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The value of qualitative research in a comparative user research study

  • Edward Nick 

Many UX designers consider several value of qualitative research in a comparative user research study design directions and research methods for their designs. But in a world where user expectations are rising, competition is high, and design trends change frequently.

It’s important to stay ahead of the curve. A lot of the time designers choose a design format or direction before they run their first usability test. 

Testing multiple designs early in the process can provide more useful information than testing. Just a single design or choosing one based on personal preferences.

When you run a comparative usability test participants can experience multiple designs, providing better feedback. 

When you test design variations early you can gain insights into each element of the design. Understand what works, problem areas, and potential optimizations through actionable feedback. 

In this blog, we’ll discuss qualitative research in a comparative usability study and its value in your user research process. By conducting a comparative usability test with qualitative data early in the design process.

You can understand what design resonates with users. Why one design direction solves customer pain points better than others.

Comparative usability testing

Comparative usability testing is a method of testing. Where two or more designs are present to test participants and compared, side by side.

This is done to understand which design is more user-friendly, effective, and which one the user prefers. Additionally, comparative testing can identify elements that don’t work or cause problems for users. 

This type of usability testing can be use to compare ad copy or headlines. Find a brand name, choose a logo for your brand, and UX designs early on in design creation.

The goal is to identify the best direction for your designs. Usually, the test is conduct with a small group of users who are ask to interact with basic designs. Think aloud when experiencing the design, or answer questions related to their interactions and opinions.

The result of the test can help teams decide which prototype to move forward with. What elements to improve, and what ones to eliminate entirely.

What is qualitative research?

Comparative usability testing is typically interpret as a process to benchmark. The usability of an interface against a competitor or new design.

In that type of testing, you’d compare existing designs using quantitative data like task completion. Number of errors, or other numerical values.

While this type of test can be effective for comparing live designs. It cannot help you validate design decisions or provide you with the best direction to take your resources.

A comparative usability test that gives you qualitative data will tell you why one design is better. Identify issues and help you understand user preferences. 

Qualitative research is the process of gathering and interpreting non-numerical data. It can be utilize to gain an in-depth understanding of users and their interactions with different designs.

Qualitative data in comparative usability testing can come in the form of written or record text, audio, or video recordings. The data describes the background of particular activities that can’t be understood with numerical values. 

In qualitative, research paper comparative usability testing. You should test two or more variations of your resources that have enough functionality to compare differences.

Participants are ask to either think out loud and discuss their opinions of different designs. In each test session or are record for their experiences to be analyze by the researcher. 

This kind of study gives researchers an understanding of which design elements work well. Meet expectations and which cause issues before committing to one direction for the entire design. 

Why conduct a comparative usability test to gather qualitative data

Now let’s look at the benefits of conducting a comparative usability test. With qualitative data to validate design direction early on. 

Designers can identify the best design for your users

By testing multiple designs early in the creation process UX designers can identify the design direction that works best.

This helps ensure that the final product will meet user expectations and be successful when you launch. 

Designers naturally create designs by experimenting with various directions for the design.

This can lead to them choosing the design based on their preferences. The design that works best for the users.

When UX professionals know they’ll be testing multiple designs. It allows them to be creative and keep their options open until after testing is complete. 

Making qualitative, comparative usability testing an effective way for designers to choose a direction with consideration of every variation.

If a designer decides to go with a single design before testing. They might never get the feedback that might have eliminated issues or pain points. Before investing time and money into completing the design.

The best-case scenario is they get the feedback after completing a design. But at that point, it can be costly to go back and make changes. 

If you adopt a comparative usability testing process early on designers will have confidence. They are creating the best resources. They’ll be able to focus on the most important design elements and pages, preventing lengthy work without user feedback. 

Understanding user needs and expectations

Through comparative usability testing with qualitative feedback. You can identify user needs and expectations that you might not have identified before.

A deeper understanding of the users can improve designs and lead to solutions that increase traffic, leads, and conversions. 

Qualitative user feedback from the experiences test participants have informs designers. What they expect from the business, brand, or organization.

The team will be able to tailor their prototypes to the user. You can use real-time feedback to improve designs and change them with the confidence that it is what users are looking for. 

Knowing your target audience will help you reach the right people and create loyal customers. When you create designs by gathering qualitative feedback you increase engagement, traffic, user satisfaction, and ultimately profit. 

Participants provide better feedback

If designers give participants an opportunity to experience multiple solutions and voice their opinions, they provide actionable insights because they feel like they are part of the process.

An experienced researcher will notice the difference immediately when conducting a comparative usability test to gather qualitative data. 

When a participant is present with one design option, most of the feedback will be neutral unless they have major issues or encounter significant roadblocks.

This is because they have nothing to compare their experiences to. Once a participant experiences another design and can compare their interactions their feedback becomes much more actionable.

Seeing multiple ways of accomplishing the same tasks makes it easier for participants to contrast, support, or identify issues and discuss differences between the design directions.  

Avoiding design mistakes and issues

By testing multiple designs, you can avoid major issues and potential design pitfalls that happen if you only test one variation. Without testing multiple designs.

You might create a full design that has issues that are only encounter when testing high-fidelity prototypes.

If the team uses this method they could waste valuable time, money, and potentially have to perform lengthy redesigns. 

When researchers conduct comparative usability testing, they validate decisions, identify issues, and will be able to make changes to designs before the issues turn into major problems.

Qualitative data will not only tell you what issues or changes need to be made but also why. The why behind the pain points users have given designers enough information to improve their solutions and create resources that users want to interact with. 

You’ll be able to compare data

In addition to qualitative data, a comparative usability test can provide quantitative feedback like task completion rates, error rates, and survey data. When you are running a test you need to have a goal for your task completion and error rates to identify if the design met your requirements. 

