User Research Questions

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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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Egypt’s Valley of the Kings contains hundreds of tombs, including the tomb of King Tutankhamen, notable for being the only royal burial found fully intact. But British archaeologist, Howard Carter, had searched the area for over a decade before discovering King Tut’s tomb—and it’s likely there are others yet to be uncovered. 

That means hoards of valuable artifacts and insights into the ancient world are still underground, waiting for someone to dig in just the right place to reveal them. 

An archaeologist digging in the wrong location is akin to a UX researcher asking the wrong research question. The answers are all there to be found, but it’s the questions we ask that make the difference between a breakthrough discovery of long-buried insights and an empty hole in the ground.

That’s why a carefully-crafted research question is one of the most important components of a successful study. 

In this chapter:

  • What is a user research question?
  • Benefits of asking good research questions
  • Examples of good research questions
  • How to write an effective research question
  • Mixed methods research questions

What is a user research question? 

Let’s start with what a user research question is not: It is not the same thing as a user interview question and we’ll go over the difference in more detail below. If you’re searching for advice on how to write great interview questions for user research, check out the User Interviews chapter or this podcast episode on mastering user interviews with Therese Fessenden of Nielsen Norman Group; otherwise, read on!

Now, what do we mean when we talk about your “research question”? 

A user research question articulates what, exactly, you want to learn over the course of your study. Research questions act as the catalyst for research projects, determining the methods you use, the insights you uncover, and the decisions you make based on those insights.  

They should be documented in your UX research plan and referenced throughout the research process to maintain the focus and direction of your study. 

What makes a good research question?

Good user research questions are specific, practical, and actionable. They should be:

  • Specific enough that you know when you’ve found an answer, and you can find that answer within the scope of a study. 

For example, “how do university students use Linkedin?” may not be specific enough for a single study, because there are many different sub-populations of university students who may have different needs, goals, and behaviors regarding the site. Instead, you might ask: “How do American university students use Linkedin for career-related research?” 

  • Practical enough that you can reasonably answer the question with the time and resources you have available. 

For example, “to what extent does anti-gravity affect the severity of adult migraines?” is a wildly impractical question that couldn’t be answered within the scope of most research teams. Instead, you’ll want to ask a question that can be reasonably answered within scope, such as “to what extent do heavy rains affect the severity of adult migraines?”

  • Actionable enough that whatever you learn will be used to make decisions or changes. 

For example, if your brand colors are green, then a study that asks “what percentage of customers prefer red over blue?” probably won’t lead to any major changes at your company, unless you’re specifically researching for a brand refresh. Otherwise, steer clear of “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” questions, and instead map your questions to real decisions your team needs to make. 

Choosing the right research question will also help you choose the right research method. For example:

  • A research question that begins with “how much” or “how many” will require quantitative methods.
  • A research question beginning with “how,” “what,” or “why” is more likely to require qualitative methods. 

It’s important to use research questions—not assumptions, solutions, or methods—as the starting point for your research project. Why? Because starting with a question ensures that research is being used to investigate real problems and find the best solutions, rather than as a way to validate pre-existing assumptions or biases. 

📚 Related Reading: How to Reduce Bias in UX Research

Types of research questions

Different types of effective research questions include:

  • Descriptive research questions seek to describe things, variables, behaviors, or phenomena. They ask, “what does X look like?” or “what is X?” For example: “What percentage of Canadian college students use public transportation to get to campus?”
  • Causal research questions evaluate the relationship between two or more variables or phenomena. They ask, “what effect does X have on Y?” or “how does X influence Y?” For example: “What is the effect of in-app purchases on overall revenue?”
  • Comparative research questions evaluate the difference between two or more groups in relation to one or more variables. They ask, “how does X compare or contrast with Y?” For example: “What is the difference in screen time between male and female Americans under the age of 18?”

Each of these types of research questions can be valuable, but only if the question is defined correctly (specifically, practically, actionably), matched to the research method, and synthesized in a way that is useful for stakeholders. 

Research question vs. hypothesis

Although related, “research questions” and “hypotheses” are not interchangeable terms. 

While a research question is a focused inquiry that provides the foundation for your research, a hypothesis is an assumption in a testable form. In other words, a hypothesis is the predicted answer to the research question

For example:

  • Research question: “What is the effect of in-app purchases on overall revenue?”
  • Hypothesis: “If we offer in-app purchases, then we’ll increase revenue by X%.”

Typically, the question comes first, then the hypothesis—except, sometimes, in cases where you already have a large body of research on which to base your hypothesis. This might happen post-product launch, when you’re deeply familiar with your product and customers, you might be able to form an educated hypothesis about customers’ response to a new feature. 

Research questions vs. interview questions

Likewise, it’s important to distinguish between user research questions and user interview questions. As Erika Hall, Co-Founder of Mule Design, explains in her article, ‘Research Questions Are Not Interview Questions’:

“The most significant source of confusion in design research is the difference between research questions and interview questions. This confusion costs time and money and leads to a lot of managers saying that they tried doing research that one time and nothing useful emerged.”

