Foundational research (also referred to as generative research, exploratory research, pathfinding research, or discovery research) attempts to identify and solve a real human problem. This problem should center on a topic or area that has not been clearly defined or explored in the past.
This type of research is not necessarily focused on answering questions about the product, but is more about answering deeper questions from the user perspective (for example: how do users search for information within their roles? How do users engage with security tools in their development process?). In other words, it's about understanding people (their actions, motivations, goals) and the contexts in which they live/work. Understanding people and their context helps to reveal users' pain points or problem areas. The insights can be examined in situations such as workshops or ideation sessions to generate new ideas that could help teams address known pain points.
Foundational research is different because the research outputs have a greater business impact in the long term. The research process is more intensive because it can involve multiple methodologies within a single study to answer a broad set of research questions.
Foundational research focuses on users’ mental models, behaviors, unmet needs, and problem areas. This facilitates a holistic understanding of current and prospective users (who they are, what they believe, how they behave, why they think/feel/act the way they do). By taking an in-depth look at users outside of a single product feature or product area, teams can address more long-term user needs.
Foundational research is needed:
Before proposing a foundational research project, ask yourself the following questions:
If the topic is high priority, unexplored, and teams would get value from the research, first create a
research issue (using the problem validation template) in the UX research project, and then contact your UX researcher to explore next steps. This template should be used because foundational research is an area within problem validation.
What are common user research methods associated with foundational research? Some of the common methods for foundational research include interviews, focus groups, diary studies, field studies/contextual inquiries, competitive testing, and desk research.
Actionable Insightsissues, work with the product team to prioritize updates within the existing backlog/roadmap, conduct additional research on unanswered questions).
There are a few recent examples of foundational research projects completed by our GitLab team members:
Solution validation research assesses how well a product meets users’ needs by examining how users interact with new designs prior to development or the current product. This research is typically done later in the product lifecycle.
Alternately, foundational research helps generate new ideas by answering unknown questions about your users. This goes beyond a product, prototype, or experience to provide high-level feedback that reveals opportunities, which can be tackled within future sprints of a product roadmap.
Problem validation research seeks to learn more about a customer problem. Foundational research is a subset of problem validation that helps to develop a deeper understanding of users to generate solutions.
There are several ways to come up with a potential foundational research topic. These include looking at existing information such as internal analytics data (metrics on product usage) or examining open-ended customer feedback (SUS surveys, PNPS surveys, social media posts) for areas that need further exploration.
Another valuable resource for generating research questions is existing research insights (commonly referred to as desk research). You can examine this data across multiple studies (findings collected on a particular topic or set of related topics) to understand what is still unknown about users.