Tuesday, September 8, 2015

NICE: it's not an acronym (Part 1)

Gathering data on products and programs designed to support low-income communities and individuals is a perennial issue of concern and rethinking in our research. While primary data collection and interviews are necessary in evaluations, it is essential that we avoid imposing on clients’ time or intrude on sensitive topics. Not only is time inherently valuable, but landing in a country and asking respondents to spend large amounts of it with us is disrespectful, as it seems to minimize clients’ value relative to the researcher’s.

To begin redressing these concerns, we have employed time-tested research techniques like offering incentives to respondents, clearly explaining the length and parameters of our surveys, and ensuring that they feel comfortable declining to be interviewed. However it is also instructive to look at the methods used and discussed by other practitioners in international development to continue to improve our research services.

Our thinking on development research methods is closely tied to that of the lean research movement, which examines the potential downsides of client interviews and proposes more socially-sensitive approaches. Underlying this idea is the observation that research methods too often fail to respect the time and sensitivities of study respondents and deploy sprawling survey instruments where concise ones will do. Carefully honing survey instruments to collect exactly the amount of data necessary for an investigation benefits respondents and researchers alike, by improving comprehensibility, quality, and timeliness.

The principles and motivations that underpin lean research have driven EA Consultants approach to field research. When building interview protocols and survey instruments, we are mindful not only of our research questions, but of respondents’ needs and experiences. We train our staff and surveyors on an approach we call: NICE: it’s not an acronym, whereby EA Consultants make efforts to ensure that respondents feel comfortable at interviews and are able to benefit from them in some way. This means researchers are polite and genial and make an effort to understand the availability of time, and need for privacy, among other factors.  It also means that interviewees are thoroughly aware of what the study is aimed at, consists of, and will be used for. Because much of our work centers around understanding and modeling individuals’ and households’ finances, sensitivity and certainty that interviewees understand the confidentiality and limited use of their information is essential for getting good data. Many of our studies additionally find individuals in tough situations following financial or health shocks that have triggered microinsurance products, for instance, which requires an especially delicate approach to confidentiality and empathy.

In a follow-up post, we share some examples of our application of these ideas to field research.