Researching the research

Whether you're a freelancer or at an agency and working with a client, or you are part of an in-house team, it's a good idea to start every new research project, by asking a few key questions about the business landscape:

  • What is the brief? What is the problem or set of problems I need to research?
  • What is the context? How does this piece of work fit into the bigger business picture?
  • Who are the stakeholders? Who do I need to talk to? Who should be involved?
  • What will the outcomes be? How will this be used? How will this be shared with others?
  • What do we already know? Is there existing research or knowledge we can use?

Very often, a conversation about research seems to take the form of, 'I want to do some user interviews on x.' 'I am going to do a survey to find out about y'.

Now it's commendable that people want to get stuck into solving problems through research but thinking about the bigger picture and the context of the research before you decide on the methodology can help inform the approach, the methods and the type of questions you might ask. It all comes back to the research funnel I've written about previously - knowing where your project lies in the funnel and how close you are to the problem.

Thinking about these key questions in turn:

The brief: You might be focused on testing a particular feature you are designing. If you step back from the immediate problem you are interested in solving and think about the tangental aspects, you might decide to add a set of broader questions to your interview discussion guide and get further useful insights.

Context: You might be focused on the strategy of a particular product, that sits alongside other products in a family of products. Rather than just honing in on your specific product in a customer survey, you could widen out your questions to find out where you share things in common with your sister product.

Stakeholders: If you know that your client has a very opinionated workforce, rather than delivering a research presentation at the end of the project to the team, you might choose to involve them very closely in the research. For example, you could run an internal survey, run stakeholder workshops or even get them to do their own research.

Outcomes: If you find out that the outcome of the research is going to be a whole business strategy, rather than taking a guerrilla 'quick and dirty' approach, you might choose to pay or partner with a research agency. You might run a large scale survey with a really robust sample, that is statistically weighted to ensure there is no bias.

Existing knowledge: If you find out that someone has already done some research in this area, rather than reinvent the wheel, you might decide to instead take a different approach, use a different methodology and focus your work on the gaps or holes in the previous work.

This type of approach doesn't just work for specific projects but also for new jobs or clients. I recently started a new job as Research Director at Monotype. In contrast to my previous in-house research role at the BBC, this was a new position, so the boundaries and remit were more wooly. I have to be honest, I just didn't know where to start getting stuck in. There seemed like so many interesting things happening and so many people and projects where research could help. I decided to get to know other people around the business and understand how research is used and perceived at Monotype. I ran an internal survey which had a 20% response rate and have been arranging meetings and talking to people across the organisation. This has been a tremendously useful exercise and has already informed my approach. I now know the research landscape at Monotype and how my role fits into this. I understand what's in my remit and what falls outside of that. I can see what the gaps are and have some ideas about how to fill them.

It's not often you start a new job but the next time you start working with a new client, why not ask these questions and see if the answers take you in a different direction. Understanding the business landscape and the context that you're working in - researching the research - is the key to making an impact with your research.