P. Keerthana | November 5, 2020
How can we gain high-quality, insightful feedback from busy low-income parents when they have a million other things on their mind?
Healthy Start Child Development Centre is a daycare and education centre in Singapore that provides a full day, early childhood programme for children up to below 7 years old whose developmental and learning needs have been hindered by their social disadvantages. At the Centre, I am leading a research project in partnership with Beyond Social Services to gather parental feedback about their children’s progress and development.
Though our research surveys are carefully crafted, I have faced challenges engaging parents and obtaining high quality responses from them. Some are single parents and most have work commitments to juggle, and often they did not have sufficient bandwidth to respond to our research survey. Sometimes, even before the actual questions were asked, parents seemed intimidated by the length of the survey and their first instinctive response was “I do not have time.” or “I am too busy with other commitments”.
In order to collect the survey responses we need, I’ve honed in on a few simple techniques that make parents feel comfortable and increase their participation. I would like to share those lessons with you today.
1. Explain the purpose of the study upfront and reiterate the relevance of objectives. Our research study is designed to help parents and children at Healthy Start. However, this great goal is often overshadowed when we approach parents in person or on the phone asking them to fill out a survey. Based on my experience and also being involved in other research studies, once the word ‘survey’ is mentioned, most of the respondents immediately attempt to provide excuses that they are not free, busy or are simply not interested to participate. Instead of jumping straight to the ask when I call parents, I’ve learned to start by explaining the purpose of the call and the study, and how the results from the survey will help improve programs at Healthy Start. By clarifying objectives and goals upfront, parents feel much more willing to participate.
2. Be flexible to make the process easy and seamless for respondents. As a researcher, you should be flexible in order to make the process of gathering feedback from the survey respondents (in my context, the parents) a seamless process. At the start of the research study, the plan was to interview the parents directly when they came to pick up their children. I soon realized that they might not have much time to speak after picking up their children, so I started sending the survey through alternative mediums such as email, Whatsapp or quick phone calls. Some parents preferred for the questionnaire to be sent to their Whatsapp where they could just simply look at their phones and type their responses to the questions as they had no time to print the survey form and write their responses. Some also requested for me to do a phone call and ask the questions verbally as they had more experiences and challenges to share. In fact, at the end of the study, I realised that the different communication platforms and mediums made it much easier for me to reach out a bigger sample, still enabling me to collect high quality responses. Being flexible and accommodating parents’ needs was key to that success.
3. Keep it short. Last but not least, this may be a simple tip but an aspect which most researchers tend to gloss over when they prioritize hitting study objectives: Reduce the number of survey questions! A long list of questions can deter the respondents from answering the questions especially given that the majority may be disinterested in a survey to begin with. Reducing the number of questions and simplifying the questions can reduce friction costs and increase the probability of participation.
Researchers must remain flexible and accommodating to the diverse needs of survey respondents, especially those who are from vulnerable groups or are individuals with pressing life challenges. As researchers, our desired outcome may be to get high quality responses through intensive fieldwork and ethnographic research, but we should also be prepared to modify our data collection or fieldwork methodologies to make them simple and straightforward.
Even as we opt for more innovative fieldwork or research methods, traditional research methods or techniques (e.g. surveys) can still be useful depending on the profile of respondents we are keen to gain insights from. As you collect insights from surveys, I recommend you keep the above three things in mind.
Are you doing similar work? We would be happy to hear more insights and also get in touch with you if you so that we can learn together. Please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].
Keerthana is working as a Behavioural Scientist in Singapore’s Ministry of Health and has had experience working with the public service for 3 years. In her free time, she volunteers with non-profit organisations mainly spearheading impact evaluation projects, qualitative and participatory research.