October 1, 2021

UX Research: How to plan and prepare for discovery research?


When you think about conducting user research to understand their needs, challenges, and motivations, you often don’t think about the planning that goes into this type of initiative. If you are just starting out on the journey of UX research, feeling a little overwhelmed by the process, and wondering how to set up and plan a research project, today’s blog post is for you!

Let’s back up a step. You may be wondering, why is it important to conduct user research? For starters, investing in UX research will save you time and money! (Say no more, right?) By understanding what your customers truly want early on in the process, you can gather feedback and spend your hard earned money and valuable time developing and launching a product or feature users are guaranteed to need and use. Additionally, conducting user research will help to reduce customer churn. When you create a product that’s valuable to your user, they are much more likely to offer their loyalty! You may even develop a product or feature your user didn’t realize they needed, solving a problem they didn’t even know existed. Conducting UX research will also help establish a strong proof of concept and de-risk product launches. We recommend using design research methods like in-depth interviews or observations.



How to start the research planning process?

You’ve received stakeholder buy-in confirming that conducting some research would be a good idea. But where do you start? There is a lot of orchestration that goes into a successful research project. Planning for research typically takes 2-6 weeks, depending on how much research you intend to conduct. During the planning stage, things you’ll want to create include:

  • A Research Plan (outlining all of the research you plan to do and how you plan to do it) – see below

  • Interview and Observation Guides, Survey Questionnaires, and more

  • Recruiting Criteria and Guide (Who you will recruit for research and how?)

To begin, you’ll want to have a few meetings or collaborative discovery sessions with stakeholders to understand the business goals and identify what is known about the research area/topic. Then you’ll want to scope the project and start to identify the types of research methods you’ll use. On Outwitly’s blog, we cover a lot more on the different types of UX and design research, if you’re curious!


Scoping Discovery Research

How do you know how much research to actually conduct? Well… it depends. This also comes with experience, and after having conducted numerous research initiatives you’ll get better at understanding how much is too much, too little, or just right. However, we can provide some of our tips for scoping a discovery research project.

  • Timeline – How much time do you have to conduct the research? If you only have 1-2 months, you’re going to be limited with how much you can do in that time. So you might decide to stick to only one type of research method, such as interviews. If you have 3-6 months, then you can start to layer in other research methods and more participants.

  • Budget – Is budget a factor? How much money do you have to conduct the research? This could impact how many hours you can spend on the research, how many participants you can recruit if you are planning to give them each incentives for their time, and it can also impact how many researchers are on the project.

  • How much is already known about the problem area? If a significant amount of research has already been conducted on the same topic, it may be better to start by leveraging the existing research findings and scoping out a smaller amount of new research to compliment what exists. If not much is known or understood at the outset, you may want to build in more time for research, more methods, and more participants.

  • Best practices – In general and when possible, we recommend you follow some best practices for conducting research. These are:

    • Plan to conduct at least two different types of research (e.g. interviews AND observations)

    • Plan to interview 4-6 participants from the same user group in order to identify patterns in the data (so if you have 3 different types of users you want to understand, then you are looking to interview 12-18 participants in total).

If you’re worried that you are scoping out too much research, or you haven’t gotten the full buy-in/support from your stakeholders, then consider biting off a smaller research initiative to start. This will help to show the value of this type of work and get everyone on the team to understand the process. Then you can start to take on bigger projects! One way to do this is by reducing the number of user groups you are hoping to understand – this will cut down the number of people you need to recruit and make the scope of work smaller.


Elements of a Strong UX Research Plan

While research plans will vary depending on where you work and what research you are conducting, in general a solid discovery research plan will include the following:

  • Overview – To begin, include a paragraph the answers the following questions: What is this research about? Why has it been initiated? Who is the research for? What will it involve at a high-level?

  • Research Goals –  We typically list 3-5 core research goals. What are you hoping to accomplish through your research? What insights are you aiming to uncover? How will this research help you achieve a better user or customer experience?

  • Research Methods – Which research methods do you plan to use? Our favourites are interviews, observations, and diary studies for qualitative research. You may also include your plan to conduct stakeholder or expert interviews, as well as any quantitative research, and secondary research such as literature reviews and documentation reviews. Whatever methods you choose, plan to describe each one in detail. For example, this might include: How many interviews you’ll conduct, how interviews will be conducted (remotely, in-person, over the phone), how long each interview will take, and more. You should also provide your rationale for choosing each method here.

  • Participants – Your research plan should explain who you plan to research, what high-level user groups are you planning to research, what are their characteristics, how many people you plan to interview or observe, and how you might incentivize them.

  • Recruitment – Once you’ve explained who you are going to research, you’ll also want to provide an in-depth description of the recruitment methods you’ll use, how you’ll schedule participants, how you’ll screen participants to make sure they are the right fit for the project, and any additional information on the recruiting criteria.

