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Research Trail Guide: Learning Goals 2 – How to write 'em

Did you read and enjoy our Introduction to learning goals a while back? Course you did! Well here's the next instalment...

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post introducing learning goals: how they help us juggle project scopes with stakeholder needs, how many to aim for and how they can make analysis easier. But that’s only half the story – next up, I’m going to explain how we go about writing them.

We are a design research and strategy consultancy, with hundreds of user interviews under our belts for B2B and B2C clients, big and small. These articles aim to share some of what we’ve learned along the way, so you can evolve your research craft.

How to write decent learning goals

Follow these steps and you’ll be a learning goal legend in no time.

1. Start with an actionable project goal

Even if we are doing a mega-exploratory project, we’ll always try to connect our plan with a product or business decision. Some examples of project goals we’ve worked on:

  • Identify the first customer segment and value prop we should target with our new product/service
  • Find opportunities to support the shopper journey on <app/site>
  • Help to prioritise features on the Q4 roadmap for <customer segment>

It’s OK to have a couple of project goals, but more than 3 means you’re probably trying to pack too much in. Consider splitting the project into smaller bits.

2. Generate learning goals with the team

We usually like to run a kick-off session with the very core team to gather context on the intent behind the project, what data needs to be researched and how the findings will be used in the organisation. We’ll ask questions like:

  • What are our scariest assumptions within this market?
  • What behaviours do we understand the least?
  • What features/services do we need context for?
  • What kind of users/customers should we be learning from?
  • What resources/studies can we build on?

We’ll get everyone to write a bunch of notes and run clustering exercises, BUT we rarely finalise the goals in a single workshop without further reflection. We’ll take everything away, write up our recommended goals and wordsmith them with the project owner.

3. Refine/socialise the goals with senior stakeholders

I deliberately try not to invite senior stakeholders to the kick-off – it’s not a good use of their time to start with a blank canvas. I prefer instead to road-test and prioritise draft goals in individual meetings. This makes them feel consulted and informed, without allowing them too much room to dominate the proceedings. 

  • You can send them a little project briefing as a pre-read if you don’t have a lot of time in the session
  • They can help to tighten the wording or scope of the goals
  • They can help to connect the project goals to broader organisational themes
  • They can identify complementary people or initiatives in the org

Most importantly, no suprises: they aren’t going to drop a bomb on the project at the end! Which brings us nicely to my final point:

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

Once data is flowing in, it’s much easier to check if a goal is paying its rent. It’s OK to change the goals, as long as this decision is well documented and publicised to the relevant people ASAP.

  • Sometimes we realise that two goals are too close together and should be merged
  • Other times we’ll uncover a bombshell that makes us rethink what the project is even about, with no sense in continuing until we’ve resolved this
  • Or the priorities of the business can change and stakeholders ask us to find out alternative information

We’ll typically operate on a one-in, one-out policy on goals, so adding a new goal means deciding which other goal to deprioritise or remove. This gives us a project framework we can point to if there’s a disagreement (which is very rare) and protects us from being pulled in too many directions at once.


If you feel that your research plans could be tighter or are struggling to define clear goals, give us an email. Building research plans and writing very clear goals are muscle memory to us and we can make a big impact on projects when we get involved early on.

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