Research Design The Fun Way

Last month I had the most amazing experience:  with some superstar colleagues, I designed a qualitative study aimed at understanding why people don’t adopt broadband.  The goal of the study was to understand barriers to broadband adoption, and we thought the best way would be to talk to people about how they communicate and why they choose to use some technologies and not others.

I’ll write more specifics about the study later, but I wanted to reflect on how exciting the research design process was for me, and share some of the reasons I felt it worked well.


First of all, my colleagues/friends/partners in crime were people I’d known for many years, fellow-travellers in the community wireless world.  But we hadn’t seen each other much since I’d moved to England.  One friend lived close to where we’d be having our full team meetings, and so all of us stayed there.  I’ve heard this called the “couch-surfing theory of participatory research.”  I don’t necessarily think you HAVE to sleep on the couch (or on the floor as we did) to do good research, but it is an excellent way of building trust, which is essential for designing and enacting good social research.

Doing your homework

Our timelines on the project were short.  Before I arrived to sleep on the couch, we had about a week to prepare.  Everyone did their homework.  We called people who had done similar studies, talked to various members of the wider team to see what they wanted to know about, and researched the funding stream that was supporting the study so we could understand what values were at play.

Trust (again) and the Efficiency of In-person Meetings

After a week of telephone calls and brainstorming, we met for a head-to-head with the entire research team.  Like sleeping on the couch, it made a big difference to be in the same room as the people we were working with – especially since some of them we hadn’t met before.  Yes, we could have done the work by video-conference, but in cases when there are big ideas at stake, and a big team of different types of personalities, meeting in person saves more time and builds more trust.  The meeting also contained what I think of as exemplary research design practices, including:

  • careful listening for requirements and for philosophical perspectives: “I believe this is important, so can we make sure that we think about it?”
  • flexibility, and core commitments:  “This is what we are really interested in, but we know that we might not find it if we ask directly”
  • productive disagreement “this could work, but it won’t fit our requirements”
  • iteration “if we ask something more like this, will that help to answer our questions?”
  • triangulation, or looking at things sideways “How about if we turn the question around”

Living-room floor categorization (The Big Picture)

The day after the full meeting, our smaller team spent the day rearranging the flipchart sheets we’d produced in the meeting, overlapping them in various ways on my colleague’s living room floor.  Photographic evidence exists of me doing “research yoga” – adding a sheet of paper to the arrangement that later became our main analytical framework.  My own living room isn’t big enough for this kind of research practice, but a big table and index cards will do; so that you can see the entire schema in one shot.

Take a Break

After all this intense work of brainstorming, finding field sites and establishing analytical categories, we all needed a break.  We took a day off.  The next day our brains were much sharper and clearer.

Tea and Peer Review

The next day, before I flew home, we met another colleague for tea and ran some of our field strategies and analytical categories by her.  Since she hadn’t been consumed with moving around our sheets-of-paper categories, she had some excellent suggestions on where there were gaps in the questions we planned on asking, as well as some creative research strategies.  We integrated what seemed to make sense, and then

Have a Beer

We relaxed!

Sadly, I couldn’t help with conducting the fieldwork.  My colleagues are out in the field now, and I’m sure they are accumulating lots of other great insights on doing high quality social science research – the fun way.