UX practitioners, both consultants and in house, sometimes conduct research. Be it usability testing or user research with a generative goal, research requires planning. To make sure product managers, developers, marketers and executives (let’s call them stakeholders) act on UX research results, planning must be crystal clear, collaborative, fast and digestible. Long plans or no plans don’t work for people. You must be able to boil a UX research plan down to one page. If you can’t or won’t, then you won’t get buy-in for the research and its results.
This article addresses one key aspect of planning UX research: the one-page plan document. Before we get to that, we’ll briefly discuss the benefits of research planning and identify the audience of a research planning document.
(Image: Patrick Hoesly)
A word about stakeholders. A stakeholder in the UX world is a code name for the people who UX practitioners work with. These are our clients, whether internal or external to our organization. These are people who need to believe in what we do, act on research results, and fund and sponsor future research. We all have a stake in product development. They have a stake in UX research.
The Benefits Of Research Planning
Very generally speaking, UX research can answer two types of questions:
- What’s useful?
What do people need? Who is the target audience?
- What’s usable?
Does the design work for people, and how it can be improved?
Dozens of research methodologies could be implemented to answer these and more specific questions, and it is up to designers, researchers and their teams to decide what works best for them and when is the right time to answer their questions.
Here are the benefits of planning UX research:
- Get a better feel of stakeholders.
A written plan helps you identify what works and doesn’t work for people, and what questions they are trying to answer.
- Engage stakeholders.
A study plan ensures they are properly involved with the study and its results. If there’s no written plan, then there’s a greater chance that stakeholders won’t feel engaged.
- Writing things down helps you.
When you put things in writing, they look very different than how you imagined them when they were just thoughts in your head. Always have a written study plan, even if you don’t share it with anyone else.
Now, let’s quickly identify the target audience for the research planning document.
Who Are You Planning For? Who Are The Stakeholders?
As with every product or service, the best offering comes from carefully identifying the target audience, their needs and their wants. Different UX research stakeholders are interested in different aspects of a research plan:
- Product managers and software engineers are mostly interested in the study’s goal, research questions and schedule. In some cases, they are also interested in the criteria for participants. These stakeholders are usually interested in goals and questions because these determine the content of the study and its focus. They are interested in the schedule to make sure it enables them to make timely design, business and development decisions. Criteria for participants interest them when the product targets a very specific demographic and they want to make sure participants are representative of that demographic.
- Managers and executives are probably interested in the study’s goal and the overall cost of the study, because they are likely sponsoring the study. Usually, their bandwidth does not allow them more than that.
- You! The plan is mostly for you. As soon as you put your thoughts in writing, something happens, and you find holes in them. These holes help you improve the plan. A written plan also helps you focus and better prepare for the study. The fact of the matter is that if you can’t boil your plan down to a page, you probably don’t really understand it.
Now that we’ve discussed why a planning document is important and who it is for, let’s get to the nitty gritty of the document.
The Plan That Stakeholders Love: The One-Pager
The users of a research plan love brevity and appreciate succinct definitions of what will happen, why, when and with whom. Here are the sections that go in a one-page research plan:
The title should combine the thing you’re studying and the methodology; for example, “Monster.com field study” or “XYZ Phone data-entry usability test.” Sometimes mentioning the target audience of the study is also appropriate; for example, “Whitehouse.com news page interviews with senior citizens.”
- Author and stakeholders
State your full name, title and email address on one line. After you get the stakeholders’ buy-in for the plan, add their details as well — the research belongs to everyone now.
Update it whenever the plan is updated.
Describe what led to this study. Discuss the recent history of the project. Be brief, no more than five lines.
Briefly state the high-level reason (or reasons) for conducting this study. Try to phrase it in one sentence. If that wouldn’t make sense, create a numbered list of very short goal statements. If you have more than three to four goals, you are either aiming too high (meaning you have too many goals) or repeating yourself.
- Research questions
These are the specifics, the core of your plan. Provide a numbered list of questions that you plan to answer during the study. It is extremely important that your stakeholders understand that you will not necessarily be asking the study participants these questions. As a rule of thumb, have no more than seven to ten questions, preferably around five. Later on, you will construct your study script to answer these questions. An effective way to think about research questions is to imagine that they are the headings in the study’s summary.
In an academic environment, this section has one primary goal: to provide as many details as other researchers need in order to repeat the exact same study. In practice, the goal of the methodology section is to briefly inform the stakeholders of what will happen, for how long and where.
Provide a list of the primary characteristics of the people you will be recruiting to participate in the study. Have a good reason for each and every characteristic. If you have two participant groups, describe both groups’ characteristics in lists or in a table. Append a draft form that you’ll use to screen participants.
Inform stakeholders of at least three important dates: when recruiting starts, when the study will take place, and when they can expect results. Large research projects require more scheduling details. For example, if the study involves travel to another city or country, more dates might be required for on-site preparation and meetings or for analysis workshops.
- Script placeholder
When a full study script is ready, it will appear under this title. Until then, all you need is a heading with a “TBD” indication.
A Sample UX Research Plan:
XYZ Phone Data-Entry Usability Test
by John Smith-Kline, Usability Researcher, email@example.com
Stakeholders: Wanda Verdi (PM), Sam Crouch (Lead Engineer)
Last updated: 13 January 2012
Since January 2009, when the XYZ Phone was introduced to the world, particularly after its market release, journalists, bloggers, industry experts, other stakeholders and customers have privately and publicly expressed negative opinions about the XYZ Phone’s keyboard. These views suggest that the keyboard is hard to use and that it imposes a poor experience on customers. Some have claimed this as the main reason why the XYZ Phone will not succeed among business users. Over the years, several improvements have been made to data entry (such as using horizontal keyboards for most features), to no avail.
Identify the strengths and weaknesses of data entry on the XYZ Phone, and provide opportunities for improvement.
- How do people enter data on the XYZ Phone?
- What is the learning curve of new XYZ Phone users when they enter data?
- What are the most common errors users make when entering data?
A usability study will be held in our lab with 20 participants. Each participant session will last 60 minutes and will include a short briefing, an interview, a task performance with an XYZ Phone and a debriefing. Among the tasks: enter an email subject heading, compose a long email, check news updates on CNN’s website, create a calendar event and more.
These are the primary characteristics of the study’s participants:
- Business user,
- Age 22 to 55,
- Never used an XYZ Phone,
- Expressed interest in learning more about or purchasing an XYZ Phone,
- Uses the Web at least 10 hours a week.
[Link to a draft screener]
- Recruiting: begins on November 12
- Study day: November 22
- Results delivery: December 2
A short plan that you and your stakeholders prepare together is key to a successful start of a UX research project.
- Boil down your collective knowledge, agreements and understanding of what will happen, why, with whom and when.
- Set the right expectations among stakeholders.
- Try to keep the plan to one page.
- Secure buy-in for the UX research by making it a team effort.
- The core of the plan is the list of questions you are trying to answer. Choose the right ones.
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