By Michael Hoole
Thinking of starting a research project? Here are some things to consider.
At the FT, we consider ourselves to be a data driven organisation, and like many data-driven organisations, research plays a large role in deciding which data is collected and how. Despite an increasingly wide-range of methodologies emerging within the market industry in the last 20 years, the basic principles of whether to start a research project or not remain remarkably similar. Conversely, it is perhaps this plethora of new methodologies and technologies that have obfuscated these basic principles, leaving both researchers and decision makers at a loss of where to begin…
For this reason (and at the risk of echoing John Major’s “Back to Basics” campaign) — I’ve outlined some basic principles that I try to go back to when thinking about whether to start a research project or not. These I will call the BLA (Be Least Annoying) principles under the philosophy that avoiding pointless work is something that we can all get behind. The (hopefully charmingly crude) infographic below outlines these considerations — but in essence they consist of:
- Who does this matter to?
- What actions / decisions are you looking to make off the back of the data collected?
- Is there existing data that answers this question?
- Can we make a reasonable inference from other data?
- Is it worth the effort?
- Does it align with a wider mission / are the findings applicable to a wider group?
It is worth noting how many considerations there are to go through before we even get to writing research questions. The steps that I believe are most commonly skipped over are
- Can the information be gotten elsewhere?
- What actions will they / you take from the data?
- Is it worth it?
Below are some considerations you may want to ask yourself or others when interrogating these…
Can the information be gotten elsewhere?
There has been a lot of research conducted throughout history — not just throughout the world and across space and time, but also just within the FT alone. Understand what data has been collected previously, what continues to be collected, and whether or not any of these can answer your questions (if not directly then can we say ‘close enough’?). Is there any existing work that we can make a reasonable inference from to answer our question?
Internally we usually start by exploring our insights hub or even just asking the question “what do we know about x?” to the relevant slack channel.
Consider using third party sources as well. For example, we could run a survey to see what Android users think of our app to get a better understanding of it…but we could also just use the reviews left on Google Play Store (and we do…)
What actions will they / you take from the data?
If you can’t answer this question, it’s worth rethinking your approach, or stopping the research altogether. If you ask “what do you think we could improve about our product?” and most people are responding with “lower your prices” and you have no intention to, or are unable to do so…then everyone’s time is wasted. Is there a deadline for your stakeholders to have this data in order to make a decision? What other limitations may you, or your stakeholders have?
Working backwards from these questions tends to be a good way of formulating the research questions you’ll actually need.
Is it worth it?
In some ways this is the trickiest one to answer, and one in which you have to trust your gut. Seriously consider whether the effort required to conduct this research is going to be worth it. What is hanging on this? Is it likely to be acted on in an effective way? Is everyone clear beforehand as to what they will and won’t do based on the data that’s collected? Is there an easier way of doing it? This question doesn’t mean you’re being lazy. It means you’re being smart.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that asking whether it’s worth it, is rarely free of external influences. There’s little use pretending that a request from a senior stakeholder within your organisation or a high value client isn’t going to be acted upon once they have their heart set on it. Giving an outright “no, I’m not going to do it” will often not be an option in these cases. However, if you follow the BLA principles and are able to ask the right questions beforehand, then this will lead to higher-value, higher-impact and less time-consuming work. This should be valued by your client / stakeholder and everyone involved in the project. It will also help you manage expectations from the get-go.