How to Visualize Your Qualitative User Research Results for Maximum Impact
BY PRISCILLA ESSER AND DITTE MORTENSEN
When thinking about visualization of research results, many people will automatically have an image of a graph in mind. Do you have that image, too? You would be right in thinking that many research results benefit from a graph-like visualization, showing trends and anomalies. But this is mainly true for results from quantitative user research. Graphs are often not the best way to communicate the results from qualitative user research methods such as interviews or observations. Frequently, the number of participants in these types of studies is too low to create meaningful graphs. Moreover, the insights you will want to communicate sometimes don’t translate to a clean number. Let’s show you how to visualize more subjective and fuzzy data from qualitative user research methods, in a way that communicates the essential insights to other stakeholders, so they don’t have to plow through voluminous research reports.
“The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures.”
— Ben Shneiderman, Distinguished university professor in computer science
When you’re sharing results from qualitative user research efforts, you’re most likely focusing on creating an understanding for the lives people lead, the tasks that they need to fulfill, and the interactions they must effect so as to achieve what they need or want to do. This holds true whether you’re using the research in the beginning phases of a design process (getting to know what to design), or using it in the final stages (understanding how well a design is meeting its targets). Depending on the people you’re communicating with (such as your design team or a client) and the type of understanding you need them to have (in other words, a deep empathy for the user needs or a global feeling for the context in which a product will be used), you need to determine what type of visualization suits your results best.
Imagine that you’ve conducted several interviews with people from your target group: overworked and worried informal caregivers of seniors with early signs of dementia. They have shared some essential information with you, regarding the fears they have about a new product that’s supposed to help them be more independent in the care they provide to their loved ones. You used a thematic analysis technique with lots of Post-it notes to make sense of the data, and you found four categories of fears that are relevant to consider when designing the new product: changes in the relationship, a constant feeling of worrying, lack of competencies, and lack of personal time. You need to share your insights with your design team—so that everyone is on the same page and continues the design process with the same level of empathy for this fragile target group. Also, you need to communicate these insights to your clients: the management team of a healthcare organization. They are hoping to engage informal caregivers more into the care process, since they need to reorganize their budgets and unburden their employees. How would you go about communicating the results that you found? Would you simply give them that short list of four fears? Would you give them a pie diagram, showing how often a certain category of fears was mentioned in the interviews? We would argue that this does not lead to the deep understanding you’re aiming for. A list is not immersive enough to trigger any type of empathy. Here, we’ll show you three ways of visualizing your results that are much more effective.
By using Post-it notes for the thematic analysis technique to come to your conclusions on the four main fears that your target group struggles with, you’ve already used a visualization method that we would recommend: an affinity diagram. You have taken quotes and notes from the interviews and have written each of them on a separate Post-it. Then, you started to reorganize them according to similarities, creating themes as you went along. There’s a tremendous amount of information present in the diagram you’ve created as an analysis tool. However, you will need to clean up this diagram so that it better reflects the insights you want to communicate.
You can quickly decide that the categories should reflect the four main fears that you discovered. You then need to ask yourself what pieces of information will help your fellow designers and your client understand what these fears entail. What impact do they have on your users’ lives? When is this fear most prominent? What triggers this fear? Do you have some insight into what can reduce this fear? All this information will already be present in the Post-it notes you collected within a theme. Now you simply have to filter out the most important ones, and present them in a clear and visually appealing way to accommodate the people you’re communicating this to. You can use quotes or keywords, and—if you happen to have made some observations as well—illustrate them with pictures or drawings. The image below shows what an affinity diagram for this purpose could look like.