Note to the reader:
This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!
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As you read through the Field Guide, you may start to notice a pattern: Just about every how-to section starts with some version of “identify your research questions and goals.”
That’s because defining your objectives (and then having a clear and actionable plan to achieve them) is a necessary step in the user research process, no matter which method you choose.
A user research plan is a document (or less commonly, a slide deck or internal wiki page) that outlines the goals, objectives, and logistical considerations of a research project for your stakeholders and team.
Good UX research plans provide everyone involved with a concise overview of the who, what, when, why, and how of any given research project.
They are used at the kickoff of a research initiative to strengthen stakeholder buy-in and create alignment around the goals of the research at hand.
UX research plans also serve as points of reference throughout the research process, ensuring that your inquiry remains focused on answering the key research questions defined at the outset. For this reason, they are also useful tools for effectively reporting on the results of your research in a way that speaks directly to your stakeholders’ needs, as defined at the beginning of a project.
A good research plan is a prerequisite for doing good user research.
Depending on who you ask, a research plan is either one part of research design, or the other way around. Or they’re the same thing. Or they’re not…
If you wanted to get really particular about it, you could argue that a research design refers to the methodology and approach, while a research plan also includes logistical considerations like timelines, budgets, and so on.
But in practice, the two terms are frequently used interchangeably by UX researchers… and TBH, we think that’s fine.
Similarly, the distinction between ‘designing research’ and ‘planning research’ (or heck, ‘designing a research plan’) is largely semantic. Both these verbs can be defined as ‘to create a strategy for conducting research.’
In this Field Guide, we’ll be using the terms as follows:
Simple enough, right?
It’s only been a few paragraphs since we last said it, but this bears repeating:
In other words, if you want to conduct UX research, you need to have a plan. Here’s why:
Putting together a research plan is often a collaborative effort that involves understanding what stakeholders wish to accomplish, and what questions they need answered in order to make smarter decisions.
A good UX research plan—one that addresses their needs, ties research to business objectives, and gives a succinct overview of the methods and logistics involved—is a fantastic way to earn stakeholder buy-in and set realistic expectations about the research process and outcomes.
If the goal of your UX research is “to get to know your customers better,” that’s totally fine.
But in order to know that your research is working, you’ll need to get more specific about what it is you want to know about them (our bet is that it’s probably something to do with your product, and not—for example—which set of grandparents they secretly prefer).
You’ll also need to decide which customers you’ll talk to and how often, which methods you’ll use, how you’ll record and share their answers, and so on.
Creating a research plan will help you make sure your efforts line up with the overall goal of your research, and that you’re able to demonstrate the value of your work when all is said and done.
No-show participants, too many participants that don’t fit your criteria, too few participants full stop, technological difficulties, overbooked schedules, mountains of poorly organized data, trouble distributing incentives distribution, research reports that don’t get read…
Frankly, there’s a lot that can go wrong with user research. And every speed bump and set back costs time, money, and patience—for you, for participants, and for stakeholders.
There’s really no good reason to skip research planning.
Here’s an example of a user research plan—it’s adapted from the same template we use internally at User Interviews. We’ll go through how to fill out this document and create a UX research plan step-by-step in the next section.
At a minimum, your research plan should include:
You’ll define these in steps 1 and 2 (below).
Research goals state what you’re trying to learn or accomplish with your research.
Your research questions should reflect the goals of your study and should be:
Speak your stakeholders’ language.
Effectively tying research efforts to bottom-line goals will go a long way toward earning stakeholder buy-in. Use the transcripts from your stakeholder interviews (step 3) to get a sense for how key decision-makers talk about their objectives and measures of success.
Explain the approach you’re taking to answer your research question (defined in step 4). Include brief descriptions of the methods you’ll use, the tools you’ll need, how long things will take, and anything else you think stakeholders will want to know about the ‘how.’
Just remember, these folks are (probably) not as research-savvy as you are. Use plain language.
Describe who you’re going to recruit (step 6). What are their defining characteristics (i.e. how are you screening for good-fit participants)?
Also be sure to explain how you plan to compensate people for their time.
Don’t forget the boring logistics!
