How to write a research plan: Step-by-step guide

Last updated

30 January 2024

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Today’s businesses and institutions rely on data and analytics to inform their product and service decisions. These metrics influence how organizations stay competitive and inspire innovation. However, gathering data and insights requires carefully constructed research, and every research project needs a roadmap. This is where a research plan comes into play.

There’s general research planning; then there’s an official, well-executed research plan. Whatever data-driven research project you’re gearing up for, the research plan will be your framework for execution. The plan should also be detailed and thorough, with a diligent set of criteria to formulate your research efforts. Not including these key elements in your plan can be just as harmful as having no plan at all.

Read this step-by-step guide for writing a detailed research plan that can apply to any project, whether it’s scientific, educational, or business-related.

  • What is a research plan?

A research plan is a documented overview of a project in its entirety, from end to end. It details the research efforts, participants, and methods needed, along with any anticipated results. It also outlines the project’s goals and mission, creating layers of steps to achieve those goals within a specified timeline.

Without a research plan, you and your team are flying blind, potentially wasting time and resources to pursue research without structured guidance.

The principal investigator, or PI, is responsible for facilitating the research oversight. They will create the research plan and inform team members and stakeholders of every detail relating to the project. The PI will also use the research plan to inform decision-making throughout the project.

  • Why do you need a research plan?

Create a research plan before starting any official research to maximize every effort in pursuing and collecting the research data. Crucially, the plan will model the activities needed at each phase of the research project.

Like any roadmap, a research plan serves as a valuable tool providing direction for those involved in the project—both internally and externally. It will keep you and your immediate team organized and task-focused while also providing necessary definitions and timelines so you can execute your project initiatives with full understanding and transparency.

External stakeholders appreciate a working research plan because it’s a great communication tool, documenting progress and changing dynamics as they arise. Any participants of your planned research sessions will be informed about the purpose of your study, while the exercises will be based on the key messaging outlined in the official plan.

Here are some of the benefits of creating a research plan document for every project:

Project organization and structure

Well-informed participants

All stakeholders and teams align in support of the project

Clearly defined project definitions and purposes

Distractions are eliminated, prioritizing task focus

Timely management of individual task schedules and roles

Costly reworks are avoided

  • What should a research plan include?

The different aspects of your research plan will depend on the nature of the project. However, most official research plan documents will include the core elements below. Each aims to define the problem statement, devising an official plan for seeking a solution.

Specific project goals and individual objectives

Ideal strategies or methods for reaching those goals

Required resources

Descriptions of the target audience, sample sizes, demographics, and scopes

Key performance indicators (KPIs)

Project background

Research and testing support

Preliminary studies and progress reporting mechanisms

Cost estimates and change order processes

Depending on the research project’s size and scope, your research plan could be brief—perhaps only a few pages of documented plans. Alternatively, it could be a fully comprehensive report. Either way, it’s an essential first step in dictating your project’s facilitation in the most efficient and effective way.

  • How to write a research plan for your project

When you start writing your research plan, aim to be detailed about each step, requirement, and idea. The more time you spend curating your research plan, the more precise your research execution efforts will be.

Account for every potential scenario, and be sure to address each and every aspect of the research.

Consider following this flow to develop a great research plan for your project:

Define your project’s purpose

Start by defining your project’s purpose. Identify what your project aims to accomplish and what you are researching. Remember to use clear language.

Thinking about the project’s purpose will help you set realistic goals and inform how you divide tasks and assign responsibilities. These individual tasks will be your stepping stones to reach your overarching goal.

Additionally, you’ll want to identify the specific problem, the usability metrics needed, and the intended solutions.

Know the following three things about your project’s purpose before you outline anything else:

What you’re doing

Why you’re doing it

What you expect from it

Identify individual objectives

With your overarching project objectives in place, you can identify any individual goals or steps needed to reach those objectives. Break them down into phases or steps. You can work backward from the project goal and identify every process required to facilitate it.

Be mindful to identify each unique task so that you can assign responsibilities to various team members. At this point in your research plan development, you’ll also want to assign priority to those smaller, more manageable steps and phases that require more immediate or dedicated attention.

Select research methods

Research methods might include any of the following:

User interviews: this is a qualitative research method where researchers engage with participants in one-on-one or group conversations. The aim is to gather insights into their experiences, preferences, and opinions to uncover patterns, trends, and data.

Field studies: this approach allows for a contextual understanding of behaviors, interactions, and processes in real-world settings. It involves the researcher immersing themselves in the field, conducting observations, interviews, or experiments to gather in-depth insights.

Card sorting: participants categorize information by sorting content cards into groups based on their perceived similarities. You might use this process to gain insights into participants’ mental models and preferences when navigating or organizing information on websites, apps, or other systems.

Focus groups: use organized discussions among select groups of participants to provide relevant views and experiences about a particular topic.

Diary studies: ask participants to record their experiences, thoughts, and activities in a diary over a specified period. This method provides a deeper understanding of user experiences, uncovers patterns, and identifies areas for improvement.

Five-second testing: participants are shown a design, such as a web page or interface, for just five seconds. They then answer questions about their initial impressions and recall, allowing you to evaluate the design’s effectiveness.

Surveys: get feedback from participant groups with structured surveys. You can use online forms, telephone interviews, or paper questionnaires to reveal trends, patterns, and correlations.

Tree testing: tree testing involves researching web assets through the lens of findability and navigability. Participants are given a textual representation of the site’s hierarchy (the “tree”) and asked to locate specific information or complete tasks by selecting paths.

Usability testing: ask participants to interact with a product, website, or application to evaluate its ease of use. This method enables you to uncover areas for improvement in digital key feature functionality by observing participants using the product.

Live website testing: research and collect analytics that outlines the design, usability, and performance efficiencies of a website in real time.

There are no limits to the number of research methods you could use within your project. Just make sure your research methods help you determine the following:

What do you plan to do with the research findings?

What decisions will this research inform? How can your stakeholders leverage the research data and results?

Recruit participants and allocate tasks

Next, identify the participants needed to complete the research and the resources required to complete the tasks. Different people will be proficient at different tasks, and having a task allocation plan will allow everything to run smoothly.

Prepare a thorough project summary

Every well-designed research plan will feature a project summary. This official summary will guide your research alongside its communications or messaging. You’ll use the summary while recruiting participants and during stakeholder meetings. It can also be useful when conducting field studies.

Ensure this summary includes all the elements of your research project. Separate the steps into an easily explainable piece of text that includes the following:

An introduction: the message you’ll deliver to participants about the interview, pre-planned questioning, and testing tasks.

Interview questions: prepare questions you intend to ask participants as part of your research study, guiding the sessions from start to finish.

An exit message: draft messaging your teams will use to conclude testing or survey sessions. These should include the next steps and express gratitude for the participant’s time.

Create a realistic timeline

While your project might already have a deadline or a results timeline in place, you’ll need to consider the time needed to execute it effectively.

Realistically outline the time needed to properly execute each supporting phase of research and implementation. And, as you evaluate the necessary schedules, be sure to include additional time for achieving each milestone in case any changes or unexpected delays arise.

For this part of your research plan, you might find it helpful to create visuals to ensure your research team and stakeholders fully understand the information.

Determine how to present your results

A research plan must also describe how you intend to present your results. Depending on the nature of your project and its goals, you might dedicate one team member (the PI) or assume responsibility for communicating the findings yourself.

In this part of the research plan, you’ll articulate how you’ll share the results. Detail any materials you’ll use, such as:

Presentations and slides

A project report booklet

A project findings pamphlet

Documents with key takeaways and statistics

Graphic visuals to support your findings

  • Format your research plan

As you create your research plan, you can enjoy a little creative freedom. A plan can assume many forms, so format it how you see fit. Determine the best layout based on your specific project, intended communications, and the preferences of your teams and stakeholders.

Find format inspiration among the following layouts:

Written outlines

Narrative storytelling

Visual mapping

Graphic timelines

Remember, the research plan format you choose will be subject to change and adaptation as your research and findings unfold. However, your final format should ideally outline questions, problems, opportunities, and expectations.

  • Research plan example

Imagine you’ve been tasked with finding out how to get more customers to order takeout from an online food delivery platform. The goal is to improve satisfaction and retain existing customers. You set out to discover why more people aren’t ordering and what it is they do want to order or experience. 

You identify the need for a research project that helps you understand what drives customer loyalty. But before you jump in and start calling past customers, you need to develop a research plan—the roadmap that provides focus, clarity, and realistic details to the project.

Here’s an example outline of a research plan you might put together:

Project title

Project members involved in the research plan

Purpose of the project (provide a summary of the research plan’s intent)

Objective 1 (provide a short description for each objective)

Objective 2

Objective 3

Proposed timeline

Audience (detail the group you want to research, such as customers or non-customers)

Budget (how much you think it might cost to do the research)

Risk factors/contingencies (any potential risk factors that may impact the project’s success)

Remember, your research plan doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel—it just needs to fit your project’s unique needs and aims.

Customizing a research plan template

Some companies offer research plan templates to help get you started. However, it may make more sense to develop your own customized plan template. Be sure to include the core elements of a great research plan with your template layout, including the following:

Introductions to participants and stakeholders

Background problems and needs statement

Significance, ethics, and purpose

Research methods, questions, and designs

Preliminary beliefs and expectations

Implications and intended outcomes

Realistic timelines for each phase

Conclusion and presentations

How many pages should a research plan be?

Generally, a research plan can vary in length between 500 to 1,500 words. This is roughly three pages of content. More substantial projects will be 2,000 to 3,500 words, taking up four to seven pages of planning documents.

What is the difference between a research plan and a research proposal?

A research plan is a roadmap to success for research teams. A research proposal, on the other hand, is a dissertation aimed at convincing or earning the support of others. Both are relevant in creating a guide to follow to complete a project goal.

What are the seven steps to developing a research plan?

