Research questions are the key to successful research projects. However, the importance of a valid research question isn't talked about often. As a result, sometimes it can feel like we are going through the motions without considering how to form a research question that sets a study up for success.
An example of an unsuccessful research question
I was working at a travel company and a stakeholder came to me with this request (at the time, I called it a research question), "People are searching for flights but not buying tickets. Instead, they are dropping off. We need to do research and fix this."
So, off I went, equipped with my "research question."
I recruited seven users for a joint interview and usability testing session. In this session, I asked them:
- Why they weren't buying tickets
- To show me how they would buy a ticket
- How they would make the experience better
It wasn't a great test. People had difficulty answering why they weren't buying tickets, citing reasons from timing to pricing to just browsing. All participants succeeded in the usability test, and the main feedback was that the checkout process was "a bit long."
It wasn't much to go for, but we jumped into solution mode based on what the participants said. We aimed to address the "too long" checkout process, so we decided to:
- Implement a credit card scanner so people didn't have to fill in their credit card details
- Take out a few unnecessary fields in the shipping/billing address form
- Allow users to save their addresses, but only if they made an account with us
What happened? Absolutely nothing. No one used the credit card scanner because, culturally, it was not a realistic feature, and we, as a platform, had not built trust with our users. Additionally, people didn't want to make an account, so the original problem of the form being too long was still an issue and there was no movement in the metrics.
The project was doomed from the start. This project:
- Lacked a valid research question
- Was based solely on a business need
- Had unclear goals or expected outcomes
- Used the wrong method to get the information
This example illustrates why starting with a valid research question is so important. It all begins with that question, and when you start with a "bad" research question (or not at all), it can have a detrimental snowball effect.
Then, what is a good research question?
By starting with a valid research question, you are setting yourself and your team up for success in your project. However, research questions can be tricky to create, especially if you are new to writing them.
A good research question has a few components:
- It is centered around understanding or discovering something new about people, not your product. We can often feel our product is the sun and people's lives revolve around it. But our products are just a tiny part of people's lives. A good research question looks at understanding something about people rather than just about products.
- It is a problem or idea we don't fully understand. I've seen a few situations where research was done as a check-box exercise rather than for the right reasons. Ensure the research question addresses a knowledge gap or hasn't been done before.
- It is about a concept or idea we need more information to move forward. Like above, we want to ensure our research question will help us gather the information that enables us to move forward with an idea or make a better decision.
Before we write our research questions, we need to think about what makes a question answerable by research. We don't want to be writing research questions that research can't answer—and I see this happen a lot.
Common requests/questions I receive that research cannot answer:
- "Do users prefer this or that design?"
- "Do people like the product/feature/idea?"
- "Can users use the product/feature/idea?"
- "Would people use the product/feature/idea?"
- "Do people find value in the product/feature/idea?"
- "What do users want?" / "Do users want this product/feature/idea?"
- "Is this product/feature/idea (good) enough for users?"
I hope this list doesn't break your heart or get you running from the hills. There are some ways around these questions that I will detail below. The best advice I ever received for stakeholder management was to become a "no, but..." researcher.
This meant that instead of me taking the questions above and saying, "nope, we can't answer those," I instead provided alternative solutions like:
- "Do users prefer this or that design?" A/B testing
- “Do people like the app?” Look at usability/satisfaction
- "Can users use the app?" "How do users interact with the app?"
- "Would people use the feature?" "Have people used something similar before, and what was their experience like?"
- "What do users want?" / "Do users want this product/feature/idea?" Focus on top pain points through a survey and solve those
- “Is this product/feature/idea (good) enough for users?” Look at usability/satisfaction
- "Do people find value in the product?" Market research, value prop brainstorming, or product-market fit
So, the end is not here! We can find ways to answer some of these unanswerable questions, but it requires a shift in thinking about and writing research questions.
How to write a valid research question
Because I do this so often and wanted to teach colleagues, I broke down how I write research questions into five steps.
- What are the places/areas of a concept that you don't understand adequately? Or where do you need to test your ideas?
- Where are the holes in current theories/information, and what questions do you have?
- What are the conflicts between your assumptions and existing information?
- What could you learn to help you better understand the concept/idea?
