seeming world and the inhabitants of it?


There are fundamental differences in how the two disciplines operate
Cutting to the chase then, I found the differences in language often did reflect real differences in approach and modes of thinking. I found UX research tended to be more positivist, whereas most traditional qualitative tends to adhere to the interpretative model. This was partly driven by the sheer pace and client requirements/expectations – but also by an emerging and distinctive UX work culture and identity.


Cultural differences were also evident
Traditional qualitative researchers collaborate with colleagues and clients, but UX researchers take collaboration to a different level. For many it is a defining element of the job. Reading the UX press, the focus on ‘getting the right team’ seems almost like an obsession. They collaborate in genuinely multi-disciplinary teams often including researchers, product managers, designers, and usability experts. The teams are described as tightly knit and single-minded. The benefit for the UX researcher is a strong sense of shared ownership of the final product. UX researchers often feel like co-creators of the products they work on. They can point proudly at an app and say – ‘I did that’ or ‘I made that better’ in perhaps a more confident and direct way than traditional qualitative researchers tend to do. We help in development, but we seldom feel like co-creators – and, in turn, we value our independence and sense of distance. Some UX researchers acknowledge that this sense of teamwork and ownership can make retaining their objectivity a challenge at times.

They also enjoy the cultural kudos and atmosphere of working in the tech environment. The pay and benefits are better – but the workload is extremely taxing. The ‘buzz’ comes at a cost.


But look – we are all just quallies under the skin
The cultural differences may be real – but there is unanimity on the defining skills required. Both UX and traditional quallies identified empathy and a sense of curiosity as the two most important attributes. This commonality on the basics is reassuring but not surprising – but to what extent do the reality of working lives reflect these values?


UX researchers sometimes have less freedom to explore
In a rare moment of criticism, some UX researchers admitted disappointment that this curiosity about people was not always shared across the team, with designers and engineers often preferring a ’route one qual approach’ that deterred exploration into the participant’s broader lives. Of course, traditional qualitative researchers sometimes need to fight for discussion guides that fully embrace the humanity of the audience – but most of our clients enjoy and value the journey to the objectives, appreciating that insight can come from the meandering and tangents.


Empathy is the Holy Grail of UX Research
One of the biggest surprises to me was the degree to which UX researchers defined their role in ethical terms, often citing inclusivity as the Holy Grail of UX research. Empathy meant more than simply making sure participants felt comfortable and heard within the research sessions … it was about ensuring empathetic outcomes – apps and websites where all felt welcome and comfortable. Notions of design creativity and consistency with the main brand voice, values and experience were important but ensuring inclusivity was often what motivated UX researchers most.

Who is actually judging who here?
I admit I expected UX Researchers wanted to be real qualitative researchers when they grew up. I expected to find them keen to hear the sage advice and anecdotes from such a qual veteran. Instead, I was shocked to find they were judging us at least harshly as I was judging them.

Their impressions of traditional qualitative were not always positive. It was often seen as less authentic and likely to prioritise attitudes over actual behaviour. We were inclined to seek ‘deep’ insights when what really mattered was identifying actionable ones. In one unforgettable exchange, a young UX chap from Atlanta described traditional qualitative researchers as “Moderators of focus groups rather than qualitative researchers in the true sense”. That still stings!

I fully deserved this comeuppance. Give me a conference podium or space in an industry magazine and I’ll talk all day about the importance of qualitative researchers reflecting on their own motivations and attitude to the subject. I dressed up my biases as ‘hypotheses’ … hypotheses with strong emotions attached are just biases.

Well, as they often say, ‘The best research projects are like the best travel … you learn as much about yourself as you do the place you visit’. OK ‘they’ don’t say that, but ‘they’ should.


Peter is Head of Qualitative Research at Jigsaw, he’d love to hear your thoughts on this blog. Get in touch here.