While each research project is different, it’s best to follow these seven general steps to create your research plan:

Defining the problem

Identifying goals

Choosing research methods

Recruiting participants

Preparing the brief or summary

Establishing task timelines

Defining how you will present the findings

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Rhode island school of design, create a research plan: research plan.

  • Research Plan
  • Literature Review
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A research plan is a framework that shows how you intend to approach your topic. The plan can take many forms: a written outline, a narrative, a visual/concept map or timeline. It's a document that will change and develop as you conduct your research. Components of a research plan

1. Research conceptualization - introduces your research question

2. Research methodology - describes your approach to the research question

3. Literature review, critical evaluation and synthesis - systematic approach to locating,

    reviewing and evaluating the work (text, exhibitions, critiques, etc) relating to your topic

4. Communication - geared toward an intended audience, shows evidence of your inquiry

Research conceptualization refers to the ability to identify specific research questions, problems or opportunities that are worthy of inquiry. Research conceptualization also includes the skills and discipline that go beyond the initial moment of conception, and which enable the researcher to formulate and develop an idea into something researchable ( Newbury 373).

Research methodology refers to the knowledge and skills required to select and apply appropriate methods to carry through the research project ( Newbury 374) .

Method describes a single mode of proceeding; methodology describes the overall process.

Method - a way of doing anything especially according to a defined and regular plan; a mode of procedure in any activity

Methodology - the study of the direction and implications of empirical research, or the sustainability of techniques employed in it; a method or body of methods used in a particular field of study or activity *Browse a list of research methodology books  or this guide on Art & Design Research

Literature Review, critical evaluation & synthesis

A literature review is a systematic approach to locating, reviewing, and evaluating the published work and work in progress of scholars, researchers, and practitioners on a given topic.

Critical evaluation and synthesis is the ability to handle (or process) existing sources. It includes knowledge of the sources of literature and contextual research field within which the person is working ( Newbury 373).

Literature reviews are done for many reasons and situations. Here's a short list:

Sources to consult while conducting a literature review:

Online catalogs of local, regional, national, and special libraries

meta-catalogs such as worldcat , Art Discovery Group , europeana , world digital library or RIBA

subject-specific online article databases (such as the Avery Index, JSTOR, Project Muse)

digital institutional repositories such as Digital Commons @RISD ; see Registry of Open Access Repositories

Open Access Resources recommended by RISD Research LIbrarians

works cited in scholarly books and articles

print bibliographies

the internet-locate major nonprofit, research institutes, museum, university, and government websites

search google scholar to locate grey literature & referenced citations

trade and scholarly publishers

fellow scholars and peers


Communication refers to the ability to

  • structure a coherent line of inquiry
  • communicate your findings to your intended audience
  • make skilled use of visual material to express ideas for presentations, writing, and the creation of exhibitions ( Newbury 374)

Research plan framework: Newbury, Darren. "Research Training in the Creative Arts and Design." The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts . Ed. Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson. New York: Routledge, 2010. 368-87. Print.

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  • A Research Guide
  • Research Paper Guide

How to Write a Research Plan

  • Research plan definition
  • Purpose of a research plan
  • Research plan structure
  • Step-by-step writing guide

Tips for creating a research plan

  • Research plan examples

Research plan: definition and significance

What is the purpose of a research plan.

  • Bridging gaps in the existing knowledge related to their subject.
  • Reinforcing established research about their subject.
  • Introducing insights that contribute to subject understanding.

Research plan structure & template


  • What is the existing knowledge about the subject?
  • What gaps remain unanswered?
  • How will your research enrich understanding, practice, and policy?

Literature review

Expected results.

  • Express how your research can challenge established theories in your field.
  • Highlight how your work lays the groundwork for future research endeavors.
  • Emphasize how your work can potentially address real-world problems.

5 Steps to crafting an effective research plan

Step 1: define the project purpose, step 2: select the research method, step 3: manage the task and timeline, step 4: write a summary, step 5: plan the result presentation.

  • Brainstorm Collaboratively: Initiate a collective brainstorming session with peers or experts. Outline the essential questions that warrant exploration and answers within your research.
  • Prioritize and Feasibility: Evaluate the list of questions and prioritize those that are achievable and important. Focus on questions that can realistically be addressed.
  • Define Key Terminology: Define technical terms pertinent to your research, fostering a shared understanding. Ensure that terms like “church” or “unreached people group” are well-defined to prevent ambiguity.
  • Organize your approach: Once well-acquainted with your institution’s regulations, organize each aspect of your research by these guidelines. Allocate appropriate word counts for different sections and components of your research paper.

Research plan example

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  • Writing a Research Paper
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  • Research Paper Structure
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  • Research Paper Abstract
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  • Research Paper Conclusion
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How to Write a Research Plan

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Your answers to these questions form your research strategy. Most likely, you’ve addressed some of these issues in your proposal. But you are further along now, and you can flesh out your answers. With your instructor’s help, you should make some basic decisions about what information to collect and what methods to use in analyzing it. You will probably develop this research strategy gradually and, if you are like the rest of us, you will make some changes, large and small, along the way. Still, it is useful to devise a general plan early, even though you will modify it as you progress. Develop a tentative research plan early in the project. Write it down and share it with your instructor. The more concrete and detailed the plan, the better the feedback you’ll get.

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This research plan does not need to be elaborate or time-consuming. Like your working bibliography, it is provisional, a work in progress. Still, it is helpful to write it down since it will clarify a number of issues for you and your professor.

Writing a Research Plan

To write out your research plan, begin by restating your main thesis question and any secondary ones. They may have changed a bit since your original proposal. If these questions bear on a particular theory or analytic perspective, state that briefly. In the social sciences, for example, two or three prominent theories might offer different predictions about your subject. If so, then you might want to explore these differences in your thesis and explain why some theories work better (or worse) in this particular case. Likewise, in the humanities, you might consider how different theories offer different insights and contrasting perspectives on the particular novel or film you are studying. If you intend to explore these differences, state your goal clearly in the research plan so you can discuss it later with your professor. Next, turn to the heart of this exercise, your proposed research strategy. Try to explain your basic approach, the materials you will use, and your method of analysis. You may not know all of these elements yet, but do the best you can. Briefly say how and why you think they will help answer your main questions.

Be concrete. What data will you collect? Which poems will you read? Which paintings will you compare? Which historical cases will you examine? If you plan to use case studies, say whether you have already selected them or settled on the criteria for choosing them. Have you decided which documents and secondary sources are most important? Do you have easy access to the data, documents, or other materials you need? Are they reliable sources—the best information you can get on the subject? Give the answers if you have them, or say plainly that you don’t know so your instructor can help. You should also discuss whether your research requires any special skills and, of course, whether you have them. You can—and should—tailor your work to fit your skills.

If you expect to challenge other approaches—an important element of some theses—which ones will you take on, and why? This last point can be put another way: Your project will be informed by some theoretical traditions and research perspectives and not others. Your research will be stronger if you clarify your own perspective and show how it usefully informs your work. Later, you may also enter the jousts and explain why your approach is superior to the alternatives, in this particular study and perhaps more generally. Your research plan should state these issues clearly so you can discuss them candidly and think them through.

If you plan to conduct tests, experiments, or surveys, discuss them, too. They are common research tools in many fields, from psychology and education to public health. Now is the time to spell out the details—the ones you have nailed down tight and the ones that are still rattling around, unresolved. It’s important to bring up the right questions here, even if you don’t have all the answers yet. Raising these questions directly is the best way to get the answers. What kinds of tests or experiments do you plan, and how will you measure the results? How will you recruit your test subjects, and how many will be included in your sample? What test instruments or observational techniques will you use? How reliable and valid are they? Your instructor can be a great source of feedback here.

Your research plan should say:

  • What materials you will use
  • What methods you will use to investigate them
  • Whether your work follow a particular approach or theory

There are also ethical issues to consider. They crop up in any research involving humans or animals. You need to think carefully about them, underscore potential problems, and discuss them with your professor. You also need to clear this research in advance with the appropriate authorities at your school, such as the committee that reviews proposals for research on human subjects.

Not all these issues and questions will bear on your particular project. But some do, and you should wrestle with them as you begin research. Even if your answers are tentative, you will still gain from writing them down and sharing them with your instructor. That’s how you will get the most comprehensive advice, the most pointed recommendations. If some of these issues puzzle you, or if you have already encountered some obstacles, share them, too, so you can either resolve the problems or find ways to work around them.

Remember, your research plan is simply a working product, designed to guide your ongoing inquiry. It’s not a final paper for a grade; it’s a step toward your final paper. Your goal in sketching it out now is to understand these issues better and get feedback from faculty early in the project. It may be a pain to write it out, but it’s a minor sting compared to major surgery later.

Checklist for Conducting Research

  • Familiarize yourself with major questions and debates about your topic.
  • Is appropriate to your topic;
  • Addresses the main questions you propose in your thesis;
  • Relies on materials to which you have access;
  • Can be accomplished within the time available;
  • Uses skills you have or can acquire.
  • Divide your topic into smaller projects and do research on each in turn.
  • Write informally as you do research; do not postpone this prewriting until all your research is complete.

Back to How To Write A Research Paper .


plan definition in research

Developing a Research Plan

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plan definition in research

Illustration by James Round

How to plan a research project

Whether for a paper or a thesis, define your question, review the work of others – and leave yourself open to discovery.

by Brooke Harrington   + BIO

is professor of sociology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Her research has won international awards both for scholarly quality and impact on public life. She has published dozens of articles and three books, most recently the bestseller Capital without Borders (2016), now translated into five languages.

Edited by Sam Haselby

Need to know

‘When curiosity turns to serious matters, it’s called research.’ – From Aphorisms (1880-1905) by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Planning research projects is a time-honoured intellectual exercise: one that requires both creativity and sharp analytical skills. The purpose of this Guide is to make the process systematic and easy to understand. While there is a great deal of freedom and discovery involved – from the topics you choose, to the data and methods you apply – there are also some norms and constraints that obtain, no matter what your academic level or field of study. For those in high school through to doctoral students, and from art history to archaeology, research planning involves broadly similar steps, including: formulating a question, developing an argument or predictions based on previous research, then selecting the information needed to answer your question.

