A development company’s ability to create products that enrich the world and support clients’ goals — and which users will love — hinges partly on how well it conducts qualitative research. If you’ve been reading our blog, then you already know that we’re big proponents of design thinking so naturally, we conduct a lot of user research. We have a lot of different tools at our disposal, including both quantitative and qualitative research. Neither provides all the answers but combined, both types can cover a lot of ground and give us the kind of insight that we need.

Design thinking is fueled by insight from qualitative data

Design thinking, however, is powered by qualitative research and the insights that come from that kind of data in particular.

As we all know, developing an understanding of the customer takes heaps of raw user data, collected in a variety of ways. But once you amass your data, that’s only the beginning — it’s what you do with all that data once you get back to the lab or the studio that differentiates the product that you develop.

How to draw good, actionable insight from qualitative data collected during design research is, in fact, the puzzle piece that many firms still struggle with. It’s something that we’re always striving to get better here at Making Sense, so we thought we’d share a few tips and insights.

First, get to know the phenomenon known as ‘synthesis’

With quantitative research, numbers are key: how much, how often, at what point. You measure, you assess, you apply algorithms, and you draw conclusions from the numbers. If you have the means at your disposal, there are tools to help you draw insight from the numbers. Harnessing big data in this way isn’t anything new — applying Machine Learning to extract insight is how lots of companies are finding value in their data these days.

But extracting insight from qualitative research? It’s not as “neat” as that. First of all, what you have to work with is a lot of different types of data: sketches, audio, video, text, notes, even feelings! What do you do with user scenarios, personas, interviews, — where’s the truth in all that, the core insight that will drive your product development process, guiding it toward the next great iteration? It starts with the “magic” of synthesis.

Analysis happens when you extract facts from your quantitative data. Synthesis happens when you extract ideas from your qualitative data. It’s ideas that you form after absorbing the data, letting it seep into your subconscious, allowing your brain to process the data and place it in context with the experience and knowledge that exists in your brain.

Synthesis is an organic process and the result is grown organically. It’s not the result of adding 2 and 2 to get four. It’s mixing 2 and blue to get an aha moment. It’s a gut feeling that draws upon the brain’s deep power to synthesize extraordinary volumes of data and find connections. So, while analysis looks broad and far across organized data to find patterns, synthesis looks deep into varied types of data to find connections.

But how do you achieve that?

Try affinity diagramming

You may have heard of affinity diagramming. This is a common method used by designers for sorting out and drawing insight from their raw data. There are a few basic steps, starting with enlisting the help of one of our favorite tools: sticky notes.

  1. Transpose your user research onto sticky notes: extract important information and use one sticky note for each idea
  2. Cluster the notes into themes that group the data in ways that make it easier to digest and synthesise — i.e. types of data broken into categories like “pain points” etc
  3. Group the notes according to insights that emerge. Look for relationships between the different data. For example, what underlying factor might be causing different user behaviors?
  4. Present the insights you gathered in step three in a format that’s easy for others to understand. This might be a user persona, for example, or an empathy map.

Get more people involved

Four easy steps make it look as easy as pie to get insight from raw user data. But of course, it’s not as simple as that. Fresh perspective is as valuable as gold in this process, so be sure to get the team involved at this point. As a human being, you can’t help bringing assumptions with you when you enter the design lab.

The idea is to move beyond your assumptions and truly see what the data is telling you but that’s a lot easier when you have others to help you out. Your teammates can challenge your assumptions – you can even challenge your own. The more minds involved, the more likely it is that you will be able to uncover the truth that lies there before you in the user data. 

Everyone on the team should all have a few important skills, including business knowledge, empathy, and creativity. But this should go without saying, because if you’re working on a design team, these skills are a given. It’s good to know about human behavior, too.

Give it time

Over time, the team begins to develop a sense of how much effort will be involved in creating insights – they will know that they have to keep at it, go over things multiple times, be patient, and approach discussions about the data from different angles. Sometimes it helps to go back and review the client’s business or the industry as a whole – you might find a different angle or a different explanation of the data.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, your qualitative data aren’t worth a darn if you’re not able to extract insight from them. Getting to the underlying “why” will be faster with a team. You’ll need a certain kind of team to get there — one with empathy, creativity, and the ability to communicate new ideas freely to help you challenge your assumptions. The biggest takeaway here? For insights, qualitative research is best handled with a team!