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5 types of research plans (and how to build them)

Deepening your knowledge with a great research strategy pays big dividends, whether you’re building a product, writing an article for a newspaper, or figuring out where to make a savvy investment. But research undertaken without care can be messy, imprecise, and time consuming. In fact, poorly built research processes can leave you in as difficult a position relative to your outcome as trying to make do without research entirely.

Whatever you’re looking to accomplish, successful research projects begin with an understanding of specific aims and, crucially, the questions you want your plan to answer. You can target them systematically with your research by creating a detailed plan of your objectives and your existing knowledge gaps. By the time you’re through, you’ll possess transformative degrees of knowledge ideally collected to suit your objective.

Ph.D. thesis

A solid Ph.D. thesis research plan allows you to shape your inquiry and grasp your research objectives better. A well-constructed thesis requires you to parse a great deal of written material and construct a secure methodology. Your research plan will focus on these areas.

Great Ph.D. research plans should seek to answer the following questions:

What will my literature review look like?

A worthwhile Ph.D. thesis is one that engages with, and either builds upon or challenges the existing literature around your research area. An important part of your research plan will involve understanding what literature there is out there, how much there is, and what it covers.

Consult your institution’s library, your academic advisor, and academic portals such as JSTOR to help determine your lit review’s scope. You should also take note of where the gaps in the existing literature are. This will allow you to investigate those areas thoroughly later on.

What is the shape of my methodology?

Your thesis will live or die by the methodology you choose and how you execute it, so your research plan should encompass this also. Make a note of all the methodologies that might be appropriate to your pursuit — will your research be primarily qualitative or quantitative? If it’s qualitative, will you be relying on case studies or phenomenology? If it’s quantitative, will you use a primary data collection approach or rely on analyzing other people’s data?

Consult records of other theses to find methodologies that might be useful to you. Doing so will be particularly useful if your research is interdisciplinary or focused on a new field.

What assumptions am I operating under?

Understanding assumptions is critical to the success of any research project — let them go unexamined, and you risk emerging with biased or even useless work. For that reason, your research plan should include an assessment of the assumptions you’re operating under.

Create a logbook of all the assumptions you find during your existing literature review, particularly for work you intend to use to support your own thesis. Furthermore, take note of the assumptions you personally have about everything from the outcome of your study to your feelings about particular components of your method. Then, make revisions to your research design based on the assumptions you come across.

Of course, the problem with biases is that we can frequently be blind to them ourselves. Make the most out of your advisor to avoid falling victim to these kinds of blind spots. Rely on them to review your data, lit review, and even your assumption journal itself.

Any successful research project must be steered by an impartial desire for knowledge. Think of your catalog of assumptions as your secret weapon for exterminating potential bias from your plan.

Content marketing

Expertise and authority are everything when it comes to research for content marketing. Your research plan will help you identify the focus of your content while also allowing you to build subject knowledge that will make your article fresh and useful.

A useful research method for content marketing involves both technical knowledge aspects and general knowledge building. The goal of your research plan will be to answer the following questions:

What’s the focus of my content?

The first stage of your content research plan is to find out the subject focus of the site you’re writing for and the state of topical authority they have around that subject. You can build a sense of a site’s topical authority by cross-referencing its page and domain authority against the range of keywords it ranks for. For instance, a site with lots of keywords around “product development,” a good social post record, and a high domain rating is likely to have high authority for that topic.

From there, you may want to select a keyword from within that subject or try to branch out into an adjacent topic. Your research plan should include checking out plenty of Ahrefs pages, looking for accessible and relevant keywords. It will also include running a content gap analysis to give you a sense of what your competitors are writing about that your site isn’t.

What data do I need to substantiate my content’s thesis and direction?

Your content research plan will also help guide you toward the right kind of material needed to help you build subject knowledge and give your article substance. A good research plan for content will include what quantitative resources will be useful for your subject — for instance, content about education will want to take in data from the NCES database. It will also include guides toward qualitative sources that will help you deepen your subject understanding, like specialist blogs or journal archives.

What am I doing to boost my article’s ranking credibility?

Finally, a great content research plan will focus on what your article needs to have the best chance of a strong ranking performance. You’ll want to research related keywords for your primary target via Clearscope. These make for excellent outlinking opportunities, making your content look trustworthy to Google while also providing additional substantive research.

Investing

A research plan is vital for retail investors because it allows them to use a deep knowledge of the markets to make up for a lack of liquidity. A strong research strategy aimed at assessing all of the major factors surrounding an investment will equate to smart investments with long-term yield.

Your research plan for each investment should answer the questions:

What kind of company do I want to invest in?

Begin by understanding where you want to put your money. What sectors, companies, or products are on the come up right now? To find out, pick out the knowledge resources that you feel will lead you to insights fastest. Depending on what you’re looking for, you might find everything you need reading the traditional outlets (WSJ, Money magazine, etc.). Or, if you’re looking to go a little further out there on your investment adventure, you might get more out of high-end blogs like Epsilon Theory, Dan Wang, or The Morning Paper. You may even prefer to go direct to the source and start checking out equity portals to get a sense of the landscape.