Some of this might sound self-evident but, as you’ll find, research requires a different way of approaching and using information than most of us are accustomed to in everyday life. That is why I include orienting yourself to knowledge-creation as an initial step in the process. This is a crucial and underappreciated phase in education, akin to making the transition from salaried employment to entrepreneurship: suddenly, you’re on your own, and that requires a new way of thinking about your work.

What follows is a distillation of what I’ve learned about this process over 27 years as a professional social scientist. It reflects the skills that my own professors imparted in the sociology doctoral programme at Harvard, as well as what I learned later on as a research supervisor for Ivy League PhD and MA students, and then as the author of award-winning scholarly books and articles. It can be adapted to the demands of both short projects (such as course term papers) and long ones, such as a thesis.

At its simplest, research planning involves the four distinct steps outlined below: orienting yourself to knowledge-creation; defining your research question; reviewing previous research on your question; and then choosing relevant data to formulate your own answers. Because the focus of this Guide is on planning a research project, as opposed to conducting a research project, this section won’t delve into the details of data-collection or analysis; those steps happen after you plan the project. In addition, the topic is vast: year-long doctoral courses are devoted to data and analysis. Instead, the fourth part of this section will outline some basic strategies you could use in planning a data-selection and analysis process appropriate to your research question.

Step 1: Orient yourself

Planning and conducting research requires you to make a transition, from thinking like a consumer of information to thinking like a producer of information. That sounds simple, but it’s actually a complex task. As a practical matter, this means putting aside the mindset of a student, which treats knowledge as something created by other people. As students, we are often passive receivers of knowledge: asked to do a specified set of readings, then graded on how well we reproduce what we’ve read.

Researchers, however, must take on an active role as knowledge producers . Doing research requires more of you than reading and absorbing what other people have written: you have to engage in a dialogue with it. That includes arguing with previous knowledge and perhaps trying to show that ideas we have accepted as given are actually wrong or incomplete. For example, rather than simply taking in the claims of an author you read, you’ll need to draw out the implications of those claims: if what the author is saying is true, what else does that suggest must be true? What predictions could you make based on the author’s claims?

In other words, rather than treating a reading as a source of truth – even if it comes from a revered source, such as Plato or Marie Curie – this orientation step asks you to treat the claims you read as provisional and subject to interrogation. That is one of the great pieces of wisdom that science and philosophy can teach us: that the biggest advances in human understanding have been made not by being correct about trivial things, but by being wrong in an interesting way . For example, Albert Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics, but his arguments about it with his fellow physicist Niels Bohr have led to some of the biggest breakthroughs in science, even a century later.

Step 2: Define your research question

Students often give this step cursory attention, but experienced researchers know that formulating a good question is sometimes the most difficult part of the research planning process. That is because the precise language of the question frames the rest of the project. It’s therefore important to pose the question carefully, in a way that’s both possible to answer and likely to yield interesting results. Of course, you must choose a question that interests you, but that’s only the beginning of what’s likely to be an iterative process: most researchers come back to this step repeatedly, modifying their questions in light of previous research, resource limitations and other considerations.

Researchers face limits in terms of time and money. They, like everyone else, have to pose research questions that they can plausibly answer given the constraints they face. For example, it would be inadvisable to frame a project around the question ‘What are the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict?’ if you have only a week to develop an answer and no background on that topic. That’s not to limit your imagination: you can come up with any question you’d like. But it typically does require some creativity to frame a question that you can answer well – that is, by investigating thoroughly and providing new insights – within the limits you face.

In addition to being interesting to you, and feasible within your resource constraints, the third and most important characteristic of a ‘good’ research topic is whether it allows you to create new knowledge. It might turn out that your question has already been asked and answered to your satisfaction: if so, you’ll find out in the next step of this process. On the other hand, you might come up with a research question that hasn’t been addressed previously. Before you get too excited about breaking uncharted ground, consider this: a lot of potentially researchable questions haven’t been studied for good reason ; they might have answers that are trivial or of very limited interest. This could include questions such as ‘Why does the area of a circle equal π r²?’ or ‘Did winter conditions affect Napoleon’s plans to invade Russia?’ Of course, you might be able to make the argument that a seemingly trivial question is actually vitally important, but you must be prepared to back that up with convincing evidence. The exercise in the ‘Learn More’ section below will help you think through some of these issues.

Finally, scholarly research questions must in some way lead to new and distinctive insights. For example, lots of people have studied gender roles in sports teams; what can you ask that hasn’t been asked before? Reinventing the wheel is the number-one no-no in this endeavour. That’s why the next step is so important: reviewing previous research on your topic. Depending on what you find in that step, you might need to revise your research question; iterating between your question and the existing literature is a normal process. But don’t worry: it doesn’t go on forever. In fact, the iterations taper off – and your research question stabilises – as you develop a firm grasp of the current state of knowledge on your topic.

Step 3: Review previous research

In academic research, from articles to books, it’s common to find a section called a ‘literature review’. The purpose of that section is to describe the state of the art in knowledge on the research question that a project has posed. It demonstrates that researchers have thoroughly and systematically reviewed the relevant findings of previous studies on their topic, and that they have something novel to contribute.

Your own research project should include something like this, even if it’s a high-school term paper. In the research planning process, you’ll want to list at least half a dozen bullet points stating the major findings on your topic by other people. In relation to those findings, you should be able to specify where your project could provide new and necessary insights. There are two basic rhetorical positions one can take in framing the novelty-plus-importance argument required of academic research:

  • Position 1 requires you to build on or extend a set of existing ideas; that means saying something like: ‘Person A has argued that X is true about gender; this implies Y, which has not yet been tested. My project will test Y, and if I find evidence to support it, that will change the way we understand gender.’
  • Position 2 is to argue that there is a gap in existing knowledge, either because previous research has reached conflicting conclusions or has failed to consider something important. For example, one could say that research on middle schoolers and gender has been limited by being conducted primarily in coeducational environments, and that findings might differ dramatically if research were conducted in more schools where the student body was all-male or all-female.

Your overall goal in this step of the process is to show that your research will be part of a larger conversation: that is, how your project flows from what’s already known, and how it advances, extends or challenges that existing body of knowledge. That will be the contribution of your project, and it constitutes the motivation for your research.

Two things are worth mentioning about your search for sources of relevant previous research. First, you needn’t look only at studies on your precise topic. For example, if you want to study gender-identity formation in schools, you shouldn’t restrict yourself to studies of schools; the empirical setting (schools) is secondary to the larger social process that interests you (how people form gender identity). That process occurs in many different settings, so cast a wide net. Second, be sure to use legitimate sources – meaning publications that have been through some sort of vetting process, whether that involves peer review (as with academic journal articles you might find via Google Scholar) or editorial review (as you’d find in well-known mass media publications, such as The Economist or The Washington Post ). What you’ll want to avoid is using unvetted sources such as personal blogs or Wikipedia. Why? Because anybody can write anything in those forums, and there is no way to know – unless you’re already an expert – if the claims you find there are accurate. Often, they’re not.

Step 4: Choose your data and methods

Whatever your research question is, eventually you’ll need to consider which data source and analytical strategy are most likely to provide the answers you’re seeking. One starting point is to consider whether your question would be best addressed by qualitative data (such as interviews, observations or historical records), quantitative data (such as surveys or census records) or some combination of both. Your ideas about data sources will, in turn, suggest options for analytical methods.

You might need to collect your own data, or you might find everything you need readily available in an existing dataset someone else has created. A great place to start is with a research librarian: university libraries always have them and, at public universities, those librarians can work with the public, including people who aren’t affiliated with the university. If you don’t happen to have a public university and its library close at hand, an ordinary public library can still be a good place to start: the librarians are often well versed in accessing data sources that might be relevant to your study, such as the census, or historical archives, or the Survey of Consumer Finances.

Because your task at this point is to plan research, rather than conduct it, the purpose of this step is not to commit you irrevocably to a course of action. Instead, your goal here is to think through a feasible approach to answering your research question. You’ll need to find out, for example, whether the data you want exist; if not, do you have a realistic chance of gathering the data yourself, or would it be better to modify your research question? In terms of analysis, would your strategy require you to apply statistical methods? If so, do you have those skills? If not, do you have time to learn them, or money to hire a research assistant to run the analysis for you?

Please be aware that qualitative methods in particular are not the casual undertaking they might appear to be. Many people make the mistake of thinking that only quantitative data and methods are scientific and systematic, while qualitative methods are just a fancy way of saying: ‘I talked to some people, read some old newspapers, and drew my own conclusions.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. In the final section of this guide, you’ll find some links to resources that will provide more insight on standards and procedures governing qualitative research, but suffice it to say: there are rules about what constitutes legitimate evidence and valid analytical procedure for qualitative data, just as there are for quantitative data.

Circle back and consider revising your initial plans

As you work through these four steps in planning your project, it’s perfectly normal to circle back and revise. Research planning is rarely a linear process. It’s also common for new and unexpected avenues to suggest themselves. As the sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote in 1908 : ‘The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.’ That’s as true of research planning as it is of a completed project. Try to enjoy the horizons that open up for you in this process, rather than becoming overwhelmed; the four steps, along with the two exercises that follow, will help you focus your plan and make it manageable.

Key points – How to plan a research project

  • Planning a research project is essential no matter your academic level or field of study. There is no one ‘best’ way to design research, but there are certain guidelines that can be helpfully applied across disciplines.
  • Orient yourself to knowledge-creation. Make the shift from being a consumer of information to being a producer of information.
  • Define your research question. Your question frames the rest of your project, sets the scope, and determines the kinds of answers you can find.
  • Review previous research on your question. Survey the existing body of relevant knowledge to ensure that your research will be part of a larger conversation.
  • Choose your data and methods. For instance, will you be collecting qualitative data, via interviews, or numerical data, via surveys?
  • Circle back and consider revising your initial plans. Expect your research question in particular to undergo multiple rounds of refinement as you learn more about your topic.

