Planning qualitative research to inform service design

Mug of tea from above, set against an orange background

In a previous blog, I explored the need to balance different types of research during design activity. In this post, I specifically want to share some thoughts on planning, executing and using qualitative research during the discovery stage of a project. It is important to remember that qualitative research is not about finding a statistically viable sample of all of your customers or end-users, but, it is about uncovering rich design insights that dig beneath the data and statistics to tell real human stories. As the design process progresses, the designs which those insights inform will be prototyped, tested and iterated, so far from being the end of the story, those initial insights are just the beginning; any concerns over statistical viability should be mitigated by the design process itself.

Before we go any further, I think it’s also worth mentioning that I’m not a researcher, I’m a service designer. As a design leader, I’m aware of the skill it takes to undertake good quality qualitative research and I recognise that there are people far more capable than myself who do this for a living. When you can access these skills as part of a multidisciplinary design team it’s fantastic, however, working in-house you don’t always have the available resources to do this, so having some idea of how to plan and execute qualitative research activity is more than useful knowledge for any service designer to have.

I’m a huge advocate for qualitative research, I’ve even been known to get onto my soapbox and evangelise on the subject from time to time. However, I’ve also learned that getting into heated debates over the pros and cons of favouring qualitative research over quantitative datasets is time consuming, stressful and actually totally misses the point, because, human-centred design actually requires both. However, qualitative research is a hugely important part of the design process as it provides us with rich insights as well as helping us to develop empathy with those for whom we are designing. Qualitative research is exploratory in nature and through unstructured or semi-structured techniques such as observation, interviews, questionnaires/diaries, focus groups, audio or video recording undertaken in contextual settings, it allows us to gain a deeper understanding of people’s lives including culture, beliefs, pain points and motivational factors. In turn, these insights lead us to a greater understanding of the opportunities available to us and enable us to design solutions which meet currently unmet needs or improve the way something is currently done.

Qualitative research isn’t about asking people what they want; I’m sure that most people reading this will have heard the old adage that if Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted they would have told him faster horses. Qualitative research is about using our senses to better understand a lived context. Often what people don’t say is as powerful as what they do. By observing behaviour within the context of everyday life, it is possible to start to construct real-life stories that put a human face on our research and move us beyond presumption, stereotypes and statistics; helping us to understand that what people say they do or will do and what they actually do, is often very different. By adopting ethnographic techniques we can start to tell their story; a story of real people, real experiences and real opportunities.

When planning qualitative research there are several tools available to us, but which we chose to deploy depends solely on what we want to understand. Tools include:

  • Short interviews: Usually conducted on the doorstep or in the street in order to ask some quick questions around a specific topic;
  • Long/contextual interviews: Usually conducted in the place where the service or product will be received or used, allowing interviewers to observe behaviour and dynamically guide the direction of conversation accordingly;
  • Shadowing: Comprised of non-interactive observation of activity and behaviours;
  • Diary studies: Conducted by research participants at their leisure and over a predetermined period of time in order to record daily habits and routines;
  • Relationship mapping: Usually part of a contextual interview, templates are used to in order to provide insight into who people interact with and how important those relationships are to them;
  • Empathy Mapping: Comprised of information pertaining to what we know about a particular participant, including what they are saying, thinking, doing and feeling as well as listing pain points and opportunities;
  • Journey mapping: Comprised of insights generated through interviews and observation in order to highlight how people experience a service or product.

Two of the tools I have found most useful over the years are shadowing and the long/contextual interview. I thought it might be useful to share my experience of planning and carrying out this type of research activity, so here are my five top tips.

5 things to consider when planning qualitative research activity

1. Create a research plan

Creating a research plan enables you to think about what you want to achieve and helps surface the questions you will need to ask. Start with a high-level research question that is specific and actionable and make a decision on the best way to explore it; this might not be through a qualitative research tool at all. Some research questions are difficult to answer directly, particularly if they are concerning motivational factors, blockers or sensitive subjects. If you decide that a qualitative research tool such as an interview is the best way of progressing your research, be careful to curate a set of interview questions that enable you to learn more about the research topic, but try to avoid asking direct questions about it. A research plan should include a clear hypothesis and details of the kinds of work you wish to undertake as part of discovery; it’s useful to use a checklist to help you cover all the basics, such as understanding what type of qualitative tools you need to use, what type of quantitative data you require to support you, how many research participants you need to recruit, who your stakeholders are and whether you have the option of utilising research partnerships with external agencies or internal data teams and/or customer service/feedback teams.

