Why do you need to know the Business Question, as well as the Research Question?

QuestionsPosted by Ray Poynter, 29 july 2019

Recently, I have been running quite a few ‘finding and communicating the story in the data’ workshops and this has highlighted a widespread problem for many people involved in insights and market research. The problem is a lack of clarity over the distinction between a Business Question and a Research Question. Many people seem to struggle with the interaction between the two and also why researchers need to know and understand the Business Question. This post focuses on the sorts of discussions I have been having in these workshops, and I hope that it will be of use to a wider audience.

The Short Version

  • A research question describes the task that the research needs to complete. A typical research question is ‘What are the drivers of repurchase?’
  • A business question tells you why the research is being conducted. A typical business question is ‘How can we increase sales?’
  • There should always be a business question, and the business question creates the research question.
  • When the research is completed somebody needs to link the research back to the business question.
  • If a business question is not supplied, it should be sought.
  • Questions such as ‘What does the business plan to do when it has the answers?’ and ‘What would success look like?’ can help find the business question.
  • Business questions can link to more than research questions. A project may have finance questions, manufacturing questions, legal questions, as well as research questions.
  • Most business projects are not research projects. Research is a means, not an end.

Research Questions and Business Questions – the briefing

A Research Question describes the task researchers need to do. A Business Question describes why the task is being done. Both questions are important and insights professionals need to understand the link between the two and how they fit into the wider picture.

Research Questions

The Research Question is a clear description of the problem that the research is designed to answer. Typical Research Questions include:

  • How should we segment our market?
  • What are the drivers of repurchase?
  • How satisfied are customers with our services?
  • How does the usability of the new website design compare with our competitors and our current design?

With a clear Research Question (or questions), a competent researcher can create research designs and tools (such as a sampling plan, a discussion guide, a survey, and an analysis plan) that are likely to produce answers.

Business Questions

The Business Question relates to why the research is needed. Examples of Business Questions include:

  • How can we increase sales?
  • How can we reduce churn?
  • How can we increase the number of people recommending our product?
  • How can we increase the effectiveness of our advertising?
  • What is the best way to introduce this new product so that it maximises trial?

In the commercial world, there should always be a Business Question. Research is expensive and time consuming, so there should be a clear way of linking the research to business needs. There should also be a clear way of knowing whether the research delivered what was needed.

The Business Question generates the Research Question. For example, if the Business Question is “How do we increase sales by tailoring our products to different segments?” Then we might create the following Research Questions:

  1. What is the right segmentation for this market?
  2. What do these segments want in terms of our products.

Linking the Research Question to the Business Question

When the research is completed, somebody (perhaps the agency, perhaps the insight manager, perhaps somebody else) needs to link the research results back to the Business Question – in order to advise the business of which actions should be taken. Without this linkage, the Research Question is purely an academic question.

The process by which research adds value to an organisation is by answering or helping to answer a Business Question. Conversations about topics such as ‘actionable’ and ROI relate to linking the research to the Business Question. This is why understanding both the Business Question and the Research Question is so important.

You can’t deliver a good research project without knowing the Business Question it was designed to answer.

Finding and checking the Business Question

It is not unusual for a research provider to be asked to implement a study to answer a Research Question without being told what the Business Question is. This can be a major problem, without knowing the Business Question the research provider will find it difficult or impossible to ensure the research is likely to help the business make better decisions.

For example, if a client contacts a provider and asks them to conduct a study to “Measure customer satisfaction among users of a service”, it is not clear what the Business Question might be. For example, the business question could be one of the following:

  1. Which elements of our service should we change in order to get more new customers?
  2. Which type of customers should we target?
  3. What KPIs we should use when designing the bonus payments for staff?
  4. What bonus payments should we be making with our existing KPIs.

These different possible Business Questions (and there are many other possible Business Questions) require different Research Questions. The Research Question is not necessarily adequate unless it has been assessed in the context of the Business Question.

