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If you don’t want to participate in research, just say no!

January 7, 2014

2011-11-09

I was scheduled to conduct a depth interview with a respondent and when I called them they were not in.  Their colleague explained that they had been bitten by a cat and had to go to the doctor!  Eek!  These are things you can’t plan for.

Most people are probably used to research involving being stopped in the street and called at home and asked to participate in ‘market research’ or a ‘survey’ or a ‘questionnaire’.  You’re one of hundreds being asked.  If you say yes, the research is done there and then.  If you say no the researcher just moves on and asks someone else.

Well qualitative research (focus groups and depth interviews) is different.

A depth interview is an extended semi-structured conversation (rather than the yes/no style of a survey), and I am generally contracted to complete a small fixed number of depth interviews within a fixed length of time.  So perhaps ten in a week.  Respondents may not realise, but every one of those interviews is targeted and important and has to be done to a certain specification.  There’s no ‘around ten’ or ‘I’ll do some’ and respondents are not just one of many – each one has to be completed as agreed.  So if I’ve signed you up, that’s because I really want to interview you.  Yes you, specifically!

How it works is that I (or a colleague or client) make appointments for depth interviews a week or so in advance, with an email reminder the day before.  The Market Research Society has rules about managing expectations on these things, so during the scheduling I make sure potential respondents are told a bit about what the research is about, who it is for, how it will be conducted, whether it will be recorded, and how long it will take.  If the respondent agrees to participate, we set up an arrangement to suit them.  I always go out of my way to minimise inconvenience for the respondent by calling whenever they suggest at whatever time of day, or going to where they are.

I’d say that one out of every five depth interviews that I schedule ends up having some problem with it that leads to it not being conducted during the scheduled appointment.

Now this isn’t me, I phone up or arrive at the agreed location exactly on time.  As agreed in advance, and confirmed with a reminder.

Fair enough, you can’t plan for being savaged by a cat and other (usually more mundane) things do happen.  Unexpected illness, childcare problems, a midwife having to deliver a baby…  Often in these situations we can easily agree another time to speak at our mutual convenience.

Sometimes the respondent just isn’t there or the phone is engaged or goes straight to voicemail.  I phone again five minutes later.  Then another five minutes later.  Then another five minutes later.  Then fifteen minutes later.  Maybe I catch them, maybe we do the interview and it starts 15 minutes late.  Maybe I don’t and I have to leave a message.  Maybe I try again later in the day.  Sometimes I never get hold of them.  Sometimes I get hold of them and they tell me they can’t spare the time.

I completely understand.  I have no desire to waste anyone’s time.  In fact, I go out of my way to avoid this.

But it is pretty inconvenient for me.

I schedule my interviews at least an hour apart, expecting that they will start late.  Many do.  So I’m spending time sitting about twiddling my thumbs for the first half hour or so of not getting hold of a respondent, as I can’t start any other work in case I am able to get through.  Which is on top of the ten minutes before the interview when I’ve had to stop whatever I was doing before to prepare things and get into the right mindset for the topic at hand.

It is tough to rearrange at short notice, as I probably have another ten or twenty appointments in my calendar already.  And I probably have a short timescale to get them all done in.

It is tougher to have to start again and find replacements at short notice for people who drop out at the last minute, especially those that fall at the end of my fieldwork period.

Focus groups are worse because if someone doesn’t turn up for the group you can’t replace them, the group just happens without them.  I always invite two more people than I need, which is usually right but sometimes results in extra people and occasionally results in too few people.

This is a strange situation where you have to expect the unexpected to happen.  But it might or might not.  To a certain extent you can build in contingency in case it does.  More often I just have to worry that I won’t be able to complete as many interviews as I promised the client, and that I won’t get it done within the timeframe.  Because if I can’t get them done I can’t do the analysis, so I can’t do the reporting, so I might not meet my deadline.  Sometimes I’m able to build in leeway, but if my client has a short deadline I have to compress my analysis and reporting time.  Worry not, it has always come together so far and I have always delivered on time – but it is a real pain.

And it costs money.

Every time someone delays or cancels an appointment is an opportunity cost for me.  I can’t do something else income generating because I’m spending longer than expected to achieve that interview.  And time is money for me.  So delays or cancellations cost me money.

To compensate for this I have to build extra time into my budgets, so I might need to estimate that it will take me a couple of hours to complete each half hour interview.  Someone has to pay for that.  In the case of my business a charity has to pay for that.  So delays or cancellations cost a charity money.

I’m writing this blog post as I wait for my poor cat-mangled respondent to call me back ‘some time today’.  If he calls I will need to drop everything and interview him.  If he doesn’t I’ll have to try to rearrange.

I’m prepared to go out of my way to accommodate things like this.  It’s not his fault.  I will not make him feel bad, and I will not tell him that he has been an inconvenience.

But late cancellations and no-shows are just the worst.

If you’re a signed up respondent and you’re not sure you fancy it on the day or you’re on the fence about whether you might turn up, please consider just doing it anyway.  You’d be doing me and my fellow researchers a huge favour.  And it shouldn’t be too unpleasant.  If you decide against, please let the researcher know at the very earliest opportunity.  Just a quick email, matter of fact, even if it is half an hour before.  That would minimise the inconvenience considerably.

Please know that I understand that participating in research isn’t for everyone.  Maybe it’s not for you.  And if it’s not for you here’s the thing… don’t sign up for it.  Please please please just don’t sign up for it.  If you’re not sure or don’t want to do it, if you think you might be too busy, if you know you’ll be doing something else… just say no.  Please just say no.  I won’t be offended.  The earlier you tell me, the easier it is for me to find someone else to fill that spot.

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