Skip to Main Content

How to Write Effective Product Research Questions

Kerrin McLaughlin,

Associate Experience Designer and Researcher

To create the best product possible it is essential to talk to the people whose thoughts and opinions are most important to the end result — both stakeholders, who are crucial to understanding the goals and inner workings of a product, and end users, whose needs, goals, and values must be understood in order to make it effective.

While there are a number of more generic interview questions you can find in a listicle out there that can yield good insights, it’s important to get into specifics about your product’s unique context as well. How can you effectively come up with all of the questions you need to ask?

Enter the Research Questionnaire Canvas, a tool we use at ETR to brainstorm research questions to ask in interviews that ensures we’ll get the answers to what we need to know. This tool is adapted from the Service Design Toolkit. We make one of these for every person we interview, both stakeholders and end users. 

Identify the Knowns and Unknowns

The first step in the canvas is to use the Knowns and Unknowns framework to assess what we know and don’t know about our specific product research topic. Essentially we’re asking ourselves to think like Socrates when he said “I know that I know nothing”. We’re challenging our preconceived knowledge and identifying what is left to learn.

First, we write down all of the “known knowns” — things we know that we know. A piece of information written in this bucket is not meant to be checked off as something we don’t need to know anything more about, but rather a hypothesis we need to confirm in the interview. We do this to avoid moving forward on assumptions and to make sure all of our interviewees are on the same page as us. 

Next, we look at known unknowns — things we know that we don’t know. What insights are missing in our knowledge base? What do we hope to learn from our interviews? 

Of course there are also unknown unknowns and unknown knowns, but by definition we are not aware of them, so they’re not exactly parts of this framework we can write down. Hopefully, in time as the design process moves onward, these hidden unknowns will become apparent. 

Frame Questions Through Different Lenses

Once we have written an exhaustive list of each of these categories — and really take the time to think of as many as possible — it is time to write the questions.

While some of what we just wrote down might have been in question format, they’re not yet written to be an appropriate question for our interviewees. Nebulous questions do not produce great insights. Asking, “what would make you want to buy and use this app every day?” might be the unknown you seek to answer, but asking it in this way will get a fuzzy answer.

Instead, let’s seek to answer this unknown by asking a number of questions that address the desired insight from a few different lenses. These lenses are facts, objectives, emotions, and ideas.

Lens 1 - Facts

Facts address the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘how’. If your unknown is ‘What would motivate someone to use a monthly clothing delivery service?’ You might break this down into questions that give you greater context of the user’s situation. 

  •  “Where do you normally shop for clothes?”
  •  “Who, if anyone, helps you?” 
  • “When do you go shopping?” 
  • “How often do you normally buy new clothes?”, etcetera.

 During this question brainstorming phase, try to focus on quantity and then groom later. 

Lens 2 - Objectives

Objectives focus on the ‘why’. With this section we’re trying to identify goals and motivations. The questions don’t literally need to begin with ‘why’, but they are less straightforward than the previous ‘facts’ category. Sticking with our unknown, ‘‘What would motivate someone to use a monthly clothing delivery service?’ Some good objective based questions might be, 

  • ‘Think about the last place you bought clothes, why did you choose that particular store?"
  •  "Walk me through your shopping experience and how you decided what to buy."

Asking for specific examples of an experience can make it easier for someone to provide details about their thought process. 

Lens 3 - Emotions

The next category for framing questions is ‘emotions’. Emotion-based questions are a powerful way to understand motivators and a user’s point-of-view. Two examples in this scenario might be,

  • “How do you feel about the idea of someone else making style choices for you?”
  • “When you realize it’s time to buy new clothes, how do you feel?”

Be sure to avoid leading questions, especially in this category. You want to avoid prescribing emotions to your interviewee in the question, for example, “Do you get excited when you receive a package in the mail?” 

Lens 4 - Ideas

Lastly, there is the ‘ideas’ category. Often an interviewee who is familiar with the problem you’re trying to solve will have a few of their own ideas on what to do about it. Few people you talk to will be trained designers with enough knowledge of your business and problem space to come up with a great solution on the fly, but don’t discount the ideas they do have. Ideas from a stakeholder or end user provide insight into how they are thinking about the problem and what they wish could be solved. Considering the thinking behind these ideas can contribute to your eventual solution. An example ideas question could be,

  • “If you could change one thing about your wardrobe, what would you change?”

Repeat and Organize with the Research Questionnaire Canvas

Repeat this process with each known known and known unknown you wrote down previously and you should be left with an abundance for useful product research questions. The next step is to groom and organize these questions into an interview script and to conduct the interviews. Facilitating an effective interview from your questions is another skill entirely, so be sure to brush up on interview best practices as well. 

You can download our Research Questionnaire Canvas here to help you craft your questions.

Or, better yet, contact us to partner with our team of expert design researchers who will conduct the research phase of your next project and obtain invaluable insights for you!

Kerrin McLaughlin

Associate Experience Designer and Researcher