Getting Big Ideas Out of Small Numbers

“Is that really going to be enough people?”

When the topic of user research comes up with a new client, they’re often surprised by the small number of users we want to speak to. It’s important that designers and others involved in the design process understand research methodologies and can articulate the value we get from speaking to a small number of users.

Quantitative research involves large sample sizes of participants (think thousands) and is concerned with answering questions about how much, how often, and how many. Quantitative studies can be used to understand how often people spend doing certain activity, the size of a potential market, typical demographics, and user preferences. This research usually takes the form of surveys, web analytics, and other machine-gathered information. Quantitative research is good at helping us understand more about what we already think we know. Quantitative research isn’t good at uncovering motivations, goals, or getting a high-level understanding of the people that will use a product or service.

User research at a call center.

Qualitative research on the other hand usually involves a small sample size (think dozens) and is concerned with understanding how people behave, how they think about certain activities, and what factors affect their behavior and thought patterns. This research takes the form of individual interviews in the context or setting where the product would be used (e.g. at the desk, in the car, etc.). The context or setting is important so we can observe what people do instead of what they say they do. Qualitative research is really good at helping us understand things we don’t already know.

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