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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.
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.
Good user research questions are specific, practical, and actionable. They should be:
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?”
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?”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).”
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:
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.
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:
Quantitative research 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?
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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?”).
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.
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.”
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.