Qualitative methods are increasingly important in research on software engineering, and they can be quite important in software engineering practice as well. But there’s a significant difference between simply understanding problems and understanding problems systematically. Therefore, the next time you read the results of a qualitative study or set out to do your own, make sure you or the article are following a process like this:
What knowledge is desired and why? How will the knowledge be used?
What data can be gathered objectively, with as little bias as possible? Can you gather from multiple sources to account for biases in individual sources?
Are the sources of evidence consistent with one another or do they conflict? What new questions does the evidence data raise? Do they lead to a hypothesis that can be tested with further data?
Although this cycle of question formulation, evidence gathering, and interpretation can be a long process, each iteration can lead to more confidence in your understanding, which means better decisions and better outcomes. Moreover, when you combine qualitative methods with quantitative tools, you’ll have a powerful toolbox with which to understand and improve software engineering practice.