2. Devise a topic guide

As the name suggests, topic guides offer a flexible alternative to a traditional questionnaire and are used to guide conversion rather than dictate it. A topic guide contains open questions relating to the things you wish to explore, which should be used as catalysts for rich conversation. It’s not always necessary to ask all of the questions or ask the questions in the order they are written. Topic guides are a tool to promote free-flowing conversation rather than stifle it with forced breaks. The objective is to establish trust by showing your human side, rather than hiding behind a clipboard, but at the same time, being careful not to bias or lead the responses participants to provide. Arguably, a good interview is one in which you are confident enough and familiar enough with the subject matter to leave the topic guide in your bag.

3. Plan your approach to participant recruitment

Qualitative research is about uncovering insights and human stories which can be used to help define problems, identify opportunities and design solutions which can later be validated through robust testing activity. Qualitative research is not, therefore, about quantity or statistical viability. A typical qualitative study might include around 15 to 20 contextual interviews. Recruiting participants can be tricky so bringing on board a specialist service to help you can be useful, however, it isn’t always necessary. Try to avoid cold calling customers and use your networks to identify participants who are warm to the idea being involved. Often, working with frontline colleagues to identify suitable respondents saves a huge amount of time and effort, but it is worth keeping in mind that the best insights don’t always come from interviews with the easiest people to find. It is often nice to offer some kind of thank you, for example, a financial reward or incentive, but again, it’s worth keeping in mind that this might bias the answers participants provide, so any decision to do so should be carefully considered.

4. Allow yourself time to write up your notes

Don’t underestimate how long it will take to write up your notes. It’s useful to conduct interviews in pairs as it enables one of you to focus on the conversation and one of you to focus on taking notes. In some cases, it might be appropriate to record an interview and transcribe the narrative but this will largely be a decision you can make on a project by project basis. In either case, allocating time to debrief after the interview and take a joint perspective on what you observed and heard not only gives you an opportunity to add anything to your notes that you may not have had a chance to record at the time, but also reduces the risk of individual bias. It is useful to do this as soon as you can following the interview and also write up your notes whilst things remain fresh in your memory. If you have any photos, videos or audio, include links in your notes as these will help give context to your narrative. An hour-long interview might take 2 or 3 hours to write up, so make sure you leave enough time between interviews. Your notes will be crucial when it comes to synthesising insights and identifying opportunities at the next stage of the design process, so it’s worth getting them right from outset.

5. Develop a field guide

Field guides provide a useful reference for research teams and contain practical information such as checklists, hints, tips and protocols which need to be observed. Field guides are particularly useful if the research is being conducted by colleagues who aren’t used to this type of work or are coming together as a team for the first time. In such cases it is important to remember that if team members involved in research activity are also involved in other design activity, the focus must be kept on the problem/opportunity space rather than protecting a ‘pet solution’ or corporate position; research must be as objective and unbiased as possible. Spending some time on a field guide upfront is not only useful in terms of your current project but will also be useful for future work and will grow and evolve from project to project.

Here are some sections which you might want to consider including in an interviewers field guide:

