This week, with my colleague Alison Gilchrist, I had the privilege of spending time reflecting with a group of community researchers on their experience of carrying out survey interviews with local people.
The session was full of insights and we’ll try to capture these systematically in due course. Here I just want to mention those which to us were the most striking.
First, there were a couple of technical glitches as the iPad version of Survey Gizmo was not quite stable: these might thoroughly have dispirited most people, but our intrepid researchers overcame them in one way or another.
Secondly, they faced and overcame resistance and rejection from some residents (with suggestions of racism, sexism and anti-student sentiment in one case) to meet the overall target and not be far off the sampling targets.
Thirdly, we were hugely impressed at the level of collaboration between them, as they supported and encouraged one another in recruiting respondents.
There were a couple of other lessons that we might have anticipated on beforehand, but hadn’t. To begin with, the time of year makes a significant difference: it can be really hard trying to find respondents and arrange appointments in winter when it starts getting dark at 3.30 in the afternoon. Our researchers felt they would be happy to do such an exercise again, but it would need to be spring or summer.
What’s more, using iPads with automatic upload of completed data may be great from the overall research point of view, but from the interviewer’s point of view it means they’re strictly limited to one respondent at a time. If you have hard copy questionnaires that can be self-completed at least partially, you can work with a group of several when you catch them – perhaps as they emerge from a community centre event or are quiet-timing in the library. Some of our researchers were happy to do this and to accept the additional time required to key-in the responses. (And in the circumstances, as it happens, I’m comparatively relaxed about the risk of keying errors, although in other circumstances that would be a consideration).
My last thought here is to reflect on the youngest of the group - who had struggled with one or two inconsiderate intermediaries, a number of failed appointments and other difficulties – telling us how she had most success in the local park at the weekend, when dog-walkers with unpressured time were willing to sit on a bench or even walk along, tapping at the iPad, just so that we could get our precious data.