Respondents & Participants Help Us, Do We Help Them?

This is in defense of the most important person in the research process.  This is in defense of the person who, without his or her participation, there would be no research.  This is in defense of the individual who caves to our pleas, posturing, and creative bribes and agrees to be a survey respondent or qualitative participant.  We think a lot about this person at the beginning stages of our research, spending considerable thought designing effective invitations and introductions.  We struggle with variations in our language and weigh incentive options hoping to maximize interest and involvement –

“There are only 10 questions, and it should take you about 3-5 minutes.”

“So that we can continue to improve the experience, we invite you to take a survey about the event.”

“In return for your time, we will make a donation to the charity of your choosing.”

Research on research has examined other approaches to invitations and introductions – such as the experiment by Edith de Leeuw and Joop Hox testing the inclusion of “I am not selling anything” in telephone introductions – and, back in the early 1990’s, qualitative researcher Alice Rodgers explored key aspects in the recruiting interview that motivate focus group participation.

But I am concerned that our interest in a particular segment of the population may only go as far as gaining a completed questionnaire or group participation while focused on minimizing nonresponse.  I am concerned that we selfishly look upon the respondent/participant as someone who can help us, not in how we can help them.  And yet that is the explicit or implicit promise we have made in coaxing cooperation – you do this for me (take part in my study) and I will do this for you (make your life better by aiding in the development of new or improved services, products, or experiences that you care about).   This is the contract that researchers enter into with their respondents/participants.  Every research effort carries with it this obligation.

While we are obligated to our participants in many ways, there is probably no other point in the research process when we owe so much as in the analytical phase.  Analysis is our pay-back time; when methodical, thoughtful analyses result in coherent, well-told stories of the relevant reality – of what has been, what is, and what could be.  Short of that, we have abused the ‘welcome mat’ respondents have laid before us as they opened the door into some aspect of their lives.

I am reminded of this obligation when I read a report filled with all the data and pertinent comments from the research study yet it is devoid of the connections within and across data that provide the insight needed to move forward in any meaningful way.  I was recently asked to review two such documents – one reporting on a quantitative survey, one on a qualitative study.  In each case, the researcher provided a ‘data dump’ – everything was reported, every response to every question, with charts & graphs, and verbatims sprinkled throughout.  The conclusions and recommendations in both reports were based on a superficial (topline) read of varying, seemingly conflicting, responses leaving the reader with a rather empty (what did it all mean?) feeling.  Maybe the responses were not conflicting, maybe there was an underlying theme that connected them, we’ll never know.  I came away from each report brokenhearted in the knowledge that another story had been lost, another obligation had been shattered.

We may have little or no control over how (or if) research sponsors actually use our research findings but that doesn’t excuse us from the responsibility we have taken on.  Our duty is to collect data, record responses, and then enter into the analysis with a deep sense of indebtedness, with the goal of discovering and telling the participant’s story. Everything we do is ultimately about the people who help us so that we can try to help them.

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