How I Plan User Research

Before conducting any type of user research — whether a usability study or phone interviews — it’s best to start at the very beginning. (Though probably never a UX researcher, Maria von Trapp had it exactly right.) 

Creating a user research plan is a very good place to start.

(I may have recently taken my family to see The Sound of Music at the Ordway theater in St. Paul. Doe, a deer.)

My first step in writing a research plan is to conduct one or more discovery discussions with my client stakeholders as well as review any supporting documentation they provide.

During the discovery discussion, I may ask questions like:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • Where does this problem fit into the larger context of your strategy?
  • What are your business goals?
  • What are your hypotheses?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • What are the expected outcomes from the research (e.g., concepts, solutions, wireframes, follow-up study, content changes)?
  • Who will need to sign-off on the research?
  • What is the timing? What’s driving the timing?
  • Who can assist me with logistics (e.g., scheduling meetings, acquiring participant email addresses)?
  • What else should I know?

My research plan template is in Word, and is nothing fancy. To make it more scannable, I use tables to break apart each section (below). My typical research plan is 2-3 pages long.

At the top of the plan, I include the name of the project, overall timing, client stakeholder contacts, and my contact information.

If there will be multiple research studies within a project, such as an online survey with follow-up phone interviews — I will create multiple research plans. One overarching plan, and then a plan for each specific study.

My research plan template includes the following categories:

Project Background

Here, I detail everything I know about a project:

  • Prior research findings
  • Hypotheses
  • Considerations or other details that don’t necessarily impact the research, but are good to keep in mind

Tip: I write this in a way that is presentation-friendly, as I will usually pull it as-is into the findings deck later.

Business Goals

Ultimately, what is the purpose of this research? What will this research help to inform or solve? Understanding the larger goals helps me ensure the research is designed to help support my client’s business strategy. I want to ensure I provide actionable data, not merely interesting data.

Example business goals:

  • Uncover barriers to conversions, leads, sign-ups, donations, etc.
  • Reduce cart abandons, call times, bounces, etc.
  • Increase customer satisfaction, repeat purchases, customer reviews, referrals, etc.

Research Goals

Research goals are different from business goals. Here, I outline the research questions that the study will answer.

For example, the business goal might be to improve the website conversion rate, but the research goal might be to better understand what information on the website customers need to make a purchase decision.

Research Methodology

Prior to creating the research plan, I almost always have already determined the research methodology (in order to estimate the project). I include it again here along with any additional details. I also may include some language around why this particular methodology is the best approach or point out nuances about the methodology.

Next, I create an outline of the research topics, with sample questions for each. This is the same structure that I will use for the test design or discussion guide.

If it’s a usability study, I will also include a draft of the user scenarios.

Tip: Starting with my next project, I’m going to also include whether the sessions will be recorded. I get this question a lot, so will start adding it here to reassure everyone involved that they will get recordings.

Participant Profile(s)

I use this information to build the screener, so I detail exactly who we want to recruit and who to screen out. I also include quotas here for each customer segment — if needed.

Participant profile criteria varies a lot from client to client, so I don’t work from a standard template. Age is the only constant, so I can screen out minors.

Recruiting Methodology

Here, I explain where I will draw participants from — usually an email invitation, website intercept, or Facebook ads.

I also include the gratuity amount. I almost always give out Amazon.com gift cards. Gratuity amounts vary based on the length of the study and size of target audience. For example, more difficult-to-recruit participants will earn a higher incentive (e.g., medical doctors, business executives).

Typical gratuity amounts include:

  • $5-$15 for online surveys
  • $25-$50 for 30-minute phone interviews
  • $100-$150 for one-hour interviews or usability studies
  • $150-$200 for diary studies

I recently experimented with advertising $5 Starbucks gift cards for an online survey incentive. (Free coffee, right?) I think it may have worked pretty well as an incentive, but the purchase experience on my side isn’t on par with Amazon. It’s a lot clunkier, plus there’s zero visibility as to whether the card was received or redeemed by the participant.

Note: if you pay with Amazon.com gift cards, you’re not allowed to say so in the ad per their TOS. There’s a long disclaimer that’s also required. To get around this, I’ll say “$10 gift card” in the ad, then clarify that it’s a $10 Amazon.com gift card along with Amazon’s disclaimer on the first page of the screener.

Timing

In a table format, I include sign-off deadlines and milestones for:

  • Research plan
  • Screener (& scheduling, if needed)
  • Research design
  • Research in field
  • Analysis & report

During the research plan discovery, I will ask for input about turn-around times. Some clients can turn around approvals within a few days, others need a couple weeks.

If I need to reserve a usability lab, I’ll do that now as well.

Observers

This section is especially critical for usability sessions. I include a list of every role that I highly recommend attend the sessions and why they are critical to the success of the usability study.

  • Marketing Managers
  • Project Managers
  • Developers
  • UX Specialists
  • Designers
  • Writers
  • Product Managers

Read more about why observers are important.

Deliverables

Along with the research findings and recommendations report, I also often create other deliverables — such as a journey map or high-level concepts.

I’ll provide a rough outline of the expected deliverables, such as number of concepts or type of concept (a particular page on the site). Again, this was usually already determined in the statement of work, but it’s good to repeat it here, as not all client stakeholders see the SOW.

Next Steps

While I wait for the research plan to come back with edits or approval from my client, next I will usually get started writing the screener. A topic for another “How I Work” post!

Related Articles

Usability in a Box (My Usability Toolkit)
How I Find Usability Participants
The 5-Step Process I Use to Plan + Conduct Usability Studies
28 User Research Methods

Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is an independent UX researcher & strategist in Minneapolis. Connect on Twitter @kristineremer