Research Design: How to Choose the Right Methodology for the Job.

I would like to begin by stating the obvious. Something I think that we can all agree on:

“You don’t know what you don’t know.”

We have all heard this at some point in our lives, but what does it really mean, and perhaps more importantly, if I want to know, how do I go about knowing? At THRIVE we rely on a variety of methodologies when planning our research design and conducting the actual research: different approaches to identify gaps in knowledge, disambiguate problems, and figure out how best to uncover learnings that will point us toward actionable insights that help companies to grow and evolve. But selecting the right approach — the game plan for figuring out how to know what you don’t know — can sometimes be overwhelming, particularly when you consider that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all research design plan that you can just plug in and automate for every project.

Analysis paralysis is a killer for the process of research design. We find, however, that a good metaphor sometimes helps us make sense of things.


Say you need to screw in a screw. That seems simple enough.

You know you need to use a screwdriver, but as you dig into your tool bag you realize you have more than 10 varieties and sizes to choose from. Do you use a power driver or a hand screwdriver? A slot head or a Phillips head? You have all these resources available, but the choices can be paralyzing if you’re not sure which one is the right one to use. Of course, different types of screwdrivers can likely get the job done, but one is best suited to the situation, and by design will be most effective. The same applies to research: There are many methods that will manifest results, but those results are often incomplete. Important questions can remain unanswered or even unasked if the methodology hasn’t been uniquely customized to the area of examination. The good news is customization rarely means going out and buying a whole new set of tools or building from scratch. The better news? If you’re not ready to do this on your own, you don’t have to.

Just like there are different levels of knowing, there are different levels of not knowing. We’ve found in some companies, there’s often a disconnect between “I’m aware that I’m lacking information, I just don’t know how to get it,” or “I know I don’t have everything I need, but I don’t know what the thing I need is.” Let’s expand upon the toolbox metaphor for clarification: In the first scenario, it’s as if your tool set is a little outdated, but you’re unfamiliar with the latest products on the market. As a result, you feel lost; you’re unaware of your options and aren’t even sure where to begin... In the second scenario, you may have a shiny new tool, but you’re not using it correctly, so it’s not working as well as it’s supposed to. You need someone to show you how to hold the tool properly to give you the best leverage, for example. Whatever the case, you’ll never get full value or advantage from your purchase without some guidance – you only have part of what you need to get the job done. Do you hold the hammer closer to the end of the grip, where you get more power, or closer to the head, for more control? What’s the necessary balance? Someone will have to show you, or you won’t be successful.

 The bigger question surrounding these scenarios however, is: How do I even come to know what I don’t know? How do you get the information and insight needed to solve your problem? How do you find out which methodologies to use, and how to use them? And how do you know if you even have the capabilities to figure it out on your own?

My advice: Start with honest introspection.


Do an assessment of your own capabilities. Ask yourself: Do I know how to solve this problem on my own? Do I have the resources to do so? Or do I need to partner with someone who is more appropriately resourced than I am?

These are questions that any company should ask, regardless of size and skillset. The need for external assistance is typically clear in small companies who may just not have the people in terms of capabilities or the sheer quantity of staff necessary to get the job done. But midsize and larger level businesses often need to consult with research design experts for other reasons. A medium-sized business, for example, may have enough people, but they may not be the right people. Large businesses, on the other hand, may have the right people and resources, but not the vision or direction.

Say you volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. It’s a great way to give back to your community, yes, but it doesn’t necessarily prepare you to build a house on your own. As a volunteer, you were afforded the opportunity to contribute in a very focused and manageable way. Someone placed the right tool in your hand, made sure you were able to use it correctly (if not at least safely), and turned you loose to get the job done. It left you feeling successful and accomplished, and it led to someone having a home, but it did not leave you capable of building a house from the ground up. In other words, respect the limitations of experience.

Often, we see partners at mid-level businesses recovering from disappointment after trying to shoehorn a skilled designer into a research-specific role, expecting the results that only a seasoned researcher could provide. On the other hand, we also see large companies that are unsure of the correct path to take, so they just say, “Let’s do research!” but it ends up compartmentalized; work happens in silos and information is disparate and even inconsistent because varying methods were used. It’s like building a house without a foreman, or plans for that matter.

