Choosing the Right Research Method
Choosing the best research method to use to learn from your audiences is an important step in successfully delivering a research project. The right research method can give you really insightful information and help you learn from your audiences in a way that will mitigate risks, saving you time and money delivering products or services that aren’t quite right!
Realising that you need to hear from your audiences can be a scary thing! Research can often be seen as complicated, difficult, and despite taking a long time, you cannot guarantee you will get the answers you need. And while research can be this way, it doesn’t have to be! One of the key things you can do to avoid wasted time and effort is to choose the right research methodology for your project.
Choosing the right research method for your project is dependent on the questions you are trying to answer.
People often have a “go-to” methodology when it comes to doing research with their audiences. Conversations often start with “I want to do a survey” or “we should interview our customers”. However, this way of thinking can be very limiting, and often results in the research not providing the answers you were looking for. This is because choosing the right research method for your project is dependent on the questions you are trying to answer.
While most people will immediately think of surveys or interviews, there are actually a lot of different research methods to choose from! Each one is good at getting to a particular kind of answer, so understanding what you are trying to learn from your audience is critical to choosing the right method.
Identifying the Right Questions
The first – and most important – thing you need to do at the beginning of any research is to identify the key questions you are looking for answers for. Getting these questions right can make or break a project, so it’s important to feel confident in your questions before you move on to choosing the right research method.
Your key research questions are not the questions you ask your audience. These should be the questions that – if you were to directly answer them – would give you the recommendations to move forward with your project. These questions look at the deepest level of need for your project.
For example, you may want to know: “is my website appealing to my audience?”. The answer to this, if no, will give you recommendations on how to change the design. But if your key question is: “does my website provide the information my audience is looking for?” then the recommendations you’ll get will help you to improve the content of your site. But if you want to dive deeper, you can ask the question: “does my website provide an answer to the problem my audience is facing?”. This will allow you to understand if the product or service you are offering is a) the right product or service, or b) that your website is able to communicate how your product or service meets their need effectively.
Each project should have 3-5 key research questions that you are trying to answer.
Choosing the Right Type of Research
There are two types of methodologies to choose from: quantitative and qualitative research methods. A general rule to deciding which type to use is that quantitative research methods help you understand what your users/customers/audience do, while qualitative research methods are good at helping you understand why they do what they do.
Quantitative research methods help you understand what your users do, while qualitative research methods help you understand why they do what they do
So once you’ve decided if you need a qualitative or quantitative research method, it’s time to decide what method to use. There are many options to choose from – you can get quite creative! Below I’ve described some of the most common research methods that might work for you.
Quantitative Research Methods
Surveys are often used to quickly and easily collect feedback from a large group of people. They are often a list of multiple choice questions and are commonly distributed via a link in an email, on a pop-up on a website, or as a paper form. They are often used to ask questions about who a person is (such as where they live and how old they are), key behaviors (where they shop, what they buy, etc.) and how satisfied they are with something. Surveys can also collect comments with open ended questions.
Pros: You can collect a lot of information from a large group of people relatively quickly and easily. You can also repeat the same survey over time to track how results change over time.
Cons: You will only collect data from people willing to answer a survey, who will be the people most engaged with your brand to begin with. This means that you will hear from your most loyal fans, but it will be more difficult to understand why less loyal fans are less loyal. It is also possible to miss really important things with multiple choice questions. For example, say you ask this question:
How did you hear about us?
- Social media
- Trip Advisor
Your participants in the survey will have to choose one of the above, and you’ll see that 45% heard about the brand on social media. But maybe the majority of participants actually heard about the brand from friends and family. It wasn’t an option, so many chose “social media” as that is where they had seen their friends post about your brand. But when you read the results, you assumed that “social media” meant the posts that the brand had posted. Since you hadn’t put “from friends or family” as an option in the question, you missed the fact that it was actually the most important answer. And unfortunately, surveys don’t allow you to easily ask follow up questions to the participants that have answered in a certain way to begin with, so you can’t go back and clarify your question.
2. Website, email or social media analytics
Analytics is the tracking of large volumes of raw data about the behaviour of users of a product/service. It can be a great way to understand what your audience is doing on a website, with an email, and on social media. It passively collects information from your users while they are using your website, or engaging with your social media or emails.
