I don't claim to be an expert when it comes to UX research. But detailing the process I use helps track what is useful, what needs improvement, what needs throwing out, and what I can show people when they scratch their heads at the 2-dollar anthropologese falling out of my mouth.
Here, I explore project planning and defining the research question.
My Four Bubbles
When crafting a research question, I break down the process into four...uh...rectangular bubbles:
I think the anxiety toward research in design comes from trying to tackle these bubbles at the same time (which can be overwhelming), or believing it requires more time than is affordable, or some lofty concept to stay afloat.
But I like to think of research as learning more than you knew yesterday, and that inspires more creativity, right?
Well, what are you investigating? Whether you’re doing field research for business, school, or out of morbid curiosity, you have to select something for its center.
For moments like these, I’ve found concept maps useful. I first take general ideas down before branching off from each idea into more specific aspects. The secondary elements focus the framework for the research question.
Here's an example of a concept map:
Basically your project’s thesis statement, the framework is the perspective and approach you’re using to analyze your selected topic. It also helps with defining your methods of data collection.
For example, if I select:
I then could produce a framework for this. The study can be:
comparative (describing the relationship between two or more concepts/objects),
quantitative (measuring rates or values from the topic of inquiry),
definitive (uncovering, naming, and describing the characteristics of a pattern or phenomenon), or
explorative (an attempt to uncover a perceived relationship, though the exact outcomes are unknown).
Continuing the 'game developer perspectives' theme, I could generate a statement...
Video Game Developer Perspectives:
An exploration of striking the balance between creativity, customer experiences, and business goals
...Which then defines that I will be seeking to:
a) speak with video game developers,
b) inquire about the nature of their work and how they feel about it, and
c) provide additional information to support or challenge their claims based on the responses from their customers and the companies they work for. Essentially:
You'd just need to retool the statement as a question:
How do video game developers for big-name publishers strike the balance between their creativity, business goals, and consumer satisfaction?
So far it looks like smooth sailing, right? Well, not quite.
So you have a research question. Yay. This stage that I like to call 'Necessity', however, grounds the project to reality.
The following questions can seemingly rain on your research parade, but if answered early enough in the process, they can prevent nasty roadblocks from popping up during data collection, or even make you revisit your topic and framework if things remain unaccounted for.
1. Does it violate any ethics?
All projects should carry a "Do No Harm" component, especially when conducting research using human subjects.
Vulnerable populations, such as children and people with disabilities, require additional, specialized consent from their parents or caregivers.
All study participants are assured confidentiality and anonymity and the need to understand their role in the project (i.e. what the project is about, why their input is important, and what will be done with that input after it's been collected).
REGARDLESS of the quality of the input provided, you must allow and respect a participant's decision if they choose to back out and say they want their answers retracted.
Also, if working with other institutions (such as the government, a hospital, or another company), it's important to respect their ethics policies to avoid any unforeseen violations.
2. Are there any biases you have that may skew the data?
While no one is completely bias-free, it's important to acknowledge and challenge any prior perspectives that can interfere with data collection.
Continuing with the Game Developer Research Question example, one may assume most game developers are able-bodied and male, and will reach out to those who fit their ideal of 'Game Developer'. Meanwhile, the researcher (unintentionally or otherwise) leaves out a section of the population who could willingly respond to their queries.
While examining biases isn't meant to be an exercise in guilt, you should ensure you aren't limiting yourself when it comes to the data you collect and the insights you may stumble upon.
And historically, research hasn't been kind to marginalized populations, so willingly seeking input from those groups while respectfully suspending judgement goes a long way in fighting the imbalance.
3. Has someone already covered this topic with a similar framework recently?
This would require some basic preliminary research on your part (i.e. scanning Google Scholar or other academic article repositories by plugging in relevant search terms), but hey, wouldn't it be nice to know beforehand that you didn't have to trek through the jungle for no reason?
But if the question you're asking is still relevant to yourself or business aims, looking at other studies can help uncover other methods you haven't considered, or identify the differences between a well-conducted study and a poorly-conducted one. And in comparison, you can discover the subtle distinctions that make your research unique.
4. Is it within your budget?
Simply put, you don't want to run out of money right before your eureka moment. This step includes exploring all possible avenues to keep resource and labor costs low. If you can find a cheaper price point for the same software or hardware, use it, but don't compromise quality or helpful features if that's the trade-off.
5. Are the participants/subjects easily accessible?
This isn't the greatest complication nowadays, especially considering remote workflows, but you'll create challenges for yourself if the expert you're seeking doesn't answer phone calls, or if your main participants live half the world over and can't be physically questioned or tested.
It's always nice to have a back-up plan, so have some back-up people if you can manage it!
This step is for detailing how you'll collect the data for answering your question. While I prefer qualitative methods (ex: getting a detailed account from a game developer about their experience), others may prefer using quantitative methods (ex: determining what percentage of game developers feel the same way), or even a mix of both (mixed methods).
Qualitative Methods include:
While Quantitative Methods include:
the use or development of Mathematical Models to define the occurrence of a phenomenon.
Depending on the research question and your own academic and professional background, some methods may take precedence over others, may be left out entirely, or may invoke a combination. I recommend trying to use both, especially since they are often put at odds with each other when they could be used to complement each other.
I also alluded to this in 'Necessity', but doing preliminary research helps structure your question. Looking up articles and other research documents, making observations, and identifying patterns can make you reexamine your question, or provide previously-unconsidered insights.
Well, it's not entirely done since you have to collect, analyze, and interpret the data yourself (or train a few minions to do it for you if you're lucky). But even the act of planning a research question can help reveal a path forward that may, in the panic of designing the NEXT BEST THING, otherwise be disregarded.
Of course, whether or not you choose research, inspiration is everywhere and is waiting to be found in people and the stories they tell about themselves.