User Research 101 — How to write a solid research plan

Dominika Illés
8 min readFeb 5, 2022

Foreword:

Having a good research plan is key to conducting successful research projects. In this guide, I combined my experiences about how to best approach research planning with industry best practices that have helped me along the way. This guide will provide an overview of the steps that need to be taken to develop a research plan so we, researchers never miss asking the right questions.

What is User Research?

User research is a process for uncovering intelligence such as needs, thoughts, motivation, and challenges people have. It is used to better understand the target audience of a product. It enables teams to drive product design and development so that it creates a good user experience for the end-user. It starts conversations, observes, and listens as it aims to discover people’s behavior and experiences.

Unlike market research, which is a similar discipline aiming to find out — What do people want? , user research builds up a bigger, more specific picture of what users say, do, think, and feel. It doesn’t let any assumptions or hypotheses become significant but rather lets curiosity be a driving factor when discovering.

Chapter 1: Defining the scope

All design projects are different, therefore it’s very important to understand the context before planning the methodology. The following tactics can be applied in the research process to get familiar with the context and discover what needs to be learned.

“ In design, you’re solving for user needs and business goals. In research, you’re solving for a lack of information.“ — Erika Hall

1.1 Internal Stakeholder Interviews

Within an organization, each employee has their opinion and wisdom that can contribute to the research topic. Stakeholder interviews help clarify the scope and acquire multiple views about a problem. The information these sessions provide helps establish the foundations of the research goal. Communicating with stakeholders ensures transparency. It allows aligning everyone about context, task priorities, and the expected outcomes of the project. It is also possible to use the information later during the project, so there is no doubt about the design decisions that have to be made.

Before conducting stakeholder interviews, be prepared. Create a folder for your project and list down some of the key questions you would like to ask. Separate them to specific topics so it’s easier to follow the structure. Focus on uncovering the following information:

1. User needs. How will the design affect the users?

2. Business goals. How will the design support business objectives?

3. Competitors. Who are the main competitors?

4. Technical limitations. What technical obstacles need to be overcome?

5. Product concerns. What are a few product concerns?

6. Product success. How do stakeholders define the success of the product?

Tip: Make sure to involve stakeholders from different disciplines and keep them updated during your project from the very beginning to the end.

An easy way to collect stakeholder insight and align with their expectations is using the Customer Question Board by Julia Cowing.

1.2 Formulating the problem

After talking to stakeholders it’s time to start formulating the problem statement. The problem statement defines the topic and the problem that needs to be solved. Research is not only about problems a team can face, but there are also about opportunities that needed to be examined further. To create a successful design solution there needs to be a strong problem statement. It should explain the background and the importance of the problem, and detail where and why the problem or opportunity occurs.

When formulating the problem statement it’s useful to stick to the following questions formulated by the Nielsen Norman Group:

· What is the problem/context?

· Where does the problem occur?

· When does it occur?

· Why does it occur?

· How is it important? NNGroup

Not all the insights uncovered through the research project might be relevant to the topic of the research. Having a clear scope will enable the research to provide insights that support the business in that specific situation.

1.3 Research Objectives

Research objectives define how to study the problem statement, and they represent the purpose of the research activities. When formulating the objectives make sure to keep in mind the question “What are we trying to learn?“ ideally each problem statement has to have a research objective connected to it.

Tip: “Write research objectives with close-ended words. Using “describe“, “evaluate“, “identify“ instead of “understand“, “explore“ will determine when the research project is done. Open-ended words like “ understand “ represent an ongoing process that might be too vague and doesn’t necessarily define where the project ends (Erika Hall — Just enough research).”

Make sure the research objectives are specific and actionable.

One of the techniques to help define objectives is S.M.A.R.T. goals. Check this article to read more about this technique.

1.4 Research Questions

Research questions are the drivers of the research and everything related to the problem formulation and objectives. The goal of the research project is to answer the research questions. The research question just as the research objective should be topic-specific and narrow-focused. At the end of the project, you should be able to answer them with the research findings.

