How to Create a Research Plan
In this chapter, we share a step-by-step guide to creating a research plan, including expert tips and advice Paige Bennett, Design Research Manager at Dropbox, and Sinéad Davis Cochrane, UX Manager at Workday.
In French cuisine, the concept of mise en place, which translates as ‘putting in place,’ allows chefs to plan and set up their workspace with all the required ingredients before cooking.
In research, creating a research plan with the key steps you need to go through will help you run a successful research study. A research plan helps align stakeholders, ensuring that everyone is familiar with the project’s timeline, goals, and scope.
“It’s important to make sure your stakeholders are on the same page with regards to scope, timeline, and goals before you start.”
In terms of format, a research plan is simply a document that acts as an overview and helps kick-off the project. It should be co-created and shared with key stakeholders so that everyone on the product team knows what to expect.
Here’s a short step-by-step guide to creating a UX research plan.
Step 1: Define the problem statement
The first step to creating a UX research plan is to clarify what you’re trying to achieve with research and identify the problem statement. For Paige Bennett, Design Research Manager at Dropbox, this process begins by sitting together with stakeholders, looking at the problem space, and learning about what they already know.
“Sometimes, we do an exercise called FOG, which stands for Fact, Observation, Guess, to identify large gaps in knowledge. Evaluating what you know illuminates questions you still have, which then serves as the foundation of the UX research project.”
You can employ different methods to identify the problem statement, such as stakeholder interviews, team sessions, or analysis of the current data. Knowing what data already exists—and what you still need to know— is step one of creating a good UX research plan.
The problem statement should explain what the project is about and give background information about the project. That helps define the research scope with clear deliverables and objectives, which is the next step we’ll look at.
Step 2: Identify your objectives
“Before you get into a room with your users and customers, you have to have an objective in mind.”
Closely related to step one above, once you’ve identified the problem statement, think about the research objectives: what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what you expect from the process.
“The objectives drive all of the questions that you’re going to ask your users or customers in the interview process.”
A philosophy Sinéad uses is to start with the end goal in mind. “You think about the end goal for your research and ask questions,” she says. Additionally, setting clear goals will help you define the project scope and the questions you have to answer. If the scope is too broad, anything and everything becomes a research question—which becomes too overwhelming to manage.
“The most important part of setting objectives is to make sure your project doesn't suffer from scope creep, which can often happen with research as stakeholders will see it as an opportunity to ask any question. This is challenging as you will deal with too much data to sift through and might never use the information you gather.”
Here are some questions to help you set up the right research objectives and make better decisions:
- “What are you going to do with this information?”
- “What decisions is it going to inform?”
- “How are you going to leverage these insights?”
Another useful exercise to help you identify research objectives is The Five Whys method, which enables you to get to the core of a problem. Use this approach before starting the design process and ask questions like these:
- “Who are the users you are designing this for?”
- “What problems and needs do they have?”
- “What are the pain points using the product?”
- “Why are they not using it?”
That helps you establish the questions you want to answer and identify the project’s goals, making your job as a researcher easier and more effective.
“I expect my stakeholders to be participants, and I outline how I expect that to happen. That includes observing interviews, participating in synthesis exercises, or co-presenting research recommendations.”
Defining the right objectives at this stage will help you set effective goals and prepare you for the research project.
Step 3: Choose the right research method
Choosing the right research methods depends on the goals set, the stage of design you are in the development process, and the constraints, resources, and timeline of the project.
For example, if you’re at the start of the design process, a generative research method like user interviews or field studies will help you generate new insights about the target audience. Or, if you need to evaluate how a new design performs with users before hand-off, you can run usability tests to get actionable design insights.
Whatever research method you choose, make sure that it helps you achieve your research objectives and delivers the evidence you need to make informed decisions.
Step 4: Recruit participants
Every research plan should include information about the participants you’re going to interview or include in the research studies.
Defining who your participants should go back to the goals you’ve set and the questions that need answering. Moreover, consider also the resources available: Do you have a user base you can tap into and collect this data, or do you need to hire external participants?
When selecting participants, make sure they represent all your target personas. If different types of people will be using a certain product, you need to make sure that the people you research represent these personas.
“If prior research has shown that we know behavior differs greatly between those who use a product on their phone versus their tablet, and I need to better understand those differences, I am going to make sure my participants include people who have used a product on both devices.”
This step of the plan should also include information about the required number of participants. The number of participants varies based on the methods used and the type of the project, so make sure you define how many people you need to get enough data for you to be confident in the results.
Step 5: Prepare the brief
The next component of a research plan is to define a brief or a guide for your research sessions that you’ll use during user interviews, field studies, or face-to-face sessions. The brief is there to remind you which questions to ask and keep the sessions on track.
Check out Intercom’s research message cheat sheet created by the team to come up with the right question in every context.
The brief should include the introduction, the interview questions, and the outro message.
The introduction is a short message that you’ll say to participants before the session begins and is there to serve as a conversation starter. Next, include the questions that you’ll ask participants during the sessions. These could be example questions that will help guide the interviews and ensure you’re prepared.
Finally, the outro message outlines what you'll say at the end of the session, including the next steps, asking participants if they are open for future research, and thanking them for their time.
Step 6: Establish the timeline
Establishing the research project timeline is an essential step in creating a UX research plan. Estimating how long the research project will take place and when the findings could be expected are necessary considerations in any project.
Even if not exact, determining an approximate timeline (e.g., 2-3 weeks) will enable you to manage stakeholders’ expectations of the process and the results.
Step 7: Define how you’ll present your findings
Finally, determining how you’ll present the findings of your project from the start ensures they will be impactful and implemented across the organization. For example, you could set a meeting at the start of the research project to go over the findings when they’re finalized. This creates a clear expectation from the beginning and lets people know that a research project is currently underway.
When it comes to sharing your findings with your team, presentation matters. For Paige, it's essential to think about how you will be presenting your findings in ways that go beyond a research report:
“I've found that if I don't plan in time to make this happen, it can be easy to leave it at a Paper doc. You want your findings to be impactful and implemented, and this takes work.”