How to define a research question or a design problem

Introduction

Many texts state that identifying a good research question (or, equivalently, a design problem) is important for research. Wikipedia, for example, starts (as of writing this text, at least) with the following two sentences:

“A research question is ‘a question that a research project sets out to answer’. Choosing a research question is an essential element of both quantitative and qualitative research.” (Wikipedia, 2020)

However, finding a good research question (RQ) can be a painful experience. It may feel impossible to understand what are the criteria for a good RQ, how a good RQ can be found, and to notice when there are problems with some RQ candidate.

In this text, I will address the pains described above. I start by presenting a scenario of a project that has problems with its RQ. The analysis of that scenario allows me then to describe how to turn the situation described in the scenario for a better research or design project.

Scenario of a problematic project

Let us consider a scenario that you are starting a new research or design project. You have already an idea: your work will be related to communication with instant messaging (IM). Because you are a design-minded person, you are planning to design and develop a new IM feature: a possibility to send predefined replies on a mobile IM app. Your idea is that this feature will allow the user to communicate quickly with others in difficult situations where the they can only connect with others through their mobile phone. Your plan is to supply the mobile IM app with messages like “I’m late by 10 minutes but see you soon”, “I can’t answer back now but will do that later today”, and so on.

Therefore, your plan involves designing such an app, maybe first by sketching it and then illustrating its interaction with a prototyping software like Figma or Adobe XD. You may also decide to make your design functional by programming it and letting a selected number of participants to use it. These kinds of activities will let you demonstrate your skills as a designer-researcher.

Although predefined messages for a mobile IM app can be a topic of a great study, there are some problems with this project that require you to think more about it before you start. As the project is currently defined, it is difficult to provide convincing answers to these challenges:

  • Challenge 1: Why would this be a relevant topic for research or design? Good studies address topics that may interest also other people than the author only. The current research topic, however, does not do that self-evidently yet: it lacks an explanation why it would make sense to equip mobile IM apps with predefined replies. There is only a guess that this could be useful in some situations, but this may not convince the reader about the ingenuity of this project.
  • Challenge 2: How do you demonstrate that your solution is particularly good? For an outsider who will see the project’s outcome, it may not be clear why your final design would be the best one among the other possible designs. If you propose one interaction design for such a feature, what makes that a good one? In other words, the project lacks a yardstick by which its quality should be measured.
  • Challenge 3: How does this project lead to learning or new knowledge? Even if you can show that the topic is relevant (point 1) and that the solution works well (2), the solution may feel too “particularized” – not usable in any other design context. This is an important matter in applied research fields like design and human–computer interaction, because these fields require some form of generalizability from their studies. Findings of a study should result in some kind of knowledge, such as skills, sensitivity to important matters, design solutions or patterns, etc. that could be used also at a later time in other projects, preferably by other people too.

All these problems relate to a problem that this study does not have a RQ yet. Identifying a good research question will help clarify all the above matters, as we will see below.

Adding a research question / design problem

RQs are of many kinds, and they are closely tied to the intended finding of the study: what contribution should the study deliver. A contribution can be, for example, a solution to a problem or creation of novel information or knowledge. Novel information, in turn, can be a new theory, model or hypothesis, analysis that offers deeper understanding, identification of an unattended problem, description about poorly understood phenomenon, a new viewpoint, or many other things.

The researcher or thesis author usually has a lot of freedom in choosing the exact type of contribution that they want to make. This can feel difficult to the author: there may be no-one telling what they should study. In a way, in such a situation, the thesis/article author is the client of their own research: they both define what needs to be done, and then accomplish that work. Some starting points for narrowing down the space of possibilities is offered here.

Most importantly, the RQ needs to be focused on a topic that the author genuinely does not know, and which is important to find out on the path to the intended contribution. In our scenario about a mobile IM app’s predefined replies, there are currently too many alternatives for an intended contribution, and an outsider would not be able to know which one of them to expect:

  1. Demonstration that mobile IM apps will be better to use when they have this new feature.
  2. Report on the ways by which people would use the new feature, if their mobile IM apps would have such a feature.
  3. Requirements analysis for the specific design and detailed features by which the feature should be designed.
  4. Analysis of the situations where the feature would be most needed, and user groups who would most often be in such situations.

All of these are valid contributions, and the author can choose to focus on any one of them. This depends also on the author’s personal interests. This gives a possibility for formulating a RQ for the project. It is important to notice that each one of the possible contributions listed above calls for a different corresponding RQ:

  1. Do predefined replies in mobile IM apps improve their usability?
  2. How will users start using the predefined replies in mobile IM apps?
  3. How should the interaction in the IM app be designed, and what kind of predefined replies need to be offered to the users?
  4. When are predefined replies in IM apps most needed, and by whom?

This list of four RQs, matched with the four possible contributions, shows why the scenario presented in the beginning of this text was problematic. Only after asking these kinds of questions one is able to seek to answer to the earlier-presented three challenges in the end of the previous section. Also, each of the RQs needs a different research or design method, and its own kind of background research.

The choice and fine-tuning of the research question / design problem

Which one of the above RQs should our hypothetical researcher/designer choose? Lists of basic requisites for good RQs have been presented in many websites. They can help identify RQs that will still need refinement. Monash University offers the following kind of helpful list:

  1. Clear and focused. In other words, the question should clearly state what the writer needs to do.
  2. Not too broad and not too narrow. The question should have an appropriate scope. If the question is too broad it will not be possible to answer it thoroughly within the word limit. If it is too narrow you will not have enough to write about and you will struggle to develop a strong argument.
  3. Not too easy to answer. For example, the question should require more than a simple yes or no answer.
  4. Not too difficult to answer. You must be able to answer the question thoroughly within the given timeframe and word limit.
  5. Researchable. You must have access to a suitable amount of quality research materials, such as academic books and refereed journal articles.
  6. Analytical rather than descriptive. In other words, your research question should allow you to produce an analysis of an issue or problem rather than a simple description of it.