Research questions are not the same as interview questions.

Example of a bad research question: Discover how to make customers purchase shoes on the website.

Example of a better research question: Identify customers’ motivation and thought processes behind purchasing shoes online.

1.5 Business Objectives

To be truly effective, UX research plans have to go beyond simply providing feedback on concept or design. They also have to support an organization’s business objectives along the way. Research objectives need to be aligned with business objectives to successfully utilize findings that can add to the product roadmap and drive the business further. Aligning with stakeholders on business objectives will ensure a specific scope and each round of research will address the most important items on the roadmap.

Tip: List down research questions and the business objectives that need to be addressed. Ask the questions:

  • What decisions need to be made to accomplish the business objective?
  • What information will be useful to support those decisions?

Chapter 2: Methodology

2.1 Research Methods

Once the scope is formulated, it should propose an idea about which research method to use. There are more possible methods for answering one question. Approaches can be categorized into different areas such as:

· Behavioural methods discover user’s actions and behavior when a user interacts with the product. These methods define what do people do.

· Attitudinal on the other hand uncovers the user’s thought processes and addresses answers to questions. They summarise what people say.

· Quantitative methods are resulting in numbers and statistics allowing to measure performance. Methods like these play a huge role in defining the key performance indicators that are responsible for measuring the success of the product, design.

· Qualitative methods generate textual data: concepts, thoughts the user has about the product are defined with the help of this approach.

Research objectives and questions determine which method should be used to execute the research. It’s important to mix the methods to triangulate the insights gained from the research. Sometimes people say something but then do the opposite. Combining the methods will inform the design decisions the right way along with the project.

Nielsen Norman Group has developed a recommendation of a 3-dimensional framework that helps define which method to choose.

Picture from: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/which-ux-research-methods/

For more information about the list of methods read these articles:

· https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ux-research-cheat-sheet/

· https://www.nngroup.com/articles/which-ux-research-methods/

2.2 Defining participants

Participants are playing a key role in defining the success of your research as you receive the information directly from them. It’s crucial to define the target audience for each research project. Recruit participants who are representing the end-users of the product. In the meantime pay attention to recruiting more user types. Think about a scale when recruiting and where the different user types are located. in the middle of the scale, there are people, considered mainstream users. They are the ones most commonly using the product. At the end of the scale, there are the extremes. They might not be fully involved with the product but can provide valuable information and perspectives in some cases. Recruitment requirements are different for every project. In most cases, these criteria can define participants:

· Geographics: location

· Demographics: gender, role

· Psychographics: familiarity with IoT, domain knowledge

· Behavior: usage, awareness, loyalty, needs

Along with the characteristics define how many participants are needed for the research. The ideal number of participants varies based on the research method.

Tip

· Usability tests: 4–5 users

· Interviews: 10+ users

· Card-sorting: 15+ users

· Surveys: Calculate the sample size by using an online calculator. It shows the minimum number of participants needed for a survey to get relevant data.

Tip: Companies might struggle to have a set of user personas available for their teams. When it comes to that and you don’t have an available fully developed persona, try creating proto-personas. Proto-personas are built based on stakeholder insights, previous qualitative interviews, and other materials, support tickets that express user behavior and needs. Think of them as a low-fidelity version of a fully developed persona. These are created for aligning with the stakeholders of who are the target groups of a specific project as well as already helping in empathizing with the user.

Conclusion

The research project doesn’t end here, there are other steps like recruiting and executing the study that plays a core part, however, the previously mentioned steps are the basic pillars of how to create a good research plan. I always make sure to keep these steps in mind and twist them whenever needed to adapt to the situation.

References:

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Dominika Illés

I am a User Experience Researcher motivated by a curiosity about human nature and enthusiasm for digital products.👩🏼‍💻🤓