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How to Set Up a Research Project (in 6 Steps)

How to set up a research project in six steps

Written by Casey Scott-Songin

I am the founder and writer of the Creative Researcher, a site that empowers people to learn more about their audiences through quantitative and qualitative research. I have over a decade of experience doing consumer, audience, market and user research across multiple national and international brands.

It can be really exciting to embark on a research project, but knowing where to start can feel overwhelming! Setting up a research project properly means that you will save yourself a lot of stress, worrying about whether you’ll collect useful information, and will save you time analysing results!

Before you even begin to think about what research method you should use or where to recruit participants , you need to think about the purpose, objectives, and key research questions for your project. Below are the six steps to starting a research project that you can be confident in!

1. Define your purpose

The first thing you need to do is have a clear understanding of the purpose of your project. If you had to summarise why you wanted to do this project in two to three sentences, what would they be?

These should include:

  • what problem you are trying to solve
  • the context for that problem
  • the purpose of the project

The problem you are trying to solve

Think about how to summarise your main problem in one sentence.  Is it that your product is not selling? Are you not sure why some ads are more successful than others? Is it that you are struggling to grow you client list? Or maybe There is a high bounce rate on a particular page on your website. Whatever it is, clearly identify it in one sentence (okay, two sentences maximum). 

The context for that problem

This is the opportunity to think about what you already know. This should be a summary of what data or research you already have access to. This could include analytics from your website or social media pages, previous qualitative research you may have done, or sector or industry research you have access to. Basically, this is the data that has helped you realise you had a problem to begin with. Knowing where you are starting from will help you significantly when you finish your research because you’ll have a clear understanding of where you are coming from in order to define where you want to be in the future.

The purpose of the project

This should be a sentence about why you decided to do this research project in the first place. If you are working with stakeholders and will be using this to get research approved, this sentence should be your commitment that research can help solve the problem you have identified.

2. Clarify your Objectives

This section should focus on what the research will add to the overall project. It should clearly identify the goals you want to achieve by the end of the research project. Try to focus on one or two goals maximum. You will know you have succeeded at the end of the project if you have achieved these goals. 

For example, if the problem you have identified is that you have a high bounce rate on the main sales page on your website, your objectives of the research may be:

  1. To identify the key problems on the sales page that is resulting in a high number of users leaving without buying anything
  2. To understand which audiences are most likely to leave without purchasing anything

Finally, you should identify (if you can) what type of outcomes you want to have from this research project. Will you be writing a report? Will it result in a list of recommended changes to your website? Being very clear about what to expect at the end of the project helps stakeholders get on board and support research projects like these.

How to set up a research project

3. Define your Key Research Questions

A very important step in any research plan is to identify your key research questions. These are very useful and help you narrow the focus of your research project. They are also really useful when you are analysing your data! When you go to write your report, if you use the data to answer the questions you’ve asked for this project, you’ll know you will have done what you set out to do. 

These questions should be the key questions you are hoping to get an answer to. Try to keep to around five to ten questions. Being as specific as possible to help you focus your research project and get the answers you need to solve your problem. 

Key research questions should be as specific as possible to help you focus your research project and get the answers you need to solve your problem. 

These questions could fall into some of the below categories:

  • Why is something happening? 
  • Why are your customers behaving a certain way? 
  • Why is something not being used?
  • What are your audiences’ needs?
  • What is motivating your users to do something?
  • What specific questions do you have about the product or service?
  • What questions do you have after looking into the data that is already available?

The questions you write should not be the questions you ask your audiences. These are often complex and overarching questions, and will most likely need to be broken down when asking your audiences in order to collect useful data. 

4. Write out your Hypotheses and Challenge your Assumptions

An often skipped step, but an important one nonetheless, is to think about any hypotheses you have. Do you expect to have any particular outcomes to the research? Go back to your research questions and write down what you think the answers might be. What do you expect your audiences to do, think or feel? These will entirely be your thoughts and don’t necessarily have to be based in data. To make sure it is clear, you should write these starting each sentence with  “I think….”. 

Now take a look at your research questions again. Have you made any assumptions when crafting your research questions? Did you leave anything out because you assumed you knew the answers? Did you assume something would be more important that something else?

In order to make sure your research is as objective as possible, you need to be aware of what biases you are bringing to the research.

Understanding your hypotheses and assumptions is a crucial step to making your research objective. In order to make sure your research is as objective as possible, you need to be aware of what biases you are bringing to the research. These biases will mean you will be more likely to hear some things over other things. This is called confirmation bias, and it can lead to you making some results more or less important than they actually are. 

It’s useful to document these so you can refer back to them throughout the research process. If you lay out all the things you think might inadvertently impact your interpretation of the results, it will help you from letting confirmation bias influence your research. 

Define your research project in six easy steps

5. Choose your Methodology 

Now that you have a good understanding of what your research project is trying to accomplish, it’s time to choose the right research method to get the information you are looking for!

There are two main types of research methods to choose from: quantitative research and qualitative research. 

