One worrying trend I have noticed in research over the past few years is the lack of a research brief. This important element of the research process is arguably the most important document in the user research process. Why? Because without it, research will fail.

The research brief is a fairly straightforward document. There’s a template at the end of this article that you can skip to and use. To be clear, the research brief is separate from the research plan – the research plan is a response to the brief.

It is important for waterfall and agile user testing research projects. For agile, the precise objectives may change as sprints progress, but the other elements of the research brief will still be relevant.

Why has this happened?

I think there are a few reasons, to do with modern working practices:

  • The organisation is using an agile model for developing software and there is an emphasis on working software over documentation
  • The organisation may not be mature in its use of research or there may be no internal research specialists
  • The person commissioning the research will often not be directly involved in the study and be unaware of the details
  • If they are directly involved, they have not been trained to write a research brief, or do not realise how important it is
  • If the user researcher is responsible for writing it, they skip it because the work that goes into it can be time-consuming and create difficult conversations

Why is the research brief so important?

A research brief will communicate the essential elements that a researcher will need to be able to choose the right method, recruit the right people, write the most relevant survey or moderator guide and report in the right format.

Without it, the research project will suffer a wide range of issues:

  • Going back and forth to clarify the objectives of the study
  • Adjusting processes after the project has started
  • Recruiting the wrong sample
  • Using the wrong method
  • Asking the wrong questions
  • Not reporting in the right way
  • Unhappy stakeholders
  • Wasted investment

In one organisation I worked with, an internal researcher told me how, after a user testing project had finished, one stakeholder told her that the research had not been relevant to what they needed to find out.

Whose fault was it? The researcher. It is their responsibility to own the research at the very start by ensuring they fully interrogate what needs to be understood and ensuring stakeholders agree to it.

This means that if the research brief is not written by the stakeholder the researcher needs to produce it and ensure everyone is agreed and aligned.

What needs to be captured?

Here’s the template, with a rationale for why each section is important:

Context: What business are we in? Who are the key competitors? So that the researcher can use desk research to do background reading and feel competent in this space.

Business objectives: Why is the research being commissioned? What is the business strategy driving the research? Are problems known or unknown? So that the researcher is sensitive to the politics, has the key issues at the back of their mind when running the fieldwork, and can be credible in the research playback.

Research Objectives / Assumptions / Hypotheses / Problem Statements: What do we need to find out? What decisions will be made as a result of the research? What are the current beliefs? What are the known problems? So that the researcher can choose the right methodology and ask the right questions in the right order.

Sample: Who is most relevant to speak to in this research? So that the right people are recruited and appropriately segmented.

Field materials: What needs to be demonstrated or used in the fieldwork? Are there any technical constraints? So that the researcher can use the right methodology and design the guide/survey.

Timings: When will the field materials be available? When do the results need to be ready? So that the researcher can put a timing plan in place and set expectations.

Anything else is useful but not essential. You’ll notice that there is no suggestion of methodology, how many people are required, or costs. The researcher will produce a proposal or research plan that outlines all of this.

The research plan will confirm everything that has been agreed upon, using the brief and the researcher’s recommended approach.

To summarise

A research brief and resulting plan can take time and effort to write, but it is THE most important part of the research process to ensure everyone is aligned, and unfortunately, it is often overlooked.

If a research project begins without a proper briefing document in place, you will increase the chances of the project failing to deliver what is required.

Getting agreement on the research brief at the start of a project will result in a smoother research experience for everyone.