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Qualitative Research and Empathy

We utilise qualitative research to better empathise with the end-user. This human-centered approach is one of the hallmarks of our design thinking process. This is not to say that we do not utilise or see the value of quantitative data. In fact, a lot of our research possesses a substantial quantitative element as well. But why this focus on qualitative research? Doesn’t the introduction of feelings and personal anecdotes convolute and bias good, hard data? The short answer is no. When approaching problems with a human-centric lens, all data is experiential.

User interviews and surveys as an effective way of gathering qualitative data
Research is fundamental in any design process

Empathy in qualitative research 

By removing personal experiences and anecdotes from the equation, we lose the very essence of what we are trying to uncover. Qualitative methodology allows us to capture reactions, emotions, attitudes and behaviors, substantially informing the design of a product or service. The ability to capture unfiltered experience is exactly what makes qualitative research invaluable to the design thinking process. For example, when running a usability test, it is imperative to record the respondent’s verbal and nonverbal reactions. This allows us to record as organic a user experience as possible. 

In qualitative research, empathy is key. The researcher’s inherent ability to empathise with participants allows them to truly appreciate how they feel and think. This involves placing themselves in the respondent’s shoes and uncovering how they go about their thought process.  If decoded appropriately, these findings have the potential to significantly impact the end product or service. Individuals that firmly believe in hard, quantitative data have always contended that this creates a potential for bias. However, it is salient to understand that the failure to make human connection would defeat the purpose of this sort of research. 

User experience is about the user 

Professor Robert Baker grew up in New York during the Great Depression. This meant that he watched countless families go hungry throughout his childhood. 18 years later, Baker invented the highest-calorie food for the lowest price possible – the chicken nugget. Baker did not approach the problem for a far-removed customer. He understood the target audience as he was the target audience. Because of his first-hand experience, he was able to understand the importance and potential improvement his invention could provide. At the end of the day, the goal of innovation and ux design goes beyond profitability. Through qualitative research, ux designers can move beyond theoretical solutions and actually improve lives through design solutions. 

Gathering qualitative research data 

Chemistry, Service Design Agency in Singapore, Daniel, Bassam and Karin in a meeting in the office

There is a plethora of methodologies available to collect qualitative data. At Chemistry Team, we use a variety of these methods to inform our work: from ui or ux design to retail or product design. As mentioned previously, these methods provide us with a conducive environment to empathise with our participants. 

Usability Testing 

This usually occurs whenever a prototype for a new product or service is created. The qualitative researcher is then tasked with making sure that it has the right effect on the user’s experience. This naturalistic observation that adopts the point of view of the participant is called Ethnography. This often involves placing a participant in a controlled environment whereby he or she is asked to interact with the prototype. More than testing the functionality of the product, this allows researchers and designers to further empathise with users by watching their reactions. By controlling the environment as much as possible, the researcher is able to unpack how unforeseeable variables might affect the user experience.  

User Interview

Another methodology that works in tandem with ethnographic research is the user interview. This can be done before or after the prototyping process or even during ethnography. Pre-prototyping, researchers use interviews to help gain insight into the mind of the user. This empathy prevents researchers from falling to the bias that they are the users that they are designing for. This heuristic occurs frequently as designers tend to inject their personal experiences and conclusions into their UI/UX process. Post-prototyping, researchers are able to gather valuable insight that would help inform the next revision. During ethnography, user interviews can be done in a manner that encourages participants to think aloud while interacting with the prototype. This could significantly improve the insights gathered. This is because it removes a degree of ambiguity that comes with merely recording the participant’s actions. 

Qualitative research survey

Along the same vein is performing an open question survey. A closed question survey utilises multiple-answer questions and could provide some qualitative insights that would help researchers empathise. On the other hand, open questions allow participants to answer how they like. This allows for researchers to receive unbiased feedback that can arguably provide a better idea of the user’s experience. 

Card Sorting or Tree Testing 

Card sorting is a research method that requires participants to organize information into bigger categories. There are two types of carding sorting. Open sorting involves asking participants to arrange a variety of information cards in whatever way they deem fit. Closed sorting involves participants placing these information cards into pre-decided categories. UX designers use this to understand how the information architecture should be from the perspective of the user. This allows designers to empathize with how users draw links between the content and information provided to them. These insights help inform the flow or content and information architecture of the end product. This helps ensure the best user experience at different points along the user’s journey.

Case Study – Woodlands Health Campus (WHC)

Chemistry Team's service design for woodlands health campus
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We had the opportunity to design the pharmacy and outpatient clinic of WHC. We created a 1 to 1 prototype of our spatial design and invited Woodlands’ residents to experience the space. Through ethnography, we were able to watch how they interacted with the spatial, digital and service touch-points. In addition, we were able to note the user’s journey. The insights we gathered assisted in helping the team empathise with the future users of the space. By identifying their various pain-points within their user experience, we were able to revise the designs accordingly. More than creating a solid, tested product for our clients, qualitative research and empathy allows us to make a positive impact on the experience of real people.  

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