When we talk about different research approaches or methodologies, we sometimes refer to summative or formative research. It is important to understand what each one refers to and that, depending on the point at which our product or project is at, we should apply one or the other. Therefore, I would like to make a brief summary of their main characteristics.
Both are evaluative methodologies, which means they help validate previous research findings or the results of design process. However, broadly speaking, formative research focuses happens during prototyping phases, is generally qualitative and sheds light on potential prototype problems and improvements. With this type of research, we try to gather information in order to make informed decisions and to be able to launch the product while reducing risk.
On the other hand, summative research is used when we want to analyze the results of our product, interface or whatever we want to test. It can happen both before or after the product has been launched and will help us gather quantitative information on key performance indicators.
Therefore, the time or stage our product is in is the key to understanding the difference between summative and formative. Although it is also important to keep in mind that, on many occasions, these two types of research are applied together in a single study.
Formative research tools
We could identify a series of research tools or techniques that correspond more closely to formative studies. In general, these are mainly techniques that allow us to carry out a qualitative analysis of the information. However, we can also apply techniques that provide us with quantitative data (e.g. surveys).
In the initial design phases, it is important to understand why the main usability issues occur, use barriers, what questions come up when using an interface, etc.
With formative research we could find answers to questions such as:
Summative Research Tools
Summative research tools generally provide us with data that we can analyze quantitatively and, ideally, that we can extrapolate to our total population. Although, as mentioned above, it is common to combine both types of analysis (quantitative and qualitative).
The most frequent techniques in summative research are surveys, expert reviews, benchmarks, usability tests and web analytics. With these techniques we can detect for example severe usability issues and bottlenecks, abandonment rate, number of Customer Service contacts, etc. In general, we seek to understand the performance of our product.
With summative research we could answer questions such as:
- How many users have clicked on the menu?
- How many users have abandoned the purchase process and at what point?
- What differences exist between our interface and that of our competitors?
It is common to find usability issues while doing summative research. Ideally, these problems should be noted and their qualitative study included in the next design iteration (when we do formative research again). Finally, summative research can also be used to decide whether a product is well enough developed to launch.
It is important that we use the type of research that corresponds to the stage our product is in. If we want to understand where the design or value proposition of our product should go, we should use formative research. If we want to evaluate the usability and performance of the product over time or compare it with that of competitors, then we should design a summative research.
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