Unlock the power of user research planning: Setting clear goals for success

In the world of user research, planning isn’t just a vague concept; it requires a concrete and written plan. This plan serves as a compass that guides researchers towards uncovering valuable findings and insights for improving products, services, or experiences. 

At the heart of this research plan lies a crucial component: user research goals. These goals drive the entire research process, ensuring alignment with organizational objectives and paving the way for meaningful outcomes. 

In this article I share top tips on planning for successful user research studies, setting goals, and asking effective research questions.

Planning user research

Here's the highly-effective approach I teach in my Ask Like A Pro series and team trainings around the world. 

Hold a stakeholder kick-off call

Engage key stakeholders in a collaborative discussion to gather context, understand existing knowledge, identify related research, and prioritize key questions. Stakeholder inclusion is paramount as it ensures their commitment, buy-in, and subsequent action based on the research findings.

Draft your research plan with solid goals

Leverage the valuable takeaways and context gathered from the kick-off call to inform the initial draft of your research plan, including some variations of the research goal you discussed. Then get feedback on these nuanced goals. When drafting goals, it's crucial to collaborate with stakeholders to ensure alignment. The research question always comes first, and the research method follows.

Setting effective user research goals

When formulating research goals, keep the following characteristics in mind. Research goals should be:

User research planning
  • Specific: Clearly defined and focused.

  • Actionable: Designed to drive action and inform decision-making.

  • Ethical: Upholding ethical standards in research practices.

  • Answerable via user research: Attainable through appropriate research methods (e.g. make sure this isn’t a market or marketing research question, or a question better suited for other sources or approaches)

  • Complex enough to explore: Encouraging in-depth investigation rather than seeking a singular or simple answer.

  • Right-sized: Neither too broad nor too narrow in scope.

  • Passes the "who cares?" test: Promising to reveal interesting and valuable learnings that will be acted upon.

  • Supports core business goals: Aligned with the organization's strategic objectives.

  • Linked to key metrics or goals: Tied to the organization's success indicators such as OKRs, KPIs, or other metrics.

Successful research goals should also be user-focused, addressing both how and why questions related to the topic you’re exploring. They should aim to uncover learnings that have practical implications for product or service improvements.

Here are some examples of effective research goals:

  • To identify why some people find it difficult to get started in X in order to identify roadblocks and opportunities for improvement.

  • To explore how and when X and Y are used, to clarify messaging and market the differences and benefits of these two features.

PRO TIP: In research goals, the verb "understand" is commonly used to indicate a desire for a deep comprehension of a specific topic or issue. However, it’s often too broad and insufficiently specific to form a clear and actionable research goal by itself. To create a more focused research goal, I encourage you to consider alternative, more descriptive verbs. Here’s a whole article about this specific topic.

Crafting user research questions

To craft good research questions that align with your goals, consider the following factors:

  • Frequency: Recognize the daily or regular activities of prospects and/or users and how they impact your question.

  • Goals/KPIs: Identify aspects that directly or indirectly contribute to your key goals or KPIs, as well as potential opportunities.

  • Unanswered questions: Explore areas where you lack knowledge and wish to learn more about specific user groups or competitors.

How to avoid bad research questions

Here are examples of poor research questions and why they fall short. 

User research planning

Will you/would you buy this product/service? 

This question assumes a positive response and does not allow for honest, unbiased feedback. It’s also too forward and may come across as pushy, or worse, sales-y. In addition, asking participants about future behavior often leads to unreliable and inaccurate responses. People's intentions and predictions about their future actions frequently don’t align with actual behavior due to various factors such as changing circumstances, external influences, and personal biases. 

PRO TIP: User research should focus on understanding current behaviors, needs, and experiences to inform actionable insights and improvements, rather than relying on speculative responses about future actions or directly asking about purchasing intentions.

What features do you want in our/this product/service?

This question puts the burden on participants to design the product, which is the responsibility of the product and dev team. 99% of participants are also not product designers, are not privy to our strategic goals or roadmaps, our competitive positioning, and they haven’t spent hours (let alone days or months, or longer) thinking about our problem space. Simply put, they lack key context and required skill. 

PRO TIP: Decision-making regarding product features should be based on a combination of inputs including user feedback, business goals, technical feasibility, staffing and resources, the competitive landscape, etc. 

Are you satisfied with our/this customer service?

This question is overly simplistic and fails to uncover the reasons behind the satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It’s essential to delve deeper and ask follow-up questions to understand the specific aspects of the customer service experience that contribute to the satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

PRO TIP: Delving deeper and asking follow-up questions can yield several benefits, including understanding specific pain points, uncovering root causes, gathering actionable feedback, identifying trends and patterns, and more. These will be far more helpful. 

Do you like our/this product/service?

This question is overly broad and lacks specificity. It will fail to provide clearly actionable or valuable information that can drive improvements. Additionally, asking about personal preferences may result in biased responses rather than objective feedback.

PRO TIP: Asking more broad questions is okay in discovery but not if you’re looking for actionable evidence and insights. This question opens you up for subjective responses about personal preferences. It’s also limiting in that it doesn’t include specific areas of interest or concern and the vagueness will likely result in general feedback, which typically isn’t helpful and is difficult to analyze. 

Aligning your user research goals and questions

Crafting a strong research question and goal involves a systematic approach. Questions and goals go hand in hand. You can do this by:

  • Identifying the topic of interest.

  • Narrowing down the focus of the topic.

  • Exploring various questions related to the narrowed-down topic.

  • Selecting a question that aligns with your research goals.

  • Drafting variations of this goal to get feedback on the nuances.

  • Focusing on the chosen question to ensure it addresses the core of your research inquiry.

  • Ensuring WHY you’re researching this topic and how the learnings will be applied. 

User research planning

By following this process, you can effectively plan your user research, set clear goals, align stakeholders, and uncover valuable evidence and insights to drive meaningful improvements.  

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This article was authored by Michele Ronsen, Founder and CEO of Curiosity Tank. Michele is a user research executive, coach and educator. She teaches design and user research to people around the world. Her corporate trainings and workshops are inspired by working with Fortune 500s and start-ups for more than twenty years. Fuel Your Curiosity is her award winning, free, user-research newsletter. In 2020, LinkedIn honored Michele with a TopVoices award in the Technology category. She is the first and only researcher to receive this award.

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