For example, if the business wants to know which services it should change, it needs to know more than just overall satisfaction, and its needs to know more than satisfaction with specific services. To inform the decision about which services to change the Research Question needs to be expanded so that it establishes a) existing levels of satisfaction with services, b) the impact that satisfaction with those services has on sales, and c) how that differs by key sub-groups.

Alternatively, if the Business Question is what bonus payments should be made with existing KPIs, then the Research Question could be limited to measuring those items needed to establish the performance on the KPIs.

Probing to find the Business Question

If there is a Research Question, but no visible Business Question the research provider should probe to find out what the Business Question is. The first step is to simply ask what the Business Question is, and this will sometimes produce the relevant answer.

If a simple question does not provide a clear and suitable Business Question, a more laddered approach can be adopted. For example, by asking:

  1. What does the business intend to do once it has the answers to the research?
  2. How does the business plan to use these answers to help it do a)?
  3. What would success look like?

The question about success can generate some very different responses. For example, for one client success might be:

  • A single, clear recommendation.
  • A small list of alternatives that I could choose from.
  • A what-if tool that would allow me to conduct scenario planning.

Note, sometimes the person requesting the research from a vendor may also not know the Business Question. For example, the insight manager may have had a request from the yogurt brand manager to conduct a market segmentation study. This request is turned into a brief, highlighting a Research Question and quite possibly a population, a sample size and a methodology. However, unless the Business Question is identified it will be a matter of pure luck if the research turns out to be useful. Research suppliers and insight managers need to work together to identify and clarify the Business Question.

Sometimes, making tangible proposals about the deliverables will help clarify the business needs, and through that the Business Question. For example, if the researcher says something like “If I find the satisfaction levels with ten aspects of your service, plus overall satisfaction, and if I can break that down by region, age, gender and whether they are a light, medium or heavy user, will that enable you to do what it is that you need to do?” If they say ‘no’, then you can explore why not. If the say ‘yes’, you can explore which bits of this solution they plan to use and how – to make sure they have fully understood the limitations of what you are offering.

Business Questions link to more than just Research Questions

From a specific Business Question, a range of other questions can be created. For example, for the question ‘What is the best way to introduce this new product so that it maximises revenue?’, there might be the following questions:

  • Finance, ‘How will the product be financed, what are the consequences for different pricing strategies, in terms of revenue, net margin, and profit?’
  • Legal, ‘What steps need to be taken to protect the product, to protect the company, and to comply with legislation and regulation?’
  • Manufacturing, ‘What is the best way to produce the product, what level of sales would require outsourcing, what levels of sales would create difficulties in our supply chain?’
  • Marketing, ‘How will the marketing be organised, who will do the advertising, who will do the PR, what will the media mix be?’
  • Research, ‘Who are the most likely customers for the product, how should the product be messaged, and what are the predicted sales for the following three scenarios?’

Note, in this case the Research Question is just one question among many that the client is addressing. From the perspective of the researcher, the project looks like a research project. However, from the business’s perspective, the research is one part among many others. In both cases the research is important, but the perspective is different.

What about ‘Blue Sky Research’?

My claim that all Research Questions should link to a Business Question seems to contradict the idea that some companies like to conduct blue sky research, i.e. research for its own sake to see if, by chance, something useful is found. However, even in these cases there is (or there should be) a Business Question.

In these blue-sky research situations, the Business Question might be something like “Investigate the lives of people who do not listen to the radio to see if we find implications for our business, where the implications might include new products, new services, or threats to our existing business?” This sort of Business Question informs the Research Question and ensures that the researcher keeps usefulness to the business in their mind when conducting the research. I like to call this using the Business Question as a lens.

Can you suggest improvements to this description of Business Questions and Research Questions?

