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August 22, 2018

How to Ask Better Research Questions

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Research is an invaluable tool in any area. It can give you insights and unexpected inspirations, identify problems and potential solutions, and guide you through your development and design process. However, when research isn’t focused, it can also lead you astray.  This is because research by itself doesn’t solve problems—it provides more information about a problem.

This in mind, the key aspect of any research you conduct is the question you ask. If the question your research tries to answer is precise, clear, and something that can be tested, perfect! You have a solid foundation for a great research study. But if your question is broad and vague, you’ll get a broad and vague answer. This is not useful when trying to solve a problem or design a product.

Since the underlying question is such an important aspect of research, how do you make sure you ask the right one? What things do you need to keep in mind when designing a study to make sure you get the answer you need? In the spirit of asking good questions, here are five pivotal ones you should consider when developing your main research question.

1. Why are you doing research?

Deciding what you want to know is the first step to designing any study. Why are you doing this research in the first place? What information do you need to move forward with your project? Write this research goal down, phrasing it as a question if possible.

For example, say you’re starting a research project to evaluate the navigation of a new website. You want to make sure the navigation makes sense to your users and they can find what they need on your site. In this case, your starting question could be as simple as, “Does my website navigation work?”

2. Can you make your research question more specific?

You have your original idea written down. Now, see if you can make it more specific.

Take our example question: “Does my website navigation work?” What do you really want to know about your website’s navigation? What does the navigation need to do in order to work? How will you know if your navigation doesn’t work?

When considering all these supporting queries, you’ll be forced to focus on the most important aspects of your research. Perhaps your more specific question is: “Are my navigational terms clear to new users?” or “Is my visual design clear and navigable for new users?” or “Can new users attempting to complete a specific task navigate to the correct page quickly and efficiently?” The new question could even be a combination of all three.

The goal here is to give yourself a research question that includes details about how you are going to answer it.

3. How will you find your answer?

Now you have a question describing the true purpose of your research. How are you going to answer it? The specific question you developed in the last step forces you to consider what you need to know. This is important when creating a quality study design.

Your specific question should already tell you some of the research aspects your answer needs to address. The question “Are my navigational terms clear to new users?” tells you your study will include participants who are new to your website. You will be assessing how easily they can navigate your site. Therefore, your research focus is on the navigational terms.

In this case, a tree test could be a good testing method. Tree tests allow users to focus on the navigation outside the context of the website’s design and functionality. It shows you where users are interpreting navigational terms differently than anticipated.

However, a tree test would not be a good way to answer the question “Is my visual design clear and navigable for new users?” In that case, usability testing could be a better option as it allows users to experience the navigation design in the context of the entire website.

Before deciding on a testing method, consider the kind of information each one provides, and whether it will answer your core research question.

4. What will you do with the answer?

You have a question and a plan to answer it. But what will you do with the answer once you have it? Knowing how you will use the answer can inform how you design your research. Maybe one piece of information would be really interesting to know. However, it couldn’t actually be implemented into any design changes or solutions. Therefore, any method design probably shouldn’t prioritize collecting that information.

For example, in our navigation study, you know you will use any information gained to improve the website navigation. During testing, it may be tempting to ask users about other aspects of the website, such as features or solutions that would be helpful for them when they’re attempting to complete a task. But because this study is focused on navigation, make sure anything you ask your participants will help answer questions about that topic and that topic alone.

If those feature questions are really important to ask, start back at the beginning with the new focus in mind. You don’t have to try to answer every question with one research study.

5. Does your plan need revising?

Sometimes when reviewing your question, testing method, or how the results will be used, you realize your original research plan wasn’t quite right.

Maybe the best testing method isn’t possible due to resource constraints. Perhaps the results wouldn’t have been useful anymore based on new changes to the project. These things happen even to the best-planned projects. Before you go ahead with your testing, you need to pause to make sure all your planning still applies.

If you find that your plan needs to be adjusted, try starting again at the previous step. For example, say you realized that using a tree test to assess your navigation wouldn’t tell you what you need to know. Instead of rushing to pick another method, take a step back and look at the specific question again. What is it that you’re really looking for? Does the question mention that information?

If the question needs revision, fix it before you fix your method. Make sure you’re always grounding your research by knowing what you’re asking and what the answer will tell you.

Test Your Research Question

You’ve got your question, you know how to test it, and how you’ll use the answer. The first part of your study is complete. You’re ready to test!

If you’d like to know more about the testing process itself, contact our team of research analysts. They’ll guide and cheer you on every step of the way.

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