A Practical Guide to Translating Business Problems into Research Objectives

Paul Hudson

Ingredients for a Successful Consumer Segmentation

Actionable insights from relevant samples are crucial to making decisions within a business. As insi...


Sophie Grieve-Williams

    Creating a research brief can be a little daunting; at first it seems that there is a lot to write and a lot of responsibility riding on it. But thankfully, it doesn’t have to be long or complicated - a page, or even half a page, should provide enough space to adequately translate your business problems into relevant research objectives. The key thing is to remember that this document only needs to be as long as it needs to be – there’s no word count to reach, no need to make it lengthy just for the sake of it, and in doing this you will risk losing vital focus.

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    A good research brief will have contextual information as well as research objectives, but that doesn't mean this needs to be a lengthy document - in fact, working to a longer word count risks you losing vital focus.

    A good brief will translate the business problem into research objectives. If this sounds complicated, it isn’t. Too often people either write out the questions that are on their mind and fail to explain the background and context to their business problem or they never attempt to distinguish between a question and an objective. A good research brief should have all of these things. But fear not, the process is really simple, all you have to do is follow these five steps every time:

    Step 1: Describe the business problem

    Start by concisely describing the challenge or problem you’re facing. What prompted you to realise you need to conduct research? Many briefs I’ve seen over the years skip this step. Often people assume this reason isn’t needed and they take it for granted; they’ve lived with the problem for so long that they forget to explain it to others.

    Take it from me, a researcher needs this background so they can fully anticipate your needs and ‘get inside your problem’. With the full context explained, a researcher will be better able to analyse the results in the best way; there are many ways to analyse questions and report them back, so if you know the background to the problem you can ensure the right analysis and reporting style is used. As an example, I’ve written a short paragraph about a common problem that a grocery retailer or Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) supplier might face. I’ve adapted this from a real project:

    “Sales of the category have declined over the year, whilst those of the competitors appear to have increased across the same time period. A separate price analysis against the competition is also being undertaken separately.”

    This is a very short and simple paragraph. In fact, the problem is distilled into one sentence. The second sentence has been added to ensure the project doesn’t get too broad and try to analyse price; explaining any other analyses that are taking place can help shape the focus and define the areas that need research.

    Step 2: Who will use the insight?

    This is a step often missed out and contains vital information that researchers needs to know. Knowing who is going to use the research will help focus the project and also inform the style of output and report that is most appropriate. For example, if the user is just yourself, then a discussion format might be best (and quickest), but if it’s going to the senior management board, then a board ‘paper’ might be needed. Or, should you need the whole business to understand the outcomes them a shorter, more visual and shareable style could work better.

    “The primary user of the insight will be the category/product manager and secondary users will include the supplier and the retail manager.”

    If the researcher knows who is going to use the output, they will also be able to glean vital information about the types of things that are needed to be understood; in the example of our grocery retailer, the sentence above explains that the main user of the research is the product owner, but that the information will also be shared with the supplier and retail managers who can aid the product owner in making changes - this tells us that the decisions need to be focussed around the product itself and not the customer service elements or pricing related to it.

    Step 3: Outline the action or change that they will take

    The third step is perhaps a little more difficult; explain the actions that will be taken. In this step, we have to remember that we don’t want to bias the results of the project by predicting what we will change or how we will improve the status quo; what we need to do is explain the areas of action we want to influence. In our example, we are demonstrating that the actions are those that fall under the remit of the product owner and not ones that are outside of their remit. This step is critical in helping shape the areas that the research will focus on.

    “We envisage a range of actions taken to reverse the decline in sales. We want to focus actions on the product itself and the way that they are packaged and promoted. Actions to consider include stocking (product quality), display, point of sale promotional materials, labelling and packaging.”

    Step 4: List the questions you want answers to

    So now comes the part that most people start with! This is perhaps the most obvious step in the process, but that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest. If you start with the questions, it is very difficult to then to come back to writing out the context, purpose and actions needed from the research. By starting with the previous three steps we ensure that the questions you now list are focussed and ‘on topic’; by listing out the problem, people and actions needed, you focus your mind ahead of listing the critical questions:

    “Which retailers were considered when buying the product?”
    “Did they consider our product? If not, why not?”
    “How would they describe the quality of our product? How does it compare?”
    “How influential is the point of sale offers and materials in their decision?”
    “Do they like the packaging? Would they prefer it to be different?”
    “Are there any elements of the labelling and packaging that are confusing?”

    And be careful to keep this focussed by listing out a maximum of 10 questions; don’t be tempted to write more otherwise the focus will be lost. There will be questions running through your mind that need answering, but the prior steps set out the context that led you to those questions.

    Step 5: Frame the research objectives

    The mistake that most people make when writing out a research brief is that they assume listing out questions (step four) is the same thing as listing objectives! Objectives are NOT the same as questions. An objective sets out the goal or aim of the research: what do you want it to do; a thing aimed at or sought. In short, an objective is your goal. The questions you wrote out in step four are merely stepping stones to help you identify you research objectives:

    “Identify the reasons why sales have declined across the period”
    “Consider whether changes to the product quality, packaging, labelling, promotional and display materials would help improve sales”
    “Compare differences with the competitor product to understand if there are differences”

    Framing your objectives is the last step in this process, because they need to draw in and encompass all of the other information that you discovered in the previous four steps. In the worked example, the objectives above encapsulate the business problem, the types of action we want to influence and the remit of how we want to frame the research.

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    There isn’t one step in this process that is more needed than another; it sometimes feels like it's quicker to ‘just’ list the questions or objectives, but the research will suffer for it in the long run.

    Now, this practical process can be easy, but it will make you hunt for the contextual information you need and communicate it well with the research team you’re working with. When writing a brief there isn’t one section that is more needed than another; the brief (and researcher) needs all of the sections together. It sometimes feels like it's quicker to ‘just’ list the questions or a couple of objectives or to only describe the problem. But in reality, it doesn’t take that long to provide the full information by simply following the 5 steps – and it really is easiest to do them in the order listed here.

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