Arriving at a research question is one of the most difficult and important steps of the research process. A good research question includes the details that define the research while leaving room to discover unknown details. Research questions should not only be answerable but they should also be compelling. If you haven’t written a question that excites you, you’re doing it wrong.
Keep it Tight
Your research question should feel uncomfortably small. It should define a group of people at a certain point in time, a specific place, and a specific subject matter. A good research question should open a door for unexpected responses. Avoid research questions whose answers are yes or no.
A Formula for Research Questions
Writing effective design research questions isn’t magic. Like cooking, there’s a formula you can follow that will produce a pretty decent question.
(question aim) (people) (location) (a measure of quality) (action) (product, service, or system in question) (so that…).
Let’s put that into action, shall we?
How do Miami students living in Oxford prefer to learn about upcoming live concerts in the Cincinnati area so they get the best tickets?
Now we’ll break it down into our recipe…
How do (question aim) Miami students living in Oxford (people and location) prefer (a measure of quality) to learn about (action) upcoming live concerts in the Cincinnati area (product, service, or system in question) so they get the best tickets (so that…).?
When writing a question, start with the formula and then add seasoning to taste.
In 2017, students in the Design Research Methods and Design Research Methods Basics courses didn’t get to write their own questions. Here are some research questions from that semester.
What do 20-something adults in the Cincinnati area value when learning about the details of buying a new home?
What do 20-something adults in the Cincinnati area want to know about getting married?
Before they move to a new city, how do 20-something adults in the Cincinnati area go about researching that new place?
What do 20-something adults in the Cincinnati area do to maintain emotional connections with extended family members and their memories despite physical distance or these family members being deceased?
In what ways do 20-something adults in the Cincinnati area care for their mental health wellness while away from their childhood home?
What do 20-something adults in the Cincinnati area who are away from home for college value when selecting new service providers like hair stylists, auto repair, and medical care?
What do Cincinnati area adults value in single-day/very short-term childcare services like babysitting and how is the quality of these services assessed?
Notice how these questions won’t produce yes-no answers. That’s one of the essential characteristics of a good design research question—our work shouldn’t produce a yes or no, but should reveal the shades of gray and hidden nuances that hide where people and design intersect.
Read the Institute of International Studies’ Online Dissertation Proposal Workshop for some helpful tips on writing good research questions.
Make sure each question can actually be answered with a design research project. While projects that answer questions about natural phenomena are exciting, focus your question on a phenomenon that involves something humans have made or will make.