Doing research can benefit you in many ways. You gain insights with which you can make informed decisions and take appropriate actions. Provided you do it right. But if you don't, research will not (or hardly) provide you with what you want and will only cost you unnecessary time. In this blog, I will mention a few pitfalls to watch out for to help you on your way:
- You are researching because you have to. You start a research project because you need the information. For example, to improve your project, provide accountability, feed decision-making, or create support. However, think about what you want to achieve with the research. Do not research because it fits the process or because it is the way it should be done when you don't need that information.
- Asking the wrong research question ultimately prevents you from getting the answers you are looking for. Formulating the right research question is essential to obtaining the information you need. Formulate the research question based on the information you need. The research question often cannot be changed during the research. If you are collecting information, you can not deviate too much from this during the data collection. Pay attention to this when formulating your research question.
- Choosing the wrong research method. The research method you choose depends on the type of information you need. Hence, don't choose a questionnaire if you want to know underlying motivations. Or: don't choose interviews if you want a lot of numbers and percentages from a large group of people.
- Becoming lost in the amount of information. Once you have gathered all the information, the key is not to get lost in the information and get back to your research question. The results of a research study are not a collection of facts but a coherent answer to your question. Therefore, the facts are clustered so that connections are transparent (and thus formulated), and the conclusions are a logical consequence and answer your question.
- Doing nothing with the results. Just doing a survey won't get you there. The results need to be implemented. How you do this depends on the research you have done. Learning moments or action points often emerge logically from a research study. Sit down for this (with colleagues) to formulate an action plan or implementation plan. Formulate concrete agreements with colleagues about what you will do with the information.
Want to read more about how to go through the steps of doing research properly? Then read these previously published blogs:
- How to arrive at the right research question
- How to choose a suitable research method
- How to conduct data collection?
- Tips for analyzing and reporting research
Each research question requires its own way of researching. For some research questions, the answer is best found by doing qualitative research. For other inquiries, quantitative research is more appropriate. But what exactly do qualitative and quantitative research entail? In this blog, I will explain this to you.
Qualitative research is aimed at obtaining information about what matters and why. It provides in-depth information by examining the underlying motivations, opinions, wishes, and needs of the research group.
The following methods are appropriate for qualitative research:
- Individual in-depth interview or a Duo interview;
- Group discussion;
- Mystery guests.
Quantitative research focuses on quantity. It gives you numerical results about a specific group. To speak of representative research, you need a minimum number of participants within your target group who give their opinion. For this, you can draw a sample. When this sample has a specific size and characteristics (depending on the research question), statements can be generalized to the entire target group.
For quantitative research, a (digital) questionnaire/survey is primarily used as a method. The answers from the questionnaire are then processed in a data processing program (e.g., Excel or SPSS), after which you can conduct analysis and calculation. Percentages and numbers usually describe the results.
In my next blog, I will explain for which answers it is best to do qualitative research and when, on the contrary, it is wiser to choose quantitative research.
A questionnaire is a commonly used research method to measure the effects of an activity, project, or program. The question is whether a questionnaire is always an appropriate method. Do you want to make statements about the entire target group and collect a lot of data? Then it is a smart method. Do you want insight into the underlying motivations and opinions of your target group? Then a questionnaire is a less wise choice. Why is a questionnaire a good method, and why a less good method? Here you will find the pros and cons explained:
- It allows you to survey a large group of people. This is necessary if you want the results of your research to be representative of the entire research group. You can then make statements like: '80% of the visitors say they learned something from the activity'.
- An interviewer or observer cannot influence answers; this ensures objectivity.
- The way of asking questions is standardized, ensuring unambiguous answers.
- In-depth statistical analyses can be made, for example, to subgroups or to establish correlations.
- You have little influence on the response rate, often resulting in a relatively low response rate with this method.
- The respondent cannot tell his story freely; the answers are primarily pre-programmed.
- Respondents tend to answer socially appropriately, even when it is anonymous.
- Underlying motivations are difficult to ascertain with a questionnaire, making the questions and answers superficial. There is no option for follow-up questions.
- Respondents cannot complete the questionnaire. If they quit at the halfway point, it is of little use.
- You can ask a limited number of questions, as response rates drop the more extended the questionnaire is.