You should also expand your initial research plan to include discovering what other investors are talking about by checking out forums and subreddits. If you do, take care not to succumb to meme stock hype in the process. Taking note of the hot stuff that’s got people talking is just part of your research plan, not the whole thing.

What sort of financials will I need to analyze?

The financials your research plan will need to cover depend on the type of company you want to invest in and what stage it’s at. For example, let’s say you’re looking to invest in a public company. In this case, you might research its P/E ratio, its growth rate, or look to do a discounted cash flow analysis. You should also research whether this asset would represent a growth stock investment or if the company pays dividends policy before investing.

If, on the other hand, you’re investing in an early-stage start-up via equity portal or angel network, you would research cash-on-cash return or internal rate of return per year for that company. You might also check the valuation of similar companies before putting money down.

What do I know about the people running the company I’m thinking about investing in?

Not all aspects of a great investment research plan involve purely rational factors. Given that the profile of a company’s founders is a huge determinant of their success, put an emphasis on finding out what the people who run your target are like. Broaden your research plan to include checking out their blogs, Twitter profiles, event appearances, and the traits they display in any other media coverage.

You want to find founders who show evidence of sound instincts, a good track record, and notable insights in their field.

Journalism

A research plan for journalism allows you to find great story leads and report on them with gusto and substance. Any great article is born of a research plan that balances qualitative and quantitative research imperatives successfully.

Prioritize the following questions when building your research plan for journalism:

What qualitative evidence can I draw on to build and support my story?

Your research plan should include steps for taking the beginnings of a story and fleshing it out with qualitative sources. For instance, social media platforms and aggregators to find and approach primary sources on your subject. Your research plan will involve figuring out which hashtags or forums are likely to expose you to interesting conversations or events. It might also involve selecting aggregators or profile directories that serve a particular type of interest (such as human rights).

Your plan for building up qualitative research for your story might also include how you’ll go about gathering info about public opinion, should that be useful. Do you have a wellspring of existing contacts? Do you live in the area where an event is unfolding, allowing you to simply measure opinion by talking to people on the street? Or, if your area of interest is far away, will you need to employ the services of a remote focus grouping company?

What quantitative evidence can I draw on for my story?

Because quantitative evidence is as vital for making a story trustworthy as qualitative stuff, your plan will also include a list of data sources you can consult. When building your plan, consider things like:

  • Which open-source databases will be useful for this story?
  • Do those databases offer CSV downloads, or will scraping be required?

Remember, you don’t have to be a champion coder to scrape databases. If you’re still learning your way around scraping and data handling, include some learning resources in your research plan. Your research plan for data should also include details on how you plan to check your data, analyze it, and store it.

Your plan might also include research about any journalist-friendly APIs that might be handy for your story. There are more APIs for things like social media as well as news than you can shake a stick at.

UX and product design

A user experience research plan is about building an understanding of user needs and how your product can fulfill them. It’s also somewhat different from other kinds of research plans — it’s for sharing with your stakeholders in order to get on the same page and collaborate usefully.

Your plan will aim to answer the following research questions:

What pain point are we looking to build up our understanding of?

Your research plan should first aim to take stock of everything you and your stakeholders collectively know about your prospective users and their needs. What preliminary data, focus group results, and other industry expertise is available on this front? A full inventory of what you already know will give you directions to work off of.

Once you have this knowledge, your plan should home in on the single pain point you’re trying to solve. Your research plan should consider how this pain point interacts with other factors, like a user base’s existing purchase habits, use habits, and brand loyalty.

What assumptions do we have about this pain point?

Assumptions can be poisonous to product development, leading you to build for a user base that doesn’t exist or a pain point that is not, in fact, a pain point. Your research plan should concentrate on how you can use initial focus grouping, for example, to challenge or refine those assumptions as necessary. You may have assumed that user base a will go for your new product because they previously showed affinities towards products x and y. Even if well founded, these ideas are still assumptions. By testing these ideas with a focus group, you can refine correct assumptions and dispose of incorrect ones.

Collaborative discussions between your stakeholders are also valuable tools for avoiding assumption-based decision-making. You can maximize the diversity of opinion available to you and minimize the likelihood of bias-driven decisions by involving team members from a wide variety of departments.

What methodology will work best for collecting useful data?

Your research plan should consider the full range of potential techniques available to you for data collection. Which ones you’ll choose will depend on your objectives, as well as the stage that your product is at. For instance, if you have a beta version in hand, you might wish to hold a 30-minute usability test. If your team is at odds about certain features, you can create an A/B testing schema to find out which ones your users really prefer. Or, if you’re still at a pre-production stage, you might consider tools like surveys, focus grouping, and concept testing to deepen your initial sense of what your users’ needs are.

You have the questions; Now it’s time to find the answers

The art of the research plan goes a lot further than just Googling a keyword. It involves systematic exploration of what you need to know about your subject that you don’t already. Whatever you’re driving for, there is always a variety of means to enrich your understanding through research.

And don’t just color within the lines when building your own research strategy. New elements and different approaches can be revelatory. If you’re a journalist, start questioning your assumptions like a UX researcher. If you’re an investor, start scraping data like a journalist. You never know what might turn up, and time spent on research is rarely, if ever, wasted.

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