Quantitative research identifies what your users are doing while qualitative research helps to understand why users do what they do.

Quantitative Research

Quantitative research helps to answer the question: What are your consumers/audiences/users doing? These methods can capture large data sets relatively quickly and give a basic understanding of audience behaviours. Having a large data set allows you to provide a strong confidence in findings relatively quickly. You’ll be able to quickly and easily see if any patterns are emerging. 

While quantitative research is very good at capturing what users are doing, it cannot easily capture what users’ underlying decision making processes are. Further, it does not allow you to follow up on unexpected findings, or have the flexibility to investigate different areas on inquiry. 

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research helps to answer the question: Why are users doing what they’re doing? These research methods can provide an in-depth understanding of user behaviours, attitudes and decision making processes. These methods also allow you to have the flexibility to explore unexpected results, which is often where important or insightful data lies. It usually results in much smaller data sets, but the data is often very rich and cn provide a deep dive into the research questions you are hoping to answer.

Qualitative research does not provide a large data set, and analysis can be time consuming. Further, it is often important to make sure you’re project setup is as objective as possible, as it is possible to accidentally skew your data with your own biases. 

Choosing your Research Method

When deciding on a research method, it can be useful to evaluate whether your key research questions fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. Breadth 
  2. Context
  3. Depth

Breadth

If you are looking to collect breadth in data, you are most likely looking to answer questions around what a large group of people think. Some examples of research methods that can provide breadth in data are surveys, task analysis, or card sorting. These are research methods that work best when a wide range or a large quantity of people need to be reached in order to answer your question. They are useful because the methods themselves allow for data to be categorised relatively easily, which helps analyse quickly. These methods are most useful when testing a hypothesis rather than defining a problem. 

Context

If you are looking to understand the context of something, you are most likely trying to get a better understanding of what problems might exist. Research methods that look for context are most useful when there isn’t much knowledge about the subject. They can often help define the questions as well. Context can be captured with qualitative or quantitative methods. Web or social analytics is a good example of understanding context using a quantitative research method.  Qualitative research methods that capture context include participant observations in natural or group settings. Overall, these methods are good at finding out people’s natural behaviours with little intervention – what they do vs. what they say they do. 

Depth

Looking for depth in your key research questions most likely means you’ll be using a qualitative research method, such as interviews or focus groups, to answer your questions. These types of research methods allow you to use open questions to dig deeper into answers and explore topics in greater depth. Depth methods allow you to most accurately define a problem you are hoping to solve with your service or product. Methods such as co-creation or participatory design allow for you to work closely with your audiences to design solutions you know they will like. 

If you’d like to learn more about choosing the right research methods, check out my post: How to Choose the Right Research Method for your Project

6. Recruit your Participants

Once you have chosen the research method that would be best for your project, it’s time to think about who you want to speak to, and how you are going to recruit their help to your project. This is often the most difficult task, but it is one of the most critical things to get correct.

How do you recruit participants for your research project?

The first thing you need to do is identify who you would like to speak to. It could be your entire audience, it could be a subset of people, or it could be people who currently don’t engage with you! 

Finding people from your audience

Once you have an idea of who you want to speak to, think about where you might find them. Maybe you have an email list so it’s as simple as reaching out to your current subscribers! If you don’t currently have anyone on your email list, think about where your audience might be. Would they be in a particular facebook group? Maybe they follow you on social media? Reaching out to your audiences on owned channels such as your social media accounts, via email, or even as a pop up on your website can be a really cheap and easy way to speak to your audiences. 

Finding people who don’t know who you are

And if you’re just starting out, or you want to speak to people who don’t currently follow you, you can always recruit through panels. Depending on how many people you’d like to speak to, you can recruit via panels for relatively low costs, and ensure you’ll get participants that will be relevant to your key research questions. Some survey tools (such as Survey Monkey) have panels you can use built right into their software, or you can search for panels in your country (or the country you’re interested in speaking to participants to) to find a company that would be a good partner for your project. 

How many participants is enough?

How many people is enough for your research project will depend entirely on the research method you choose and the complexity of the questions you are trying to answer. For me, I generally try to get at least 100 survey responses if I’m sending out a survey, and anywhere from six to twenty participants for qualitative research methods such as interviews, focus groups, or co-creation. 

Conclusion

Taking slightly more time to set up a research project has huge benefits and means that your results will be as useful as possible and findings and recommendations will come together much easier and quicker than they would otherwise. 

To find out more about a variety of elements that go into research projects in more detail, check out the other posts on my blog!

What steps do you take when starting research?

Let me know in the comments below if you have tried any of the above methods!

And don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter to recieve more on what research methods to choose, research best practice, and a variety of other relevant and informative content!

how to set up a research project in six steps
how to set up a research project in six steps
how to set up a research project in six steps
how to set up a research project in six steps
how to set up a research project in six steps
how to set up a research project in six steps
how to set up a research project in six steps
how to set up a research project in six steps

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