Be clear about the tools you’ll need, the roles different members of your team will play, and your research schedule (step 5 again).
Finally, set some expectations about anticipated outcomes, deliverables, and next steps.
For example, if you’re in the discovery phase of product development, make it clear that the insights from this research will inform product vision—but that further research will be needed to validate designs and direction.
This is a step-by-step guide to planning user research. It explains the process by which a research plan comes together into a shareable document (like the one above) that enables team alignment, accountability, and efficiency throughout your study.
If you’re reading this Field Guide cover-to-cover, you’ll likely notice a pattern: Most how-to sections start with defining your research goals or design challenge.
Research goals state what it is you are trying to learn from your research.
Design challenges clearly define a known problem, the solution to which you are hoping to identify through user research.
Clarifying your research goals is especially important in the early stages of a research project, when the scope of your inquiry may be quite broad. Once you have something specific to test, whether that’s a prototype developed post-discovery or a live feature, your research focus can then be framed as design challenges. Rebecca Smith and Kendra Leith of MIT D-Lab advise that:
Terminology aside (in practice, the difference between research goals and design challenges is often blurry), having clearly stated goals and motivations for doing research is a critical step that provides focus and creates shared understanding between your team and key stakeholders.
To identify your research goals, ask yourself the following questions:
A good research question is specific, practical, and actionable.
It should be:
A good research question acts as a beacon—it’s what drives your research forward, lets you know when research is “done,” and it’s what gets everyone involved on the same page.
What’s more, starting with a question is the best way to ensure you’re using your research to investigate rather than to validate. Investigating means you’re digging deeper into a problem, or searching for an answer, whereas validating means you’re working to say the solution you’ve created is the right one.
While research can validate your solution (indeed, that’s what evaluative research is all about), doing user research to prove you’re right is not a good use of anyone’s time or energy.
Going into research with a questioning mindset leaves you more open to new solutions and ideas that may arise in the course of your research. It also leaves room for the solution you originally envisioned to be the wrong one, which is ok. The goal of research is to learn, grow, and make better decisions.
Some example of good research questions:
Each of these questions could be answered through targeted research, and each would require different kinds of research and scopes of work.
This next step is all about figuring out what you already know (or could learn without doing user research). There are three ways to take stock of existing information:
As you might remember from the chapter on stakeholder interviews, these interviews are semi-structured, in-depth interviews that are conducted at the outset of a research project to create consensus and align around research goals.
Potential UX research stakeholders include people who:
Unless you work at an agency and your key stakeholders are wildly different for every project (different people, different companies, different customers, different business goals), the stakeholder interviews you conduct at this stage should be specific to your current project.
Ideally, you’ll have already conducted some stakeholder interviews with the key players and decision makers at your company, which means you have a general understanding of what they do, what they care about, how they measure success, and what they can tell you about the product and customers.
That means you’ll be able to re-interview the people most affected by this particular project about their concerns, how the results will impact their role, and what existing knowledge they can bring to the table.
If that isn’t the case, dedicate extra time to this step—and do it early, to make sure your research goals and questions are rooted in business needs.
The essential question to ask yourself at this stage is:
We’ll let you in on a little secret: You don’t have to do everything yourself.
Why waste limited resources on rediscovering information that other people have found and published?
Secondary research involves collecting and synthesizing existing data and insights on a topic.
A literature review is a type of secondary research in which researchers review published information (articles, websites, videos, research journals) related to a topic area in order to identify patterns and trends.
MIT D-Labs recommends you’ll need approximately 20 to 80 hours for this step, but it really depends on the project and your existing knowledge of the topic. In any event, be prepared to do lots of reading!
It can be helpful to create spreadsheets or notes documents that allow you to compare insights across sources. After going through all of your sources, write up a summary of key insights that might inform the direction of your inquiries.
Just as literature reviews can save you from redundant research about a topic, consulting your company’s product analytics and customer feedback data can save you from spending time researching things your customers have already told you through their words and actions.
Analytics can be a treasure trove of quantitative data. Coordinate with your product and analytics teams to dig into things like key user flows, in-app behaviors, and business metrics.