If a study meets the above criteria, it has a good chance of avoiding a problem of presenting a “non-contribution”: A laboriously produced finding that nonetheless does not provide new, interesting information. The points 3 and 6 above particularly guard against such studies: they warn the readers from focusing their efforts on something that is already known (3) and only describing what was done or what observations were made, instead of analysing them in more detail (6).

In fine-tuning a possible RQ, it is important to situate it to the right level. For example, the first RQ that one can think of may not be the best one, such as being too broad. RQ4 above (“When are predefined replies in IM apps most needed, and by whom?”), for example, may be a very relevant question, but too broad if one is wishing to do a design-oriented thesis or a project. In such cases it is permitted, and also recommended, to limit the RQ to something more detailed by adding justified assumptions.

In our example scenario, the researcher/designer can decide, for example, that they will consider predefined IM replies from the viewpoint of “face-work” in social interaction. By adopting this viewpoint, the researcher/designer can decide that they will design the IM’s replies with a goal that they help the user to maintain an active, positive image in the eyes of others. When they start designing the reply feature, they can now ask much more specific questions. For example: how could my design help a user in doing face-work in cases where they are in a hurry and can only send a short and blunt message to another person? How could the predefined replies help in situations where the users would not have time to answer but they know they should? Ultimately, would the predefined replies make it easier for users to do face-work in computer-mediated communications (CMC)?

These kinds of follow-up questions that arise from adoption of a particular viewpoint (in this case, face-work) illustrate the benefits of framing the question in a narrower manner, as long as the narrowing can be justified. In this case, the thinking behind the design can be built on sociological research on interpersonal interaction and self-presentation (e.g., Goffman 1967) and its earlier applications to CMC (Nardi et al., 2000; Salovaara et al., 2011). Such a literature provides the starting points for deeper design considerations. Deeper considerations, in turn, increase the contribution of the research, and make it interesting for the readers.

As said, the first RQ that one comes to think of is not necessarily the best and final one. The RQ may need to be adapted (and also can be adapted) over the course of the research. In qualitative research this is very typical, and the same applies to exploratory design projects that proceed through small design experiments (i.e., through their own smaller RQs).

Conclusion

This text promised to address the pains that definition of a RQ or a design problem may pose for a student or a researcher. The main points of the answer may be summarized as follows:

  • The search for a good RQ is a negotiation process between three objectives: what is personally motivating, what is realistically possible to do (e.g., that the work can be built on some earlier literature and there is a method that can answer to the RQ), and what motivates its relevance (i.e., can it lead to interesting findings).
  • The search for a RQ or a design problem is a process and not a task that must be fixed immediately. It is, however, good to get started somewhere, since a RQ gives a lot of focus for future activities: what to read and what methods to choose, for example.

With the presentation of the scenario and its analysis, I sought to demonstrate why and how choosing an additional analytical viewpoint can be a useful strategy. With it, a project whose meaningfulness may be otherwise questionable for an outsider can become interesting when its underpinnings and assumptions are explicated. That helps ensure that the reader will appreciate the work that the author has done with their research.

In the problematization of the scenario, I presented the three challenges related to it. I can now offer possible answers to them, by highlighting why a RQ can serve as a tool for finding them: 

  • Why would this be a relevant topic for research or design? Choice of a RQ often requires some amount of background research that helps the researcher/designer to understand how much about the problem has already been solved by others. This awareness helps shape the RQ to focus on a topic where information is not yet known and more information is needed for a high-quality outcome.
  • How do you demonstrate that your solution is particularly good? By having a question, it is possible to analyse what are the right methods for answering it. The quality of executing these becomes then evaluatable. The focus on a particular question also will permit that the author compromises optimality in other, less central outcomes. For example, if smoothness of interaction is in the focus, then it is easy to explain why long-term robustness and durability of a prototype may not be critical.
  • How does this project lead to learning or new knowledge? Presentation of the results or findings allows the researcher/design to devote their Discussion section (see the IMRaD article format) to topics that would have been impossible to predict before the study. That will demonstrate that the project has generated novel understanding: it has generated knowledge that can be considered insightful.

If and when the researcher/designer pursues further in design and research, the experience of thinking about RQs and design problems accumulates. As one reads literature, the ability to consider different research questions becomes better too. Similarly, as one carries out projects with different RQs and problems, and notices how adjusting them along the way helps shape one’s work, the experience similarly grows. Eventually, one may even learn to enjoy the analytical process of identifying a good research question.

As a suggestion for further reading, Carsten Sørensen’s text (2002) about writing and planning an article in information systems research field is a highly recommended one. It combines the question of choosing the RQ with the question on how to write a paper about it.

References

Goffman, E. (1967). On face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction. Psychiatry, 18(3), 213–231.  https://doi.org/10.1080/00332747.1955.11023008

Nardi, B. A., Whittaker, S., & Bradner, E. (2000). Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action. In Proceedings of the 2000 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2000) (pp. 79–88). New York, NY: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/358916.358975

Salovaara, A., Lindqvist, A., Hasu, T., & Häkkilä, J. (2011). The phone rings but the user doesn’t answer: unavailability in mobile communication. In Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services (MobileHCI 2011) (pp. 503–512). New York, NY: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/2037373.2037448

Sørensen, C. (2002): This is Not an Article — Just Some Food for Thoughts on How to Write One. Working Paper. Department of Information Systems, The London School of Economics and Political Science. No. 121.

Wikipedia (2020). Research question. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_question (30 November 2020).

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