Are you thinking enough about your Research Questions?

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March 1, 2016

Are you thinking enough about your Research Questions?

Here’s an all too common scenario in the world of UX Research: Having understood the importance of gathering user feedback in the creation of successful products and interfaces, you or your client has committed to performing UX research. The project manager approaches you and says, “We’d like to do some user research on our new whirligig.” Now being a dedicated research professional, you can’t help but let out a long sigh at the blank looks you get when you ask, “Great, what would you like to know?”

A while back we posted a topic on this blog discussing the selection of the right research methods, with so many to choose from. All too often I’ve seen (well-intentioned) research efforts lead to ineffectual results and disappointed stakeholders, largely due to the use of unsuitable or suboptimal methods. The problem…? A lack of clearly defined research questions and objectives. On the other hand, carefully defining your research questions up front can allow you to employ the most effective and efficient research method, collect the right data, and ensure that your stakeholders are onboard with the process and satisfied with the results.

Clearly formulated research questions also allow you to think through possible outcomes or results, thus generating testable hypotheses. Once you have these in place, it becomes more straightforward to collect data that can actually address or settle the questions at hand. This exercise can also ensure that you are posing questions that are relevant to your organization, and that the possible outcomes to the research are palatable to product teams. Are you asking a question that is likely to result in an answer which has no realistic shot of actually being implemented? Maybe your research resources are best spent addressing other questions.

With a lack of clear objectives, even if the research manages to uncover useful feedback, organizing and communicating the results in insightful and actionable ways could be a challenge. Experience has made clear that well defined research questions make the communication of findings in a meaningful way significantly easier. Rather than a laundry list of one-off “findings”, having a clear understanding of the underlying objectives can allow you to provide your team with insights as part of a cohesive and compelling research story. Justifying your research efforts and driving changes and improvements to your products based on research findings is almost always easier when you can wrap a story around them.

For some of you reading this post, I suspect that your challenge may not be a lack of research questions, but rather entirely too many of them. Think of that “3 minute” customer survey you worked on that turned into 80 questions covering 15 different topics by the time you got through the first round of stakeholder input. The chances of this approach yielding meaningful outputs are slim. This highlights the difference between “Big Q” and “little q” questions. Big Q questions are the organizing theme behind every successful research effort, and can be used to streamline an approach such that any activity or question used in the research has been specifically crafted to address those Big Q questions.

Let me leave you with a practical tip to try in 2016. The next time you are approached with a request to conduct a user research effort, sit down with your stakeholders and generate a list of 3-5 “Big Q” research questions (or hypotheses, if you like) that the research should address. You may just find that your stakeholders become easier to “wrangle”, outcomes are more in line with expectations, and your research results are more meaningful.

Happy 2016, Y’all!