The Art of Scoping

How to precisely define a research project.

Fatima Aslam
Research Analyst

As a researcher, people often ask how I come up with the questions for a survey. 

Is there some AI tool where I input my desired outcomes and voila– a list of perfectly-formed questions appears? Contrary to what many might hope, it’s not that simple. Drafting compelling questions that result in the insights you’re looking for requires a lot of upfront work and, more importantly, determining the scope of the research. 

This preliminary step is the most vital step in the process, and if not approached correctly, it can steer a project off course. By spending some time defining the project scope early, you can lay out an exact plan that specifies goals and deliverables, setting your project up for success. 

Defining Scope of Research: Essential Questions to Consider

What story are you trying to tell?
Identify the big question. What are you hoping to discover through this research? What hypothesis do you have prior to getting started? Whether you’re testing a hypothesis or exploring uncharted territories, it’s crucial to establish the base concepts you want to investigate before branching into specifics. It’s helpful to create an outline to pinpoint your key questions and how you intend to use the resulting data to tell a bigger-picture story. 

What do you hope to gain?
Identify the purpose. Are you conducting this research to increase revenue? Enhance a marketing strategy? Better understand your customer? As you lay out the foundation of a research plan, keeping this question in mind will align your team’s efforts with the specific and desired outcomes of your client. Each research objective should directly support your strategic business goals.

Who do you want to talk to?
Identify the audience. Determining the “sample” (the group of respondents you’re hoping to survey) including the size (number of respondents) and demographic focus (e.g. age, geographic location, job title) will help ensure your questions are targeted and relevant for your audience. For instance, when seeking to understand perceptions of a specific group, such as parents with young children, it’s crucial to limit your sample to that group, rather than surveying all adults, some of which may be parents of adult children or not parents at all. But keep in mind, that the more specific your sample group parameters, the more expensive and time-intensive your survey will be. Think about it: finding an adult is easier than finding an adult who is also a parent with a young child because there are simply more adults broadly than a sub-segment. When it comes to survey samples, the more work it takes to find a respondent means more cost.

What’s your timeline?
Identify the launch date. If you’re planning to use the data during an upcoming earnings call or major PR campaign, create a workback schedule with milestones and corresponding deadlines to keep the project on track. Once the survey results are back, are you creating any collateral, like a report, press release, or infographic? Don’t forget to bake that into your timeline with a few buffers for any potential snags like a sick day or delay during data collection. 

How can you differentiate your research?
Identify the whitespace. If you’re hoping to use survey data to generate earned media, it’s crucial to first explore existing surveys in your field. Journalists want something unique or “fresh” to report on, so differentiating your research from existing studies is key. Perhaps your target audience is more specific than those in other surveys, or you are focusing on a niche aspect of a broader topic. By doing due diligence, you are giving your research a better chance to stand out in a crowd.

The process of honing in on a research scope can be tedious and painstaking, but it’s crucial to facilitate a successful survey. Once the scope is thoroughly outlined, subsequent collaboration becomes more straightforward and it will help everyone involved be on the same page about expectations and deliverables.