Good research questions tend to beget more questions. This can be frustrating for those who want to get down to business right away. Try to make room for the unexpected: this is usually how knowledge advances. Many of the most significant discoveries in human history have been made by people who were looking for something else entirely. There are ways to structure your research planning process without over-constraining yourself; the two exercises below are a start, and you can find further methods in the Links and Books section.

The following exercise provides a structured process for advancing your research project planning. After completing it, you’ll be able to do the following:

  • describe clearly and concisely the question you’ve chosen to study
  • summarise the state of the art in knowledge about the question, and where your project could contribute new insight
  • identify the best strategy for gathering and analysing relevant data

In other words, the following provides a systematic means to establish the building blocks of your research project.

Exercise 1: Definition of research question and sources

This exercise prompts you to select and clarify your general interest area, develop a research question, and investigate sources of information. The annotated bibliography will also help you refine your research question so that you can begin the second assignment, a description of the phenomenon you wish to study.

Jot down a few bullet points in response to these two questions, with the understanding that you’ll probably go back and modify your answers as you begin reading other studies relevant to your topic:

  • What will be the general topic of your paper?
  • What will be the specific topic of your paper?

b) Research question(s)

Use the following guidelines to frame a research question – or questions – that will drive your analysis. As with Part 1 above, you’ll probably find it necessary to change or refine your research question(s) as you complete future assignments.

  • Your question should be phrased so that it can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  • Your question should have more than one plausible answer.
  • Your question should draw relationships between two or more concepts; framing the question in terms of How? or What? often works better than asking Why ?

c) Annotated bibliography

Most or all of your background information should come from two sources: scholarly books and journals, or reputable mass media sources. You might be able to access journal articles electronically through your library, using search engines such as JSTOR and Google Scholar. This can save you a great deal of time compared with going to the library in person to search periodicals. General news sources, such as those accessible through LexisNexis, are acceptable, but should be cited sparingly, since they don’t carry the same level of credibility as scholarly sources. As discussed above, unvetted sources such as blogs and Wikipedia should be avoided, because the quality of the information they provide is unreliable and often misleading.

To create an annotated bibliography, provide the following information for at least 10 sources relevant to your specific topic, using the format suggested below.

Name of author(s):
Publication date:
Title of book, chapter, or article:
If a chapter or article, title of journal or book where they appear:
Brief description of this work, including main findings and methods ( c 75 words):
Summary of how this work contributes to your project ( c 75 words):
Brief description of the implications of this work ( c 25 words):
Identify any gap or controversy in knowledge this work points up, and how your project could address those problems ( c 50 words):

Exercise 2: Towards an analysis

Develop a short statement ( c 250 words) about the kind of data that would be useful to address your research question, and how you’d analyse it. Some questions to consider in writing this statement include:

  • What are the central concepts or variables in your project? Offer a brief definition of each.
  • Do any data sources exist on those concepts or variables, or would you need to collect data?
  • Of the analytical strategies you could apply to that data, which would be the most appropriate to answer your question? Which would be the most feasible for you? Consider at least two methods, noting their advantages or disadvantages for your project.

Links & books

One of the best texts ever written about planning and executing research comes from a source that might be unexpected: a 60-year-old work on urban planning by a self-trained scholar. The classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs (available complete and free of charge via this link ) is worth reading in its entirety just for the pleasure of it. But the final 20 pages – a concluding chapter titled ‘The Kind of Problem a City Is’ – are really about the process of thinking through and investigating a problem. Highly recommended as a window into the craft of research.

Jacobs’s text references an essay on advancing human knowledge by the mathematician Warren Weaver. At the time, Weaver was director of the Rockefeller Foundation, in charge of funding basic research in the natural and medical sciences. Although the essay is titled ‘A Quarter Century in the Natural Sciences’ (1960) and appears at first blush to be merely a summation of one man’s career, it turns out to be something much bigger and more interesting: a meditation on the history of human beings seeking answers to big questions about the world. Weaver goes back to the 17th century to trace the origins of systematic research thinking, with enthusiasm and vivid anecdotes that make the process come alive. The essay is worth reading in its entirety, and is available free of charge via this link .

For those seeking a more in-depth, professional-level discussion of the logic of research design, the political scientist Harvey Starr provides insight in a compact format in the article ‘Cumulation from Proper Specification: Theory, Logic, Research Design, and “Nice” Laws’ (2005). Starr reviews the ‘research triad’, consisting of the interlinked considerations of formulating a question, selecting relevant theories and applying appropriate methods. The full text of the article, published in the scholarly journal Conflict Management and Peace Science , is available, free of charge, via this link .

Finally, the book Getting What You Came For (1992) by Robert Peters is not only an outstanding guide for anyone contemplating graduate school – from the application process onward – but it also includes several excellent chapters on planning and executing research, applicable across a wide variety of subject areas. It was an invaluable resource for me 25 years ago, and it remains in print with good reason; I recommend it to all my students, particularly Chapter 16 (‘The Thesis Topic: Finding It’), Chapter 17 (‘The Thesis Proposal’) and Chapter 18 (‘The Thesis: Writing It’).

plan definition in research

Meaning and the good life

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To better face an imperfect world, try a deeper reflection on the things, people and legacies that make your life possible

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This philosopher’s introduction to the nature of time could radically alter how you see your past and imagine your future

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  • Implementation...

Implementation research: what it is and how to do it

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  • Peer review
  • David H Peters , professor 1 ,
  • Taghreed Adam , scientist 2 ,
  • Olakunle Alonge , assistant scientist 1 ,
  • Irene Akua Agyepong , specialist public health 3 ,
  • Nhan Tran , manager 4
  • 1 Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Department of International Health, 615 N Wolfe St, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA
  • 2 Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, World Health Organization, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland
  • 3 University of Ghana School of Public Health/Ghana Health Service, Accra, Ghana
  • 4 Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, Implementation Research Platform, World Health Organization, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland
  • Correspondence to: D H Peters  dpeters{at}
  • Accepted 8 October 2013

Implementation research is a growing but not well understood field of health research that can contribute to more effective public health and clinical policies and programmes. This article provides a broad definition of implementation research and outlines key principles for how to do it

The field of implementation research is growing, but it is not well understood despite the need for better research to inform decisions about health policies, programmes, and practices. This article focuses on the context and factors affecting implementation, the key audiences for the research, implementation outcome variables that describe various aspects of how implementation occurs, and the study of implementation strategies that support the delivery of health services, programmes, and policies. We provide a framework for using the research question as the basis for selecting among the wide range of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods that can be applied in implementation research, along with brief descriptions of methods specifically suitable for implementation research. Expanding the use of well designed implementation research should contribute to more effective public health and clinical policies and programmes.

Defining implementation research

Implementation research attempts to solve a wide range of implementation problems; it has its origins in several disciplines and research traditions (supplementary table A). Although progress has been made in conceptualising implementation research over the past decade, 1 considerable confusion persists about its terminology and scope. 2 3 4 The word “implement” comes from the Latin “implere,” meaning to fulfil or to carry into effect. 5 This provides a basis for a broad definition of implementation research that can be used across research traditions and has meaning for practitioners, policy makers, and the interested public: “Implementation research is the scientific inquiry into questions concerning implementation—the act of carrying an intention into effect, which in health research can be policies, programmes, or individual practices (collectively called interventions).”

Implementation research can consider any aspect of implementation, including the factors affecting implementation, the processes of implementation, and the results of implementation, including how to introduce potential solutions into a health system or how to promote their large scale use and sustainability. The intent is to understand what, why, and how interventions work in “real world” settings and to test approaches to improve them.

Principles of implementation research

Implementation research seeks to understand and work within real world conditions, rather than trying to control for these conditions or to remove their influence as causal effects. This implies working with populations that will be affected by an intervention, rather than selecting beneficiaries who may not represent the target population of an intervention (such as studying healthy volunteers or excluding patients who have comorbidities).

Context plays a central role in implementation research. Context can include the social, cultural, economic, political, legal, and physical environment, as well as the institutional setting, comprising various stakeholders and their interactions, and the demographic and epidemiological conditions. The structure of the health systems (for example, the roles played by governments, non-governmental organisations, other private providers, and citizens) is particularly important for implementation research on health.

Implementation research is especially concerned with the users of the research and not purely the production of knowledge. These users may include managers and teams using quality improvement strategies, executive decision makers seeking advice for specific decisions, policy makers who need to be informed about particular programmes, practitioners who need to be convinced to use interventions that are based on evidence, people who are influenced to change their behaviour to have a healthier life, or communities who are conducting the research and taking action through the research to improve their conditions (supplementary table A). One important implication is that often these actors should be intimately involved in the identification, design, and conduct phases of research and not just be targets for dissemination of study results.

Implementation outcome variables

Implementation outcome variables describe the intentional actions to deliver services. 6 These implementation outcome variables—acceptability, adoption, appropriateness, feasibility, fidelity, implementation cost, coverage, and sustainability—can all serve as indicators of the success of implementation (table 1 ⇓ ). Implementation research uses these variables to assess how well implementation has occurred or to provide insights about how this contributes to one’s health status or other important health outcomes.

 Implementation outcome variables

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Implementation strategies

Curran and colleagues defined an “implementation intervention” as a method to “enhance the adoption of a ‘clinical’ intervention,” such as the use of job aids, provider education, or audit procedures. 7 The concept can be broadened to any type of strategy that is designed to support a clinical or population and public health intervention (for example, outreach clinics and supervision checklists are implementation strategies used to improve the coverage and quality of immunisation).

A review of ways to improve health service delivery in low and middle income countries identified a wide range of successful implementation strategies (supplementary table B). 8 Even in the most resource constrained environments, measuring change, informing stakeholders, and using information to guide decision making were found to be critical to successful implementation.

