The first time I had to create a user research proposal, I was equal parts terrified, excited, and confused.
I wanted to run a relatively expensive and time-intensive generative research project at a company I had been working for about six months. Although my colleagues trusted me, they still needed more evidence and reason for this particular project to move forward. So I went out to explore the world of proposals.
It was a big world and full of contradictory and confusing information. Each article mentioned when to use a proposal and its importance, but I didn't get a clear answer on how to write one properly. When I looked for templates, I kept getting rerouted to research plans, but I had a different need.
I wrote research plans to help align stakeholders on the what and how of a research project. Now, I needed to convince stakeholders why we should do a specific research project. For me, this felt like a distinct difference.
Why are proposals important?
My first user research proposal was in-house, but I quickly learned its importance for both in-house and freelance researchers. Research proposals help you move projects forward in both scenarios, but there are slightly different needs for freelancers versus in-house researchers.
- For in-house user researchers, proposals help you define why a research project should be prioritized and conducted.
- For freelancers, proposals are a way to convince stakeholders why you should get hired for a particular project and what you can bring to the table.
These are both critical instances.
As an in-house researcher, if you cannot convince stakeholders to move certain projects forward, the product and teams may suffer. You may end up focusing on tactical, local research projects that don't have a wider impact. This kind of work can get you stuck in the common usability testing loop where you can only impact so much. Writing a proper user research proposal can help you break that cycle.
As a freelancer, you will often be asked for a proposal before taking on a project. In this proposal, you clearly articulate your process and how you would approach the given project. Clients generally always ask for proposals (although some don't!) before bringing in a freelancer, so these documents are essential for getting work as a freelancer.
The elements of a good research proposal
In-house proposals are significant, especially when you start leading projects. By including the right components, you can give enough context behind a research project to influence stakeholders.
Here are the elements I always include in my in-house research proposal:
- Date of creation, points of contact, and main contributors. Fairly straightforward, this section includes the date the proposal was created and the main points of contact and contributors to the proposal. This ensures that, even if the project switches hands, it is clear who is responsible and who to reach for more information.
- Important dates to keep in mind. I always put important dates at the top of the document. For me, important dates usually mean when recruitment begins, when the study starts and ends, and when the analysis begins. It is okay if these start as approximate dates, but keep them updated as the project evolves.
- Background of the project. This section sets the entire context for the proposal. In a research plan, you focus on the research background, but you go more broadly in a proposal. In the background, you want to highlight why you are doing this project from a business and research perspective. Ideally, you will pull in data from past research (analytics, market research, user research) to justify why this project is worth exploring. In the end, talk about what the research will help the team accomplish when it is done.
- Benefits of the project. I like to separate benefits from the background, so it is super clear to the stakeholders. The benefits go beyond the project's why and address the potential positive impact. The benefits I put are usually research-specific regarding what knowledge or information the research project will bring us.
- Research goals. The research goals are the core of the project, as they tell you what the project's expected outcome will be. These goals give the project direction, focus, and alignment. Please look at my research plan template to learn more about writing impactful and effective research goals.
- Existing research. This section comprises all existing research relevant to the project. I always recommend doing as much desk research as possible to ensure you aren't doubling efforts on a project that has already been done (or something similar with applicable insights). By listing out all the research, including competitors, you can ensure you are not repeating efforts and that your research questions address true gaps in knowledge.
- Hypotheses and assumptions of the project. Hypotheses and assumptions are critical as they help you understand what you think you know and what information you really must validate/disprove with users. By writing down these statements, you can pinpoint different questions and concepts you need to ask users during the research project. Surfacing hypotheses and assumptions also shows the team where validated and legitimate knowledge gaps lie.
- Business KPIs and impact. The impact the research project will have on the business is the major next step. This section is where business and user research must mix. Write about the different KPIs this research project could impact (ex: customer lifetime value, engagement metrics, satisfaction metrics) and the number of teams it could impact (ex: acquisition, retention, check-out). For this section, try to use very concrete numbers whenever possible.
- Impacted markets. Following the KPIs and impact, I like to put the most impacted markets. For this section, you write about which markets (think geographical location or personas - whatever segments are most relevant) this project will impact most. Bonus points if the impacted markets are those that bring the most revenue or have the highest active user base!