In conclusion, questionnaires can be a valuable research tool when applied correctly and when the research objectives align with the method's strengths. They are particularly useful for gathering data from a large and diverse audience, enabling researchers to make generalizations and perform in-depth statistical analyses. However, the limitations of questionnaires, such as potential response bias, inability to probe underlying motivations, and low response rates, should be carefully considered. Depending on the research goals, it may be necessary to complement questionnaire data with other research methods, such as interviews or focus groups, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the target group's opinions and motivations
After formulating your goals, designing the research instrument, and collecting information, it is time to analyze and report the data. Some things to keep in mind when analyzing and reporting your research:
- Analysis and reporting go hand in hand in practice, while they are actually two different steps that can be done separately. By performing the steps at the same time, you keep the overview and save time.
- Before you start the analysis, it is good to check whether the fieldwork was carried out and recorded correctly. You check whether you have a sufficient response rate (especially for quantitative research), the representativeness of your data and whether you were able to collect adequate information (especially for qualitative research)
- Describe your research group. Especially in quantitative research, you may be asked questions about how you arrived at your conclusions and data.
- The core of the analysis and reporting is answering your sub-questions. Therefore, always consider whether the information also answers the sub-question and whether it adds anything.
- In qualitative research, you're going to group the answers by topic and sub-question. In quantitative methods, you will look at percentages, mean scores, and correlation with a data processing program like excel or spss.
- Determine the suitable form for your report. Consider the report's purpose (to inform, persuade, provoke action, etc.) and who the target group is.
- Make connections between the details and conclusions in your report. Which answers to sub-questions enhance each other? Where do you see links throughout the study? Pull the paragraphs and chapters together with these connections and conclusions.
The range of research methods on offer is enormous, so you can sometimes not see the wood for the trees. That's why I give you a handy overview of different research methods in this blog. With some of the research methods, you will find a link to a blog with more information.
In this overview, I characterize quantitative and qualitative research methods. Would you like to know more about these? In my previous blog, 'When to choose: qualitative research or quantitative research,' you will find information about the difference between these two types of research.
- Group discussion: Conversation or discussion with several people about one or more topics.
- Individual interview: Structured or unstructured conversation with one person in which you go into detail about one or more topics.
- Literature Review: Research in which you use research, theories, and information already available (e.g., from a library or on the Internet) based on a problem statement.
- Mystery visitor: Research method in which you use experts who behave as customers or visitors and assess the quality of service or organization.
- Observing: Observing actual behavior and recording responses.
- Questionnaires: Recording data and opinions of groups of people using a pre-prepared questionnaire. You can have this questionnaire completed digitally or in writing by a large group of people.
- Tear tickets: A research method in which you get a large group of people to answer one question quickly. This can, for example, be done by giving the audience a piece of paper with a statement on it before a show. After the show, the audience can indicate whether they agree or disagree with the statement by making a tear in the piece of paper.
- Existing source research: conducting research using existing datasets of quantitative data that other researchers have already collected. You then use the dataset again to answer a new question.
- Informal conversations: During an informal conversation that is already taking place, you will ask a few specific questions. You record the answers afterward and repeat them to multiple respondents. The respondents are not aware that they are participating in a survey.
- Ten-minute interviews: Short interviews to find out about respondents' experiences, opinions, and motivations. It is stated in advance how long the interview will last. You can use a timer.
- Tracking: following respondents (e.g., visitors to a museum or customers in a store) through a distinct area. This can be done through the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth of their own devices, but also with a device that you give to respondents, with which you follow them.
- Logbook: A document (digital or written) in which you have visitors or participants record events and specific data.
Observation is a method of finding out and recording actual behavior. You choose the observation method to determine how activities, programs, or projects are received and when you want to register spontaneous reactions. While observing, you make an objective report of what you see; there is no direct contact with the respondents. I give you some tips on how to observe effectively:
- When observing, use an observation list. With a structured observation list, you consistently record objective information, and you can quickly analyze the collected data.
- While observing, show an open and inquisitive attitude. Avoid jumping to conclusions about behaviors. Make an objective report of what you see.
- Name or record verbatim what you actually see happening, not what you think is happening.
- Don't just look at random gestures. A loose gesticulation doesn't say much. Its meaning becomes understandable only when combined with other gestures and signals.
