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How to write a great qualitative research brief

Published 01 Nov 2016 | Updated 12 jan 2021 6 minute read

Online qual

From speaking to researchers across the land, it's clear that it is fast becoming the norm for clients not to have a written brief.

Sure, they know what they want to achieve, what their objectives are, but they don’t always know how to get it down on paper and write a qualitative research brief (or they’ve not got the time!).

I’m always the first to put my hands up and offer to help clients write their briefs. There are three compelling reasons for that

  1. It takes pressure off the client
  2. It ensures that all stakeholders are included in the process and that everyone discusses - and agrees - the parameters of the research upfront
  3. It means we are immersed in the project and the business, deepening our understanding of what you need.

I’m going to share with you my thoughts on what makes a good qualitative research brief outline (for both online qual and face-to-face) and why it’s so necessary to get it right.

Start with the wrong brief, and you’re heading down the wrong path from the get-go. Not only will you set the wrong course, but you’ll probably cost the project incorrectly and even propose the wrong methods.

There's a handy research project brief template you can download along with a number of other useful tools you'll find in the resources section of our website.  

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Before I dive into the specifics, here are three key things to consider:

1. Frame and re-frame

First and foremost, the research brief outline frames the client's problem or challenge, and it establishes the fundamental question(s) they want answering. More often than not, research briefs are framed through the lens of the business, when in fact, they should be through the lens of the consumer.

A cautionary tale:

Here's a quick example - naming no names! - of what happens when research is framed through the lens of the business, rather than through the lens of the consumer.

A well-known drinks company was looking to expand its range. An opportunity came up to buy a niche energy drink with a small but dedicated fanbase who loved its distinctive taste.

The company wanted to take the drink mainstream. So, they commissioned research focusing on what would make the drink more palatable to a wider audience.

The results came back saying that the drink should taste sweeter and the design of the packaging should be softened. The changes were made, the drink was relaunched and...

...it flopped. Mainstream consumers didn’t buy it. The original fanbase abandoned it. Why? Because the brief had been framed through the lens of the business, not the consumer. No one asked if the mainstream audience wanted a new energy drink. And as it turned out...they didn’t.

Reframing is perhaps better to be done by the researcher/agency as they can see outside the business more readily than the client. The phrase, ‘wood for the trees’ is poignant.

2. Keep it short and simple

Research project brief templates don’t need to be long and exhaustive. In fact, the the more precise and jargon-free the better. A short brief:

  • Ensures clarity. Straightforward language - free from acronyms or industry-specific terms - is easy to understand. It avoids confusion.
  • Gets to the point. A concise brief has been thought about and refined: helping to create a tight, accurate focus for your research.
  • Encourages buy-in. It’s easy to digest, so it’s easier for stakeholders of all kinds to ‘get it’.

3. Take the right tone

Like any written document that has its readers, a qualitative research brief needs to adopt the appropriate tone, be it a formal business one or a more relaxed consumer-friendly version.

Most businesses are jam-packed with technical jargon, so handle this with care and remove where possible so that everyone can be sure of being (and staying) on the same page.

OK, now to the details...

Here’s what your qualitative research project brief template should include:

1. Some background

Provide a summary of the primary business the client is in. Clearly explain

  • Why the business exists
  • Its mission and vision
  • How its goals have changed over time and its future goals
  • The competitive set
  • Which markets the study should explore

We sometimes call this a 'research amnesty’. It is vitally important we have sight of any pre-existing research so as not to duplicate any findings that already exist. No matter what form the research/insight is, throw it at us and we’ll read through it to create a detailed picture of the business/brand.

2. Research objectives

This is where you set about describing what the core research task is. For example, the research objective might be to find out what your customers think of your recently launched product or service.

Set out specific research objectives to:

  • Clarify the key questions you need to answer
  • Identify the information you need to gather to address the challenge.

Here’s an example of three research objectives we created for a client who wanted to understand the best ways of supporting their employees’ wellbeing:

  • To capture people’s attitudes and natural behaviours when it comes to their well-being
  • To gather instinctive responses to what they would like to do more of and what is holding them back
  • To discover and co-create ways we can help them in the future.

