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Define Project Goals and Outcomes First to Save Yourself a Headache

There's nothing worse than conducting months of research only to find out you had the wrong focus. Here's how to get it right from the start.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz

If you know me, my top advice for user researchers is to always start with the goal. I say it so many times a day that it finally dawned on me to write an article dedicated to goals.

When I talk about goals, the most common application is research goals, but you can (and should!) use this phrase when thinking through any idea or problem.

After some time (and I am talking years), I realized that rushing head-long into a problem wasn't the approach I wanted to take anymore. It wasn't serving me or helping my colleagues.

So instead, I took a step back, and whenever anyone approached me with work or an idea, I started with those two questions:

  1. What is the goal?
  2. What is the ideal outcome, and why?

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What goes wrong when you don't clarify the goal and outcome

The other day, one of my students needed help thinking through how to share a customer journey map with the sales team in an effective way. They had worked with the product and tech teams on this journey map, but they needed help figuring out how exactly to frame it in a helpful way for sales.

The first question out of my mouth was: "What is the goal of sharing this with sales?"

The next question: "What is the outcome they are looking/hoping for?"

I like to think of this process as empathetic reverse engineering. Previously, when a colleague approached me with an idea, problem, or study, I would dive right into "solutionizing" and assuming.

One of my stakeholders once came to me with a massive project on churn. They wanted to understand churned customers more. Now, not only was this a monstrosity of a project, but it was something I had never done before.

I wasted five months because I didn't clarify the goal or expected outcome of the research. At that moment, I decided never to run into a project in that same way.

So, what did I do? I created a research study about churn based on that request. It took a long time because, well, churn is almost impossible to understand as many confounding variables go into it. It's also hugely challenging to recruit for this type of study.

My mixed-methods study comprised of 1x1 interviews, surveys, product analytics, and competitive analysis.

After a grueling five months of attempting to recruit and explain away churn, I scheduled a session to share my current results. Although I had yet to complete the study, I wasn't sure how many more people I could recruit successfully.

Five minutes into the presentation, I shared my slide on the purpose of the study: to explain why people churn. Then, my colleague stopped me and explained that they weren't looking for why people churned. Instead, they were looking for the top pain points people encountered on our website that might contribute to churn.

Somehow, I still went through the rest of the presentation. I must admit, I only remember a little of it—but the results weren't beneficial for what the team needed. I wasted five months because I didn't clarify the goal or expected outcome of the research.

At that moment, I decided never to run into a project in that same way.

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How to start with the goal and outcome

To employ this approach is relatively simple (for once)!

Whenever a colleague comes to me with an idea, project, or problem, I take a big step back and ask those two questions:

  1. What is the goal of the idea/project/problem?
  2. What is the expected outcome of the idea/project/problem?

If your colleagues aren't used to answering questions like this, they may struggle at first. If that’s the case, you can give them this formula to fill out:

I need [information] to understand [proposed research goal] to make [decision] that will impact [team/organizational goal]. Then, by the end of the study/workshop, I need [ideal outcome].*

Have a conversation with them if they still need help articulating their goals, needs, and ideal outcomes. Put on your user research hat and ask them why (five times!) they want to conduct research or hold a workshop.

If they still can't share goals, needs, and outcomes, ask to postpone the study so they can think about it for longer. The last thing you want to do is conduct research or a workshop with no aim.

By better understanding our colleagues' needs and goals, we can ensure the information we look for and receive during the project will align with their needs. In addition, we can adequately suggest the best methodologies and recruitment criteria by getting an idea of the expected outcome and the decisions they need to make.

I responded to each request with these questions for a while and helped coach my colleagues to think about their goals first. Then, when they approached me with already thought-out ideas, I began using an intake form to cut down on the back-and-forth.

*One more question to ask to advance this formula is, "Will you be making X decision regardless of what the research says?" This question helps to ensure that you aren't doing research as a checkbox exercise and only working on studies that will have an actual impact.

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When to use this approach (+ examples)

As I mentioned, this approach is not just about creating goals for a research project, but can be used across many situations.

When I started using a goal- and outcome-first approach, I recognized a huge shift in my work:

  • My studies were more aligned with what stakeholders needed
  • Stakeholders came to my presentations excited to learn
  • My workshops were extremely successful, and colleagues took action after them
  • Colleagues used my insights because they were directly related to a decision they were trying to make

Here are some examples of how I've used this approach in different situations:

✔ Research studies

Whenever I start a research project, I look at the goals we are trying to accomplish by the end of the study.

This information helps me:

By explicitly asking stakeholders what information they need and what goals they are trying to accomplish, I can set my research projects up for success.

After the conversation with stakeholders, I write out three goals (any more than that, and we are getting to a more extensive study) by using the following formulas:

  1. Discover people's current processes/decision-making about [research subject], and how they feel about the overall experience
  2. Learn about people's current pain points, frustrations, and barriers about [existing process/current tools] and how they would improve it
  3. Uncover the current tools people use to [achieve goal], and their experience with those tools. Uncover how they would improve those tools
  4. Understand what [research subject] means to people (how they define it) and why it is important to them
  5. Evaluate how people are using a [product/website/app/ service ] OR evaluate how people are currently interacting with a [product/ website/app/service]

When we have these goals clearly articulated, we know when to dig deeper into certain things users say.

For instance, if I’m trying to understand the motivations behind why people order food, I will really go deep into that topic with my participants and leave behind other information (even if I find it interesting)!

✔ Presentations/reports

Since I start all my projects with research goals, my presentations usually follow this format. I take each goal that the stakeholder and I agreed upon and report the evidence for each.

Then, I list the information the stakeholder mentioned needing with insights and findings linked to that. Finally, I take the decision they needed to make from the study and create recommendations based on those decisions, highlighting the next steps.

If you’re looking for a presentation template, check out mine!

✔ Deliverables

There is always a question of creating the right deliverable after a project. By starting with the goal, we can understand what information our colleagues need and visualize it best for them.

For instance, if my colleagues are interested in understanding the effectiveness and efficiency of our product, I would create a stoplight chart to highlight this information.

If colleagues want to understand users better, I head more toward clear and concise personas. By knowing the information they need at the end of a study, I can create something that showcases that in a very clear and engaging way.

✔ Workshops

Facilitating effective workshops means always starting with the goal and expected outcome! Most of my previous workshops flopped because there wasn't an apparent reason behind them. I ran workshops because I thought I was supposed to.

Now whenever anyone approaches me for a workshop—especially if I’m not used to working with that department—I ask them about their goals and outcomes.

Once we agree upon these, I start building the workshop activities around these goals. With this approach, whatever we spend time on in the workshop will ultimately lead to those goals and outcomes, and I can tailor the workshop.

My workshops always start stating these goals and the expected outcome, so the workshop participants are very aware of what we are trying to achieve and why!

Take a step back in your next project and think about the goal and outcome. Although it's an extra layer to think about, I can tell you it will make a monumental difference.

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Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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