Editor's note: Susan Fader is qualitative researcher, strategist and moderator at FaderFocus, a New York research firm.

Who is a qualitative researcher? 

In the 1980s, Judy Langer brought together a group of New York City-based qualitative researchers to form the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA). “We were a group of ‘moderators’ who did research on consumer products, media and public opinion issues,” she says. 

Langer, who began her career doing both quantitative and qualitative research, says she began to focus on qualitative research because she enjoyed it more. Her impetus for reaching out to other qualitative researchers? “Qualitative research was always being put down at ARF [Advertising Research Foundation] conferences – that qualitative research was not really research and that only quantitative research was real,” she says. “ARF was the research conference at the time, so the goal of getting together was to get respect for what we did.” 

Today, the QRCA is the world’s largest professional organization of qualitative researchers. Members reside throughout the United States and in 36 other countries, and they use many different descriptors and have vastly broadened the areas of research. While some QRCA members use the term qualitative researcher as their primary descriptor, other members use ethnographer, social media expert, customer experience researcher (CX) researchers and user experience (UX) researchers, with UX being the fastest growing descriptor. 

Mary Sorber, principal user researcher, Wells Fargo, and the co-chair of the QRCA UX SIG, explains this qualitative research descriptor expansion by saying, “Qualitative is the bigger umbrella and there are flavors of it. UX research is one flavor and qualitative market research is another flavor. The thing to recognize is that the term qualitative now applies to more than just market research.”

Breaking down silos 

While companies such as Panasonic and Verizon have brought UX and market research functions under the same umbrella, many have historically siloed the UX research function outside of traditional market research departments. Janet Standen, a broad qualitative researcher with extensive UX research experience, says it is an anathema to describe a UX researcher as a market researcher. 

Lauren Isaacson, a UX and market research consultant, explains this:

“In the UX field, there is a general mistrust of marketing and market research. They feel like the marketing team’s only objective is to sell the most product at the expense of the quality of the product. UXers see themselves as champions of their users, of their customers, and they are trying to do their best on behalf of them. When you come to them from that marketing world and you say, ‘I can help you,’ there is a mistrust that you are able to do that or that you have their objectives. The best interests of the customer is their rallying cry.”

Simon Chadwick, managing partner, Cambiar Consulting, is concerned with this research world siloing. In an article for Research Now, he points out that “market research is now seen as being distinct from UX and CX … Both ‘disciplines’ claiming separate identities that necessitate talents and capabilities different from those found in ‘market research.’” 

During a UX panel at Quirk’s October 2020 virtual event, Ari Zelmanow, director of analytics, research and insights, Panasonic, and former research lead at Twitter, shared Chadwick’s concern, suggesting a solution. Zelmanow is a strong proponent for companies creating one unified insights function, which is what he has done at Panasonic. He describes this unification as having three components: 

  1. Market research (competitive intelligence).
  2. UX research (customer experience and consumer analytics).
  3. Data science (quantitative research, data science and data engineering). 

While each of the three pillars has a different focus, he sees qualitative research playing important roles in both UX and market research.

Zelmanow says, “One of the biggest historic challenges in market research is that we haven’t contextualized data very well.” By having the three insight components working cross functionally – under one umbrella – you have a better 3D image of what is happening. Including multiple functions allows for better questions and less risk.  

To drive home this contextual point and the need to get rid of siloing in the research world, Zelmanow references the parable of the elephant and the five blind men, where each is touching an elephant but come to radically different conclusions as to what it is based on the different parts they are touching, e.g., trunk equals snake; tusk equals spear. 


One of the biggest obstacles to successfully bringing these three different groups together is miscommunication caused by a lack of consistent terminology. Michele Ronsen, a design and user researcher, says, “Not having a shared understanding of key terms leads to incredible inefficiencies.” 

This frustration with miscommunication within the UX community led Ronsen to initiate a crowdsourced “UX Lex” to define terms that UXers used, with the aim of creating universally agreed upon UX and UX research definitions. With help from Standen, and input from 60 UXers from more than a dozen countries, she found that even within the UX world there were many different definitions for the same terms and descriptors for the same function. (Ronsen unveiled the UX Lex at Quirk’s London in 2020, and with Standen presented further details at the 2021 QRCA Conference.)   

The following quotes show the communication chasm and confusion that can exist when someone who comes to qualitative research with a market research background and someone in UX who comes to qualitative research from a design background get together.

“I often ask my students if they know the difference between usability testing, user testing, user research. I can immediately see how seasoned people are by the way they use our terms. Precision is extremely important.” – Ronsen

“When I was in-house the company brought in a design firm to help with a product launch. This design firm said, oh, we’re going to do ethnographic research in order to inform the design … Then when it finally came down to doing the research, they were just doing IDIs. I’m like, this is not ethnography, but the company kept referring to it as a rapid ethnography.” – Isaacson

“The term IDI will mark you as a market researcher, whereas if you are a UX researcher, you would call it a one-on-one interview… The other thing that will mark you as a market researcher is if you refer to somebody as ‘client side;’ in the UX world people refer to being ‘in-house.’” – Sorber 

“I might do an in-context interview as a qualitative researcher, whereas it would be called contextual inquiry if I’m coming more from the product end. Qualitative researchers use focus group, UX researchers use discussion group…UX will refer to open-ended questions as qualitative feedback, whereas I believe qualitative is an interaction with other people and tuning and probing.” – Standen


In addition to terminology issues, Sorber says, “There’s a big misconception that UX research is the same as usability testing … UX research is much, much broader than usability testing. That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions now that traditional qualitative researchers have.”

In the same vein, Isaacson says, “I think that there is a mistrust from market research that UX research teams don’t necessarily have the same advanced skill set or depth of knowledge that a market research team does... That may be the case in some young, immature companies that have not hired or invested in training for researchers. ... But people who know the field and who have been doing it for a long time definitely know what they’re doing. I think that with time, there will be more mutual respect.”

Here are three strengths that traditional qualitative researchers can take from the UX world:

  1. Moving from the traditional qualitative research project mind-set to more of a collaborative mind-set.
  2. Recognizing the importance of the iterative process, which entails numerous consecutive sprints (rounds) where concepts/products quickly incorporate learnings into the next round of research.  
  3. Embedding the researcher with the development team, per the UX model.

On the flip side, UX can benefit from better utilizing traditional qualitative research resources, specifically the extensive support infrastructure (recruiters, focus group facilities, panel providers, transcribers, etc.). “This distrust between UX and market research is a missed opportunity to learn from the history of market research, which has been around for 75 years … lot of expertise and learning with very sophisticated tools and services that can help UX research incredibly,” says Isaacson. 

Making a difference

Looking to the future, Sorber says, “There is probably a call for humbleness on both sides. We have traditions and cultures that are different. But recognizing that, at the end of the day, we’re all focused on making a difference and making improvements for the broader market, the end user, the customer, however you want to call it. That is the rallying cry we can all get behind. To focus on the ways that we’re pulling in the same direction. More outward focus, less infighting is what I would call for.”