Research Planning

Effective user research centers on finding the right people to talk to and having a plan.

The first step in effective research planning is to determine the ideal approach or methodology

The methodology is driven by the reseach question you are trying to answer. Click here to learn more about research methods.

The next focus of research planning is finding the right people to talk to.

Effective recruiting doesn’t need to be expensive, but it does need to be well thought out. You have a few options to gain access to participants:

  • Hire a recruiter- Expensive but easy, they manage the logistics and charge from $75-400 per respondent.
  • Friends and Family- Free but requires management, not great for complicated requirements, but might help you find the rarer B2B/children respondents.
  • Online survey to recruit- You can create an online survey using your screener and send the link to friends and family or post on social networking sites. This gives you access to more people, and removes some of the management hassle. There is an initial investment of about 100-400/year for online survey software.

Research Brief

When you start a project you should create a one page research brief that explains the goals of the project and the key parameters you are looking for in a respondent. You and/or your recruiters will use this to create the screener; this will also help you quickly get bids from multiple recruiters. This usually includes:

  • Demographic requirements- age, gender, household income, education, family type
  • Product usage requirements- do participants need to have a brand of choice or use a product during research?
  • Screen out criteria- I always screen out respondents who work in the industry being studied, work in marketing/market research/product development, and who have ever participated in user research for the industry being studied, or have participated in user research on any topic within the last 6 months.
  • Expectations- Key need to know information about the study. What will participants be doing? Will homework be expected?

Sample Research Plan



Recruiting Plan

How does recruiting work?

Recruiters have a database and an outgoing call center.

They filter their database by some of your criteria then give a list of potential respondents to their callers.

The callers then call every name on the list asking whoever answers the phone to participate in a short phone survey (your screener).

Respondents who fail to meet any of your criteria are screened out.

Respondents who meet all of your criteria are asked to participate in your study and reminded about things like:

  • Time commitment- how long will the interview last.
  • Homework- what is expected of them before the session.
  • Cameras-  what kind of equipment will be used to record them (camera, video, voice recorder).
  • Compensation (Incentive)- how much money will they receive for their participation.
  • Non-Disclosure agreements- they will be asked to sign a photo release and an agreement that prevents them from talking about the session.
  • Scheduling- what day and time is their session.
  • Don’t Clean- in most cases I also try to make sure that respondents do not clean their house before we come, it is important to see their natural environment.


Constructing A Screener

  • You want to filter as fast as possible. If you are only looking for women, you want to make sure not to waste men’s (and your recruiters) time. Also, try to restrain from asking questions in a screener that do not have an impact on if the respondent will meet your criteria, these questions can be asked during the homework assignment or warm up on the interview. Having an inefficient screener can increase the price of a recruit.
  • Your recruiters are usually writing responses directly on your screener. Try to design screeners that are easy to use, have plenty of room to write on, are logical, and reduce most of the need for open ended answers.
  • You should however make sure to ask a few “articulation” questions and provide criteria for determining if a respondent is articulate.
  • Your recruiter will usually provide you with a spreadsheet of key stats for each respondent.

Have a Plan

What do you want to learn?

Make sure that you are aligned with the client or project owner about the goals of the project. I will usually do stakeholder interviews right away to make sure that I have as much buy-in and guidance as possible. Also, stakeholder interviews usually help uncover useful secondary information.



For most projects I create a homework assignment to get respondents “primed” before we meet with them. Homework assignments can range from camera studies, to consumption journals, to collages.


The Discussion Guide

The protocol is the script for the interview, and possibly one of the most important documents in the project. The protocol should be based on project goals and crafted to create an interview that can be analyzed easily. I usually include a couple of activities in a typical interview, all geared toward gaining insight on the topic we are studying.

When writing a discussion guide

  • Bowtie Shaped (broad-narrow-broad)
  • Warm-up using the homework assignment
  • Create clear sections for easy analysis
  • Avoid close ended questions
  • Avoid leading questions


Field notes

After I create the protocol, I use the flow of the protocol to create field notebooks for my team and clients. These books are a place for interview observers to take notes that are organized for the debrief. The books also help observers make sure that the moderator has covered all of the key areas.

Example discussion guide field notes book:



Immediately following the interview the team should meet to review the notes they took. I usually create a digital form for capturing debrief insights. These forms can be used later to provide context during idea generation brainstorms.