The conflict between quantitative and qualitative research

Epistemology in Design

Photo of a garden
Photo by Martin Kníže on Unsplash

What is green? Is green the colour that smells like a garden after the rain? Or is green R:43 G:167 B:52?

Our answer to this question depends on the way in which we see the world. The way we understand what truth is.

Design research helps us understand some truth about the world. Maybe that is what product sells best, what makes an employee more likely to stay in their job or which feature on a webpage is annoying to customers. But discovering these things is not straight forward and not just because research is difficult.

It’s not straight forward because working out what truth is not straight forward. We need to understand whether we believe there is an objective truth we can discover, or whether true is always determined by context. We need to be aware of epistemology — the theory of knowledge.

Broadly, very broadly, we can think about two schools of epistemology. Firstly we have positivism or objectivism. Thinking like this means thinking that there is an objective reality that we can research through the scientific method. If we use the right, objective research techniques we can uncover what is really happening. This kind of thinking lends itself towards quantitative research.

Secondly, there are schools of thought like subjectivism or relativism. Approaching the world like this means agreeing that reality is self-constructed, culturally determined and context dependent. It means that each of us experience the world in our own way and, in doing so, construct an idea of the truth. This lends itself towards qualitative research and a subjective understanding of each individual person’s world.

Let’s work through an example

If a person in San Francisco claimed that Uber didn’t service their city — how do you treat that statement? Is it a lie? Is it true? How would you use it in your research?

The positivist would say that this person is lying or misinformed. Clearly Uber does exist in SF, and their testimony is therefore not credible. The subjectivist might think that it’s interesting someone doesn’t think Uber exists in SF and try to understand why this is (Are they new in town? Speak a different language? Don’t use a smart phone?). It would be an interesting data point that could potentially lead to new important insights (maybe there is an underserved community that Uber could focus on to build ridership).

Shiloutte of two people having a conversation
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

Epistemology matters

It’s not right or wrong to look at the world from different lenses. They are just different ways of interpreting phenomenon. It is, however, important to understand how you are approaching the world so you understand the ramifications.

If you seek to quantify an observed phenomenon you seek a positivist perspective. Perhaps you want to quantify the number of visits to retail locations or you want to quantify the shade of green you are using vs competitors. You want research that yeilds a number that will be interpreted the same way by all who consume it.

If you seek to learn about subjective experiences you are looking at a subjectivist perspective. For example, you might what to know why people visited that retail location. Or maybe you want to know if customers’ perceive your shade of green differently to a competitor’s shade of green. In the subjectivist perspective all that matters is if they were perceived as being different — even if they were the same RGB codes.

This is why it can feel difficult to bring quant and qual together. These approaches see the world differently.

This is not to say that it can’t be done, but it can explain why it can feel so uncomfortable.

Thinking about thinking is important to understand the world around us. Understanding the perspective you are bringing to your research will give you a better appreciation of research’s strengths and limitations.

To circle back to our original question: What is green?

Green is both the colour that smells like a garden after the rain AND R:43 G:167 B:52.

All these ways of looking the world are valid. Just different.

Garden path with green plants
Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash

Writing about human experiences