Last week we explored how and why businesses gather and use information from the field. Today we’ll dive deeper into some of the different methods for collecting data.
There is not one “best” data collection technique — every process comes with pros and cons. Some methods are better for projects that only require quantitative data, while others are better for uncovering qualitative data.
What is the difference between quantitative and qualitative data?
Quantitative data is counted and expressed in numbers: There are five fire hydrants on Main Street. Qualitative data is based on attributes (or qualities): The fire hydrants on Main Street are yellow.
A combination of techniques that gathers both quantitative and qualitative information will yield the most comprehensive results.
So without further ado, let’s talk about some data collection methods:
Making direct observations is a simple and unobtrusive way of collecting data. Gathering firsthand information in the field gives the observer a holistic perspective that helps them to understand the context in which the item being studied operates or exists.
The observations are recorded in field notes or on a mobile device if the observer is collecting data electronically (like with Fulcrum).
Observation is an effective method because it is straightforward and efficient: It doesn’t typically require extensive training on the part of the data collector, and he or she is generally not dependent on other participants.
The biggest drawback of observational data is that it tends to be superficial and lack the context needed to provide a complete picture.
Questionnaires are a popular means of data collection because they are inexpensive and can provide a broad perspective. They can be conducted face-to-face, by mail, telephone, or Internet (in which case, they can include respondents from anywhere in the world).
Surveys are often used when information is sought from a large number of people or on a wide range of topics (where in-depth responses are not necessary). They can contain yes/no, true/false, multiple choice, scaled, or open-ended questions — or all of the above. The same survey can be conducted at spaced intervals to measure change over time.
Some of the advantages of surveys are that respondents can answer questions on their own time, and may answer more honestly as questionnaires provide anonymity (whether real or perceived). And while the responses may be biased on the part of the participant, they are free from the collector’s bias.
The main drawbacks are low response rate, delay in response, and the possibility of ambiguous or missing answers (and since questionnaires are a passive tool, it’s usually not possible to receive clarification).
Tips for designing a survey
Interviews can be conducted in person or by phone, and can be structured (using survey forms) or unstructured.
The downsides are that interviews require time and money to plan and execute — including interviewer training — and they require more cooperation on the part of the interviewee, who may be uncomfortable sharing personal information.
But there are also many benefits to interviews: They don’t require the literacy on the part of the respondents, for one thing. For another, they allow the interviewer (especially a well-trained one) to uncover deep insight by clarifying and deep-diving into the respondent’s answers, as well as by collecting nonverbal data.
Telephone interviews are less expensive than in-person interviews, and provide access to anyone in the world with a phone. They also provide a measure of anonymity that may encourage the respondent to be more forthcoming with their answers. But they lack the rich data of face-to-face interaction.
A focus group is simply a group interview of people who all have something in common. They provide the same type of data as in-person interviews, but add a social element and offer a broader understanding of why a group thinks or behaves in a particular way.
Focus groups are useful when examining cultural values or other complex issues, but also have their drawbacks. Lack of privacy or anonymity can present a major obstacle, as can “group think,” or the potential for the group to be dominated by one or two participants.
These sessions can be time-consuming and difficult, and require a leader who is skilled at creating a relaxed, welcoming environment, drawing out passive participants, and even dealing with conflict.
While those are the four most common data collection techniques, there are as many collection methods as there are types of data, such as self-reporting, document review, testing, oral histories, and case studies — just to name a few.
Ready to start collecting data? Check out our Guide to Field Data Collection for tips, tricks, and best practices!