This is a brain dump step, so don't think, just write! First, write down all of your questions, and then we will begin to narrow them down.
2. Question yourself
For each of your questions, ask yourself:
- What would answer these questions tell me that I don't already know?
- Do these questions align with why I am conducting this study?
- Will answering these questions help me get the information I need to move forward?
Since we typically have limited time and users, we can't stuff all the questions into one session, so we need to focus. In this step, ask yourself:
- Which question is most central to getting the information you need?
- Can you ask participants this question in a qualitative setting, or does it require a quantitative study?
It is okay, at this stage, to rewrite a few of your questions into one - just make sure you can cover it in a research session!
I use two tricks when writing research questions that help mitigate biases and the small sample size:
- General versus particular: "How do people decide to travel" isn't going to be answerable by a qualitative study. Think more specifically: "How do our users make decisions for leisure travel"—you could even go one step further with segmenting users.
- Instrumentalist versus realist: "What do people think of the prototype?" does not reflect the limitation or reality of the study. We can't know what people think, and this question also relies on self-reported data. Instead, "How do our users (or segment) perceive the effectiveness and efficiency of the prototype?"
In addition, when looking at wording, make sure you are avoiding:
- Biassed or leading language
- Future-based language
- Yes/no questions
5. Qualitative versus quantitative
Our methods need to answer our questions. For example, if we ask quant-based questions in a qualitative interview, we will all be disappointed with the results. Therefore, you must ensure your question is answerable with your method.
Here are some ways to check this:
First, are you asking variance questions or process questions?
- Variance questions address what happened and whether something happened because of another thing (relationship between variables)—"what" questions, better answered by quantitative methods.
- Process questions look at feelings or narratives about a particular topic and answer the "why"—better suited to qualitative methods.
Qualitative research focuses on three types of questions within the process theory:
- You can answer questions about the meaning of events or concepts to the people involved through exploratory interviews
- Questions about the influence of social or physical context on the events or concepts can be answered by mental model interviews
- Questions about the processes by which these events or concepts occurred can lead to journey mapping interviews OR usability testing
An example of a good research question
Let's go through these steps together using the research question from above. For this example, I will use the original request from my example above:
"People are searching for flights but not buying tickets. Instead, they are dropping off. We need to do research and fix this."
For this particular request, I would want to think about what we aren't understanding or what assumptions we have. So I would write the following questions:
- How do people currently search for flights and buy tickets?
- How do people decide to purchase flights (rather than just browse)?
- What are some pain points people are experiencing while they are thinking about or attempting to buy tickets?
- How are we failing to meet users' needs or goals when searching for and purchasing tickets?
2. Question yourself
Now that I have written those questions down, I will question them more:
- These questions would tell me what the problems are of the user, rather than focusing on the business question.
- I am conducting the study to help understand why users are dropping off and how we are failing them, so these questions will help me get that information. In addition, getting this information and fixing the problems will help move the business metrics mentioned in the original request.
Now I need to focus on one question, in particular, that is the most central to helping me understand users and moving that business metric. I also need to make sure it is a qualitative research question.
With this in mind, my research question would become:
How do people currently decide to purchase flights, and what do they think of that experience?
My research question is a bit too general and more on the instrumentalist side. So I would need to make the question first more particular:
- How do people currently decide to purchase flights for leisure travel...
And then, more realistic:
- ...and how do they perceive the experience?
So, now my research question becomes:
How do people currently decide to purchase flights for leisure travel, and how do they perceive the experience?
5. Qualitative versus quantitative
For this question, I am asking a more process-based question. My question is about processes that occurred and how the processes influenced or impacted the person. This question aligns with qualitative research and would likely narrow my methodologies down to mental model diagrams and/or journey mapping interviews.
Formulas for writing better research questions
I love a good formula. In this case, I have a few models of how you can word your qualitative research question in an open-ended and unbiased way:
- How do users [think about/make decisions on/interact with] [subject of research/product]?
- How do users perceive [process/event/concept]?
- How do users perceive and report the impact of [process/event/concept]?
Overall, starting your project with a valid and solid research question will help ensure success and happy stakeholders! And, really, what more could we ask for?
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.
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