Likewise, bug reports and support tickets can help you understand how the user experience has been impacted by current or historical frustrations.
And don’t forget your sales, customer success, and marketing teams—they are often the keepers of a wealth of qualitative insights about what customers and prospective customers think and say about your product.
Your methodology will be informed by your research question. If you jump directly to methodology, you may end up stunting your study before it’s even started. Some questions are best answered by customer interviews, while others can be answered through tree tests, task analysis, or maybe even field studies. Many studies will include multiple methods as well.
Need a refresher on what kinds of research you can do? We cover that in the upcoming UX Research Methodologies module, but feel free to skip ahead and circle back.
But there are a lot of different methods out there, and even experienced researchers can be overwhelmed by choice without a good framework. A user research framework is a systematic way of categorizing research methodologies and approaches to guide decisions about which method to use, when.
You can map methods according to:
In the methodology section of your research plan, you’ll also need to include the details of your study, like a moderator guide for interviews, or the wireframe you’re testing for a usability study.
Anticipate and get ahead of questions like:
Work out a research schedule.
This will depend on your methodology and how many participants you include—you may be able to do all your customer interviews in one day, or you may be conducting a diary study that will take a few weeks to complete.
Set up a timeline and dates as soon as you can. Even if you don’t schedule sessions immediately, setting a timeline keeps you accountable. And be realistic about how many sessions you and your team can conduct in a day.
Finally, consider the logistics. What is the budget for your research? Will you give the participants an incentive? Do you need to reserve a space to conduct your research? Do you need to pay for additional software?
Whether you’re an experienced researcher or are just getting started, recruiting the right research participants can be a real challenge.
We’ve dedicated an entire module (coming up next!) to the topic of user research recruiting, and we highly recommend that you read it for a fuller understanding of recruiting strategies and best practices..
Here are the highlights, which you’ll need to think about when putting together your research plan:
The specific, practical, and actionable research question you defined in step 2 should contain clues to who your participants should be.
Say your question is: “What tools do college students use to keep track of their schedules?”
You know you need to talk to people who are:
That’s it, really, unless you’re developing a solution exclusively for students in the Massachusetts public university system, in which case “attends UMass, any campus” may or may not be useful criteria.
Your methodology will determine how many participants you need to recruit to participate in your study. Quantitative studies require a lot of people to achieve statistical significance. An interview-based study or a usability test, on the other hand, may only require you to recruit 5 to 10 participants.
Suggested sample sizes for different types of UX research:
A screener is a brief (<10 questions, ideally) survey that prospective participants take to determine whether or not they qualify for your study.
It’s a sieve that filters out the participants who can help answer your research questions from all the folks who can’t.
A few rules of thumb for creating effective screener surveys:
Regardless of your methods, participants, or budget, you should compensate participants for their time in one way or another. Research incentives (which, by the way, don’t have to be monetary) should be distributed as soon as the research session ends.
Whether you’re offering gift cards, account credits, or swag, the most important thing is that you choose incentives that are valuable and relevant to the people you’re looking to recruit—and that you have a way to distribute them in a timely manner.
Here are our recommendations for calculating the right incentives a nutshell:
This is one of the most important parts of your plan, because it outlines what happens once you’ve finished your research.
The way you analyze and present your research can have a huge influence on the kind of impact your research is able to make at your company. Getting these things right is almost as important as conducting the research in the first place.
Consider how you will analyze and report on your research findings. Good research analysis begins at the planning stage, before research actually begins. Think about the kind of data you’re collecting (Is it qualitative or quantitative? Will it be in the form of videos or survey responses? How much data will there be?) and develop a plan for recording, coding, and analyzing it as you go.
Think about the kinds of artifacts your study will produce, and how you’ll present them to stakeholders.
Will you share findings as you go or wrap it all up in a final report? Is it better to deliver results in a meeting or asynchronously? Is there another study you want to complete after this one? How will people access your research after you complete it?
You can’t know for certain what the outputs of your research will be, but you can plan to:
📖 Read more about UX Research Reports and Deliverables
Your research plan ultimately leads to research findings, which go on to inform decisions that ultimately—after much testing and iteration—end up in the hands of real people.