Implementation influencing variables

Other factors that influence implementation may need to be considered in implementation research. Sabatier summarised a set of such factors that influence policy implementation (clarity of objectives, causal theory, implementing personnel, support of interest groups, and managerial authority and resources). 9

The large array of contextual factors that influence implementation, interact with each other, and change over time highlights the fact that implementation often occurs as part of complex adaptive systems. 10 Some implementation strategies are particularly suitable for working in complex systems. These include strategies to provide feedback to key stakeholders and to encourage learning and adaptation by implementing agencies and beneficiary groups. Such strategies have implications for research, as the study methods need to be sufficiently flexible to account for changes or adaptations in what is actually being implemented. 8 11 Research designs that depend on having a single and fixed intervention, such as a typical randomised controlled trial, would not be an appropriate design to study phenomena that change, especially when they change in unpredictable and variable ways.

Another implication of studying complex systems is that the research may need to use multiple methods and different sources of information to understand an implementation problem. Because implementation activities and effects are not usually static or linear processes, research designs often need to be able to observe and analyse these sometimes iterative and changing elements at several points in time and to consider unintended consequences.

Implementation research questions

As in other types of health systems research, the research question is the king in implementation research. Implementation research takes a pragmatic approach, placing the research question (or implementation problem) as the starting point to inquiry; this then dictates the research methods and assumptions to be used. Implementation research questions can cover a wide variety of topics and are frequently organised around theories of change or the type of research objective (examples are in supplementary table C). 12 13

Implementation research can overlap with other types of research used in medicine and public health, and the distinctions are not always clear cut. A range of implementation research exists, based on the centrality of implementation in the research question, the degree to which the research takes place in a real world setting with routine populations, and the role of implementation strategies and implementation variables in the research (figure ⇓ ).

Spectrum of implementation research 33

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A more detailed description of the research question can help researchers and practitioners to determine the type of research methods that should be used. In table 2 ⇓ , we break down the research question first by its objective: to explore, describe, influence, explain, or predict. This is followed by a typical implementation research question based on each objective. Finally, we describe a set of research methods for each type of research question.

 Type of implementation research objective, implementation question, and research methods

Much of evidence based medicine is concerned with the objective of influence, or whether an intervention produces an expected outcome, which can be broken down further by the level of certainty in the conclusions drawn from the study. The nature of the inquiry (for example, the amount of risk and considerations of ethics, costs, and timeliness), and the interests of different audiences, should determine the level of uncertainty. 8 14 Research questions concerning programmatic decisions about the process of an implementation strategy may justify a lower level of certainty for the manager and policy maker, using research methods that would support an adequacy or plausibility inference. 14 Where a high risk of harm exists and sufficient time and resources are available, a probability study design might be more appropriate, in which the result in an area where the intervention is implemented is compared with areas without implementation with a low probability of error (for example, P< 0.05). These differences in the level of confidence affect the study design in terms of sample size and the need for concurrent or randomised comparison groups. 8 14

Implementation specific research methods

A wide range of qualitative and quantitative research methods can be used in implementation research (table 2 ⇑ ). The box gives a set of basic questions to guide the design or reporting of implementation research that can be used across methods. More in-depth criteria have also been proposed to assess the external validity or generalisability of findings. 15 Some research methods have been developed specifically to deal with implementation research questions or are particularly suitable to implementation research, as identified below.

Key questions to assess research designs or reports on implementation research 33

Does the research clearly aim to answer a question concerning implementation?

Does the research clearly identify the primary audiences for the research and how they would use the research?

Is there a clear description of what is being implemented (for example, details of the practice, programme, or policy)?

Does the research involve an implementation strategy? If so, is it described and examined in its fullness?

Is the research conducted in a “real world” setting? If so, is the context and sample population described in sufficient detail?

Does the research appropriately consider implementation outcome variables?

Does the research appropriately consider context and other factors that influence implementation?

Does the research appropriately consider changes over time and the level of complexity of the system, including unintended consequences?

Pragmatic trials

Pragmatic trials, or practical trials, are randomised controlled trials in which the main research question focuses on effectiveness of an intervention in a normal practice setting with the full range of study participants. 16 This may include pragmatic trials on new healthcare delivery strategies, such as integrated chronic care clinics or nurse run community clinics. This contrasts with typical randomised controlled trials that look at the efficacy of an intervention in an “ideal” or controlled setting and with highly selected patients and standardised clinical outcomes, usually of a short term nature.

Effectiveness-implementation hybrid trials

Effectiveness-implementation hybrid designs are intended to assess the effectiveness of both an intervention and an implementation strategy. 7 These studies include components of an effectiveness design (for example, randomised allocation to intervention and comparison arms) but add the testing of an implementation strategy, which may also be randomised. This might include testing the effectiveness of a package of delivery and postnatal care in under-served areas, as well testing several strategies for providing the care. Whereas pragmatic trials try to fix the intervention under study, effectiveness-implementation hybrids also intervene and/or observe the implementation process as it actually occurs. This can be done by assessing implementation outcome variables.

Quality improvement studies

Quality improvement studies typically involve a set of structured and cyclical processes, often called the plan-do-study-act cycle, and apply scientific methods on a continuous basis to formulate a plan, implement the plan, and analyse and interpret the results, followed by an iteration of what to do next. 17 18 The focus might be on a clinical process, such as how to reduce hospital acquired infections in the intensive care unit, or management processes such as how to reduce waiting times in the emergency room. Guidelines exist on how to design and report such research—the Standards for Quality Improvement Reporting Excellence (SQUIRE). 17

Speroff and O’Connor describe a range of plan-do-study-act research designs, noting that they have in common the assessment of responses measured repeatedly and regularly over time, either in a single case or with comparison groups. 18 Balanced scorecards integrate performance measures across a range of domains and feed into regular decision making. 19 20 Standardised guidance for using good quality health information systems and health facility surveys has been developed and often provides the sources of information for these quasi-experimental designs. 21 22 23

Participatory action research

Participatory action research refers to a range of research methods that emphasise participation and action (that is, implementation), using methods that involve iterative processes of reflection and action, “carried out with and by local people rather than on them.” 24 In participatory action research, a distinguishing feature is that the power and control over the process rests with the participants themselves. Although most participatory action methods involve qualitative methods, quantitative and mixed methods techniques are increasingly being used, such as for participatory rural appraisal or participatory statistics. 25 26

Mixed methods

Mixed methods research uses both qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection and analysis in the same study. Although not designed specifically for implementation research, mixed methods are particularly suitable because they provide a practical way to understand multiple perspectives, different types of causal pathways, and multiple types of outcomes—all common features of implementation research problems.

Many different schemes exist for describing different types of mixed methods research, on the basis of the emphasis of the study, the sampling schemes for the different components, the timing and sequencing of the qualitative and quantitative methods, and the level of mixing between the qualitative and quantitative methods. 27 28 Broad guidance on the design and conduct of mixed methods designs is available. 29 30 31 A scheme for good reporting of mixed methods studies involves describing the justification for using a mixed methods approach to the research question; describing the design in terms of the purpose, priority, and sequence of methods; describing each method in terms of sampling, data collection, and analysis; describing where the integration has occurred, how it has occurred, and who has participated in it; describing any limitation of one method associated with the presence of the other method; and describing any insights gained from mixing or integrating methods. 32

Implementation research aims to cover a wide set of research questions, implementation outcome variables, factors affecting implementation, and implementation strategies. This paper has identified a range of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods that can be used according to the specific research question, as well as several research designs that are particularly suited to implementation research. Further details of these concepts can be found in a new guide developed by the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research. 33

Summary points

Implementation research has its origins in many disciplines and is usefully defined as scientific inquiry into questions concerning implementation—the act of fulfilling or carrying out an intention

In health research, these intentions can be policies, programmes, or individual practices (collectively called interventions)

Implementation research seeks to understand and work in “real world” or usual practice settings, paying particular attention to the audience that will use the research, the context in which implementation occurs, and the factors that influence implementation

A wide variety of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods techniques can be used in implementation research, which are best selected on the basis of the research objective and specific questions related to what, why, and how interventions work

Implementation research may examine strategies that are specifically designed to improve the carrying out of health interventions or assess variables that are defined as implementation outcomes

Implementation outcomes include acceptability, adoption, appropriateness, feasibility, fidelity, implementation cost, coverage, and sustainability

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6753

Contributors: All authors contributed to the conception and design, analysis and interpretation, drafting the article, or revising it critically for important intellectual content, and all gave final approval of the version to be published. NT had the original idea for the article, which was discussed by the authors (except OA) as well as George Pariyo, Jim Sherry, and Dena Javadi at a meeting at the World Health Organization (WHO). DHP and OA did the literature reviews, and DHP wrote the original outline and the draft manuscript, tables, and boxes. OA prepared the original figure. All authors reviewed the draft article and made substantial revisions to the manuscript. DHP is the guarantor.

Funding: Funding was provided by the governments of Norway and Sweden and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in support of the WHO Implementation Research Platform, which financed a meeting of authors and salary support for NT. DHP is supported by the Future Health Systems research programme consortium, funded by DFID for the benefit of developing countries (grant number H050474). The funders played no role in the design, conduct, or reporting of the research.

Competing interests: All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at and declare: support for the submitted work as described above; NT and TA are employees of the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research at WHO, which is supporting their salaries to work on implementation research; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.

Provenance and peer review: Invited by journal; commissioned by WHO; externally peer reviewed.

