Heyday's Guide to Research Strategies and When to Use Them

Doing great research can be costly, both in terms of time and money. But the cost of not doing the right research will always be greater. You might spend a lot of time developing a product your whole team loves, only to find out that the need you were targeting isn’t actually as big as you thought it was. You could find yourself spending time and money sourcing an expensive proprietary dataset when a free dataset of the same nature was just a scrape away.

The right research saves time, helps you limit the effects of infobesity, and also makes for great outcomes, whether that’s a great product, a vital piece of journalism, or academic research for a PhD. But to get the right research, you need the right research strategies, and you need to know how to use them. Different strategies are optimized for different needs and results.

The web trawl

A web trawl is a research strategy in which you make a few search engine queries, seek out some credible sources, and fall down several research rabbit holes. It’s perhaps the most familiar research strategy on the planet.

A web trawl will almost always begin with Google searches but should encompass all kinds of search platforms dedicated to surfacing different kinds of material. For instance, trawling Google Scholar and Taylor & Francis provides great academic resources. Trawling subreddits can lead you to unique market insights and otherwise hard-to-reach communities. The aim of a research trawl is to find publications, papers, and data sources to build up a basis for your research.

While simple, a web trawl is great for building a general picture of your research topic before committing yourself to additional strategies. For instance, a market researcher might use this research strategy to discover existing trends in their sector. A content marketer, on the other hand, can web trawl to discover what content is already out there and what needs that content is or isn’t addressing.

When to use it:

Almost all kinds of research, from market to UX, will benefit from a trawl, given the strategy’s versatility. It’s most useful at the beginning of your research phase, where it helps identify gaps that you can fill in with other research methods.

For example, if you find there’s a lack of quantitative data in available material online, you’ll want to incorporate a web scrape strategy into your overall plan. Likewise, if you take to the web to find in-depth testimony about a subject and find there isn’t any, you’ll want to incorporate a survey or interview-based strategy into your plan.

And if your web trawl takes you far and wide, throwing up more interesting content than you can handle (or remember), Heyday has a tool to help keep track of the good stuff.

The web scrape

Web scraping is a form of data collection that involves pulling data from published databases online. There are a lot of platforms out there that offer their data as easily downloadable and readable CSV files. However, it’s likely that you’ll find data during your adventures in research that, while public, is not organized. This is where web scraping really comes in handy.

Scrape data from a webpage by using one of a variety of browser plugins, most of which are highly intuitive and easy for non-coders to use. Data can be scraped from a wide variety of places, including business intelligence sites, price comparison sites, e-commerce platforms, and even social media.

Scraping and analyzing data is highly effective for giving substance and direction to your research process while also giving you the chance to test your assumptions. For example, market researchers might scrape data from ecommerce vendors to verify their assumptions about the price-point range in a target market. A business development researcher might scrape data from a corruption index to assess the possible risks of doing business in a new territory.

When to use it:

As with the web trawl, any kind of research project will benefit from a good web scrape. Also, it is often most effective when used at the start of a research project. In some pursuits, like journalism and content marketing, hunting for data will actually represent the beginning of your project, as the scraped data may unearth story leads. Otherwise, scraping is most useful for building up an early basis of data and determining which data will require you to use other research strategies to collect.

Web trawling done later in the process is also useful for a variety of research projects. For instance, a UX researcher may wish to scrape and parse some data to verify claims made by participants in a focus grouping study to make sure those claims are representative.

The survey/questionnaire

A survey is a straightforward means of gathering targeted qualitative and quantitative data through a form with a standardized set of questions. It is easily designed and disseminated using online tools like Typeform and sent to a targeted audience via platforms like Facebook Ads or Twitter. You should also incentivize participation in a survey through a little promotional giveaway, such as prizes, coupons, or vouchers.

When to use it:

Surveys and questionnaires make for versatile research strategies and are particularly effective for market and UX research. A widely disseminated survey is effective in helping you obtain broad quantitative research insights about a target market at the very beginning of a research phase. For instance, by sending the same survey to three different demographics, you can establish each one’s average level of interest in your product or service.

Surveys and questionnaires are also handy after you have built up a solid understanding of one or more target personas, markets, or demographics relevant to your project. Once you have that understanding, tailor the questions in your survey or questionnaire to derive richer qualitative data from that persona or demographic about your project.

