1.0 Analyzing and Interpreting Information
Analyzing quantitative and qualitative data is often the topic of advanced research and evaluation methods courses. However, there are certain basics which can help to make sense of reams of data.
1.1 Always start with your research goals
When analyzing data (whether from questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, or whatever), always start from review of your research goals, i.e., the reason you undertook the research in the first place. This will help you organize your data and focus your analysis. For example, if you wanted to improve a program by identifying its strengths and weaknesses, you can organize data into program strengths, weaknesses and suggestions to improve the program. If you wanted to fully understand how your program works, you could organize data in the chronological order in which customers or clients go through your program. If you are conducting a performance improvement study, you can categorize data according to each measure associated with each overall performance result, e.g., employee learning, productivity and results.
1.2 Basic analysis of “quantitative” information
(for information other than commentary, e.g., ratings, rankings, yes’s, no’s, etc.):
- Make copies of your data and store the master copy away. Use the copy for making edits, cutting and pasting, etc.
- Tabulate the information, i.e., add up the number of ratings, rankings, yes’s, no’s for each question.
- For ratings and rankings, consider computing a mean, or average, for each question. For example, “For question #1, the average ranking was 2.4”. This is more meaningful than indicating, e.g., how many respondents ranked 1, 2, or 3.
- Consider conveying the range of answers, e.g., 20 people ranked “1”, 30 ranked “2”, and 20 people ranked “3”.
1.3 Basic analysis of “qualitative” information
(respondents’ verbal answers in interviews, focus groups, or written commentary on questionnaires):
- Read through all the data.
- Organize comments into similar categories, e.g., concerns, suggestions, strengths, weaknesses, similar experiences, program inputs, recommendations, outputs, outcome indicators, etc.
- Label the categories or themes, e.g., concerns, suggestions, etc.
- Attempt to identify patterns, or associations and causal relationships in the themes, e.g., all people who attended programs in the evening had similar concerns, most people came from the same geographic area, most people were in the same salary range, what processes or events respondents experience during the program, etc.
- Keep all commentary for several years after completion in case needed for future reference.
1.4 Interpreting information
- Attempt to put the information in perspective, e.g., compare results to what you expected, promised results; management or program staff; any common standards for your products or services; original goals (especially if you’re conducting a program evaluation); indications or measures of accomplishing outcomes or results (especially if you’re conducting an outcomes or performance evaluation); description of the program’s experiences, strengths, weaknesses, etc. (especially if you’re conducting a process evaluation).
- Consider recommendations to help employees improve the program, product or service; conclusions about program operations or meeting goals, etc.
- Record conclusions and recommendations in a report, and associate interpretations to justify your conclusions or recommendations.
2.0 Reporting Results
- The level and scope of content depends on to whom the report is intended, e.g., to funders / bankers, employees, clients, customers, the public, etc.
- Be sure employees have a chance to carefully review and discuss the report. Translate recommendations to action plans, including who is going to do what about the research results and by when.
- Funders / bankers will likely require a report that includes an executive summary (this is a summary of conclusions and recommendations, not a listing of what sections of information are in the report — that’s a table of contents); description of the organization and the program, product, service, etc., under evaluation; explanation of the research goals, methods, and analysis procedures; listing of conclusions and recommendations; and any relevant attachments, e.g., inclusion of research questionnaires, interview guides, etc. The funder may want the report to be delivered as a presentation, accompanied by an overview of the report. Or, the funder may want to review the report alone.
- Be sure to record the research plans and activities in a research plan which can be referenced when a similar research effort is needed in the future.
3.0 Who Should Carry Out the Research?
Ideally, the organization’s management decides what the research goals should be. Then a research expert helps the organization to determine what the research methods should be, and how the resulting data will be analyzed and reported back to the organization.
If an organization can afford any outside help at all, it should be for identifying the appropriate research methods and how the data can be collected. The organization might find a less expensive resource to apply the methods, e.g., conduct interviews, send out and analyze results of questionnaires, etc.
If no outside help can be obtained, the organization can still learn a great deal by applying the methods and analyzing results themselves. However, there is a strong chance that data about the strengths and weaknesses of a product, service or program will not be interpreted fairly if the data are analyzed by the people responsible for ensuring the product, service or program is a good one. These people will be “policing” themselves. This caution is not to fault these people, but rather to recognize the strong biases inherent in trying to objectively look at and publicly (at least within the organization) report about their work. Therefore, if at all possible, have someone other than the those responsible for the product, service or program to look at and determine research results.
4.0 Contents of a Research Report — An Example
Ensure your research plan is documented so that you can regularly and efficiently carry out your research activities. In your plan, record enough information so that someone outside of the organization can understand what you’re researching and how. For example, consider the following format:
- Title Page (name of the organization that is being, or has a product/service/program that is being researched; date)
- Table of Contents
- Executive Summary (one-page, concise overview of findings and recommendations)
- Purpose of the Report (what type of research was conducted, what decisions are being aided by the findings of the research , who is making the decision, etc.)
- Background About Organization and Product/Service/Program that is being researched
- Organization Description/History
- Product/Service/Program Description (that is being researched)
- Problem Statement (in the case of nonprofits, description of the community need that is being met by the product/service/program)
- Overall Goal(s) of Product/Service/Program
- Outcomes (or client/customer impacts) and Performance Measures (that can be measured as indicators toward the outcomes)
- Activities/Technologies of the Product/Service/Program (general description of how the product/service/program is developed and delivered)
- Staffing (description of the number of personnel and roles in the organization that are relevant to developing and delivering the product/service/program)
- Overall Evaluation Goals (eg, what questions are being answered by the research)
- Types of data/information that were collected
- How data/information were collected (what instruments were used, etc.)
- How data/information were analyzed
- Limitations of the evaluation (eg, cautions about findings/conclusions and how to use the findings/conclusions, etc.)
- Interpretations and Conclusions (from analysis of the data/information)
- Recommendations (regarding the decisions that must be made about the product/service/program)
- Appendices: content of the appendices depends on the goals of the research report, eg.:
- Instruments used to collect data/information
- Data, eg, in tabular format, etc.
- Testimonials, comments made by users of the product/service/program
- Case studies of users of the product/service/program
- Any related literature
5.0 Some Pitfalls to Avoid
- Don’t balk at research because it seems far too “scientific.” It’s not. Usually the first 20% of effort will generate the first 80% of the plan, and this is far better than nothing.
- There is no “perfect” research design. Don’t worry about the research design being perfect. It’s far more important to do something than to wait until every last detail has been tested.
- Work hard to include some interviews in your research methods. Questionnaires don’t capture “the story,” and the story is usually the most powerful depiction of the benefits of your products, services, programs, etc.
- Don’t interview just the successes. You’ll learn a great deal by understanding its failures, dropouts, etc.
- Don’t throw away research results once a report has been generated. Results don’t take up much room, and they can provide precious information later when trying to understand changes in the product, service or program.