As I mentioned at the top of this post, I run a large number of workshops and this issue of the Business Question and Research Question is one that some of the attendees find difficult. They tend to think of research as an end product, when in fact it is a component that helps make an end product. (In the way that drill makers can think that people want drills, when in fact they want holes.)

I have written these notes to help me get the message across and to share them with anybody who wants to use them. If you have suggestions for making these notes clearer, shorter, or more complete, then please make your suggestions in the comments section below.

7 thoughts on “Why do you need to know the Business Question, as well as the Research Question?

  1. Hi Ray, since you invited feedback here goes! This is an excellent article which I have shared on LinkedIn. The comment I have refers to an issue which someone else has commented on publicly, namely the difficulty of accessing the business issues with certain types of brief. I don’t know if you want to acknowledge that and suggest some possible solutions? For example, an experienced researcher may be able to infer what the business issue is from similar projects conducted previously – and desk research can tell you a lot about the client and the category if you don’t have relevant experience. So the proposal you submit should not ignore the lack of a stated business issue, but should describe how the research will address the covert business issue. Sometimes you might get it wrong but that’s better than reverting to the old-fashioned research model of “this is how we’ll answer your questions”. Hope that’s useful. Chrissie

  2. Great article, Ray! We always talk about going from data to insights to action, and if you don’t link research questions to business questions (and more importantly involve your business stakeholders in your research from the beginning), you risk the research getting stuck at the insights stage with no action being taken. Linking research questions to business questions is fundamental to proving the value of research in an organization.

  3. Thanks Chrssie, I think this is an area that several people will be asking about. There are times, at one extreme, when the research company is not the researcher, for example, if the project is pure field and tab. In those cases, all that is needed is a clear specification. However, the ‘researcher’ (who may be an insight manager, or maybe a brand manager) needs to know the business question and needs to know how the research question will help answer the business question.

    The two things I would stress are 1) having more conversations with the client before issues the proposal (and also after winning the project), and (as you say) being very explicit about what you will be delivering and perhaps flag up some possible use cases for what is going to be delivered, and what its limitations will be.

  4. Thanks for providing this crucial perspective! It’s easy to lose sight of this given how busy both client-side and supplier-side researchers can be. The more involved suppliers can be in their clients businesses, the better we’re able to keep the business question in mind. Sometimes simple exercises like plant visits or meeting with sales team members can be invaluable.

  5. I personally find ‘inverted’ probes most useful to get to the business question (and sometimes to the real or taboo issue).

    For example, ‘what would happen if we did nothing?’ Or ‘why will this project fail?’

  6. Great reminder Ray, and a bit alarming that you are discovering this “hole” that needs drilling into! If you are unearthing this insight from your workshops, then it must be a wider issue too. No wonder there are sometimes questions about the “value” of doing research – there has to be clarity on what business objectives the research is intended to inform, even if, as you suggest, it’s just “to explore whether there are opportunities for our business to consider that we haven’t thought of yet, and a consumer might enlighten us!” The latter would definitely require a very different approach to “which of the follow opportunity areas, if any (represented by some blue skies concept ideas) are intriguing, interesting and relatable in some way, and/or can be built on to make them better ideas for your personal benefit!?
    You expressed the issue and solution with such clarity as always!

  7. Hi Ray,

    Excellent article that I wholeheartedly agree with!

    If I may add one thing: often there is no single, clear business question that the stakeholders of the client can agree on. People have multiple different business questions in their mind.

    A typical mistake is also to find a problem for the solution (on all levels, manager, insights manager, agency).

    I requires a challenging thought process to clarify the business question in the first place, and the value of the insights manager or the agency can be in saying “no” – research won’t help until the business question & research question is clear.

    Clear thinking is in many cases more productive than actual research. If it is more productive than actual research, then it is also more valuable. Who is responsible or how can we help in the process of thinking clearly?

    Haven’t made up my mind on it yet, but can there be multiple business questions and no clear thought process – and can research help identify which is the right business question (and then potentially do follow-up research to double down on it)?

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