  • ↵ Brownson RC, Colditz GA, Proctor EK, eds. Dissemination and implementation research in health: translating science to practice. Oxford University Press, 2012.
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  • ↵ Curran GM, Bauer M, Mittman B, Pyne JM, Stetler C. Effectiveness-implementation hybrid designs: combining elements of clinical effectiveness and implementation research to enhance public health impact. Med Care 2012 ; 50 : 217 -26. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed Web of Science
  • ↵ Peters DH, El-Saharty S, Siadat B, Janovsky K, Vujicic M, eds. Improving health services in developing countries: from evidence to action. World Bank, 2009.
  • ↵ Sabatier PA. Top-down and bottom-up approaches to implementation research. J Public Policy 1986 ; 6 (1): 21 -48. OpenUrl CrossRef
  • ↵ Paina L, Peters DH. Understanding pathways for scaling up health services through the lens of complex adaptive systems. Health Policy Plan 2012 ; 27 : 365 -73. OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Gilson L, ed. Health policy and systems research: a methodology reader. World Health Organization, 2012.
  • ↵ Tabak RG, Khoong EC, Chambers DA, Brownson RC. Bridging research and practice: models for dissemination and implementation research. Am J Prev Med 2012 ; 43 : 337 -50. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed
  • ↵ Improved Clinical Effectiveness through Behavioural Research Group (ICEBeRG). Designing theoretically-informed implementation interventions. Implement Sci 2006 ; 1 : 4 . OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed
  • ↵ Habicht JP, Victora CG, Vaughn JP. Evaluation designs for adequacy, plausibility, and probability of public health programme performance and impact. Int J Epidemiol 1999 ; 28 : 10 -8. OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Green LW, Glasgow RE. Evaluating the relevance, generalization, and applicability of research. Eval Health Prof 2006 ; 29 : 126 -53. OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Swarenstein M, Treweek S, Gagnier JJ, Altman DG, Tunis S, Haynes B, et al, for the CONSORT and Pragmatic Trials in Healthcare (Practihc) Groups. Improving the reporting of pragmatic trials: an extension of the CONSORT statement. BMJ 2008 ; 337 : a2390 . OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Davidoff F, Batalden P, Stevens D, Ogrince G, Mooney SE, for the SQUIRE Development Group. Publication guidelines for quality improvement in health care: evolution of the SQUIRE project. Qual Saf Health Care 2008 ; 17 (suppl I): i3 -9. OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Speroff T, O’Connor GT. Study designs for PDSA quality improvement research. Q Manage Health Care 2004 ; 13 (1): 17 -32. OpenUrl CrossRef
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  • ↵ Edward A, Kumar B, Kakar F, Salehi AS, Burnham G. Peters DH. Configuring balanced scorecards for measuring health systems performance: evidence from five years’ evaluation in Afghanistan. PLOS Med 2011 ; 7 : e1001066 . OpenUrl
  • ↵ Health Facility Assessment Technical Working Group. Profiles of health facility assessment method, MEASURE Evaluation, USAID, 2008.
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  • ↵ Lindelow M, Wagstaff A. Assessment of health facility performance: an introduction to data and measurement issues. In: Amin S, Das J, Goldstein M, eds. Are you being served? New tools for measuring service delivery. World Bank, 2008:19-66.
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plan definition in research

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The value of a good research plan

plan definition in research

A research plan is a guiding framework that can make or break the efficiency and success of your research project. Oftentimes teams avoid them because they’ve earned a reputation as a dry or actionless document — however, this doesn’t have to be the case.

In this article, we’ll go over the most important aspects of a good research plan and show you how they can be visual and actionable with Work OS.

Don’t miss more quality content!

Why is the research plan pivotal to a research project.

A research plan is pivotal to a research project because it identifies and helps define your focus, method, and goals while also outlining the research project from start to finish.

This type of plan is often necessary to:

  • Apply for grants or internal company funding.
  • Discover possible research partners or business partners.
  • Take your research from an idea into reality.

It will also control the entire journey of the research project through every stage by defining crucial research questions and the hypothesis (theory) that you’ll strive to prove or disprove.

What goes into a research plan?

The contents of a thorough research plan should include a hypothesis, methodology, and more. There is some variation between academic and commercial research, but these are common elements:

  • Hypothesis:  the problem you are trying to solve and the basis for a theoretical solution. For example, if I reduce my intake of calories, I’ll lose weight.
  • Research questions: research questions help guide your investigation into particular issues. If you were looking into the potential impact of outsourcing production, you might ask something like: how would outsourcing impact our production costs?
  • Research method: the method you’ll use to get the data for your research. For example, a case study, survey, interviews, a clinical trial, or user tests.
  • Definitions: a glossary for the research plan, explaining the terminology that you use throughout the document.
  • Conceptual frameworks:  a conceptual framework helps illustrate what you think you’ll discover with your research. In a sense, it’s a visual representation of a more complex hypothesis.

For commercial plans, there will also likely be a budget and timeline estimate, as well as concrete hypothetical benefits for the company (such as how much money the project should save you).

OK, so you’ve got a handle on the building blocks of a research plan, but how should you actually write it?

How do you write a research plan on

The first, and perhaps most crucial part of having a good research plan is having the right medium for creating and sharing it. Using a pre-defined template can also make it much easier to get started.

On, you can choose from several templates like the Project Proposal Template or better yet the Research Power Tools Template to manage all aspects of your project including important communication with internal and external stakeholders and teammates.

Use your template to:

  • Create workdocs
  • Upload assets
  • Provide feedback
  • Assign task owners
  • Automate communication

The next step in writing a research plan is choosing the topic. To pick the right topic, focus on these factors:

  • What are the priorities of the potential funder/employer, such as the company or institution?
  • Are there any relevant recent studies with results you can build on and explore with further research?
  • Can you creatively adapt your experience — whether post-grad or professional — to make you the natural candidate? They don’t just need to believe in the research project, but also in your ability to manage it successfully.

Do your research, no pun intended. Once you’ve got the topic, you need to work on fleshing out the core ideas with the building blocks we mentioned above.

  • Get specific with your research questions and goals. Don’t go with, “how can we revolutionize our HR practices?” Instead use, “what is the economic and environmental impact of only accepting digital CVs?”
  • Use clear language aimed at gatekeepers.  If it’s a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) or a lab committee, you can use well-known technical terms. If they aren’t technical experts, adjust accordingly.
  • Include preliminary data or highlight similar studies.  For companies, showing that a similar approach helped a competitor is a better argument than an empty assertion.

The recommended length of the plan depends on who you’re sending it to and their expectations. If possible, look at successful examples or directly ask your potential employers about their preferences. Not only do you need the right idea, but you also need to present it in the right way for your research project to have a fighting chance.

What is a good research plan?

A good research plan is one that gets accepted and funded to start doing the research.

If you want to plan a pivotal study, it’s not enough to consider the problem in a vacuum. You also need to evaluate how you can best communicate the value of your project to the gatekeepers.

Consider the entirety of your current situation and what that means for your project.

For example, inputs like funding, staff, IP, and how the scale of the project lines up with your company’s research budget. Or how it aligns with the goals of a University program. If the primary goal of the research is to impact a company or government agency directly, you should consider these stages of research engagement.

Flowchart of research engagement

( Image Source )

  • Inputs: anything from funding and staff to company IP that you need to both run the project and implement any results. Does this line up with the budget?
  • Activities: case studies, trials, surveys, the actual research.
  • Outputs: the final reports, any publications, and raw data.
  • Outcome: how will it directly impact the company, organization, or larger society?
  • Impacts: what are the indirect benefits or downsides?

In an internal research proposal, you can outline these aspects in separate sections. That allows different execs or managers to focus on the details that matter most to them. You must also work to engage stakeholders  and make sure that they understand the importance of your project.

Frequently asked questions

What are the 5 purposes of research.

The 2 primary purposes of research are to gather information or test an existing theory. When broken down further, you can see 5 more specific purposes:

  • Exploratory research  is an early-stage inquiry that explores a topic for further study down the line, like exploring the deep ocean with a submersible vehicle.
  • Descriptive research  aims to explore and describe a specific substance, person, or phenomenon.
  • Explanatory research  is about figuring out the causal relationship, why something happens.
  • Predictive research  is all about trying to predict what might happen in specific situations based on the properties of the research object.
  • Meta-research  looks for overarching insights from multiple sources and tests the validity of common hypotheses.

What is a research work plan?

A research work plan is another name for a research plan, which is a critical component of any research proposal. Universities, labs, and companies use them to evaluate research projects before they decide to accept them.

As a researcher, it’s essential when targeting a funding opportunity of any kind.

What are the methods of research?

There are many research methods ranging from a simple online survey to a high-budget clinical study. Here are some examples of popular data collection methods:

  • Clinical trials
  • Experiments
  • Case studies
  • Observations

Which one is right for your plan depends on your hypothesis, goals, industry regulations, and more.

Create a dynamic research plan

If you want to turn your research project into a reality, you need to go beyond the academic and into management mode.

With a template from, you can plan out a research project from start to finish. Including goals and objectives, budget estimates, milestones, and more.

Send this article to someone who’d like it.

plan definition in research

Welcome to

Research planning, introduction.

It is very important to plan research. You can not undertake effective research without planning the process and setting yourself clear objectives. The research process has nine stages. Lets discuss each one.

The diagram below shows a process map for the research planning process.

Research Planning Process

Write a Research Brief

This sets out what is to be researched. For the purposes of this article our research brief will be look into the demand for 8K televisions.

Define The Issue

At this stage it is important to go into more detail about the research. So, for our 8K TV research we may specify the target market to be researched, what the demand maybe, and whether there is long term viability for 8K.

Set Research Objectives

Any project including research projects needs to have objectives. Objectives that are set should be SMART. Read LearnMarketing's article about SMART Objectives. It is important to set research objectives so you know whether those objectives can be met. So with our 8k TV the objectives maybe to find out whether there is a market for 8k TV and to research the number of 8K developers within the market.

Research Proposal and Plan of Work

When researching it is important that you have a plan of work. A plan of work aids a firm in setting objectives and helps them with timing. You have to also plan the data that needs to be collected, decide the main primary research methods that best suit your research objectives, also plan your secondary research. The research maybe taken from internal records. You also need to decide the target audience for your research and the sample size.

Collection of Data

It is very important to make sure you decide on the research methods you are going to use. The data collection methods should be based on validity, accuracy and the reliability of the data they will generate. You will also need to take into account the cost of the data collection methods. The firm may not be able to afford too many different types of primary research methods, but maybe able to afford to purchase a report (secondary research) from market research organisations like Mintel.

