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Implementing your research project – collecting your data

Judith Barton

Judith Barton

In this blog I will be looking at collecting information for your research project. This will include three common methods of collecting data – the survey questionnaire; the focus group; and individual interviews.

1. Survey questionnaire. With questionnaires every effort needs to be made to persuade people to respond – firstly by providing an explanation of why it is important, how completing the question will help – improve services, working life – and secondly by making it as easy as possible for respondents to provide meaningful answers. This is especially important when respondents are answering questions on their own – such as a postal or online survey. The value of piloting a questionnaire cannot be overstated as a means of ensuring that you have not got any questions that are ambiguous, incomplete or unanswerable. (Piloting a questionnaire means asking a small number of people to complete it and identify any difficulties in answering questions and recording the answers. You are not interested in the actual answers, only in the ease of use of the questionnaire and the meaningfulness of the answers).

There are some key principles involved in designing a postal/online questionnaire, which include:

Clarity of instructions – for example, do you want respondents to tick a box? to circle an answer? or to ‘delete as necessary’. If instructions are not crystal clear, you may end up with returned questionnaires that you cannot analyse without difficulty; that have gaps where respondents could not work out what you wanted; or a low response rate because respondents found it all too difficult and time-consuming.

Clarity of questions – for example, do not include two questions in one. This is relevant to questions asking ‘free text’ responses, such as “please write down how easy was it to establish rapport with your coachee and did your coachee engage in the coaching process?” This should be two questions – the first about rapport; and the second about coachee engagement. Where ‘multiple choice’ questions are involved there are two points of particular importance. First, ensure that all possible options are included – often, a question will not be relevant to a particular respondent or not all respondents will know an answer, so the options of ‘not applicable’ and ‘not known’ are essential where this may be the case. This is particularly significant in online questionnaires, where the inability to provide an answer to one question often prevents the respondent from moving on to the next one. Secondly, make sure that your options are mutually exclusive – for example, if you are asking respondents to allocate themselves to an age range. ’25-35 years’ and ’35-45 years’ is not helpful for those who are 35 years old! This could better be classified as ’26-35 years’ and ‘36-45 years’, or ’25-34 years’ and ‘35-44 years’. The same principles apply to income range; length of time in employment; or any other numerical ranges.

  1. In-depth interview topic guide. This guidance is intended for face-to-face or telephone interviews.

The interview process. The first requirement for carrying out an in-depth interview on any subject is to establish rapport and agree the ‘contract’ – how the interview will be carried out, any ‘ground rules’, anonymisation or pseudonimisation, confidentiality (and the limits to confidentiality) – sounds familiar?! Many of the skills and processes of the coaching conversation are equally applicable to the in-depth research interview – except that the purpose is different. In the research interview, the purpose is to collect accurate and meaningful information, relevant to the research topic and question. So, deep listening, questioning, probing and summarising skills are all central to carrying out a successful research interview.

You may need to use some ‘closed’ questions for specific information – e.g. age group, length of time in this employment, status within the business/organisation. But primarily the information you are seeking will be gleaned through ‘open’ questions – ‘how do you feel about …?’, what do you think about …?’, ‘tell me more about what happened when …’ It is good practice to prepare and pilot an interview guide which simply lists the topics you wish to discuss without specifying the order and wording of questions – a particular topic might be covered at the beginning, middle or end of the process depending on the natural ‘flow’ of the interview.

Recording the interview. Another issue in common with coaching is recording the interview – the usual process is audio recording, which is transcribed and the interviewee asked to amend, edit or clarify and then confirm the accuracy of the transcript. This often raises issues of confidentiality, especially when a relatively small number of people are being interviewed who all work in the same, relatively small organisation or section/level of an organisation. You need to be very clear about who will have access to the recording; how the information (recorded and written) will be securely stored; and when/how it will be destroyed. Interviewees also need to know about how their information will be written up, and how you intend to protect their information. This can be through using false names, initials or numbers to identify individuals; changing gender, age or using generic descriptions of role or status within the organisation. Issues of confidentiality should be addressed at the very beginning and can be an important element of creating rapport and establishing trust.

  1. Focus groups

The process. Running a successful focus group needs an experienced and skilled facilitator, who is expert in ensuring that the group is a ‘safe place’ for all members to engage with the discussion, respond accurately, respect each other and their opinions/feelings, and all have the opportunity to contribute in the knowledge that their contribution will be taken seriously. These ‘ground rules’ need to be established at the beginning – and should be written down in the invitation to individuals to participate in the group. Again, these will be common themes to those accustomed to team coaching or group supervision. Facilitation skills are key. A topic guide to help you keep the ‘focus’ of the discussion is also crucial – this will also ensure that you do not forget to discuss all aspects of the research question.

The skills of developing rapport, listening, questioning and summarising are required for focus groups as much as for in-depth interviews, with ‘managing’ the group an additional requirement.

Recording. The discussion is usually audio-recorded, with the same provisos about confidentiality as the in-depth interview. If for some reason you (or members of the group) prefer to have contemporaneous notes taken then you will need another person to do this – it is not reasonable to expect one person to facilitate the discussion and take notes. Generally, audio-recording is a more convenient method, providing that you can use adequate equipment and that all members of the group agree to the recording.

The next blog in this series will look at analysing the information and drawing conclusions from it.