Survey Design Love.

Confession: I’ve been a survey lover for as long as I can remember.

I realize many people approach them with dread — it becomes yet another thing one must do, a task, a barrier preventing you from using the app or website or service you want to us. It’s the people milling around outside of grocery stores, ready to poll you about political candidates. It’s the signs people hang on their doors — no soliciting. All of these sort of negative associations.

What I like about surveys is more the process that goes into building them and how people record and work with the data they receive. There is a lot of psychology and narrative that goes into the preliminary design and coding that comes after we have the data. Not to mention the process of interviewing… Each piece presents new and interesting challenges for the researchers and team setting out to run a survey.

Second confession I need to make: I just finished my General Assembly course on User Experience Design, and spent a lot more concentrated time than I have in a while thinking through the layers of survey design and data collection. It was truly wonderful and useful to me… and gave me a lot of time to nerd out about surveys.

For my current projects, I am thinking about the best ways to structure and develop surveys that will make the experience less awkward and forced for the data collector and for the person responding to the survey. In many ways, I think some of the weakness we encounter in data collection about difficult topics, like informal business, could be addressed through better design/systems thinking.

Some of the typical problems I encounter in the work are:

1) Low response rates, which means the group that responded gives me a strange and inaccurate data set to use when describing the community I am working with

2) Questions are sometimes unclear/worded inappropriately given the audience we are working with. I think the value of language and word associate often gets overlooked. We need to account for the way the question will be received and also for the types of answers we might be able to get. Are we asking questions clearly in the right lexicon? Are we interpreting the responses in the appropriate weight/meaning of the local ways people talk about business?

3) Information Capture Beyond the Page: often the most important and enlightening pieces of information (the new rabbit holes to go exploring, if you will) will not fit nicely into a question topic or predicted category. Getting researchers who are ready and able to follow these threads of thought, record them, and offer some sort of analysis is… rare and challenging. Some people are truly excellent at this task! They also, however, need to make an effort to collect and protect this information, so that it does not get lost in the coding process.

4) Plain and Simply: the surveys are extremely long and fatiguing for both parties. These surveys will not generate the information you need and the survey administrator will not stay focused and engaged with the task beyond a few runs. If your respondent sighs/looks at the clock/looks bored as a noticeable change in mood, the design is off. A wise mentor told me once I get 10 questions and often within those 10 questions, I can answer 70% of my questions overall.

These are all issues I am attempting to address in my redesign process. I apologize in advance to the friends and family members that are regularly subjected to my guerilla field testing… but it’s for a good cause!

Happy New Year!



What You Should Remember About The Ebola Crisis

This week we’re working through a lot of narrative, start-up pitch-like documents for our work on the Ebola crisis. My colleague revisited a series of stories and well documented aspects of the crisis this morning. We found that this particular description from the New York Times piece titled “For A Liberian Family, EBola Turns Loving Care Into Deadly Risk” powerful:

“Ebola is a family disease, Liberians are reminded continually in Sunday sermons. The more families pull together to fight the virus, the more they seem to fall apart.”

Even the spaces where people used to go to seek comfort or reconnect are off limits. The fabric of society is twisted to meet public health requirements. It is necessary, but also very very sad.

“This destruction of families is the central tragedy of the epidemic. On a continent with many weak states, the extended family is Africa’s most important institution by far. That is especially true in the nations ravaged by the disease — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — three of Africa’s poorest and most fragile countries. Ebola’s effects on the region, in undermining the very institution that has kept its societies together, could be long-term and far-reaching.”

You can read more of the article here.

Happy Holidays!

I am home for the holidays, like many of my friends and co-workers. It’s interesting to be here and compare where I am now to where I was a year ago. I have a new set of personal goals to attend to for the year, new friends and muses and people pushing me to keep doing interesting things (and be unafraid to do so).

This year I developed a series of very honest relationships where we regularly offer each other feedback on ways that we can improve ourselves and our professional work environments that we share. This comes after a long period of silence and second guessing myself, as a coworker and friend. It is so much easier to improve and feel confident in your relationships and work space if there is information regularly letting you know what you are doing right and where you could spend more time/energy to improve the overall quality of your work.

Perhaps this most clearly comes through in my weekly “growth breakfast” sessions with my colleague at Odisi. For both of us, this is a very new adventure. Every day is full of new twists and turns, and it is wonderful fascinating work. I feel more fulfilled and challenged here than I have in a while. But most importantly, she is very honest with me on what is or is not working.

As I build my own list of things to work on this year, I push each of you to consider your areas of growth. What dark winding alleyways in your head do you need to explore to have a better sense of what you are capable of?

No better time for a long journal entry full of difficult questions and answers (or guesses!) than the longest night of the year. Happy Winter Solstice!

Use Your Voice

During the speaker training for TEDxMunich last week, I spent a lot of time with the “stage presence” coach. She was a wonderful, warm lady who pushed me and interrupted me to make sure that I was pushing myself as I practiced my talk.

The current challenge: being loud and owning my voice.

I thought this was a little ironic, since I can definitely be loud and very intense. Especially when I was community organizing or participating in marches and rallies in college.

This felt different though. It felt like my classrooms in college and high school, when there was some doubt in what I was saying and the fact that I was talking, when I was nervous, was an apology. Sometimes when I believe something very deeply and ardently defend it, I feel like I am being judged and people stop listening. Perhaps this has been a result of spending too much time in places that were not good fits for me, but I am also cautiously aware of whether or not someone is listening to what I am saying. Body language often gives people away when they are disinterested or have been turned off by something I am saying.

But here I was, on the TEDx stage. I should not have been apologizing for my words and eating them instead of projecting. The coach reminded and me pushed me when she saw me inhaling words.

I realized a big factor in all of this is that you as a performer are striving to connect and be liked… in the back of my head was the voice that always nags me about being more feminine. Quieter, polite, accommodating, likable. It matters to me only when… I need a group of new people to like me or support my work. This time, it was about the work. I wanted them to listen and think about informal economies. If I was too militant, they would turn away. If I wasn’t interesting, they would stop listening and I was doing a disservice to my cause.

It was an interesting period of reflection for me once I got through the material from my talk. Once I was forced to think about the presence I wanted to have on a stage, what I thought it meant to be me, sharing these stories and this material to a wider audience.

I think most young women who grew up in the same communities I did in the Northeast learned to be quiet. Ask more questions about others than you share about yourself. Make people comfortable and feel better in the space. A lot of it is focused on the external, sometimes at a disservice to our own needs and goals.

I think a goal for myself this year will be to no longer put up with the same talking down to that I get sometimes. While it is amusing when someone doesn’t realize what I do or how I spend my time and then they talk down to me about Mexico or economics or research, whatever it may be, and then someone else clues them in… the reaction is often fascinating. But it’s also not the best use of my time to pretend to be wholly absorbed in these conversations. I think I will practice being more upfront and defending my work and experience, rather than waiting for someone else to appreciate it. Thank you, TEDx speaker coach for pushing me to see the value in projecting my voice.