If you collect data by comparing multiple designs you can compare the data to inform the organization about what design is better and what direction to move forward with.

It will be clear what design is more effective when you analyze results because researchers and participants can differentiate feedback, results, and design variations. 

UX designers can test their prototypes

If a UX professional is ask to test their own design, it creates bias, or the designer becomes overly invested in one direction over all others. When researchers test only one design, most of the time they want to validate or reject that single design.

With the investment in a single design direction negative feedback can often be disregard because of personal opinions. 

However, if comparative usability testing is utilize, the process is more about finding the direction to take designs and the elements that have the greatest impact.

It helps to eliminate bias and take pressure off the designer. Testing early is more focused on comparing the pros and cons of different options. 

How to conduct a comparative usability test

There are a few ways to run a comparative usability test. One is to use a within-subject test design, where each participant is test on multiple tasks.

The other method is to use a between-subject test design, where each participant is ask to complete only one task. 

If you want to compare the functionality of multiple designs and the way participants interact with the full prototype, you should conduct a between-subject comparative usability test.

Each participant will be expose to each design solution, interact with the full design, and give feedback on the differences, elements, and issues they encountered. 

If you want to test things like brand names, headlines, logos, or products you should use a within-subject test design. For this test focus on the most important and impactful elements of the design.

Participants will compare their interactions with each and provide the same actionable feedback to inform design decisions. 

No matter which comparative usability testing method you choose, you will need to have a clear understanding of your testing goals, what you are trying to compare, and the factors that lead to a successful or failed test.

You will need to create a task list or scenario for the participants to follow. Once you have your design variations and task list ready you can start recruiting participants and conducting the test.

As we’ve discussed testing multiple designs can be an extremely valuable way to gain valuable feedback, eliminate bias, and avoid costly design issues.

But when you conduct a comparative usability test to gather qualitative data you need to consider a few key factors that aren’t important when testing a single design. 

Test Designs that can be compare

When you are conducting a comparative usability test it is important that resources can be compare. The variations need to be different enough to be distinguishable.

If there aren’t clear differences the results may be insignificant, and participants might have a hard time giving quality feedback.

It would be difficult to compare designs that are too similar and form opinions about the differences if they aren’t clear and prevalent.

If the UX designer has created variations that are only subtly different they should make changes or create new designs that are clearly different. 

Create an objective test and task list

By nature, usability is a subjective topic, what is ‘usable’ for one participant might not have the same effect on others.

It is important to craft a comparative test that outlines how participants are suppose to accomplish tasks and complete the test. Create tasks that anyone can accomplish, users will be able to compare their experiences with designs. 

When test participants are ask to complete specific tasks and interact with designs a researcher will be able to understand the effectiveness of the designs and test the most important elements.

The design of the test and scenarios you have users go through are almost as important as the feedback itself. 

Don’t test too many variations

Testing two or three designs at once is ideal in comparative usability testing and the data will be much more valuable than if you test all of your variations at once.

When you test only two or three designs participants can easily compare, understand differences, and choose the design that they prefer without having too many options to choose from.

With more than three variations, tests become crowded, complex, and participants can have a hard time following all tasks or remembering each design. Additionally, if you test more than three designs at a time you might not be able to include all the testing scenarios you wish to study. 

Test the most important elements

Qualitative, comparative usability tests should not include completed, high-fidelity prototypes, this means your designs should focus on only the most important elements of the design.

It’s not necessary to include complex branding or graphics, make sure to focus on the aspects of the user experience that make a difference in the functionality of the designs. 

When creating your testing scenarios, have participants complete tasks that give you quality feedback and accomplish the testing goals.

If you ask participants to complete too many things or test every element of the design the test can become lengthy, and participants might become disinterested. For perspective, if you test three designs with 5 tasks to complete on each, that is 15 tasks.

If you test more than three designs or try to analyze too many elements, you might have participants completing 30 or more tasks. 

Additionally, you need to allow enough time at the end of the test for comparisons and discussion on the differences, issues, and elements encountered.

When the UX professional is creating designs for a comparative usability test they should carefully choose the most important elements to test, the tasks that have the biggest impact, and ask the questions that create the most significant feedback. Rushing and overwhelming participants with too many tasks or test elements will result in less effective results. 

Be prepare to make changes to designs

Once you have gather all the actionable qualitative feedback from your comparative usability test the team needs to be prepare to make changes to the designs to fit user expectations and needs.

The results will identify what design direction works the best, the next step is to take this information into account and amend designs to fit with the best design solution.

The participants will also identify any issues that occur when interacting with the various designs, if they occur in multiple designs they need to be fix before more work is done.

Especially if these issues occur in the design that participants identified as the best option. Additionally, participants might tell you that some elements of one design are great and different elements in another are better than the first design.

UX designers can take this feedback and create solutions that incorporate the best elements from each design. 

While using the insights to inform design decisions is important, the purpose of a comparative usability test to gather qualitative feedback is not to allow users to make every design decision.

The goal is to allow users to interact with prototypes and help the organization optimize designs before creating a final product. No team should rely solely on the users, after all, they aren’t the professionals, you are.

You should decide before testing which elements of the design are the most important, what elements are vital to the design, and how much influence the feedback will have on the design.  


The next time you begin creating new UX designs, plan on doing some early comparative usability testing to analyze different directions and solutions.

If the team decides to do this from the beginning, designers will keep an open mind, explore different ways of designing, and avoid becoming too attached to one direction.

Qualitative, comparative usability testing can identify new ideas, find issues before they have a major impact, and can help the team create designs that help to grow the business.