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Home » Methods » Smart PICO

Smart PICO

Differences in the methodological approach
2 project managers
Duration of a workshop
  • Digital whiteboard: Miro or Mural OR shared document (e.g., MS Teams)
  • Video conferencing: Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc.
Best Practices

Explanation of the method

  1. Create a shared list where you work on the following parameters for your research question:
    • Problem: what is the problem situation? What is the actual issue?
    • Population: Who is affected by this problem? Gender? Age? Characteristics?
    • Intervention: What measures are being considered or already in place to address the problem?
    • Comparison: Are there possible alternative measures that can be taken to solve the problem?
    • Outcome: What is the desired result?
    • Study Design: Do you want to conduct a qualitative or quantitative study? Should the analysis take the form of a survey, observation, etc.?
    • Specific/Measurable: How can we measure the success of our study?
    • Acceptable/Realistic: What is feasible? How can you involve the project participants in the decision? For example, by offering choices from a variety of alternatives.
    • Time: When should the goal be achieved? When should the study be carried out?
  2. Use the given parameters to define your research question or to design your interview guide. Try to include all parameters. Your research question should be short and concise according to the SMART criteria.
  3. The parameters can be adjusted if necessary, but should not deviate too much from the actual parameters and still cover a large part of them.


  • The method helps to structure the research interest.
  • The method helps to keep the research interest in mind and not to deviate from the actual research question when creating the study design.
  • The individual parameters are helpful in setting priorities in the project.


  • Even with this tool, developing research questions requires prior literature review and discussion among project members.
  • The process of researching and formulating a question is iterative. Attempts should be made to go back from research to the question throughout the process to verify that they still match.
  • For visionary goals, it is often necessary to first act non-specifically and define more specific sub-goals. This is often neglected in the Smart PICO method because it works with specific formulations.

Advice from practice

  • The aspect of alternative measures (Comparison) is not necessary for every project and can be adapted or omitted.
  • In scientific writing, research questions can be shorter than in direct scientific communication with civil society. Consider your target audience when creating your research question.
  • This method is not an alternative to literature review; on the contrary, information from the literature will help you determine the Smart PICO criteria.
  • Use signal words when writing your research question: A "how" or "why" question is often qualitative, while a "what" question is quantitative. Other signal words include e.g., perceive, compare, explore.
  • If you want to learn from good practices for research questions, be aware that the question is often written as a research objective, without a question mark at the end
Please note that the tools and methods were created as of August 2024 and all Miro Boards are editable.
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