How to make the case for bigger research projects

9 min read David Renwick

Summary: You’ve run some user interviews and a couple of cards sorts, now it’s time to learn how to make the case for larger research projects.

In many ways, the work you do as a researcher is the fuel that product and design teams use to build great products. Or, as writer Gene Luen Yang once put it: “Creativity requires input, and that’s what research is. You’re gathering material with which to build”.

One of the toughest challenges for a user researcher is making the case for a bigger project. That is, one potentially involving more participants, a larger number of research methods, more researchers and even new tools. Sure, you’ve done small studies, but now you’ve identified a need for some bigger (and likely more expensive) research. So how exactly do you make a case for a larger project? How do you broach the subject of budget and possibly even travel, if it’s required? And, perhaps most importantly, who do you make the case to?

By understanding how to pitch your case, you can run the research project that needs to be run – not whatever you’re able to scrape together.

What’s your research question?

You know how important the research question is. After all, this is what you center your research around. It’s the clear, concise, focused and yet also complex heart of any research project. The importance of a good research question holds true from the smallest of studies right through to the massive research projects that require large teams of researchers and involve usability tests in real-world locations.

We’ve written about user research questions before, but needless to say, keep your question top-of-mind as you think about scaling your research. While most other aspects of your research will get bigger the larger your research project grows (think things like budget, number of participants and possibly even locations), your research question should remain concise and easy to understand. ‘Say it in a sentence’ – This is a good rule to keep in mind as you start to meet with stakeholders and other interested parties. Always have the detail ready if people want it, but your question is basically an elevator pitch.

Your research question will also form an important part of your pitch document – something we’ll come back to later on in this article.

Why do you need to scale up your research?

With your research question in hand (or more likely in a Google Drive document), you have to start asking yourself the tough questions. It’s time to map out the why of this entire process. Why exactly do you need to run a larger research project? Nailing all of this detail is going to be critical to getting the support you need to actually scale up your research.

To help get you thinking about this, we’ve put together some of the most common reasons to scale a user research project. Keep in mind that there’s a lot of crossover in the below sections simply due to the fact that methods/tools and participants are essentially 2 sides of the same coin.

You need more participants

Recruiting participants can be quite expensive, and it’s often a limiting factor for many researchers. In many cases, the prospect of remunerating even something like 10 participants can blow out a small research budget. While certain types of testing have ideal maximums for the number of participants you should use, scaling up the number of people feeding into your research can be quite fruitful. This could either running more tests with a lower number of participants or running a few tests with more.

By bringing in more people, you’re able to run more tests over the course of your project. For example, you could run 5 card sorts with different groups. Or, you could carry out a larger series of usability tests and user interviews with groups of different demographics and in different locations.

It’s easy to see how useful a larger or even unrestricted recruitment budget can be. You can go from needing to scrounge up whoever you can find to recruiting the ideal participants for your particular project.

You want to investigate new tools and methods

User research has been around in one form or another for decades (and possibly even longer if you loosen your definition of ‘user research’). With this in mind, the types of tools available to researchers have come along way since the days of paper prototypes – and even paper card sorts. Now, a cursory Google search will throw up dozens of UX tools tailored for different research methods and parts of the research process. There are tools for validating prototypes, getting fast feedback on UX copy and running complex, branching surveys. As just one example, we (at Optimal Workshop) offer a number of tools as part of our platform, focusing on areas including:

  • Tree testing: Tree testing is a usability technique that can help you evaluate the findability of topics on a website.
  • Card sorting: A research technique that can show you how people understand and categorize information.

You can read more about the Optimal Workshop platform here on our features page if you’re interested in learning more.

Integrating more tools is a strong reason to scale a research project, as tools can both lighten your workload and open up entirely new avenues of research. Plus, you’ll often find tools will automate difficult parts of the research process, like recruitment and analysis. Using one of our tools as an example, with Reframer, you can take notes during a user interview, tag them, and then Reframer will help you pull out various themes and insights for you to review.

A bigger project usually means a bigger budget, allowing you to spend time investigating possible new methods, tools and research techniques. Always wanted to investigate tree testing but could never quite find the time to sit down and assess the method and the various tools available? Now could be the perfect time.

You want to do on-location research

Remote testing has fast become one of the most practical options for user researchers who are short on time and budget. Instead of needing to go out and physically sit down with participants, researchers can instead recruit, run tests and analyze results as long as they have a decent internet connection. It makes sense – on-location research is expensive. But there are definitely some major advantages.

It is possible to conduct user interviews and usability tests remotely, but the very nature of these types of research means you’ll get a lot more out of doing the work in person. Take a user interview as just one example. By sitting down face to face with someone, you can read their facial expressions, better pick up on their tone and establish a stronger rapport from the outset.

Being able to go to wherever your users are means you’re not constrained by technology. If you need to study people living in rural villages in China, for example, you’re unlikely to find many of these people online. Furthermore, in this example, you could bring along a translator and actually get a real feel for your audience. The same applies to countless other demographics all over the world. Scaling up your research project means you can start to look at traveling to the people who can give you the best information.

Who has a stake in this project?

One of the most important (and potentially difficult) parts of scaling a research project is getting buy-in from your stakeholders. As we’ve mentioned previously, your pitch document is an essential tool in getting this buy-in, but you also need to identify all of your stakeholders. Knowing who all of your stakeholders are will mean you get input from every relevant area in your organization, and it also means you’ll likely have a larger support base when making your pitch to scale your research project.

Start by considering the wider organization and then get granular. Who is your research project likely to impact? Consider more than just product and design teams – how is your larger project likely to impact the budget? Again, capturing all of this detail in the pitch document will help you to build a much stronger case when it comes to convincing the people who have the final say.

Note: Building strong relationships with C-level and other people with influence is always going to be useful – especially in a field like UX where many people are still unsure of the value. Investing time into both educating these people (where appropriate) and creating a strong line of communication will likely pay dividends in future.

Create your pitch document

If you’re from the world of academia, the idea of pitching your research is likely second nature. But, to a user researcher, the ‘pitch’ often takes many forms. In ideal circumstances, there’s a good enough relationship between researchers and UX teams that research is just something that’s done as part of the design process. In organizations that haven’t fully embraced research, the process is often much more stilted and difficult.

When you’re trying to create a strong case for scaling your research project, it can help to consolidate all of the detail we’ve covered above (research question, high-level reasons for a running a larger project, etc.) and assemble this information in the form of a pitch document. But what exactly should this document look like? Well, borrowing again from the world of institutional research (but slightly tweaked), the main purpose of a research proposal is to explain that:

  • The research question is of significance
  • The planned methods are appropriate
  • The results will make a useful contribution to the organization

With this in mind, it’s time to take a look at what you should include in your user research pitch document:

  • Your research question: The core of any research project, your research question should query a problem that needs to be solved.
  • The key stakeholders: Here’s where you list out every team, agency and individual with a stake in your research, as well as what this involvement entails.
  • Data: What information do you currently have on this subject? Pull in any relevant details you can find by talking to other teams in your organization. If you’re researching your customers, for example, have a chat to sales and customer support staff.
  • Tools/methods: How will you execute your research? List all of the tools and research methods you plan to use. If you can see that you’re going to need new tools, list these here. This leads on nicely to…
  • Budget: What are the financial implications of your larger research project? List the new tools you’ll need and your estimates for recruitment costs.

You don’t necessarily need to take your pitch document and present it to stakeholders, but as a tool for ensuring you’ve covered all your bases, it’s invaluable. Doing this exercise means you’ll have all of the relevant information you require in one place.

Happy researching!

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