Here’s the difference between user research questions and user interview questions:

  • User research questions are the core questions that set your learning objectives for individual research projects. These are outlined in your research plan at the outset of your study, and they inform every other aspect of your study, including the method you use, the audience you recruit, and the actions you take based on your learnings.
  • User interview questions are the questions you ask participants in 1-1 interviews as part of a research project. Although they’re informed by the core research question, interview questions tend to be broader and more open-ended to avoid leading participants and allow them to speak about whatever is top-of-mind for the subject of the study. For tips and examples of good user interview questions, head to the User Interviews Chapter

Mapping interview questions to your research question

If user interviews are one of your chosen research methods, then the types of questions you ask during an interview will be different from (but related to) the core research question that is driving your study. As UX researcher Adéla Svoboda explains in UX Collective:

“It’s not a good practice to use research questions as interview questions for your participants (asking like this might lead to getting biased answers—when participants know your goals, they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear).”

For example: 

  • For the research question: “How do single 25-35 year olds choose where to go out on a Friday night?”
  • Ask: “Walk me through your last Friday night outing, beginning with when you started planning the outing.”

The latter is likely to elicit a more valuable response, giving you insight into their decision making process and mental models. 

Here’s an example of research questions mapped to interview questions, from a real study on the experiences of low-priority patients during waiting time at the emergency room:

Research questions vs. interview questions: "What was the experience of the low priority care patients like during their waiting period in the emergency department?" vs "Can you describe your experience of the care during your waiting time? Begin with what happened when you arrived at the ward." ; "What were the patient's problems that received the low priority status in the waiting queue?" vs "Tell me about the personnel that admitted you into the ward; describe your experience of waiting for treatment; what was your total experience of the emergency department; summarize in a few words your experience of waiting."

As you can see in the chart, the researchers didn’t ask participants their research questions directly, but instead asked carefully-designed interview questions to limit bias and collect aggregated information without putting words in the participants’ mouths. 

P.S. — If you landed on this page looking for UX research job interview questions, this is a guide to mastering the practice of user research, so you won’t find those here. Read this article about preparing for the UXR job interview instead

Examples of good user research questions

As we mentioned earlier, good user research questions are specific, actionable, and practical. Here are some sample research questions and ideas to show you what that looks like in practice. 

Qualitative research questions: 

  • How well do our support pages answer customers’ questions about adding a new credit card to their account?
  • How do families with newborn babies choose which brand of diapers to purchase? 
  • Why are so many people abandoning their shopping cart? 
  • What are the primary motivating factors behind the decision to purchase first-aid kits?
  • What tools do freelance writers use to keep track of their schedules? 
  • Which apps do women and non-binary folks who are looking to date other women and non-binary folks use to meet potential partners?  

Quantitative research questions:

  • How frequently do adult European skiers replace their ski boots? 
  • What percentage of our customers prefer the mobile app to the website browser?
  • How much do families with teenage children spend on movie tickets in the United States?
  • How often do working Millennials check their email per day? 
  • To what extent does alcohol use affect college students’ academic performance?
  • What proportion of British men and women ages 25-35 use calorie tracking apps? 

Examples of good user interview questions

To break down the difference between research questions and interview questions, we’ll use one of the qualitative research question examples above and map them to corresponding interview questions.

Research Question: What are the primary motivating factors behind the decision to purchase first-aid kits?

Interview questions:

  • Walk me through the last time you purchased a first-aid kit. 
  • Which brands did you consider when buying a first-aid kit?
  • Tell me about a time when you needed a first-aid kit and didn’t have one on hand. 
  • How often do you use your first-aid kit?
  • What do you appreciate most about your current first-aid kit? 
  • Is there anything missing from your first-aid kit that you wish was included?

Here’s another, real-world example of how a research question could break down into an interview question, from Amy Chess, UX Researcher at Amazon:

“One of our research questions [was], which is the default tab? Now, we didn't ask that question directly to our users, because of course, when you ask a question like that, you're forcing your user to abandon themselves as the user. You're asking them to leave their shoes and enter the designer's shoes. And that doesn't really help us as researchers… So in that case, your interview question becomes, what do you expect to find when you click on that button?

In that way, you begin to enter the participant’s world and see what are their expectations, what are their needs, what do they expect based on what they've already seen in the flow. And those expectations can then form the basis for what the default becomes. So that's one really good distinction between what the research question would be and then what the actual interview question would be and how they are different.”

For more examples of user interview questions, check out this big list of 100+ user testing questions categorized by method, this template of a user interview script and moderator guide, or this list of sample UX research interview questions by Sarah Doody. 

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How to write an effective research question

At this point, you should have a good understanding of what a research question is (and is not) and what a good one looks like. And that’s great—it means you’re ready to start crafting an effective research question for your own study.

Here are the 4 basic steps to follow: 

1. Identify your research goals.

Effective research starts and ends with decisions. 