The typical tool for looking at website analytics is usually Google Analytics. This tool is free and with basic tracking implemented on your website (using the Google Tag Manager) you will be able to see what pages users go to, where they come from, what pages they leave on, and how long they stay on your site.
Pros: Analytics can tell a lot about what users are doing. Analytics are available all the time and you don’t need to arrange to speak to visitors to collect data.
Cons: Analytics can tell you what your audience is doing, but not why. Analytics alone can’t provide the full picture. For example, if someone leaves a page frequently (meaning the page has a high bounce rate), it could be seen as a bad thing – maybe the page is too confusing and users give up. It could also mean that users learn what they needed to learn on that page and feel confident enough to stop looking for the information they were looking for.
3. A/B Testing
A/B Testing is when two versions of one thing are shown at random to your audience. This allows you to measure the effectiveness of two different designs quickly and easily. For example, using A/B testing you’ll be able to see which page converts more customers by showing 50% of your audience one version and 50% the other version. Whichever one results in more customers should be the design you choose!
Pros: This is a very fast way to make a design decision by providing a lot of data very quickly (as fast as it takes for people to visit your site or open your emails!). It is also very useful in situations when two people within an organisation can’t agree on what the final design of something should be.
Cons: This tests a very specific part of the journey on your website, and will not address larger issues with the user journey or issues that take place on a different section on your site (meaning your audience won’t get to that page in the first place!). This is also a slightly more technical research method. Some email and social media programs have this functionality built in, making it easier to test different conversion rates for your email or social media designs. There are some plug-ins you can use depending on how your website is built as well, or you may need help from a developer to implement this kind of test.
Qualitative Research Methods
Interviews are a semi-structured conversation with a customer/user to uncover insight about their needs, motivations, attitudes, pain points and behaviours. It allows you to gain an in-depth understanding of your customers’ needs, motivations and attitudes. Speaking to your audience one-on-one often provides the opportunity to understand not just the motivations, thoughts, and opinions of your audiences, but they help you to identify the kind of language your audience uses when addressing the problem you’re trying to solve.
Pros: Interviews allow you to uncover behaviours, thoughts, and motivations that you had not anticipated prior to speaking to your audience. The fluid and conversational nature of them also allow you to ask follow up questions and dive into areas or topics you haven’t had the opportunity to explore using quantitative research methods.
Cons: Interviews can be time consuming, both in preparation and analysis. It is difficult to take notes while you are conducting an interview, so recording and transcribing interviews after the fact effectively doubles your time commitment.
5. Co-Creation or Participatory Design
Co-creation or participatory design is a collaborative design workshop between you, key stakeholders (if you have any) and your customers or users. In the workshop, everyone works together to explore a problem (ideally identified by your audience) and generate solutions that take into account different approaches, needs, and points of view. Ideally, the end of the workshop will result in a solution likely to provide your audience with a better and more relevant product, service, or experience. It also helps you and your stakeholders better understand the needs and thought processes of your audiences.
Pros: Co-creation workshops create opportunities for different groups to work together, and you will often walk away with potential solutions directly from the workshop. They are a great choice if you are in the early stages of product or service development.
Cons: Managing a co-creation workshop is not an easy task – it requires a lot of preparation and organisation and the workshop itself must be very structured in order to be successful. Moderating a co-creation workshop requires solid presentation skills, the ability to keep everyone engaged, and may potentially require conflict resolution.
6. Usability Testing
Usability testing is an interview, where the participant completes a series of tasks and provides feedback on a product, service, or website. Usability testing involves using a prototype (whether it is as simple as a drawing or idea all the way up to fully functional) or live site to get feedback from customers/users. The type of feedback often depends on the level of fidelity of your prototype. For example, a basic drawing will allow participants to provide feedback on overall ideas and structures, while fully designed live sites will most likely garner specific, detailed design feedback from participants.
Pros: The ability to see someone using your product/website in action is extremely valuable not just for you, but for any of your stakeholders as well. It is a quick and easy way to identify problems in current or planned designs.
Cons: Usability testing can require more specific technology, depending on the prototype and whether an interview is taking place in person or remotely. Further, streaming sessions for others to watch, while valuable, increases the amount of tech required (and the amount of technical issues that can occur).
What research methods do you prefer?
Let me know in the comments below if you have tried any of the above methods!
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Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it!