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The Top 5 Tips for Scoping User Research

As Human-Cen­tered Design (HCD) prac­ti­tion­ers, we know that user research is crit­i­cal to design­ing suc­cess­ful prod­ucts and ser­vices. Iden­ti­fy­ing what your cus­tomers want and need before you begin build­ing helps min­i­mize the risk of fea­ture creep, missed dead­lines, and cost­ly rework down the line. But how do you deter­mine what ques­tions to ask? How much research do you real­ly need to do? Here are our top five tips for right-siz­ing your research activ­i­ties to the unique bud­get, time­lines, and risk lev­el of any project.

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Be Intentional About What You Want to Learn

The first step in any user research project is to articulate your goals. What problem are you solving for? What questions do you need to answer to make sure that your product or service meets your customers’ needs? This might seem obvious, but we’ve witnessed how often people skip straight to writing survey or interview questions without clearly defining what they’re hoping to learn or measure.

Leverage Existing Research

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Don’t reinvent the wheel. Before beginning any research of your own, conduct a discovery phase to determine whether any of your questions can be answered by existing insights and data. Web analytics, customer support feedback, surveys, transactional data, and previously conducted studies are all great places to look. Then, do a gap analysis to identify what questions remain unanswered.

Map Your Questions to Research Methods

Now that you’ve zeroed in on what you’re hoping to learn, it’s time to decide which research methods are most appropriate to the questions at hand. This, in turn, will give you a clearer sense of the timing, resources, and budget needed to carry out your research. Not sure where to start? We love this guide from the Nielsen Norman Group on when to use which user-experience research methods.

Adapt As You Go

HCD is an approach to designing products, services, and systems that prioritizes the needs, behaviors, and experiences of the people who will use them. By definition, that means that as you learn more about your customers, you adjust your plans. Sometimes, what you learn about your customers can actually reduce the amount of research you need to conduct.

For instance, there’s often a gap between what customers say is important to them and how they interact with a product or service in real life; user testing can help you identify which features are truly essential to a project.

Or, you may discover that the problem you need to solve is different than you anticipated and can be addressed more efficiently or cost-effectively. For instance, if you ask mass transit passengers about what would make their commute better, they’ll likely tell you that wait times are too long and that there should be more trains running. However, in 2012, MBTA boosted customer satisfaction overnight simply by adding countdown clocks in each station. By decreasing uncertainty over wait times, the MBTA made customers happier, without having to invest in purchasing and operating more trains.

Know When Enough is Enough

Remember: research is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The key is to know when to stop and use what you’ve learned to improve your product or service. Ideally, you want to do just enough research so that you can make a prototype, test your idea, and then iterate based on what you’ve learned. One book that’s greatly informed our thinking on this subject is Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research.


While these tips might seem simple, we urge you not to take them for granted. In our experience, they’re the key to generating high-quality insights without spending a fortune, tying up valuable resources, or chasing down answers to the wrong questions, all of which can make organizations decide that research isn’t worth the investment. Research isn’t one-size-fits-all; you can’t apply the same methods and assumptions to every project. By letting strategy guide your efforts and adjusting as you go, you can help buffer against budget and schedule overruns while also getting the most value possible out of your research.