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Research Trail Guide: An introduction to learning goals

Andrew introduces learning goals: why they're important and what makes a good 'un.

It’s incredibly important to set clear goals for research projects, otherwise they can become bloated, overwhelming and ultimately less impactful on the organisation. Through our 80+ client projects, Muir Wood & Co are constantly improving how we plan research and bring clients along on that journey. This article will get you started writing your own goals.

MW&Co is a small, UK-based product research consultancy with clients around the world. Research Trail Guide is our collection of articles to help producty people level up their research game.

What are learning goals?

Learning goals are a set of questions or statements that define what we're trying to find out from a research study. And, importantly, what we're not covering.

As an example, the learning goals that I used to plan this article were:

  • Why are learning goals important when planning and running research projects?
  • How are learning goals different for alternative types of research?
  • What makes a good set of learning goals?
  • What’s the best way to write learning goals?

I know this sounds a bit like consultant waffle but we always use learning goals and here’s why:

  • We know when to stop researching: often a real challenge with exploratory research when it feels like we keep finding out new things
  • Stakeholders can’t just change the plan willy nilly: scope-creep is a big challenge for any research team, not just people starting out
  • Analysis is far more predictable: we have a good idea of the data and types of framework we'll end up with

Show me them goals!

Before I go any further on the theory, I'll give you some examples of goals from different types of research project. As always, we'll use our fictional granola delivery startup, Oat Couture, as an illustration.

Early stage discovery

This is often called "generative research" because we’re not completely certain what we’re looking for! The goals need to help us break down people's needs and behaviours into manageable pieces so that decisions can be targeted at the right customers and problems. We want to keep things open, but not boil the ocean.

Project goal

Determine the value proposition and desirability of a granola subscription business

Learning goals

  • What kinds of people eat granola regularly? < so we know who to target with our product (and who not to)
  • In what situations do people typically eat granola? < so we can package or market for these moments
  • What are the main reasons why people don’t eat granola (more often)? < so we can try to resolve/message these issues for people
  • How much are people willing to spend on granola? < so we can price the offer
  • Are granola-lovers likely to purchase a granola subscription? < an early signal if people will buy the solution

(Notice most of the goals are about the existing customer context and not the solution, this I call “funnelling”, which I’ll explain in another article).

Testing product ideas 

"Evaluative research" usually occurs when a product value proposition and target audience are more clearly defined. The goals allow us to try out different solutions in a systematic way (like experimental hypotheses), but still leave a little space for surprises and context.

In this example, we’ve identified some reasons why people do/don’t eat more granola (from discovery: price, health, brand loyalty) and we’re trying to choose what to do next to grow revenue.

Project goal

Evaluate the most effective way of increasing granola subscription revenue

Learning goals

  • Can we increase the frequency of granola consumption through discounts?
  • Can we access new customers by releasing healthier varieties of granola?
  • Are customers likely to buy more granola if it’s made by a local provider?
  • What kinds of customers resonate most strongly with each of these ideas and why?

Principles of good learning goals

Don’t have too many!

Too many goals and the project is likely to become bloated. Cramming too much into interviews makes them feel rushed and gathering too much data makes it hard to analyse everything on time.

We typically aim for 4-8 learning goals. If there are more, we'll prioritise and move the less important ones to a later sprint (or the bin). And don’t be sneaky by combining or expanding goals: e.g. “When and how do people eat granola? And why?”

Work back from the end

What would be a great set of slide headings/report sections to report back to your team? Sometimes it’s useful to have a framework or two in mind: we often end up mapping a journey (so there needs to be a goal around journeys or moments) or building empathy maps (so there needs to be a learning goal to ask about pain points, goals and tasks).

Be method-neutral

Goals should be agnostic of research methodology: they are what you’re trying to learn, not how you're doing the learning. Although interviewing is our main bag at MW&Co, we often use tools like surveys, intercepts or desk research when it makes more sense for the goal we’ve agreed on.

Although learning goals often resemble interview questions, they aren't the same thing. However, all our interview questions or activities can be tied to a learning goal they aim to achieve.

Stop talking and write

It’s much easier to get alignment from a team when we have something concrete to discuss and edit together. They don’t need to be absolutely perfect, just written down! Then we can talk some more about them. It’s also much easier to perfect goals once research is underway and we start to see the shape of the data we're gathering.

How to write decent learning goals

We’re going to write another trail guide post on how we write learning goals, but here’s a sneaky preview of the key steps:

1. Start with an actionable project goal

2. Generate learning goals with the core team

3. Refine/socialise the goals with senior stakeholders

4. Don’t wait to the end of the project to make sure the goals are working


Learning goals are super important and worth spending time on. With practice they start to come naturally when planning research to address a question or outcome. Writing good ones is just the start: wielding them effectively in an organisation is another challenge.

Our research consulting projects and training packages can provide your team with more effective learning goals for research planning and give them skills and confidence to create their own in the future. Get in touch if you’re interested in working with us.

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