Far too often, I have seen formative research used as a tick-box exercise. The formative research report should be a document that accompanies the project team throughout the programme design and iteration phases. It helps the team ensure that they are responding to real needs and not design interventions that no-one asked for.

I just finished leading formative research across three countries, and I wanted to share some of the things I learnt from that process, and why I think our client was pleased. This article is about the practicalities of the process, rather than how to conduct formative research itself. For a guide on how to conduct formative research, I recommend this accessible guidance from the Compass for SBC. Here are a few tips to consider before your next assignment, or when commissioning research.

Think about the research team structure.

It helps if the research team has a varied skills set. This will obviously depend on the nature of research that you are conducting. However, it is critically important that the team leader has several skills. First, they must have a strong grasp of social and behavioural theory. This will ensure that they are able to design a process that will deliver deep insights. Second, the team leader should preferably have some subject-matter expertise on the topic being researched. If not, this skill should be complemented by another team member. Finally, the team leader must be a skilled analyst and one who can put everything together to glean useful insights.

Understand what the formative research will be used for and what the broader project deliverables are.

Clear and timely communication with the commissioning organisation will be critical across the process, but especially so at the beginning. At this point, I highly recommend getting clear understanding of what the formative research will be used for. This will be key moving forward into research design and data collection methodology. I would also recommend asking questions about the broader nature of the project, including key deliverables that are expected to be produced as part of the project. This will further help project design and negotiating the inclusion of additional work to make the process as fruitful as possible.

Use theory as a starting point.

Basing research design on a solid theory or model is immensely helpful. The structure that is offered by theory will help you all the way to the point of report write-up. A model that works nearly every time is the socio-ecological model. I like to combine it with other theories to help me in data analysis, which I will discuss later.

Ask for as much time as possible.

Doing applied research in the real world is complicated and there will be surprises. If possible, ask for as much time as possible to conduct the work. This will assist in things like getting as random a sample as possible, and adding other data collection methods along the way if things are not working out as planned.

Try to phase out data collection over two or three iterations.

Linked to the previous point, try to phase data collection out over a couple of periods. Taking a moment to reflect on the information gathered and what types of additional information is needed is important. It is also a good way to quality assure and course correct. You may also want to employ different data collection methodologies over the various phases to maximise insights collected.

Put a good data analysis strategy in place.

Having high quality data is meaningless without a strategy for how to analyse it. At this point, you will be going back to the theory you started with. This may be most useful for a topic that is overly researched and where there is a wide body of literature. If the topic is relatively new or new to the context in which you are collecting data, then it might be more useful to have a plan for how emerging themes and topics will be analysed. Either way, do not miss this step!

Maintain good communication with the research team and the commissioning organisation.

It perhaps goes without saying, but one needs to have clear check-in points with the research team, the commissioning organisation and between all parties. This is probably the easiest way to ensure that all parties are doing what is expected of them and to ensure that the process is rewarding.

If you’d like to talk to me about helping your organisation put strategic structures in place to facilitate the social and behaviour change design process, email me on sarah@osmanadvisoryservices.com.

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Do you have any tips to share to make formative research useful? Please share them by commenting here!