What is research but a blind date with knowledge? – Will Harvey
January is behind us now, and 2021 is rapidly picking up the pace. The coronavirus pandemic is still here, but hopefully you have found ways to cope with it and the unprecedented circumstances it has created. Whatever impact it has had on you – a job loss, a lost loved one, or even just the anxiety of existing in a time like no other in recent history – we here at Hoji wish you a happier, healthier and more prosperous 2021. Despite these challenges, life has to go on. And so like everyone else, we are looking forward to continuing to do what we do best – empowering organizations with the tools they need to generate timely and high quality data to power their decisions.
With many of the certainties of yesteryear deeply upset by the pandemic, both large and small organizations are finding themselves reconsidering their assumptions about the world. From online learning and working from home, to economic inequality and increased domestic strife, there is a lot about society that can no longer be taken for granted. Even globalization now hobbles under the weight of widespread containment measures and growing nationalist sentiment. Inevitably, understanding this emergent socio-political landscape demands an unwavering commitment to data and evidence. Often, gathering this data means going out to the field and speaking to real flesh-and-blood human beings about their circumstances, behavior and expectations. So today, we’re going to review 7 tips that will help you supercharge your field research in 2021.
I know it’s a cliché but failing to plan really is planning to fail. Surprisingly, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of foresight necessary to conduct a successful field study. For starters, it is important to ensure that your project is clearly and realistically scoped. Although it is tempting to collect as much data as possible, limiting your research questions can actually help you achieve better results by keeping you focused and maximizing your return on investment. You must also ensure that you allocate enough resources for your project. This includes not just time but also the budget to cover staff, travel, accommodation, stationery, technology, and other costs. Obtaining the necessary ethical approvals in good time is equally important to prevent undue delays down the road.
2. Questionnaire Design
Part of planning for your project involves coming up with your research questions. This means gaining absolute clarity on what you want to find out through your study. Once you know this, you must develop data collection tools that reflect your research goals. On the face of it, this might seem straightforward, but many researchers and project officers discover too late that they did not collect enough of the right data to answer their research questions. Designing effective questionnaires involves making sure that your questions are clear, logical and do not overly tax your respondents’ memory. Effective questionnaires also include in-built data quality features such as skip patterns, range checks and allowances for missing values. These help minimize accidental errors and keep enumerators focused. To learn more about developing data collection tools, please review 5 Tips for Designing More Effective Questionnaires.
3. Data Analysis Plan
This is perhaps one of the more commonly overlooked parts of executing a field study. However, embarking on data collection without an analysis plan is like starting a journey without a destination. A good data analysis plan serves as a road-map for how you are going to organize, clean and analyze your data. Among the issues covered in a data analysis plan include defining what constitutes valid data, designating the variables that will be analyzed and identifying the statistical methods and software that will be used. Besides ensuring that you are ready to start analysis as soon as you complete data collection, a sound analysis plan also helps you identify gaps and weaknesses in your data collection tools. This gives you an opportunity to fine-tune your questionnaires before it is too late to recover from mistakes.
4. Digital Data Collection
If gathering data without an analysis plan is like starting a journey without a destination, collecting data using pen and paper in 2021 is like trying to make a fire with flint stones: it is inefficient, unreliable, error-prone, and quite frankly, downright backward. With the vast proliferation of mobile data collection tools over the last decade or so, there’s no good reason to collect data using paper. Digital data collection offers many advantages in terms of speed, efficiency, data quality, cost savings and information security. And unlike in the past when you needed to be a software programmer to get a digital questionnaire going, all you need today is a pulse, a bit of motivation and the ability to type on a computer! In the space of an hour, you can digitize your data collection tools and deploy them to hundreds of enumerators anywhere in the world. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video showing how to set up a digital questionnaire, enter data and see detailed reports in 20 minutes.
5. Capacity Building
Even the best laid plans will crumble in the face of ignorance and lack of preparedness. As such, sometimes the weak link in an otherwise perfectly executed research project is simply poorly trained enumerators. Your field officers constitute the first point of contact between your respondents and your project. For this reason, it is imperative to ensure that they are thoroughly trained. Training should cover the data collection subject matter, research ethics, basic troubleshooting, interpersonal communication and even personal grooming. Care must also be taken to select enumerators with the right cultural fit. For example, a maternal health study that involves asking mothers potentially sensitive questions about their pregnancies might necessitate female enumerators drawn from the appropriate age bracket.
You may not be a fortune teller, but that doesn’t mean you should cartwheel into the future with closed eyes. Piloting your field study provides an opportunity to test the quality, appropriateness and effectiveness of your overall research strategy. This includes evaluating the adequacy of your data collection instruments and assessing the workability of your research protocol. It also involves identifying potential logistical problems such as transport, accommodation and communication difficulties. Piloting also enables you to validate your estimates for the resources required for the study including time, money and staff. In addition, analyzing the data collected during the pilot allows you to test your data analysis plan and its ability to satisfactorily answer your research questions. Above all, a well executed pilot study yields clear and actionable feedback that helps you to fine-tune your research strategy. In some cases, findings from the pilot study may even be used to mobilize funding for the main study.
The six tips we’ve already discussed can easily come to naught if not supported by consistent and thoughtful supervision. Ongoing supervision not only helps ensure compliance with the research protocol but it also facilitates open communication among staff members. In turn, this fosters discipline, improves motivation and maintains a common sense of purpose throughout the life of the project. Close supervisory support also means that emergent issues can easily be identified and resolved in a timely and effective manner. Importantly, the quality of supervision is as good as the tools used to provide it. For instance, maintaining a dedicated group chat for the project ensures that once an issue is raised, all field staff are immediately advised and need not raise the same issue again. Similarly, using real-time dashboards to monitor data collection progress means that project supervisors can quickly identify and address anomalies such as data quality and enumerator productivity issues.
Have you got more tips you would like to share with our community? Please leave a comment below!