7 Constraints in Qualitative User Research

Aug 2, 2019 · 7 min read

Whether studying or working within academia, or conducting user research within industry, at some point you will be faced with research constraints. Below we share some of the constraints that we have faced when conducting qualitative user research at UCL’s Interaction Centre.

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Time Constraints

As user researchers, we’re often under pressure to produce results, constrained by time. A PhD student may be chasing a publication deadline, whilst industry professionals may be racing against the clock towards product release date. How do we manage these time constraints within user research?

I was aware of the limited time I had to complete my own doctoral research. I was engaging with a sensitive population that I knew very little about at the beginning of my studies and was worried that I’d be unable to recruit participants.

When faced with time constraints, you may have to think creatively.

Financial Constraints

Research projects are often constrained with financial limits which can be challenging to manage. Research often involves costly equipment, payments to participants, and other costs such as printing for recruitment flyers and professional transcription services. Moreover, for academics and students who are submitting papers to conferences, publishing fees and travel expenses are likely to take a significant chunk from these budgets. Financial limitations can constrain the research being conducted and limit the avenues available for promoting and publishing our work.

I had a number of engaged participants who wanted to participate in my research, but I was afraid how many to recruit, as this impacted how much I had to spend on paying them and then how much would be remaining in my budget to attend conferences to present my work.

If financial constraints occur, plan ahead and don’t be shy to ask for additional funds from other sources.

Technical Constraints

As a user researcher, you may develop an application that needs evaluating or develop software for analysing research data. As such, you may face technical constraints such as: database, performance, operational, maintainability, reliability and safety.

I wanted to develop a novel technology to deploy as part of a study. I conducted an early auto-ethnographic study with myself to experience and understand first-hand the different elements of the technology which may or may not work well within the study. This influenced and informed the study design, allowing me to overcome and shape the study around the technical constraints.

When faced with technical constraints:

Cultural Constraints

Cultural constraints relate to community, country, or region-specific customs, ideals and behaviours. As a user researcher, you may be conducting studies with partners in other areas of the world. Therefore, various dimensions of a research project are affected as the deployment of the research requires interactions between people from different cultures with different cultural practices and working styles.

At the start of my project I was invisible to my overseas stakeholders and my suggested research methods were questioned. This was concerning as in order to be successful in the project I was reliant on my overseas colleagues understanding the proposed methods, and collaboratively drafting the protocol, accepting its relevance, and conducting the research.

When faced with cultural constraints:

Knowledge Constraints

However well trained we are as user researchers, there will be times when we will need the help of others — we may lack understanding of a certain theory, a particular research method, or software.

I was working on a project which required me to create a new checkout form for a shopping website: “What elements will guarantee a purchase?”, I was asking myself. I did not work with forms before and didn’t have enough time to learn the ins and outs of form design, but my co-worker was able to help me. They helped me understand the typical design patterns for form layouts and pointed me to some useful resources online.

When faced with knowledge constraints:

Recruitment Constraints

Researchers often face challenges in recruiting participants for studies. Difficulties arise in identifying who the target population should be, how to recruit a sample that adequately represents this population and being able to recruit enough participants to meet the sample size/power requirements of the study. These challenges are particularly relevant when trying to engage with sensitive populations, who may be hard to reach.

My research focuses on experiences of having non-conforming identities. This is a very personal, sensitive topic, and given the lack of visibility/representation and stigma surrounding certain identities, it can be difficult to start engaging with people who may not feel comfortable discussing this. Some people are not ready to disclose their identity, and others may not have sufficient trust in the researcher to be willing to engage with them. I am in the process of considering how to build enough trust and mitigate these barriers to engagement.

When faced with recruitment constraints:

Ethical Constraints

You should always consider the ethical implications of running user research. Whether you are required to submit your study protocol to an ethics committee, or evaluate it locally, there are always ethical constraints with any research.

I planned to run a study using online “public domain” data to save time. The data is freely available online so I initially assumed it would be fine to use. When deliberating on the ethics of using such data, it soon became clear that ethically, there are some constraints around using this type of data in research. For instance, whilst it may be publicly available, it was not published with the intention or expectation of being used in academic research.

When faced with ethical constraints:


Constraints within research can be frustrating. Yet, managing constraints can lead to creative work arounds and innovative new ways of working. Be open and honest about the constraints you face when reporting the results of your research. After all, everyone is in the same boat, and perhaps other may be able to learn from your experiences.


UCLIC is a world leading Centre of Excellence in…


UCLIC is a world leading Centre of Excellence in Human-Computer Interaction teaching and research, studying interactions between people and technology. https://uclic.ucl.ac.uk


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UCL Interaction Centre


UCLIC is a world leading Centre of Excellence in Human-Computer Interaction teaching and research, studying interactions between people and technology. https://uclic.ucl.ac.uk