- Depending on the situation, make it known that you will observe people, for example, if you will follow them during the activity.
- Combine observations with a (short) interview to indicate what you have seen.
- By making many observations, you can make representative statements about your research topic or group with supporting figures.
- The observers should be given clear instructions so that everyone records the observed in the same way and that interpretation of observation is avoided. To make different observers equal, you can do the first observations together.
- When observing, you can use all kinds of technical aids. There are various tracking devices on the market, but you can also consider a stopwatch to help you measure how long someone is using something.
- Always observe and consider the circumstances. If someone is standing in a cold room with their arms tightly crossed, chances are they are not defensive and closed, but simply cold.
- Make a schedule of when to observe in advance and do so at different times under different conditions so that the picture you get is as varied and complete as possible.
- Disrupt the situation you are observing as little as possible. Thus, do not talk to those being observed and be as inconspicuous as possible.
There are different things to consider when organizing and conducting a group interview than during an individual interview. With group interviews, you are dealing with group dynamics. Below are 10 tips for leading a group interview:
- Start organizing the group discussions well in advance. You otherwise run the risk that not enough people can join. Scheduling the group interview well ahead of time increases the likelihood that everyone will attend.
- Make sure the minutes are written by someone who is experienced in it. Writing the minutes for a group discussion is more complicated because of the dynamics of several participants speaking.
- If you are not sure the reporter will be able to keep up with the live coverage, then make a video or audio recording of the interview and write out the minutes later. Ensure that the recording equipment is present and ready to use before you decide to use the equipment.
- Make sure your interlocutors feel comfortable. Provide them with a pleasant ambiance, something to drink, and a snack.
- Have everyone at the table introduce themselves so that everyone knows with whom they are sitting at the table. Create a cheat sheet with names and functions/backgrounds for the participants at the table.
- Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak.
- Pay attention to the body language of the participants.
- Monitor time and stick to the agreed time frames. It's disappointing when you don't get to ask all of your questions.
- Explain what will be done with the results of the interview. Also, explain what you will do with the minutes made of the exchange (including the audio recording). Will you be the only one who has access to these files, or will you publish it? In the latter case, make sure you get feedback on the minutes before publishing them.
- Summarize during the interview and relay your statement back to the group to make sure everybody understood the message the same way.
10 tips for holding a group discussion http://bit.ly/1L0zJW6
When having a group discussion, make a map of the table with names and function as a cheat sheet http://bit.ly/1L0zJW6
During a group discussion, make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak http://bit.ly/1L0zJW6
Pay attention to the body language of the participants during the group discussion http://bit.ly/1L0zJW6
In my previous blogs, I explained how to determine the right research question and how to choose the proper research method. The next step in the research process is data collection. While gathering data, there are several things you need to keep in mind. I'll give you some tips:
- Determine your research population. It is not always necessary to interview everyone to get a representative picture. Especially in the case of large numbers, such as the voting behavior of all Dutch citizens, a representative sample is drawn.
- Keep a close eye on representativeness while collecting the data (in quantitative research). Does everyone in your sampling actually cooperate? If your subgroups are not equally represented, you can still question the missing respondents or decide to leave out a particular subgroup.
- Check whether you have enough information, especially in qualitative research. If this is not the case, you can conduct an additional interview.
- The data must be registered in a way that the data is clearly arranged and ready for analysis. Having a large pile of completed questionnaires is in itself insufficient for analysis. The best way to register results depends on the research method you have used.
If you are going to conduct research, it is essential to formulate the right research question. The purpose of the research and the research question indicates what the setup of the research will contain. A good research question ensures that you have the correct information to actually work at the end of the research. There are five steps to formulating the right research question:
Step 1: Why research?
The first step in deciding on a proper research question is to answer the question, "why are you going to research, evaluate, or monitor? Answering these questions will give you an idea of the type of research question you will ask, what information you need, and which answers you need. Do you want to improve a project, or do you want to justify your project? With both goals, you're going to be evaluating, but the answers you wish to obtain afterward are very different—improvements versus demonstrated effects.
Step 2: What information do you need?
