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Building a research plan with five simple questions

A good discovery phase arms you with all the information you need to define the problem(s) you want to solve. Our discovery phase helped gather evidence that there’s a need for more awareness amongst Veterans on how to access the many programs, services, and benefits available to them through Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).

While we had a grasp on ‘what’ the problem was, we still weren’t able to answer the ‘why’: why were few Veterans accessing the benefits and services available to them? As a design researcher, the best way I know to find out is to directly ask the people VAC serves, the Veterans.

Getting started

We started by framing a research plan to meet with Veterans. A research plan is a document outlining the goals for your research, making sure there’s alignment, transparency, and shared understanding.

Your research plan should answers five simple questions:

  • What is the goal of research?
  • Who are the people involved?
  • What methods will be used?
  • What resources are needed?
  • What is the value of this work?

Before we unpack this plan, note that, like everything we do, our plans should also be iterative. They are living documents that can and must be updated throughout the process. That way we can accommodate changes in schedules, people, or direction of research. Ultimately, it serves to guide our work.

Tip: Print your plan on a large poster for the workspace so that it can be easily accessed and viewed.


Our first goal was to gain a deeper understanding of Veterans’ unmet or unspoken needs. Listening to their concerns, hopes, and life context, in their own words, after having undergone a major life transition from military to civilian life, would give us the perspective needed to reframe our understanding of the problem.

Our second goal was to document Veterans’ experiences and journey to VAC services. In order to improve how Veterans approach VAC services and how these services could meet their needs, we had to learn the end-to-end service process at the touchpoint level.


VAC serves a highly diverse group, ranging from World War II Veterans to family and children of recently released, or retired, military members. Of the total estimated 658,000 Veterans in Canada, we learnt that 600,000 are from more recent conflicts compared to the 58,000 from World War I and II and the Korean War. These are younger, modern-day Veterans with a distinctly new set of challenges, and, as a result, they’re who we chose to begin our research process. Using existing research conducted by VAC, we were able to establish key demographics and baseline profiles to guide participant recruitment.


To gather rich qualitative data, we used semi-structured interviews. As the name suggests, semi-structured interviews offer a balance between the flexibility of an open-ended interview and the focus of a structured interview, giving participants the space to share freely while relating back to the interview guide.


As researchers, we’re responsible to make sure the conditions for user research follow ethical practices. Before any research happens, it was critical for us to go over these preparation materials:

  • recruitment
  • consent
  • interview guide
  • data protection
  • privacy, confidentiality, and anonymity

To learn how we developed the above materials with the help of our policy colleagues, stay tuned for upcoming blog posts!

We also prepared logistics to:

  • gather and train a research team to conduct interview dry runs, comprised of the entire team, including product managers, developers, designers, communications, and policy members
  • make travel and remote considerations
  • make a list of supplies needed


As we design a product that seeks to solve the above problem, it’s crucial not to forget that the real impact is in meeting the needs of Veterans, their family members, and those who care for them. Learning from their stories, experiences, and perspectives helps us deliver insights to inform the design and development process, ultimately enabling a more Veteran-centric experience.

As a final note, while it requires a lot of work to get a research process right, it’s often not the hardest part. As a researcher working in the government, it’s critical to work alongside your team, partners, and stakeholders to bring everyone along for the journey. We faced a number of questions about privacy, consent, and public opinion research, however, understanding that we share an end goal of serving Veterans and that we’re stronger when we work together led us to constructive, forward-moving decisions.