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Approaches to Understanding People: Qualitative vs. Quantitative

April 2, 2005 01:11 PM | Posted in: User Research

David Brooks Op-Ed column The Art of Intelligence in today's NY Times is strongly relevant to questions of user research method, design philosophy, and understanding user experiences.

Brooks opens by asserting that that US Intelligence community shifted away from qualitative / interperative research and analysis methods to quantitative research and analysis methods during the 60's in an attempt to legitimize conclusions in the fashion of the physical sciences. From this beginning, Brooks' conclusion is that the basic epistemological shift in thought about what sorts of information are relevant to understanding the needs and views of groups of people (nations, societies, political leadership circles) yielded interpretations of their views and plans which were either useless or incorrect, models which then lead decision makers to a series of dramatic policy errors - examples of which we still see to this day.

Brooks contrasts the "unimaginative" quantitative interpretations assembled by statistical specialists with the broad mix of sources and perspectives which cultural and social thinkers in the 50's used to understand American and other societies in narrative, qualitative ways.

According to Brooks, narrative, novelistic ways of understanding provided much better - more insightful, imaginative, accureate, and useful - advice on how Americans and others understood the world, opening the way to insight into strategic trends and opportunities. I've read many of the books he uses as examples - they're some of the classics on social / cultural / historical reading lists - of the qualitative tradition, and taken away vivid pictures of the times and places they describe that I use to this day when called on to provide perspective on those environments.

Perhaps it's implied, but what Brooks doesn't mention is the obvious point that both approaches - qualitative and quantitative - are necessary to crafting fully-dimensioned pictures of people. Moving explicitly to the context of user research, qualitative analysis can tell us what people want or need or think or feel, but numbers give specific answers regarding things like what they're willing or able to spend, how much time they will invest in trying to find a piece of information, or how many interruptions they will tolerate before quitting a task in frustration.

When a designer must choose between interaction patterns, navigation labels, product imagery, or task flows, they need both types of understanding to make an informed decision.

Some excerpts from Brooks' column:

"They relied on their knowledge of history, literature, philosophy and theology to recognize social patterns and grasp emerging trends."

This sounds like a strong synthetic approach to user research.

"I'll believe the system has been reformed when policy makers are presented with competing reports, signed by individual thinkers, and are no longer presented with anonymous, bureaucratically homogenized, bulleted points that pretend to be the product of scientific consensus."

"But the problem is not bureaucratic. It's epistemological. Individuals are good at using intuition and imagination to understand other humans. We know from recent advances in neuroscience, popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink," that the human mind can perform fantastically complicated feats of subconscious pattern recognition. There is a powerful backstage process we use to interpret the world and the people around us."

"When you try to analyze human affairs using a process that is systematic, codified and bureaucratic, as the CIA does, you anesthetize all of these tools. You don't produce reason - you produce what Irving Kristol called the elephantiasis of reason."

local tags: cultural_systems, intelligence, methods, nytimes, organizations, patterns, quality, user_research

©2008 by Joe Lamantia :: joe [at]