Analysis Paralysis in Qualitative User Research: What is it and how on earth do you get over it?

The hope when choosing a career path for yourself, is that you find a role that makes you excited, with responsibilities that sparks a sense of joy. For me, as a UX Architect, I have a deep love for research: finding and gathering data, probing for clarity, and collecting answers to our largest questions. The moment I have finished surmounting this data and I set out to make sense of it, however, my mind shuts down. It’s not from a lack of love, of course, but simply a sense of overwhelm. I stare at the piles of figures and verbatims, and I freeze. Knowing there are so many ways to organize the data, interpret the data, and pull valuable insights leads me to not take the first step. 

This phenomenon, known as Analysis Paralysis, is very common in User Research. There is so much data to analyze and the process of making meaning from the abundance of information feels so immense that you’re unable to come to any conclusion. Sadly, knowing this is common, doesn’t exactly make it any easier to get over. Much like an author’s writer’s block, a researcher’s paralysis is temporary, but it may take a few tips and tricks to get unstuck. 

Here are some tried and true tips to get over the hurdle and back to synthesizing:

Summarize early and often:

Likely not a new piece of advice, but it bears repeating. When you’re conducting 15 interviews over 3 days, it is far easier to stop and do a mini-synthesis session at the end of each day than it is to wait until the end and sit with 15 one-hour sets of verbatims. Take stock of what you’ve learned in small increments and start to pull out the insights you see forming. Not only will this save you time, but also mental bandwidth. When you already have some insights flagged, you’ll be more likely to take better notes when you hear these themes continued in your subsequent interviews.

Add value and validity through Quantitative data: 

I am a staunch advocate for the importance of qualitative research in User Experience, but there is no denying that sometimes in synthesis, it feels as though the insights you gleam are highly subjective. One way to reorient yourself on your path to gaining meaningful insights is to supplement, or even just verify your qualitative data with quantitative data. 

Nowadays, website analytics are widely available – corroborate information from users with some indisputable facts. If many users are noting that they struggle to complete their purchases, check the bounce rate at check-out within the analytics. 

Jeff Sauro, statistical analyst and the founder of MeasuringU, is a huge proponent that all researchers can and should use statistics to supplement their qualitative data. Sauro argues that by quantifying aspects of your qualitative data, you can gain more informed insights. Measuring U’s website includes many calculators and tutorials on how to go about this, without the need for a degree in statistics. 

Change up your method: 

It is so easy to get into a habit of using the same couple methods of synthesis that have worked well for you in the past. I, too, am guilty of using my tried and true methods and then becoming frustrated when I reach a state of paralysis. Just because it’s been a great method previously, doesn’t mean it’s the right one for this data. Even just trying another method can help you to look at your data differently. 

You could begin by coding your raw data into a set number of categories, such as pain points, tools, goals, to quickly and easily break the large sums of data into more manageable sums. From there, you can create an affinity map to group larger concepts into insights. You could also get to know your users better by creating proto-personas, or an empathy map, even if they are not a key deliverable. 

Get another perspective, or at least some space:

You know that feeling when you search the fridge for 5 solid minutes looking for something, and then when you finally get frustrated enough to ask someone else, it was directly in front of you the whole time? Pouring through data for extended time can feel exactly like this. You’ve been looking at the same information, pressuring yourself to just find what you need, and you just can’t see it! Asking someone else to take a look at your data can feel defeating, but can give instant clarity that resets your perspective. Likewise, stepping away and allowing yourself some time and space can suddenly make the muddled pile of figures clearer.

Get inspired, especially by yourself!

When in doubt, take inspiration from other projects! What have others in the UX space done in a similar situation? What have others in your organization done? And often the best, what have you done in the past? Revisit your own work to see what methods you’ve used, how you arrived at the destination, despite similarly overwhelming amounts of data. It can be exactly the confidence boost you need to see that you have been here before, and been successful. You’ve done it before, you can absolutely do it again! 


Categories: Experience Design
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