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Qualitative and quantitative methods let you treat a problem by linking symptoms to the root cause - UX folks wisdom on Big Data

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While “Big Data” is causing excitement in the IT and business sector, the practice and concept of data analysis is not unfamiliar to those coming from a research background. The intersection of business intelligence and user-centric design therefore creates both demand and opportunity for UX professionals with specialist knowledge in user research to create more impact with their work.

There are some very common pitfalls when you are dealing exclusively with results derived from only qualitative or quantitative studies, and hopefully you will also come to the conclusion that combining both as part of your usability research and testing is the best way to go.

It’s a logical assumption that for direct feedback about usability you should always go straight to the user and record attitudes, feelings, and behaviors. However, there’s enough literature and research out there to suggest that what users say doesn’t always reflect what they actually do or think. Qualitative research is much more likely to reveal what the users think and do, but it doesn’t always show how or why they do it.

Qualitative analysis allows us to test and validate user behavior assumptions in a clear and unambiguous manner, but is limited to the complexity of the questions that can be asked and the ability to dissect or drill-down into more specific details. Nevertheless, it remains a very valuable tool for framing the big picture questions required at the beginning of the usability studies and should always be the starting point for UX practitioners. It also provides a focus for quantitative research and the context for the results that it produces.

ConclusionWith all the data we’re collecting, it’s important to step back and think about what all of these values represent. Research is as much about asking the right questions as it is about being able to come to the correct conclusions. Some warn against defining and collecting metrics that may not be of any value, and suggest that we should instead put more effort into things that we can understand and action.

Data should not be used for finding evidence to support our own opinions and assumptions. Data gives us an opportunity for to reach out to more users and understand them better. This comes with greater responsibility for UX professionals, who need to exercise more rigorous testing and validation of the “insights” gleaned before rushing to implementing them, as Lou Rosenfeld has pointed out.

One of the key take-home messages for UX practitioners from Comparative Usability Evaluation 8, in Rolf Molich's which DialogDesign looked at usability parameters for the Budget car rental website, is to "Combine qualitative and quantitative findings in your report. Present what happened and support it with why it happened." Applying qualitative and quantitative research methods you are able to treat a problem by linking the symptoms (what happened) to the root cause of the problem (why it happened).

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