Set up research

Andreas Soller

Set up research

Prepare the ground for any user research activity.

This article explains how you prepare and set up any user research project.

6 min read (1434 words)

Sep 9, 2023 – Updated Sep 9, 2023, 8:27 AM

USE VALUE

USER RESEARCH

Research plan

The research plan is your main alignment tool within the team and your sponsors.

It covers the following topics:

  • Research question (objective) and expected outcomes
  • Participants needed for this research
  • Stakeholders
  • Research methodology
  • Timeline and scheduling plan
  • Location
  • Non disclosure agreement
  • Pilot testing
  • Budget, risk and challenges
  • Research team

Research question / objective

Any research starts with the research question. In most cases you will already have a good understanding of potential stakeholders and team members that will participate in the research.

If possible, you will kick-off the research with a co-creation session with this group by asking:

  • What do you want to learn?
  • From whom can we learn?

What do you want to learn?

It is crucial to first get a sound understanding what you want to find out during your research. In most cases there is a given problem or problem context. Sometimes, you look ahead and you are confronted with uncertainties. There might be very different reasons why and when user research is done.

Experience has taught me not to start asking for the problem but rather “What do you want to learn?” and include already relevant stakeholders or other researchers as part of a co-creation session.

  • Just draw a huge circle with the title “What do you want to learn?”
  • Ask your participants to put their target learnings on post-its in the circle (5 minutes brainstorming is usually enough)
  • When everyone is finished ask them to share their targets and to explain also why they think this is imporant

By framing the question this way you will already get the reasons why this research is necessary as well as profound insights what the expected gaps are that should be filled with this research activity.

Doing it this way will allow you to cluster the targets and to easily translate them to proper research objectives.

Participants needed for the research

The whole research outcome will depend heavily on the participants of the research. Therefore, it is necessary that we understand right at the beginning that a research activity can fail if we don't include the right participants. This is why I recommend to ask: “From whom can we learn?“

You can ask this question as part of the first co-creation with stakeholders and other researchers:

  • You cluster the research targets
  • and ask for each group this question

You will see that different people will have different ideas who can provide an answer to certain research questions. This should open up the whole discussion about your user segments. Within your user segments you might have different roles that are more or less suitable for this research. Building up a good understanding whom to ask and to mirror back the learnings from the selected research participants will help everyone involved in the research to not only understand the insights but also the relevant personas.

Your list of participants might include the following information:

  • Name of participant
  • Depending on your research question you might want to gather insights for different user groups. Therefore you cluster your participants list by target segments, job role, demographics, personas, behavioral types…
  • If the research varies by personas you will specifiy the research target per persona
  • In that case you might also include your assumptions before the research what your personas want

Stakeholders

Having defined the research objective and research participants helps to reflect once more upon the stakeholders: Who has a stake in this research? For whom will the findings of this research have the biggest impact and who is not really affected but should also be informed.

Research methodology

Depending on the research objectives you will apply one or the other research methodology. You will find a more in-depth description of the following research methods on this website:

Usability testing

Schadowing

Timeline and scheduling plan

Timeline

The timeline provides an overview how long the whole research activity will take and when outcomes can be expected.

Plan appropriate time for analysis and preparation of documentation (raw data, presentations).

Scheduling plan

Depending on research method you prepare the detailed scheduling plan. For this purpose you extend the participant list with the

  • Date and Time
  • Agreed interview language
  • Observer(s)
  • Researcher(s)
  • Confidentiality agreement signed
  • Incentive sent

of the planned research.

Leeway: In case of interview make sure to keep as a minimum 25–30 minutes between interviews. You will need it to make additional notes and have a short break between sessions. If you do remote sessions plan longer breaks to accommodate for technical problems.

Don't forget to include backup participants. It happens quite often that a participant can't make it.

If observers will be present that have never participated in your research make sure they know in detail how the session will be run.

I always share a guide to participate in fieldwork and inform them how they can pass over questions to me during the interview. In the worst case you have observers that start asking questions or give answers where you want to understand what is not understandable to the participant. This kind of interactions can kill a session and render the insights useless.

Location

On-site

If you execute a research where you will visit participants in their local environment be aware

  • to include travel time / expenses in your research plan
  • check upfront if you will be allowed to get access to the workplace

If you want to directly observe your participants but you expect some obstacles you can also plan to execute the interview at your location or some third party research lab / conference facility.

Remote calls

For remote calls think about

  • possible technical limitations: does the company of your participant allow to use Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.? Are certain features such as screen recording blocked?
  • If you share access to your application or prototype be aware that access to those pages could be blocked by firewalls
  • If you do research with multiple people from the same company you can do a test call upfront to make sure everything will work

Non disclosure agreement (NDA)

Inform how you will comply to data protection regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU / United Kingdom and sensitive information.

Depending on your location you would also mention legal frameworks such as GDPR, CCPA, LGPD or PIPEDA.

Example of a neutral non disclosure agreement:

Pilot testing

It is always good to test your research activities before the research. For example, you have prepared a survey as one part of your research. In that case it is useful to ask two participants if you can shadow / observe them when they fill in the survey to understand where they might struggle and to follow-up and understand what was difficult for them. You will also want to get a good understanding how long the research will take in the field.

If you want to test a prototype you can schedule the research in a way that you keep two days between the first interview and the main interviews. This will give you a better understanding if the script and everything will work out as expected (and / or tested with internal test participants).

Budget, risk and challenges

Budget

Budget needed to execute this research.

  • Travel expenses
  • Recruitment costs if you use an agency to get participants
  • Software (…)

Risk and challenges

  • Delays in scheduling
  • Uncertainties regarding travel
  • Technical issues in case of remote calls
  • Language issues

Research team

What resources are needed to execute the research?

  • Lead interviewer
  • Note taker (or backup interviewer)
  • Domain expert or Relationship Manager, etc.

Key takeaways

A research plan is not only useful to document research activities but is also an important alignment tool among the research team and relevant sponsors / stakeholders.

References and further reading material:

  • Chipchase, Jan (2017): The Field Study Handbook, San Francisco: Field Institute
  • Marsh, Stephanie (2022): User Research. Improve product and service design and enhance your UX research., United States: Kogan Page Limited

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