- Methodology/methodologies. Now we get to the more fun user research part! Describe the methodology you will use and why that methodology makes the most sense for this project. You can also explain what types of insights you will gain from the methodology you have chosen. You generally have multiple methods (think qualitative interviews and then quantitative validation), so include all methods you plan to use here.
- Tools. In this section, you can highlight the different tools you will use for the aforementioned methodologies. For instance, the platform you will be using for the interviews, and then any survey software.
- Recruitment tools and process. In this section, talk about the process you will use for recruiting participants. This topic becomes especially relevant if your participant group is niche or difficult to recruit (ex: people under 16/18 or highly specialized groups). You can write about the different tools you will use and how long recruitment will take.
- Participant requirements. This section is all about screener criteria and what specific criteria the participants will need to take part in your study. Learn more about how to write great screener surveys. In this section, you can also detail the number of participants and any demographic data.
- Phases of the project. There will likely be several phases of your project, especially if it is a large study. I like to break my studies into different sections, such as qualitative research, analysis and shareout, quantitative research, deliverables, and final shareout. Adding phases gives stakeholders an idea of what will happen when and the order of a project.
- Overarching timeline. I always say be careful with approximate timelines, but this is necessary for a proposal (especially freelance)!
- Estimated budget. Take into account the recruitment, incentives, any back-up participants, and additional costs from any tools. Anything extra this project is costing you, especially if it requires a new tool, should go in this section.
- Expected deliverables. List the expected deliverables for the project, but make sure not to put anything that is not realistic. For instance, if you are looking at a benchmarking project, this is likely not the time to also try to build personas. Only put relevant deliverables you expect to create from this project.
- Additional resources for the project. Placing any relevant links for people who want additional context is super important. You can also add more links when the project is done. I usually link to other documentation on the project, the interview guide, the notes, the report, and any deliverables that come out of the study. These links make the document more usable for people who are looking for additional information.
Who creates this proposal?
Proposals can be a lot of work to create and are definitely not the fun part of user research. However, there is some good news! You should not be filling in this entire proposal alone. There are key areas in research proposals where other experts can come in to help you.
For example, I always rely on product managers to help me with the background, business impact, and the impacted markets. I then talk to other researchers about my rationale for the goals, methodology, recruitment, and timeline. I then always double-check with whoever is in charge of the budget to make sure what I think is realistic and feasible.
So, don't be afraid! This is not a one-person job!
Once you have created this proposal with the help of others, always ask for feedback.
When to use this
I don't write a research proposal for every project I want to run. Generally, when I write these depends on a few things.
First, it depends on how much trust my stakeholders already have in me. If I have been working at a company for a long time and have successfully run large-scale projects, I am less likely to write a research proposal.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't, though! Research proposals are still a great way to align super early on and prioritize research needs. These are the scenarios when I write research proposals:
- Trying to convince stakeholders of a research project
- Gaining clarity of prioritization of a research project
- Understanding my thoughts on a research project
- Aligning with stakeholders on a research project very early on
- Gathering feedback on what research project should be next
What goes into a freelance proposal
Although the above example applies to a freelance research proposal, there are some slight differences:
- About you. In this section, give a brief bio of your professional experience. You can also say something fun about yourself, but it is up to how comfortable you are. I like to make myself feel more human!
- Why you are qualified/what you can bring. This section is significant for freelancers as you have the chance to detail what qualifies you for this particular project. You want to detail the skills you have that make you a perfect fit and anything unique about yourself that compliments what the company needs.
- Your user research process. Companies need to understand the general process you have when faced with a user research project. This section will give them a high-level overview of how you approach user research studies and the general process you employ to make them a success.
- Budget for the project. This section will include your pricing (see more on this here), as well as anything you foresee as a cost, such as recruitment, incentives, etc. These costs might not be applicable if you find they have an internal panel or a free recruitment tool, but it is good to keep in mind. The budget should include all costs.
In terms of the freelance proposal, always keep in mind to look at the company's website/career page to better understand the processes they might have that you can then compliment in your proposal. For instance, if they work with an agile framework, you can discuss how to fit user research into those cadences.
Overall, proposals can help you in many ways, regardless of your current role, and can bring your research practice to the next level!
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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