  • Interview checklist: Set out the things you will need to remember to take with you, such as your topic guide, recording equipment, camera, phone, business card/thank you card and worksheets/tool templates (DITLO, journey map, empathy map, relationship map etc.);
  • At the interview: Set out the way in which interviews should be conducted including the behaviours and protocols that need to be observed. Being objective and empathetic is an essential skill for those conducting interviews. Customer interviews aren’t about defending a corporate position, they are about listening to what people say whilst remaining impartial. Often the richest insights come about when participants feel that they can be open and honest with the interviewer. Contextual interviews offer the opportunity to have an open and honest conversation with people which is structured by a topic guide but also leaves space to understand people in a wider context than a customer or end-user of a service, policy or product. Whilst a questionnaire might be fine for an online survey, following a strict set of questions in a stakeholder interview is restrictive and limits conversation and the ability to build rapport.
  • At the beginning of the interview: Set out the protocol for how interviewers should introduce themselves and the objectives of the session. Participants are more comfortable during the interview if you are comfortable yourself. Be confident and show an interest in what the participant has to say. Try to find some common ground or shared interest which will enable you to start the conversation and help build rapport. Remind participants that there are no right and wrong answers and that their opinion and thoughts are what is important. Also, remind participants that they are in control of the session and can stop or ask questions at any time.
  • Obtaining consent: Set out what interviewers will need to do in order to ensure that valid consent has been given by the participant. Whilst it can sometimes feel like a blocker to getting started, taking consent seriously is really important from both a legal and ethical point of view. Placing a focus on data protection and data privacy and communicating this with participants is critical to enabling those open and honest conversations which will lead to the rich insights you are looking for. It is worth linking with the data governance team within your organisation sooner rather than later as they will be able to advise you on specific requirements. It’s also useful to check out the GDPR guidance issued by the UK Government. Consider the tools you plan to use and if photography, video or voice recording is required, remember to make this clear to the participants and include this in your consent form as well as a clear statement to highlight that the participant has given clear consent for you to process their personal data for a specific purpose. When constructing your consent form you should include statements that outline the participant’s right to erasure, the right to portability and the right to withdraw their consent. It is also worth considering what you would do if consent is withdrawn following your interview, how this will impact on your design activity and include steps to mitigate the impact where possible.
  • During the interview: Set out how to conduct the interview, for example, how to use the topic guide and when to be prepared to ditch it. It is often useful to go with the flow of conversation and to some extent be led by the participant. Be careful not to try and rush back to the topic guide too soon or you might miss out on the opportunity to learn more about something you hadn’t considered asking. Use open questions and remember to ask follow-up questions to probe deeper and gain further insight. Asking questions such as, “how did that feel?” or “can you please talk me through what happened?”, is often where the real insight lies. Write your notes as if the participant was reading them and don’t include anything you wouldn’t want them to see. Try to include contextual elements in your notes which will take your mind back to interview; how was the room laid out, what did you see, hear and feel?
  • At the end of the interview: Set out the protocol for ending the interview. Leave the participant with a copy of the consent form and your contact details in case they want to contact you later. Explain what will happen next, for example, will you be contacting participants again? If so, when? how? Also, recap on what you are going to do with the information they have provided and answer any questions they may have. It is worth remembering that some of the best insight I have received from participants is during the recap or on the doorstep as I’m leaving, so always keep a notebook handy or recording equipment on.
  • After the interview: Set out the protocol for debriefing with colleagues following the interview. Think about where and when the debrief will take place and how long you need to set aside for it.
  • How we treat participants: Set out the desired behaviours you expect to see from the project team when working with participants. Consider constructing a set of principles which should be followed, for example:
  1. Treat participants with honesty, integrity, sensitivity and dignity.
  2. Arrive at interviews fully prepared and explain clearly what you are doing, why and how the participant can help you.
  3. Treat participants how you would like to be treated yourself.
  4. Be honest and upfront.
  5. Take care to not knowingly cause people harm or distress of any kind.
  6. Always seek informed consent before starting an interview.
  7. Encourage participants to ask questions throughout the interview.
  8. Allow participants to withdraw at any point.
  9. Fully debrief all participants at the end of the interview.
  10. Leave participants with your name and contact details in case they need to contact you at any point in the future.
  11. Keep data safe and confidential throughout the life cycle of the project.
  12. Keep your notes anonymous unless you have specifically agreed otherwise with the participant and destroy information in line with GDPR retention timescales.
  • Looking after yourself: Set out how interviewers should look after themselves. Depending on the subject matter, interviews can be quite intense. It is important that interviewers set aside sufficient time to download and go over the session with other colleagues who were present. It is important to do this as soon as possible after the session so it is fresh in your mind. If you take the decision to carry out interviews on your own, set out a policy for lone working. It is always sensible to let other colleagues know where you will be, how long you will be there and when you expect to have finished; prepare and think about risks before you go and discuss any issues or concerns as they arise.

Originally published at on August 11, 2020.