The focus group

A focus group brings together demographically representative people to test ideas and assumptions. By getting people in the same room — or, failing that, the same Zoom call — you can get them to participate in guided or open discussions that will reveal their feelings about your study, product, service, or theme. It’s a cornerstone qualitative research strategy.

Focus groups are a favorite of sociological researchers, as they allow researchers to observe how people interact in a group environment relative to a given subject of interest. Marketing and UX researchers also find the group aspect of focus grouping worthwhile as they can assess the social capital a product or service has among a group.

When to use it:

The focus group is a cornerstone of market and political research and is best deployed early in the process. Holding a focus group at the beginning of a market research phase will allow researchers to build up a precise sense of consumer wants and needs before development begins.

Journalistic research projects also make productive use of focus groups as a research strategy, particularly when studying the social dynamics of an issue. Interesting insights and discrepancies can be revealed by comparing how people discuss a subject in a group setting to how they discuss it in a confidential setting.

The user test

A user test puts prospective users in front of a product or service and lets them experience it firsthand. It’s a surefire way to rich data.

A user test can take any number of forms. Guerilla testing involves approaching would-be users on the street and requesting that they try out your product. It can offer surprising insights but does not guarantee that you’ll find people in your target market. Lab-based A/B testing is another common form of user testing, where you present a carefully selected group of users with different versions of a given feature and ask them to choose the one they like the best.

A user test produces both qualitative and quantitative data. Taken as a whole, a batch of user test data will clue you in to interesting patterns of user behavior. For example, you might find that 30% of users failed to locate feature #3. Meanwhile, 88% remarked on your app’s accessibility features and noted that such features would make them more likely to use the product. This will allow you to make productive changes, like improving signposting for feature #3 and standardizing accessibility features across your product array.

User tests are easy to combine with focus groups and interviews. For instance, enrich your data by sitting users down after their user tests and conducting a more open-ended conversation about their experience.

When to use it:

As its name suggests, the user test is best adapted for any research project that has both a product and a user in mind. Use it throughout a product’s development for different purposes. For instance, testing an early version of your product with users helps with the ongoing development. Feedback from users at this stage should influence major decisions about features, UX, design, and other facets of your product.

By holding additional user tests later on when your product is more complete, you can gather more data to refine aspects of a product’s look, feel, and performance.

The interview

Interviewing has a researcher sitting down with a participant to discuss a topic in-depth. It’s an excellent research strategy if you want to gain large volumes of qualitative data. In some research pursuits — like journalism or academic studies — interview content can form not only part of a research package but a key part of your “output,” too (i.e., your article/study).

Good research strategies are all about challenging assumptions, and interviews give a researcher a broad opportunity to do just that. Discussing a subject’s experience at length and in a planned-but-flexible manner allows researchers to answer existing questions they have about a topic of interest. They can also allow you to find entirely new insights and research questions by following the path of an organically developing conversation.

When to use it:

Any project with a narrative aspect will benefit strongly from an interview-driven research strategy. Journalistic and academic research benefit both in the research phase and structurally from the content of an interview.

In product research, interviews can be combined with user testing to create what’s known as a “contextual inquiry.” A contextual inquiry involves a researcher asking a participant to carry out a user test in their home. Then they’re asked to describe what they’re doing as they engage with the product, with the goal of assessing how a participant’s usage interacts with their daily life and environment.

The choice

While the purpose of two research projects can be very different from one another, research strategies frequently combine very well. A well-planned interview, user testing with enthusiastic participants, assiduous scraping, and detailed searching can all benefit a project. But their real value emerges when they’re combined.

So don’t choose between strategies. Consider your project plan and pick out the right spots to include a variety of different strategies. Scrape and search plenty at the beginning, then hold a focus group session to test what you’ve picked up. Pose probing questions to your interview subject, then take the resulting insights and put them into a survey to see if other people feel the same.

Research is a necessity, but it’s also an outlet for creativity. By being creatively bold and experimental with your research design, you’ll be frequently surprised, both in the insights you find and in the brilliance of your end result.

Ready to step up your research game?

Heyday automatically saves the content you view and resurfaces it within your existing workflows - so you don't need to keep 100+ tabs open! It's like having your own personal research assistant.

Josh Chapman

Content marketer who specializes in SEO-optimized articles for SaaS companies.