Analysis and Evaluation of Data

Once data has been collected it needs to be analysed. You may employ someone to analyse the data or you may do it yourself. Your analysis should meet your research objectives so for our example the research findings should reveal if there is a demand for 8k TV products, consumer's views about 8K TV and whether there are enough producers of 8k TV to warrant investment in them.

Presentation Of Findings

It is important to present your findings in a form that will make the conclusion of your research easy to understand and interpret. Your presentation maybe in a form of a report, a power point slide with charts, statistics and diagram or a combination of above. Your research presentation should be clear, relevant and succinct, it should also reinforce research findings.

Evaluation of Market Research

Look through your research and the methods that you used and think about what you can do to improve it. Is there anyway to make your research methods and findings better and more accurate? Was there anything you missed out?

A research plan focuses the researcher so that before they begin their research they fully understand research objectives and what action they are going to take to achieve objective.

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Research Plan: Definition and How to Prepare It

The research plan , which is also called “ research proposal ” before acceptance by competent authority, is a scholarly paper. As is well-known, it must conform to accepted conventions of academic and scientific procedure. It is expected to show evidence of intelligent grasp of the problem being proposed for solution, and fields related to it. It must also present appropriate and valid method and procedure for the solution of the problem.

Allowing for certain variations due to preferences of scholars, disciplines, and institutions, a research plan generally contains the following:

1) The title of the personal study,

2) Statement of the problem,

3) Review of related literature, and

4) Scope and limitation of the study,

5) Importance or significance of the study,

6) Definition of terms, and theoretical framework,

7) Methods and procedure,

8) Bibliography.

The title of the research plan should be brief but descriptive and comprehensive. The title should also be an adequate index to the key contents of the following: 1) the statement of the problem, 2) the method(s) used, and 3) the expected or hypothetical conclusion(s).

Although it is the first to appear on the research plan, it can remain tentative until the problem and methodology have been clearly formulated. (See also W. C. Campbell & S. V. Ballou, Form and Style: Theses, Reports, Term Papers, 4 th ed., Boston, USA: Houghton Miffin, 1974, p. 15).

The Statement of the Problem

The statement of the problem is the part of the research plan, which contains two parts, namely: 1) a careful exposition of an area involving significant problems, and how such problems affect knowledge in the given discipline, and 2) a clear and concise statement of the problem. The first is an essay that demonstrates the researcher’s intelligent and broad grasp of the key problem currently confronting her discipline. The second is a clear statement of the question(s) to be answered or hypothesis to be tested.

The statement of the problem in experimental research is usually in the form of a hypothesis or a series of related hypotheses which call for proof or disproof. Other types of research require that the problem be stated categorically in the form of a question or series of related questions. In case a question needs further specification by means of sub-questions, care is to be taken that the sub-questions are all comprehended by the primary question. Multiple questions and questions which add new problems not expressed or implied in the primary question must be avoided. (See Campbell & Ballou, p. 18).

It must be remembered that the statement of the problem is not the same with the statement of the purpose of the study. The first is the question to be answered, while the second is the reason for answering the question.

A good statement of the problem must be consistent with the title and the methods and procedure to be used in the research.

Review of Related Literature

It is assumed that before the researcher starts making the research plan, she has read many important works related to the proposed study. The aims of the review of related literature are:

1) to show that the researcher is familiar with key ideas in his field of study;

2) to show that the knowledge in the field is incomplete, unreliable, or both; and

3) to show that the findings of the proposed study will: a) add to, b) supplement, 

         and/or c) correct present knowledge.

The tone and tenor of the review of related literature are both expository and evaluative or critical.

The materials subject to review under this heading are both published and unpublished materials containing anything that have some pertinence to the proposed subject of study. These include books, periodicals, documents, theses, dissertations, and all papers that are conventionally regarded among scholars as disciplinary literature. This explains why it is redundant to say “literature and studies” because the term “literature” includes all studies, which are on record and reported.

Scope and Limitation of the Study

The scope of the study refers to the 

1) specific source(s) of information, and 

2) time involved in the study. 

Since the scope of the study directly affect the validity of the conclusion derived from it, it may be assumed that a study that has no specifically defined scope and limitation of sources and time cannot lead to a definite and valid generalization and/or conclusion.

The limitation of the study refers to shortcoming or source of weakness of the study. The honest researcher must admit the weakness or limitation of any aspect of her investigation or her tools of investigation, and source of information. This fundamental rule is required by intellectual honesty. For example, using translation as reference due to one’s lack of proficiency in the original language of the source is a limitation of the investigator. Limitations that are so great as to cause doubt concerning the validity or conclusion of the study invalidate a research plan.

Significance of the Study

The significance of the study is generally of two kinds, namely, 1) the significance of the expected findings of the study to the specific discipline to which the study belongs, and 2) the benefit that human world may derive from the findings. Evidence of significance on the first level is generally sufficient. Significance of the second level if not discreetly put tends to be pretentious and violates the modesty generally expected of scholars. It is, therefore, generally best to convince the reader that the answer(s) one is trying to discover are important mainly to one’s line of study, and leave the “earth-shaking” value of the study understated or implied.

Research on the graduate school level is expected to show evidence of 1) mastery of scientific and rational methods of arriving at conclusions, and 2) actual contribution of new knowledge to the pool of human knowledge. Unless the study meets this requirement, the study is not significant, and this could imply that the student fails even in the first.

Definition of Terms and Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework of the study is stated here. This is the place to present 1) the assumption of the study, that is, proposition regarded are true and therefore not requiring proof in the proposed research, and 2) the definition of key terms.

It is usual that scholars or researchers work within the framework of a discipline, which have generally accepted principles or law which need simply to be assumed as true, and within whose framework the researcher performs his reflected thinking. This means placing the proposed study in the context of a specific school of thought in the researcher’s field of study. It may also require statement of ideas already proved satisfactory by other or previous researchers.

When the theoretical framework in the form of assumptions has been completed, key terms, especially those that are used in a particular or unusual sense, are defined. Operational definitions are preferred. Sources of definitions are properly indicated. Definitions not indicated as having been borrowed from sources are assumed to belong to the author of the research plan.

Operational definitions reduce abstract terms (for example, education) to concrete or quantifiable or measurable terms. The term “development”, for example, is defined operationally as “getting people to know, desire, and be capable of doing better things”. Operational definitions are always in a framework of a study.

Methods and Procedure

Methods refer to the set of procedures or steps to be undertaken for discovering knowledge with reference to the time setting of the truth to be known, that is, the past, present, and the future.

Truth of the past is historical. That of the present is described or pictured. And that of the future can be experimented, that is, create a situation whereby an unknown truth can be observed under controlled conditions. Therefore, there are three methods in general use in the scholarly world.

One method may be used, or where necessary, a combination of all three. But the use of these in combination must be done with great care so that it is always clear when each of the methods is being used, especially in the writing of the research report.

In certain disciplines, such as Literature and Philosophy, textual studies are usual. Studies of text are historical because the ordinary aim of this type of study is to arrive at the original intent of the author insofar as this is possible. This involved an attempt to situate words in their historical or biological context, with reference to their import at the time and place the document was written.

In the research plan, it is sufficient to indicate which method is proposed to be used.

Procedures are sub-items under methods. They are steps in logical or chronological sequence which are seen as an organized system of steps toward the discovery of truth, which involve 1) analyzing, 2) classifying, 3) comparing, 4) narrating, and 5) making conclusions regarding what causes produced what effects. One should not confuse method with the steps in a method.

After the procedures have been presented, a proposed outline of the expected report (for example, thesis, dissertation, and term paper) is presented. This outline shows clearly the proposed titles and subsections under each title. Parts or chapters are presented in their expected final sequence which indicate how the successive parts lead to the findings and conclusion.


This is a systematic listing of all available references in libraries, archives, collections, and in other sources. Exhaustiveness is ideal. Although last in the research plan, it is the first to be done in the order of procedure and time. This is because before anyone can formulate a title or problem for the research plan, one has to know whether there are available sources, or whether there already exist and completed studies covering the same area and problem. The way to discover the sources is to look for them wherever they may be an make a listing of these sources.

Final Note : Sometimes, a research plan or proposal may be presented for evaluation in order to secure funding. When this is the case, two things must be added to the foregoing parts: 1) a timetable indicating the schedule of research activities and the time each step in the research is expected to be completed, and 2) a statement of expenses properly itemized to indicate which amount is for which activity, and for which logistics (that is, tools, equipment, instruments, postage, and the like) and related expenses, such as salaries and publication expenses. It is important to note that the budget is not only itemized but also justified.

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plan definition in research

Home Market Research

What is Research: Definition, Methods, Types & Examples

What is Research

The search for knowledge is closely linked to the object of study; that is, to the reconstruction of the facts that will provide an explanation to an observed event and that at first sight can be considered as a problem. It is very human to seek answers and satisfy our curiosity. Let’s talk about research.

Content Index

What is Research?

What are the characteristics of research.

  • Comparative analysis chart

Qualitative methods

Quantitative methods, 8 tips for conducting accurate research.

Research is the careful consideration of study regarding a particular concern or research problem using scientific methods. According to the American sociologist Earl Robert Babbie, “research is a systematic inquiry to describe, explain, predict, and control the observed phenomenon. It involves inductive and deductive methods.”

Inductive methods analyze an observed event, while deductive methods verify the observed event. Inductive approaches are associated with qualitative research , and deductive methods are more commonly associated with quantitative analysis .

Research is conducted with a purpose to:

  • Identify potential and new customers
  • Understand existing customers
  • Set pragmatic goals
  • Develop productive market strategies
  • Address business challenges
  • Put together a business expansion plan
  • Identify new business opportunities
  • Good research follows a systematic approach to capture accurate data. Researchers need to practice ethics and a code of conduct while making observations or drawing conclusions.
  • The analysis is based on logical reasoning and involves both inductive and deductive methods.
  • Real-time data and knowledge is derived from actual observations in natural settings.
  • There is an in-depth analysis of all data collected so that there are no anomalies associated with it.
  • It creates a path for generating new questions. Existing data helps create more research opportunities.
  • It is analytical and uses all the available data so that there is no ambiguity in inference.
  • Accuracy is one of the most critical aspects of research. The information must be accurate and correct. For example, laboratories provide a controlled environment to collect data. Accuracy is measured in the instruments used, the calibrations of instruments or tools, and the experiment’s final result.

