It is commonly accepted that research studies should begin with research questions, yet there is surprisingly little information on exactly how to define them. While it might seem obvious, writing effective research questions does take some practice. In this article, we’ll offer guidance on what research questions might look like in each phase of the design process and provide examples with a case study.
Also referred to as objectives or goals, research questions state what you hope to learn from your investigation. They should not be confused with the actual questions you plan to ask users (which aim to obtain information that will answer your research questions but need to be formulated differently to do so).
Generally speaking, the more specifically you can define your goals, the more effective your results will be. If you plan a usability test starting from a broad question like “What do users think of my redesign?”, you are likely to get vague input on a wide range of issues. Focusing in on certain features and tasks will provide more concrete, useful data.
The type of questions you ask will change as you advance through the design process; we define three key phases of research: strategic, exploratory, and evaluative. Another way of thinking about these phases is described by UX research expert Tomer Sharon as research into user needs, user wants, and product usability.
As we walk through the phases, we will use a fictitious language-learning startup called Langzoo to provide examples.
In the beginning a project, you will have strategic or formative research questions. This is when you are looking for opportunities by investigating what users need. Both qualitative and quantitative research can be useful in this phase, and a range of methods might be employed.
Imagine that Langzoo already has one successful consumer app and now plans to launch a B2B product to sell to schools. Before they design anything, they need to understand where the most relevant opportunities lie. They define the following strategic research questions to guide initial user interviews:
What does the process for planning a course look like? Who is involved?
What kind of materials do teachers prefer to use? Why?
How do language schools incorporate tools into their teaching process?
What tools do language schools currently use? What pain points do they have with them?
Although the questions are wide-ranging, each individual question is specific and focused. They seek information about the goals and pain points of the target audience that will enable Langzoo to make strategic decisions about what they will create.
The exploratory phase of user research comes when you are already working with an idea and need more input to round out the details. This often means testing early prototypes to validate your concept and get a feel for which areas to develop further.
In Langzoo’s case, let’s imagine strategic research revealed that most language schools in the target market had struggled to incorporate technology-based tools at all due to the piecemeal nature of teaching materials. The schools tended not to work from any one source but take material from a variety of books and websites. Teachers preferred to work this way because they could tailor material to each class. But it also caused them difficulty because students had trouble keeping track of everything.
This pain point gave Langzoo the idea to develop a product that, rather than attempting to replace existing sources, would provide a better way to manage outside materials by serving as a kind of project management software. They call this idea "Jira for language learning" and develop an early prototype. They plan usability testing based on the research questions:
Does the concept resonate with our target audience?
What kind of collaboration features (if any) would be useful?
What do teachers want to see in their course overview dashboard?
These questions differ from the previous phase because they are directly related to Langzoo’s design – they explore the concept and features at a high-level, investigating what appeals to users, to make sure the product is on the right path.
Evaluative research looks at how well your design performs. It begins once you have the first version of your product and should continue as an ongoing measurement of the metrics that are important for your business. Usability testing and analytics are the most common methods for answering evaluative research questions.
In this phase, the Langzoo team have used the feedback from their exploratory research to develop a beta version of their new B2B product. This is a working product they are preparing to pilot with the first interested clients. They plan a round of evaluative usability testing to check how their design performs and identify any revisions they might need to make before the pilot. They define the research questions:
How long does it take users to join and set up a new project? Do they feel this is too long?
Does the list or grid layout perform better for giving an overview of course materials?
Do the statuses (to do, in progress, finished, and to review) fit users’ mental models?
As you can see, these questions are the most specific yet. They zero in on particular aspects of the design the Langzoo team is concerned about, to get data that will directly inform whether something should be changed.
So, where are you in the design process? What do you hope to learn from your research, and what decisions will it enable you to make?
If the answers to these questions aren’t clear to you, it might be a sign that you aren’t prepared to plan user research yet. Take a step back and talk to your stakeholders about the objectives behind the product or feature to be researched. Find out where they have knowledge gaps that need to be filled in order to proceed, and define your questions from there. If the stakeholders are not sure what they want to know, start by reviewing any existing data to identify areas for improvement.
We hope these phases help clarify the subject of research questions. If you still have doubts, we’re here to help!