Before you develop your research questions, you need to understand the pain points and “known unknowns” on your team, high-level company goals, and both immediate and long-term priorities. These challenges, goals, and priorities can then be rewritten as research questions that support the actual decisions your team needs to make.  

This approach, which we like to call Decision-Driven Research, helps you avoid “research for the sake of research” and focuses your work to be as impactful as possible. 

Amy Chess, UX Researcher at Amazon, uses a simple exercise for mapping research questions to decisions: 

“I've kept an Excel spreadsheet where we list out the research questions, and then we have a column for the decision that question would help inform. It could be an item on the roadmap. It could be a specific requirement. It could be some… piece of customer feedback that came in and we needed a deeper dive. But I think that's really the solution to having it be too ‘out there in the world’ and not having it be tethered to anything specific is just to make sure that there's a nice relationship between the research question and the decision that you're trying to address with it.”

By starting with the decisions your team needs to make, you can reverse-engineer your research questions to address the gaps in the information your team needs to make those decisions. 

Here’s an example from NN/g, showing how research questions can be drawn from specific goals or plans from the product backlog:

Example 1: Feature from backlog - provide offline functionality; research question - will our users want to use our application offline?; next steps - do additional research before building functionality that users don't need. Example 2: feature from backlog - build a user profile; research question - how much personal information will users provide?; next steps - determine how much information to collect and guage how much users trust our product.

2. Scope existing evidence.

With any given research project, it’s rare that you’ll be stepping out into a complete unknown. Typically, you’ll already have access to existing insights, experiences, and other research that can influence your approach. 

So once you understand which decisions your team needs to make, ask yourself:

  • What do you already know about your goal or decision? 
  • What do you NOT know about your goal or decision? 

Review existing customer feedback, analytics dashboards, Google, and other databases for information related to your decision. And of course, interview stakeholders about what they know or have explored in the past. 

Sometimes, you might find that your question has already been answered—and you’ll save yourself from duplicate work. Other times, you’ll find information that helps you hone, pivot, or revise your question, setting the stage for more impactful research. 

3. Create your research question(s).

Create a list of potential research questions for your project. Remember, research questions should be specific so that they can be answered definitively, practical for testing within the scope of one project, and lead to actionable outcomes. 

Think carefully about:

  • The decision your team needs to make
  • The information you still need in order to make your decision
  • Where you are in the design cycle
  • The time and resources you have available 
  • How your research will be used (and by whom)

You might need to take vague, high-concept requests from stakeholders and refine them into concrete, answerable questions. Max Korolev, UX Researcher at Acronis, calls this process the ‘Operationalization’ of research requests:

“Sometimes stakeholders ask to evaluate the abstract concept or metric. For example: ‘Is the new site better than the old one?’ or ‘Does the design of these posters reflect our brand?’. It is difficult to work with such requests because it is not clear what it means to be ‘better than the old’ and what it means to ‘reflect the brand’. Before planning a study, these concepts need to be operationalized, connected to the specific user behavior we want to achieve.

What do you mean, ‘the site has become better’? What scenarios are important to us? What metrics are important to us? What changes should occur in the physical world as a result of launching a new website/product? Depending on the answer, the methods of verification will be different.”

In other words, try to ground abstract questions (“is this design ‘good’?”) with specific metrics, user behaviors, or outcomes (“how quickly can users find their account settings from the homepage?”). 

Research questions should NOT be:

  • Easily answered with a Google search
  • Already answered by previous research
  • Asked only to validate biases

4. Narrow your focus, then complete your research plan. 

Many studies can explore multiple questions at once, but no study can effectively answer  every question you have. Limit yourself to 3–4 core research questions per study to prevent the project from becoming too unwieldy. If you have more than 3–4 questions, you’ll need to break your research into multiple phases or projects. 

Once you’ve nailed down your research questions, then it’s time to pick the best method to answer those questions and create your UX research plan

Mixed methods research questions 

Many researchers choose to use both quantitative and qualitative methods together—qualitative research adds nuance and context, while quantitative research provides concrete numerical data and lends confidence to qualitative findings.

As J. David Creswell and John W. Creswell explain in Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, mixed methods research doesn’t necessarily require a different approach to developing research questions, but you may choose to design your question with a mixed methods approach in mind:

“In discussions about methods, researchers typically do not see specific questions or hypotheses especially tailored to mixed methods research. However, discussion has begun concerning the use of mixed methods questions in studies and also how to design them. A strong mixed methods study should start with a mixed methods research question, to shape the methods and the overall design of a study. Because a mixed methods study relies on neither quantitative or qualitative research alone, some combination of the two provides the best information for the research questions and hypotheses.”

In other words, a combination of quant and qual research tends to reap the best results—so if you find yourself asking “why,” then you might best answer that question by pairing it with “how much” and “how many.”

In a nutshell

Ask better questions, get better answers. A specific, practical, and actionable user research question helps you articulate exactly what you want to want to learn from your study and acts as the guiding light for the rest of your project—from the methods you use to the audience you recruit to the insights you uncover. 

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