Table of Contents Hide
- What is a user research plan?
- Why you need a research plan for qualitative research
- UX research plan template
- How to plan a UX research study
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.
In this chapter
- What is a user research plan?
- Why you need a research plan for qualitative research
- UX research plan template
- How to plan a UX research study
- Research design considerations and best practices
What is a user research plan?
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.
What’s the difference between a research plan and research design?
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:
Research plans are the outputs of UX research design, which is the process of planning research.
Simple enough, right?
Why you need a research plan for qualitative research
It’s only been a few paragraphs since we last said it, but this bears repeating:
A good research plan is a prerequisite for doing good user research.
In other words, if you want to conduct UX research, you need to have a plan. Here’s why:
A research plan creates alignment and earns buy-in
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.
A research plan will help you stay focused on your goals
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.
A research plan helps you avoid common research pitfalls
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.
- In a hurry? That only increases the likelihood that the process will break down or an important detail will get overlooked without preparation.
- You’re a UX research team of one? All the more reason to create alignment and earn yourself buy-in.
- Your study is super quick and easy and doesn’t need a plan? It still needs a plan, but it can be a brief one.
- Not sure how to create a research plan? Well, that’s what this chapter is about so you can toss that excuse out, too!
UX research plan template
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:
What: Your research question(s) and goals
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:
- Specific enough that you’ll know when you’ve reached an answer
- Practical in that you could answer them within the scope of a study
- Actionable, meaning you could act on your findings once you’ve completed your research study
Why: Business goals
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)?
Include information about the strategies you’ll use to recruit participants. Are you using a research recruiting platform? Social media? Emails to customers?
Also be sure to explain how you plan to compensate people for their time.
When and where: Research schedule and logistics
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.
How to plan a UX research study
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.
1. Identify your research goals
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:
A good design challenge will be framed in human terms (rather than technology, product, or service functionality), broad enough to allow you to discover areas of unexpected value, and narrow enough to make the topic manageable…. Be aware of how you choose to frame your problem, as this framing will limit the set of solutions that you consider.
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:
- What do I want to know? This is the big one—in the next step you’ll break this question down further into specific, actionable, and practical research questions. For now, it can help to think in broad strokes: What motivates users? How do they behave? How do they use your product? What are the pain points in their current workflow?
- What don’t I know? You probably can’t fully answer this question (it’s hard to know what you don’t know!) but it’s important to identify knowledge gaps early.
- How will I know when I’ve learned it? What must be true in order for this research to be considered “done”?
- What company goals will this work support? As a user researcher, you should have a solid baseline understanding of your company’s business model and top-level goals—do your best to tie this research to the bottom line. You’ll have a chance to dig further into this question during stakeholder interviews.
- Where am I in the product development process? Are you trying to generate new ideas in the discovery phase? Are you looking to test and validate your designs? Are you trying to learn about the current customer experience through ongoing research?
- What decision will this research enable? We’ll cover this in more depth in the section on our Decision Driven Research Framework in the How to Choose a User Research Method chapter. TL;DR, know what you want people to be able to do with the answers to your research question.
- What are the anticipated outcomes of this research? What kind of insights do you expect to glean? What deliverables are you planning to have in hand at the end of this process?
2. Develop your research question(s)
A good research question is specific, practical, and actionable.
It should be:
- Specific enough that you will know when you have found an answer.
- Practical in that you could reasonably find answers to it in the scope of a research project (that scope could be large or small depending on your question).
- Actionable, in that, if you answer the question, your team will be able to make changes based on what you learn.
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:
- Are our customers able to successfully navigate to the support page on our site?
- What are the primary motivating factors behind the decision to purchase pet insurance?
- Do people understand our blog categories and what content might belong in them?
- What tools do college students 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?
Each of these questions could be answered through targeted research, and each would require different kinds of research and scopes of work.
3. Gather available data and existing insights
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:
- Stakeholder interviews (this will also help you flesh out your goals)
- Secondary research (i.e. literature reviews)
- Analytics and customer feedback
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:
- Have organizational influence
- Make decisions about time, money, and resources
- Are involved in the UX and product design process
- Have information relevant to your project
- Will be expected to act on research insights
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:
What do I need to learn in order to move forward with this research project?
📖 Read more about Stakeholder Interviews
Secondary research (literature reviews)
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.
Analytics and customer feedback
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.
4. Choose the right research method(s)
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:
- The stages of product development (“use X methods during discovery”)
- Decisions to be made (“use X methods to enable big-picture decisions”)
- Your research question (“use X methods if you’re asking “what?””)
- Multiple axes like quant vs. qual, attitudinal vs. behavioral, and context of use
📖 Read more about UX Research Methodologies
5. Design your study
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:
- Will it be moderated/unmoderated?
- What tools will you need?
- What will be tested?
- What artifacts will come out of the study?
- How long will the sessions be?
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?
6. Have a recruiting strategy
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:
Your research question will tell you who to recruit
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:
- Currently enrolled in a college or university
- Interested in keeping track of their schedules
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.
The research method you choose will determine your sampling strategy
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:
- Interviews – 3 to 10 participants
- A/B tests – 5 to 8 users
- Focus groups – 5 to 10 participants per group
- Diary studies – 10 to 15 participants
- Card sorting – at least 15 users per group
- Quantitative studies – at least 20 participants
- Surveys – at least 100 participants
You need a screener survey
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:
- Filter by behavior > demographics
- Ask the big, disqualifying questions early
- Don’t ask leading questions that hint at the “correct” answers
- Provide an “other” option to multiple choice questions
- Include open-ended questions to screen for articulation
You also need a plan for distributing incentives
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:
- In-person studies demand higher incentives than remote studies.
- Higher income earners expect higher incentives than lower income earners.
- The longer the time commitment, the higher the incentive.
📖 Read more about Recruiting for UX Research
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