Letting findings live
Without impersonating quantitative research
Early in my career as a researcher, I received the advice to make my qualitative research concrete by using numbers and scales. Following this advice, I'd write findings along the lines of, “Three participants couldn't find the main navigation.”
While a statement like this was indeed concrete, colleagues would interpret the statement and say, “Oh, but that means the other six people could find it, and that's pretty good.” And someone else might counter by arguing that one third of our audience was a significant enough number of people to support a change.
Both colleagues would be well-meaning and engaged, but both were incorrectly applying quantitative reasoning to qualitative findings. In quantitative research, we answer the questions “how many” and “when.” In qualitative research, we answer the questions “why” and “how.”
Successful qualitative research findings are similar to successful dinner party plans. If you have one guest who doesn't eat meat, and you want everyone invited to feel welcome, that's enough people to serve a delicious, plant-based entrée. If you want to serve a meat entrée, too, that’s fine. Every guest deserves to eat well.
The important part of the study with overlooked main navigation was never how many people could or couldn't find it. What we sought to know was why those people couldn't find the navigation, and how they accomplished, or didn't accomplish, the task given to them without using it.
By making the number of participants more concrete, I encouraged my colleagues’ misdirected focus.
So now, when I share the results of a study that focuses on learning why and how, I make sure that the why and the how are what I'm making concrete. I present findings live, using my voice and my expression to recreate the participant’s. I ask colleagues to read participants’ words aloud, so they can feel the reality of the experiences in their bodies instead of letting the slides roll past their eyes. I share tidy diagrams with arrows, so they can see how haphazardly a person had to navigate before they found what they were seeking.
These deliverables, just like the numbers and graphs and charts of quantitative research, enable me to share the important findings from a study. They allow me to curate what conclusions a colleague can draw, while preserving the vitality of the gathered evidence.
Instead of artificially making my findings concrete, I encourage my findings to live.
We can stop impersonating quantitative research in our qualitative studies. We can showcase the narrative arc and emotions of the real people who share their experiences with us in our interviews and usability studies. We can share their words, map their confusion, and honor their realities.
Mentioned in this issue: The Palm at the End of the Parking Lot (1995) by Robert Lobe at Laumeier Sculpture Park.