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Why you should involve clients in research planning from day one (if you can)

Helen Taylor

We put a lot of effort into research planning. But often, we do this in order to write a proposal, in response to a brief. So we do it for the client, but not with the client. 

A recent piece of work showed me the value of doing this planning with the client, and made me wonder whether we need to find ways to adjust our approach, to do this crucial thinking more collaboratively.

Research planning: the traditional approach

Typically, for open tender procurements (an advertised contract opportunity inviting bids) we will respond to a published client brief with a proposal describing our research approach. And in order for us to describe an approach we have to start with a significant amount of research planning.

For us this means translating what is written in a client brief, into a set of project goals and research questions, and then into a set of research activities which (when delivered) will answer those research questions and meet those goals.   

The client isn’t involved in this first hand, and so misses out on the opportunity to further influence, and learn from the process and rigour. I feel this can be a huge disadvantage to both the client and the project. 

A new way of engagement

A recent small project (to critique a client’s approach to surveying their user base) made me reflect about the value it brings for a client to be directly involved in this research planning earlier on. 

On this occasion our client wanted us to review their survey approach, rather than asking us to execute research on their behalf. 

So we ran a research planning workshop with the client and we took them through our research planning approach step by step. 

In the workshop we worked with the client to articulate their survey goals.  We then collectively broke down each project goal into a number of specific broad research questions. Then I was able to quickly turn this into a bank of survey questions for them to use in the future surveys.

Benefits of early client involvement

I found 3 main benefits to having the client directly involved in this early research planning:

  • The goals and research questions came from the client

The workshop drew out the research goals and questions directly from the client, so there was a lower risk of anything being missed.

Without the client present: The goals may have been limited to the detail from the written brief, and may have missed other important details which only the stakeholders could bring. 

  • Identified goals outside of scope

We heard from the client about their research goals which were outside the scope of surveying their user base.  Although these goals weren’t important for the project, they were important to capture for the client. We were still able to record these goals and then give them practical recommendations about what to do next. 

Without the client present: These extra goals would not have been captured.

  • Stakeholders were onboard early

As the key stakeholders were involved and contributed to each of the research planning steps, the stakeholders understood the robust process to get to the output of the bank of research questions.  This has made it easier and quicker to start to develop their first surveys. 

Without the client present: Further sessions may have been needed with the client to involve them in the process and get their buy-in, possibly resulting in changes and delays.


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