Does any of this ring true for your organization? Never fear: You can still avoid future disappointment and get your team on the same page. Keep reading and we’ll tell you how…


If you’ve gotten to this point and you’ve determined that you’re not ready or you don’t have the tools to solve your problem on your own, kudos for being self-aware enough to realize it. Now is the time to ask for help and partner with a company with research process and experience. (One like THRIVE, perhaps.)

Here’s how that works, and what to keep in mind when looking for a reliable research design partner.

ethnographic study lets you walk in the consumers shoes

First, we help you uncover the true need.

We want to solidify the question mark you’re up against; to clearly define the problem to solve and why it is important to solve said problem. So, we’ll talk with you and your team to clarify exactly what’s going on. Then we’ll do some legwork, speaking with your customers and digging through your data to unlock consumer insights and verify this need. The goal? We want to make sure we’re setting out to solve the right problem in the first place; and the right problem is the one with the greatest targeted business impact.

Then, we help you choose the methodology.

Once we’ve clearly defined the problem, then we can identify the right tool(s) to use. We’ll walk you through the preliminary need-finding process to provide clarity and alignment, but also establish criteria for the selection of methods. A lot of agencies present their tool kit first, and try to entice customers with their newest, shiniest hammer or screwdriver. But no good contractor comes in and just whips out a tool without a preliminary assessment (taking measurements, inspecting the walls for structural support, etc.), right? So, you don’t want someone to come at you with a predetermined, one-size-fits-all solution when working with research designers either; unique problems require unique solutions.

Finally, we create a plan.

Now we’re ready to design a research plan around the specific targeted methodology and tailor solutions to the problem your company needs to solve.

 Keep in Mind: The method is a means to an end. The right method leads to the right insights. And the right insights are those that are actionable and impactful to your business.


Once you’ve gone through the experience of working with an external partner for research design, you can reevaluate your capabilities and resources, and determine if you want to invest in learning how to handle the workflow internally in the future. So, the question becomes: Are you going to keep renting, or do you want to own this capability?

This is sort of a trick question… Unless you are ready to invest significant financial resources to get this capability and start building to own, then you should continue to rent. It takes a lot of time and a lot of training, and for this reason some companies decide it’s a capability that they don’t want to own. Whether they’re technically capable of it or not, they don’t want to carry the burden of taking on this work and commit to keeping up with current methodologies and tools. So, go back to section one, and do a bit more introspective exploration. You should be far more experienced than you were before, but keep this question in the back of your mind this time: Are you ready (or do you want) to build the next “design research” house on your own?

Consider the following scenario. When I was a child, I had a neighbor who worked on computers. He was your archetypical nerdy scientist from the ’70s: funny, quirky, big mustache, with a penchant for sharing stories with me about technology. One day he recounted a time when he first started working and computers were the size of a warehouse. He was called to service a client’s machine that wasn’t functioning properly. He explains that he walked around the machine and looked at it. Touched a few components. Then made his way over to one section of the computer, kicked one side of the panel, and it started working again. The client’s delight quickly turned to dismay when my neighbor handed him the bill. “I’m not paying this; all you did was kick it! I could’ve done that!” he exclaimed. “Yes, but I knew where to kick it,” my neighbor replied.

The moral of this story: While the client may have physically been able to kick the machine, he needed the neighbor’s expertise to know where to direct the focus and apply the pressure. There’s something in the demystification of a problem and solution that leaves people unsettled, but remember that there is no substitute for experience. Get it or rent it. Just have it at your disposal.


Don’t just try and make do with the resources and capabilities you have when engaging in the research design activity, it truly can affect the whole outcome of your study. When you have uncertainty, or you’re not tooled appropriately to tackle a problem, that’s when you call for help. And even when you decide to ask for help, stay involved in the process. Different companies prefer different levels of involvement, but we believe you should be nothing short of highly collaborative so you have awareness of what methodologies research design worked for your business, and then apply that insight to future situations. You may even come to realize that you have the right tools, you just need to learn to use them correctly; or that you have the right personnel, but you just need to get them operating in a slightly different way.

Realize the power of partnering with design research experts. Contact THRIVE today to get started.

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