Based on your goal (Step 1), you can determine what information you need to meet this goal. What do you need to know to meet your goal? Do you want to improve goal attainment? If so, you need information in the form of points for improvement (what is going well and what could be improved?) Is the goal to legitimize your project for funders? Then you need information in the form of the impact of the project. Do you want better alignment with the target group, and is this the goal of your research? Then you need information in the form of characteristics, wishes, and needs of the target group. Always ask yourself the question: what am I going to do with this information? This will enable you to set priorities.
Step 3: Formulating a research question
Based on your research goal and the accurate description of your information needs, you can formulate your research questions. Formulate these questions as precisely as possible. When preparing the questions, remember that you or a researcher will soon be answering them. So will you achieve your research goal, and can you take follow-up action if you get answers to these questions?
Step 4: Preconditions
Various preconditions can be linked to the research. It is essential to gain insight into this in the phase of formulating the research question. Preconditions you need to consider include time, budget, availability of specific data, and so on.
Step 5: What will the final result look like?
Research results can be delivered in a variety of forms. <LINK to blog>Digitally, physically, a report, a fact sheet, a book, a video, an article, a discussion session, a presentation, a website, a PowerPoint presentation, an infographic, an animation, a magazine, a flyer, to name a few. And what is communicated therein? Impacts, arguments, or areas for improvement. Make a representation of what you would like to get at the end of the research and whether you can use it to take your intended action, convince others, improve policies or activities or make a decision.
A questionnaire is used as a measuring tool to answer your research questions. It is essential that you can use the results of the questionnaire. The quality of the questionnaire determines the quality of the data collected. It is therefore important to carefully formulate the survey questions. Here are a few tips and rules of thumb to help you formulate well-structured questions:
- Keep the questions simple. Don't use complex language, and consider your audience in your choice of words. For example, "What do you prefer to do in your free time?" is better than "How do you prefer to relax?
- Provide an unambiguous interpretation. 'I am satisfied with the quality of the exhibition' is an example of how not to do it. What is quality? The type of artwork, interactive elements, crowds, venue, the light?
- Formulate the question as precisely as possible. Refer to place and time and mention numbers. Try to delineate questions such as "Have you recently..." to a specific period, for example, "Have you in the past six months...".
- Avoid vague wording and avoid terms like ‘often’ and ‘sometimes’, also in the answer categories. Everyone interprets often and sometimes differently, so it is better to ask for a specific number of times.
- Avoid duplicate questions. No 'and' or 'or' in the questions. A question like "What did you think of the performance and the actors?" cannot be answered with one answer if the audience thought the performance was a little off, but the actors were excellent.
- Do not formulate (double) denials in the question. A negation in the question is confusing. For example, 'I am not dissatisfied with what I have seen' or 'I don't like to visit a museum.'
- Ask short questions.
- Be careful with examples in the question and suggestive questions. Chances are that the respondent may only think of these examples. This can happen with a question like 'How often do you undertake a cultural activity such as a visit to a museum or a play.' The respondent will be inclined to think that a visit to a festival or a dance performance is not part of the equation.
- Make sure the question measures up: The question should answer the research question. If you want to know if an exhibition inspired someone, do not ask how long they stayed. It is possible that the length of stay was longer or shorter because the respondent had to wait or had to leave earlier and had no choice.
- The answer categories to the questions should be mutually exclusive, and it should be clear to the respondents which answer to tick/indicate.
- Provide the same direction in the response order for scale questions. If at one point you are asked to rate something on a scale from totally disagree to totally agree (increasingly positive) and a few questions later on a scale from very satisfied to very dissatisfied (increasingly negative), there is a chance that people will fill this out incorrectly.
- For scale questions, try to keep the scale the same for each question. So do not use a scale of 1 to 5 for one question and a scale of 1 to 7 for another. This also makes it easier to analyze.
- See which scale fits best. A rating scale of 1 to 10 offers a lot of variation but is also more challenging to interpret (for some, a 10 is good, others think a 10 is perfect and therefore don't give it easily). A 2 (good/bad) or 3-point scale (good, average, bad) offers minimal variation and makes it harder to answer a question if it is an opinion (opinions are typically nuanced). An even scale causes a respondent to have to choose; with an odd scale, you offer the opportunity to sit safely in the middle.
- Also, provide the option of a reasoned non-answer, for instance, by creating an answer option like not applicable or don't know/no opinion.