Now you’re starting to motor and get into the details around the questions that need to be answered, or the spaces you’re going to explore.

Remember, qualitative research helps understand why people do what they do, so write the objectives through that lens and think about the behaviours, motivations, thoughts and feelings you want to understand.

3. Business objectives

Your research objective may be driven by a strategic business objective. This is framed differently. Quite simply, it outlines why you are being asked to do this. For example, does the research support modifying a service or product or is it intended to deliver growth?

4. Stakeholder team

Which parties/departments (internal and/or external) will be involved with and have a vested interest in this research study? They might be a sponsor, collaborator or a third-party that needs an actionable outcome. For each stakeholder, detail their requirements and comment on their level and method of involvement. In some instances, different stakeholders will have conflicting expectations or objectives for the research. The focus needs to be agreed and signed-off by everyone before the process goes further.

5. Target audience to research

Who do you need to talk to? Are they current customers, lapsed customers or those of a competitor? Are demographics relevant, such as age, gender, income, occupation, location, company size, etc? Is social profiling relevant, or their personal attributes and proficiencies?

The target audience could include:

  • Who you want researched and how many (sample size)?
  • Source: Will the client be providing a customer list, or do you need to recommend the best way to source respondents such as panels, free-finding or social media?

6. Methodology

Based on the objectives, which qualitative research methods are best deployed and why. Are you proposing a combination of methods as is usually the case? Should the research be conducted face-to-face, by telephone or even online?

7. Timings

Consider internal milestones such as meetings and decision-making deadlines.

Timescale could include:

  • Timescale for the procurement process, the start of the research and when you want the findings
  • Whether you want to receive top-line findings in advance of the main findings
  • Leaving time to receive a draft set of findings for you to review before receiving the final deliverables.
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8. Budget

Do you have a specific research budget in mind, including incentives and recruitment? Can you provide guidance on the available budget, even if it is only a ball-park figure?

The budget might look to include:

  • An indication of available budget; stipulate whether or not this includes VAT.
  • A breakdown of how recruitment and incentives.
  • Payment terms (if standard)

9. Deliverables (what/how/when)

Do you want the findings in a written report format or as a presentation? You may want to have both or to have a meeting with us to discuss the findings.

Deliverables could include:

  • Your preferred format for the findings - for example, a report in Word or a presentation in PowerPoint, hardcopy and/or electronic, etc
  • Do you want the researcher to present the findings, either in-person or remotely?
  • Is there anything else you expect the research team to provide?

10. Hypotheses

If there are any pre-existing hunches, assumptions or hypotheses then now is a good time to share them with us. If they come out part-way through the project they may result in a re-brief and re-costing exercise, which is something to be avoided.

11. Materials the client will provide

Provide a detailed breakdown of the materials, assets and stimulus that the client will provide.

Examples might include:

  • Visual brand identity assets
  • Market reports/intelligence
  • Information about competitors
  • Stimulus materials
  • Concepts and mock-ups

12. What does success look like?

Cast yourself into the future and imagine you are looking back at the successful project. What made it so successful, what was so good about it. Did it make you ‘famous’, if so why?

13. What does failure look like?

What are the failure factors of this project and what would team it unsuccessful? Another way to think about this would be to ask the question ‘Why might this project fail?'

14. Client contacts and roles

Who are the immediate client team responsible for running this project, including day-to-day contact details and email addresses. It’s also a good idea to address what time/input the client has to invest in the project as you may find they don’t want to be involved in the way you hope.

There you have it.

There are more things to consider, and more detail to get into, pending the size/scale/risk of the project, but this will get you started.

There are many mistakes you can make in delivering qualitative research (online or in-person) and research community to be mindful of, especially how you see through consumer's half-truths, so beware.

If you have any questions, or have a research brief outline you'd like help with then why not book a demo or discovery call with one of our online qual specialists.

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