  • Tools/Technology – What tools or applications will you use to recruit, conduct, and analyze your research? For example, what tools will you use to record interviews or schedule participants? Do you plan to use a phone or camera to take photos and video during observations?

Some of our favourite tools are:

    • Miro for workshops
    • Zoom for interviews
    • Calendly for scheduling
    • Aurelius for data analysis

  • Data Analysis/Synthesis Methods (how you will analyze the data) – Describe how you plan to analyze your data. For example, will you group common ideas and identify patterns in the data in order to uncover insights?

  • Deliverables – What deliverables do you plan to create based on your research findings? Some examples include Personas, Journey Maps, or a Research Report. Describe each one and provide examples or explain why each deliverable will be useful in helping them to achieve their goals

  • Timing/Project Schedule – You should include a research schedule in your research plan. This shows how long each activity will take and when stakeholders can expect to see each of the milestones reached.

  • Risks & Mitigation Strategies – See below!

  • Roles & Responsibilities – Who are the team members involved? What will each team member be responsible for throughout the project?

  • Data Storage & Security – Depending on the nature of the project being conducted, data storage and security may be important to either the project stakeholders or to the participants. This can be in the case of more sensitive topics such as healthcare or the financial sector. It’s important to outline how you will keep participant data safe, where it will be stored, and when it will be destroyed.


Recruiting Strategies in UX Research

Recruiting for research can be one of the toughest parts of the process. We could go into a lot of detail on how to develop recruiting criteria, breaking down the screening and recruitment process, but we’ll save that for a future post! For now, here are the most common methods we’ve used to recruit participants for research:

  • Existing contact/emails lists – This applies to organizations/companies that have customer lists they are allowed to share for research purposes.

  • Real-time – Recruiting on-the-go and in-person (aka standing on a street corner asking people to participate, going to a bus stop, or a museum, or a mall).

  • Partner organizations & community hubs – Asking community centers or partner organizations to recruit participants on your behalf.

  • Recruiting firms – Paying $ to hire a professional recruiting firm.

  • Social Media, Crowd-Sourcing, & Forums

Keep in mind that incentive in the form of gift cards can go a long way to helping you attract participants and prevent no-shows!


Common Risks in UX Research & Mitigation Strategies

When preparing to conduct discovery research, whether it be as part of a proposal or as part of the research planning, it’s important to identify possible risks early on and develop mitigation strategies to help alleviate these challenges if they arrive during the course of the project. When we consider risks, we like to create a table that looks at three main elements:

  1. Criticality or Likelihood (Low, Medium, or High) – Essentially how likely it is that this risk happens, and if it were to happen, how would it impact the project and it’s timelines?

  2. Risk – Describe the risk in detail

  3. Mitigation Strategy – For each risk you identify, list 1-3 mitigation measures or corrective actions that you will use if it does happen.

At this point you might be wondering, what are the most common risks when conducting UX research or design research? To help you out, we’ve listed the ones we see most often:

  • Recruiting – It may be difficult to recruit enough participants that match your target user groups in the timeline. You’ll want to think about alternative methods for recruiting participants or what to do if you can’t find participants who are the perfect fit to your recruiting criteria.

  • Scheduling – If you’re scheduling internal interviews with busy stakeholders, they might not have time to schedule meetings and interviews, which could cause the overall schedule to slip. Similarly, if stakeholders are unable to provide feedback on key milestones it could also result in timeline slippage. A mitigation strategy in this case could be to ensure their is a governance structure in place. Assign a final decision maker who will ensure they have enough bandwidth/availability throughout the project to provide feedback.

  • Potential Resource Changes – This is a risk that applies most often to longer term projects, but in the case that someone leaves the team and needs to be replaced, how will you ensure the project runs smoothly and keeps going? Knowledge continuity and sharing is key – keeping files organized early on and documenting as much as possible are both great mitigation strategies.

  • Scope creep – This is a common risk when you get into a research project! Often times you’ll set out to do a certain number of interviews and observations, but once you start collecting data, you realize you need a bit more research or work to be done. This is where you can get into “scope creep”. Some ways to help this are to pad the project with additional time in the schedule and additional budget. Also, try to make sure that all team members and stakeholders are clear from the beginning on what activities and deliverables are in scope and which fall out of scope.

Finally, we like to put these together in a nice clear table. Share these with project stakeholders prior to starting the research, discuss the mitigation strategies with them, and then add or edit the table based on their feedback. This way everyone is on the same page from the outset, and when these issues come up (which inevitably, they will!) you’ll have already planned for them! This means less drama among team members and stakeholders. Whew!

There are many moving parts in the planning and preparation of conducting discovery research. From kicking off the process and writing a strong UX research plan, to recruiting for research and developing mitigation strategies, there is no shortage of hard work! We hope the details of this blog post make the entire process feel a little less daunting. And trust us, the benefits of properly laying the groundwork for discovery research will become very clear in no time. Happy researching everyone!


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