What is the purpose of research?

There are three main purposes:

  • Exploratory: As the name suggests, researchers conduct exploratory studies to explore a group of questions. The answers and analytics may not offer a conclusion to the perceived problem. It is undertaken to handle new problem areas that haven’t been explored before. This exploratory data analysis process lays the foundation for more conclusive data collection and analysis.

LEARN ABOUT: Descriptive Analysis

  • Descriptive: It focuses on expanding knowledge on current issues through a process of data collection. Descriptive research describe the behavior of a sample population. Only one variable is required to conduct the study. The three primary purposes of descriptive studies are describing, explaining, and validating the findings. For example, a study conducted to know if top-level management leaders in the 21st century possess the moral right to receive a considerable sum of money from the company profit.

LEARN ABOUT: Best Data Collection Tools

  • Explanatory: Causal research or explanatory research is conducted to understand the impact of specific changes in existing standard procedures. Running experiments is the most popular form. For example, a study that is conducted to understand the effect of rebranding on customer loyalty.

Here is a comparative analysis chart for a better understanding:

It begins by asking the right questions and choosing an appropriate method to investigate the problem. After collecting answers to your questions, you can analyze the findings or observations to draw reasonable conclusions.

When it comes to customers and market studies, the more thorough your questions, the better the analysis. You get essential insights into brand perception and product needs by thoroughly collecting customer data through surveys and questionnaires . You can use this data to make smart decisions about your marketing strategies to position your business effectively.

To make sense of your study and get insights faster, it helps to use a research repository as a single source of truth in your organization and manage your research data in one centralized data repository .

Types of research methods and Examples

what is research

Research methods are broadly classified as Qualitative and Quantitative .

Both methods have distinctive properties and data collection methods .

Qualitative research is a method that collects data using conversational methods, usually open-ended questions . The responses collected are essentially non-numerical. This method helps a researcher understand what participants think and why they think in a particular way.

Types of qualitative methods include:

  • One-to-one Interview
  • Focus Groups
  • Ethnographic studies
  • Text Analysis

Quantitative methods deal with numbers and measurable forms . It uses a systematic way of investigating events or data. It answers questions to justify relationships with measurable variables to either explain, predict, or control a phenomenon.

Types of quantitative methods include:

  • Survey research
  • Descriptive research
  • Correlational research

LEARN MORE: Descriptive Research vs Correlational Research

Remember, it is only valuable and useful when it is valid, accurate, and reliable. Incorrect results can lead to customer churn and a decrease in sales.

It is essential to ensure that your data is:

  • Valid – founded, logical, rigorous, and impartial.
  • Accurate – free of errors and including required details.
  • Reliable – other people who investigate in the same way can produce similar results.
  • Timely – current and collected within an appropriate time frame.
  • Complete – includes all the data you need to support your business decisions.

Gather insights

What is a research - tips

  • Identify the main trends and issues, opportunities, and problems you observe. Write a sentence describing each one.
  • Keep track of the frequency with which each of the main findings appears.
  • Make a list of your findings from the most common to the least common.
  • Evaluate a list of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats identified in a SWOT analysis .
  • Prepare conclusions and recommendations about your study.
  • Act on your strategies
  • Look for gaps in the information, and consider doing additional inquiry if necessary
  • Plan to review the results and consider efficient methods to analyze and interpret results.

Review your goals before making any conclusions about your study. Remember how the process you have completed and the data you have gathered help answer your questions. Ask yourself if what your analysis revealed facilitates the identification of your conclusions and recommendations.



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How Pew Research Center will report on generations moving forward

Journalists, researchers and the public often look at society through the lens of generation, using terms like Millennial or Gen Z to describe groups of similarly aged people. This approach can help readers see themselves in the data and assess where we are and where we’re headed as a country.

Pew Research Center has been at the forefront of generational research over the years, telling the story of Millennials as they came of age politically and as they moved more firmly into adult life . In recent years, we’ve also been eager to learn about Gen Z as the leading edge of this generation moves into adulthood.

But generational research has become a crowded arena. The field has been flooded with content that’s often sold as research but is more like clickbait or marketing mythology. There’s also been a growing chorus of criticism about generational research and generational labels in particular.

Recently, as we were preparing to embark on a major research project related to Gen Z, we decided to take a step back and consider how we can study generations in a way that aligns with our values of accuracy, rigor and providing a foundation of facts that enriches the public dialogue.

A typical generation spans 15 to 18 years. As many critics of generational research point out, there is great diversity of thought, experience and behavior within generations.

We set out on a yearlong process of assessing the landscape of generational research. We spoke with experts from outside Pew Research Center, including those who have been publicly critical of our generational analysis, to get their take on the pros and cons of this type of work. We invested in methodological testing to determine whether we could compare findings from our earlier telephone surveys to the online ones we’re conducting now. And we experimented with higher-level statistical analyses that would allow us to isolate the effect of generation.

What emerged from this process was a set of clear guidelines that will help frame our approach going forward. Many of these are principles we’ve always adhered to , but others will require us to change the way we’ve been doing things in recent years.

Here’s a short overview of how we’ll approach generational research in the future:

We’ll only do generational analysis when we have historical data that allows us to compare generations at similar stages of life. When comparing generations, it’s crucial to control for age. In other words, researchers need to look at each generation or age cohort at a similar point in the life cycle. (“Age cohort” is a fancy way of referring to a group of people who were born around the same time.)

When doing this kind of research, the question isn’t whether young adults today are different from middle-aged or older adults today. The question is whether young adults today are different from young adults at some specific point in the past.

To answer this question, it’s necessary to have data that’s been collected over a considerable amount of time – think decades. Standard surveys don’t allow for this type of analysis. We can look at differences across age groups, but we can’t compare age groups over time.

Another complication is that the surveys we conducted 20 or 30 years ago aren’t usually comparable enough to the surveys we’re doing today. Our earlier surveys were done over the phone, and we’ve since transitioned to our nationally representative online survey panel , the American Trends Panel . Our internal testing showed that on many topics, respondents answer questions differently depending on the way they’re being interviewed. So we can’t use most of our surveys from the late 1980s and early 2000s to compare Gen Z with Millennials and Gen Xers at a similar stage of life.

This means that most generational analysis we do will use datasets that have employed similar methodologies over a long period of time, such as surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau. A good example is our 2020 report on Millennial families , which used census data going back to the late 1960s. The report showed that Millennials are marrying and forming families at a much different pace than the generations that came before them.

Even when we have historical data, we will attempt to control for other factors beyond age in making generational comparisons. If we accept that there are real differences across generations, we’re basically saying that people who were born around the same time share certain attitudes or beliefs – and that their views have been influenced by external forces that uniquely shaped them during their formative years. Those forces may have been social changes, economic circumstances, technological advances or political movements.

When we see that younger adults have different views than their older counterparts, it may be driven by their demographic traits rather than the fact that they belong to a particular generation.

The tricky part is isolating those forces from events or circumstances that have affected all age groups, not just one generation. These are often called “period effects.” An example of a period effect is the Watergate scandal, which drove down trust in government among all age groups. Differences in trust across age groups in the wake of Watergate shouldn’t be attributed to the outsize impact that event had on one age group or another, because the change occurred across the board.

Changing demographics also may play a role in patterns that might at first seem like generational differences. We know that the United States has become more racially and ethnically diverse in recent decades, and that race and ethnicity are linked with certain key social and political views. When we see that younger adults have different views than their older counterparts, it may be driven by their demographic traits rather than the fact that they belong to a particular generation.

Controlling for these factors can involve complicated statistical analysis that helps determine whether the differences we see across age groups are indeed due to generation or not. This additional step adds rigor to the process. Unfortunately, it’s often absent from current discussions about Gen Z, Millennials and other generations.

When we can’t do generational analysis, we still see value in looking at differences by age and will do so where it makes sense. Age is one of the most common predictors of differences in attitudes and behaviors. And even if age gaps aren’t rooted in generational differences, they can still be illuminating. They help us understand how people across the age spectrum are responding to key trends, technological breakthroughs and historical events.

Each stage of life comes with a unique set of experiences. Young adults are often at the leading edge of changing attitudes on emerging social trends. Take views on same-sex marriage , for example, or attitudes about gender identity .

Many middle-aged adults, in turn, face the challenge of raising children while also providing care and support to their aging parents. And older adults have their own obstacles and opportunities. All of these stories – rooted in the life cycle, not in generations – are important and compelling, and we can tell them by analyzing our surveys at any given point in time.

When we do have the data to study groups of similarly aged people over time, we won’t always default to using the standard generational definitions and labels. While generational labels are simple and catchy, there are other ways to analyze age cohorts. For example, some observers have suggested grouping people by the decade in which they were born. This would create narrower cohorts in which the members may share more in common. People could also be grouped relative to their age during key historical events (such as the Great Recession or the COVID-19 pandemic) or technological innovations (like the invention of the iPhone).

By choosing not to use the standard generational labels when they’re not appropriate, we can avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes or oversimplifying people’s complex lived experiences.

Existing generational definitions also may be too broad and arbitrary to capture differences that exist among narrower cohorts. A typical generation spans 15 to 18 years. As many critics of generational research point out, there is great diversity of thought, experience and behavior within generations. The key is to pick a lens that’s most appropriate for the research question that’s being studied. If we’re looking at political views and how they’ve shifted over time, for example, we might group people together according to the first presidential election in which they were eligible to vote.

With these considerations in mind, our audiences should not expect to see a lot of new research coming out of Pew Research Center that uses the generational lens. We’ll only talk about generations when it adds value, advances important national debates and highlights meaningful societal trends.

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Kim Parker is director of social trends research at Pew Research Center

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