Creating a Research Question for Qualitative User Research

In most experimental quantitative research, it is essential to have a research question, or rather: an hypothesis. However, in qualitative research, a research question can be useful, too as it helps to communicate to others what you are doing and it can help to guide your research. In contrast to typical experimental research questions, qualitative research question should be open ended so that you can explore the field you research and react to unexpected findings.

The research question should also focus on your users, not directly on a certain technology or feature. In most work situations, your research happens in the context of a an idea of a future product, product feature or the exploration of opportunities for one, so the framing is initially product- rather than user-focused.

You can use these product-focused ideas as a starting point for creating a open-ended, useful, user-focused research question. Here is how you do this:

  1. Take your initial ideas for a future market, product or features
  2. Ask yourself which activity the product idea would support.
  3. Take the activity from 2. and ask how and why people do this. The outcome can be used as research question.

Here is an example:

  1. The initial product-focused idea is “Build a learning platform for university students”
  2. The related, meaningful and people focused activity connected to 1. can be “Using digital media to learn better for university”
  3. Asking how and why I come to “How and why do students use computers to learn better for university?”
  4. I then refined the question a bit, since “to learn better” is often understood as remembering facts or passing exams. Also, “use computers” sounded like I am not interested e.g. in smartphones or use of social networks. In the end, I used “How and why do students use digital media related to their studies”.

One remark here: The “why” is not a question for a definitive cause or an explanation but more of an “tell me more, why is this…” 1.

The research question is a help for you to plan and focus your research and to communicate your aims to others. Creating a “How- and why do people…”-question based on existing ideas is a method to get to an open-ended, user focused research question.


  1. A nice explanation of the reason to prefer how questions over why questions can be found in Howard Becker’s Book “Tricks of the Trade”, Chapter 2 – “Imagery”, section ‘Ask “How?” not “Why?”’.