Researchers should function like doctors—seeking the root cause of problems and offering treatments to solve them.
It starts with a question.
In medicine, a patient presents with a complaint. This is accompanied by specific signs and symptoms. Signs are things that the doctor can see, i.e. elevated heart rate. Symptoms are the things that the patient is complaining of, i.e. chest pain.
In research, the business presents with a question (or problem). This is accompanied by signs and symptoms. Using the definition above, signs could be an increased churn rate and symptoms could be customer success reports of dissatisfaction.
The examination provides direction.
In medicine, the doctor will conduct an examination and observe what appears congruent, or incongruent, with the patient’s complaint.
The doctor will summarize what they have learned, i.e., “the patient presented with shortness of breath, wet skin, and chest pain.”
In research, the researcher will look at the available data and what is known. They might look at website metrics, secondary research, past primary research reports, etc.
Diagnostic tests provide additional data.
In both medicine and business, the goal is to address the most serious cases first. This means that all possibilities, also called differential diagnoses, are on the table until they are “ruled out.”
“We balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination.” —Sherock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles
The doctor will conduct diagnostic tests to “rule out” worst-case scenarios. In our example, the doctor will order an EKG, a chest x-ray, and blood tests to “rule out” a heart attack (the most deadly explanation for those signs and symptoms).
The researcher will conduct research that explores, understands, or evaluates the issues surrounding the question(s) they were confronted with. The research is the diagnostic test; it seeks to rule out unlikely explanations.
The diagnosis is the likely explanation.
With all the information available, the doctor and researcher will arrive at a likely explanation for the signs, symptoms, and data. The likely explanation is the probable diagnosis given the facts and data available, in order of severity.
The treatment plan is put in place.
The doctor and researcher will make “treatment” recommendations that address the original question(s) or complaint(s). These treatment recommendations will improve the condition of the patient or business.