Setting objectives for user research

The value of research objectives and how to set them

I was working on a not-so-regular research project and we were about two weeks in when I realized we had not defined the problem we were solving or even set research objectives. We decided to write out the problem and goal we believed we were working on and then synthesize it. After we had written this down, we realized that our goals differed slightly. At this time, we had already made considerable progress in the project but not enough to be affected by this oversight. I’m glad that we spotted it early. It would have been a disaster.

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A clear and concise research plan avoids stories like the one above. In our case, there was no significant damage, but the absence of a plan that everyone involved can align with, will along the line result in misunderstandings, disapproval from stakeholders, unreliable data, and difficulties setting questions or writing a script.

For every UX project you work on, it is imperative to ask “WHY?” Why are we doing this? And in answering the question, you provide a direction and sometimes a strategy, for tackling the project.

A research plan helps you identify and articulate the “why” behind the research as well as answer other important questions like who, what, when and how.

The main elements of a research plan include:

  • Background
  • Goals
  • Research questions
  • Methodology
  • Participants

These have been discussed in detail by Tomer Sharon in The UX Research Plan that Stakeholders Love.

As designing an entire research plan is not the focus of this article, I’d recommend you read How to Create a User Research Plan if you’d like to learn more about research plans.

In the book Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal, two researchers, Nate Bolt, UX Research Manager at Facebook and Cyd Harrel, a former VP of UX Research at BOLT/Peters, talk about a time when they were approached by a client who needed UX research conducted but did not have the time or budget for full-blown research. Nate and Cyd accepted the challenge and conducted interviews in a day.

The duo left out most of the planning and preparation to free up some time for the main interviews. But there was one phase of planning and preparation that they held unto…the research questions (different from interview questions, similar to research objectives). They realized the importance of identifying the objectives of the research and armed with these objectives, they set out to interview people. They did not have an interview script or interview questions. They simply asked questions off the top of their heads that they knew would provide insights into their research objectives.

Good research begins with good questions. Brad Nunnally and David Farkas said this in their book, UX Research and I agree. Nate and Cyd agree too. Without identifying and articulating the questions you want to answer, you’d have difficulties measuring the success of the research project.

Research questions and objectives are sometimes used interchangeably and this could be because, in some instances, objectives can take the shape of questions. Below is an example of objectives culled from Elevate your research objectives.

  • Uncover the different tools participants use to make travel decisions
  • Identify any problems or barriers they encounter when trying to make travel decisions

These can also be rewritten as questions

  • What are the different tools participants use to make travel decisions?
  • What problems or barriers do they encounter when trying to make travel decisions?

The approach you take is up to you and your team. It is always best to select methods that best cater to your situation and offers the most clarity to everyone involved.

Let’s set some research objectives together.

Assume you’ve been tasked with designing an app for booking appointments at a local hair and make-up salon, and you are working on a research plan for it. Here’s how you’ll approach setting objectives.

1. Identify what kind of research you will be conducting.

What stage is the product currently in? Is it still an idea or has it already been launched? With a new idea, your focus will be on validating the value proposition and understanding the target users. With a product already in the market, your focus would be on identifying pain points or usability problems.

In the case of the appointment booking app, it is still an idea so your focus will be on probing the idea/concept to see if it is something users actually want. You may also want to learn more about these users to ensure you design a solution that is right for them.

2. Ask why are we conducting this research?

Now, set the objectives proper by trying to answer questions like, what are we trying to achieve with this research? Why is there a need for this research? Try to identify all the things you’d like to learn. Seek to uncover everything that will help feed the design decisions you will need to make down the road.

You may arrive at answers such as: to learn more about the users. But this is too vague and measuring success for this will be tough. So, you want to break that down to more narrow or specific objectives.

Here are possible objectives for this.

  • To learn how often women get their hair and make-up done (the frequency will help you decide if they’d be willing to download an app to book appointments)
  • To uncover possible motives for booking an appointment (Have they had to wait long hours at the salon for their turn? Do they have busy schedules? Knowing this will also help validate the value proposition)
  • To identify the activities around going to get their hair and nails done (what prompts the decision? How long do they think and plan before actually visiting the salon)

You may get stuck at some point and that’s fine. You just need to spend more time thinking to identify what kind of information can influence your decisions. Think about the product and the features you may want to include. Is there anything that will require some research first?

One feature comes to mind…payment. Users may need to make a deposit to confirm their appointment. Will they be willing to make this payment on an app? Will they feel secure enough to input their card details? Are there other payment methods they’d prefer? Well, this leads to a new objective.

– To uncover user behaviour and preferences regarding online payments.

(Side note: You shouldn’t ask users for their preferences directly as this may lead to false data. This article on surveys touches briefly on how direct questions are not the best ways to get information from users).

You can continue like this until you are certain that you’ve gotten out all the objectives you can think of. But remember, design is an iterative process and that applies to setting objectives too. If you identify new objectives later on or see the flaws in old ones, do not hold back from making changes. Keep tweaking until you get good results. Also, remember to update team members on any changes to the objectives!

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