Reflections: Developing best practice research guides for multidisciplinary teams

In February and March this year I was commissioned by the Open Data Institute to work in collaboration with their R&D team to develop a best practice research guides toolkit. This aimed to provide the team with internal guidance around best practice research and to utilise the expertise of the team effectively; but also to explore how to best tackle ‘data’ as a research topic.

I completed the project in March and I am delighted that the team at the Open Data Institute have now tested the set of guides I created. They are now sharing the guides for external use, as well as their experiences about the process of implementation in this blog post.

Here, I want to share a bit more about what I learnt from various aspects of the work and creating the final set of guides, which you can access in the ODI ’Best practice research guides’ folder.

A bit about the process and the outputs…

  1. This project began by collating existing guides, tools and resources available online, that are used by professionals who design, commission or undertake applied social research. I wrote a blog about the process of developing this here and curated the guides in an open resources spreadsheet. I wanted to ensure the guides I created weren’t simply duplicating others and for this to be a useful resource in itself.
  2. I undertook user research with the team, reviewed current project planning and documentation tools, as well as future research planned. This helped to understand the expertise of the team and pain points they faced in the research process.
  3. I wrote a range of tools and guides, which can be found in the ODI ’Best practice research guides’ folder. These were put together based on what the team needed at that point, to be used internally (but with a view to sharing externally) alongside recommendations about how to build time and space for reflection, learning and peer review of research practice in the team. The guides include:
Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

A bit about what I learnt…

Supporting multidisciplinary teams to follow good research practices

The Open Data Institute undertake a huge range of research projects, with the R&D programme looking to support innovation, improve data infrastructure and encourage ethical data sharing. To create change, many of their projects involve practical advocacy (find out more here), whether it’s creating tools like the Data Ethics Canvas, prototypes or reports on research findings and recommendations (such as the role of data to improve peer-to-peer accommodation). To deliver these, diverse multidisciplinary teams need to work together in order to understand the needs and experiences of specific communities and sectors, before making and testing simple, pragmatic tools and recommendations for services that meet those needs. This requires a largely qualitative approach and often focuses on professionals and domain experts as primary audiences. As such, many of the guides are tailored to this context.

Having completed this project, I found that good critical research practice is not simply about providing training, guides or having the skills and expertise within the team. It is equally important to create time, space and mechanisms for sharing and reflecting on learning within and across different project teams. For this reason, I spent a significant proportion of the project developing the Research Project Design Framework [template document], supporting the process of critically reflecting on research design and good practice.

Consistent planning and documentation give researchers confidence in their practice. I’m particularly interested in the role of collaborative research practices (such as team interview coding and user research as a team sport) to engage teams in creating and acting on research findings as well as building research thinking.This will not only share insights but improve research thinking and capacity. However, it’s equally important for teams to look beyond their culture of research practice to explore alternative approaches. To facilitate this, I put together the Guide to research methods.

“Of all the guides created, we made most use of the Research Project Design Framework and now implement this for each of our research projects. This has helped us document and critically inform our research consistently across the teams and projects.” Miranda Marcus, Open Data Institute Blog Post

Curating an open sheet of resources available about doing social research

I have to admit, I was quietly surprised at the amount of interest I generated through a curated list of resources that are openly available online (even though I sent it to anyone and everyone I could think of). Only a few committed people directly added resources to the sheet (most were sent directly via email or Twitter), but I was regularly contacted by those making use of the resource or wanting to share it with their team and networks. I suspect there is not enough open resources that are known about or sharing of research practice and resources connected to applied social research in the UK.

In terms of the content, I found that:

  • Most guides online about doing research are introductory and top-line (and focused on evaluation practice). Few cover the detailed process of designing research from start to end (academic undergraduate text books are best for this). The most helpful guides were produced by consultancies commissioned purposefully to do so (NPC and Nesta feature many times).
  • Interviews, surveys or focus groups were fairly well covered in online resources, but few critically analysed or gave detailed examples of tools used (such as the questions asked or themes covered).
  • There is also little guidance about approaches to collecting informed consent in different contexts. I came across very few public examples of informed consent forms and processes. Many research practitioners and consultancies were very forthcoming about sharing their examples, which were always specific to the context of a project. I am now working on my own version to share publicly.
  • There is limited guidance around undertaking research in agile teams or in the context of practical advocacy — where research is aimed at creating practical tools, prototypes, peer learning and reports with clear recommendations. Some useful approaches are shared by those involved in service design and user research (the ones I found helpful are included in the open spreadsheet).
  • There are a range of other ways to collate the open spreadsheet resources online, such as Airtable or Sheet2Site. I’d like to explore options such as these to make the resource easier to find and engage with online.

Could good practice in applied social research follow more agile or digital first approaches in how it is designed, conducted and integrated in to delivery?

The Research Project Design Framework did prove helpful to the ODI teams, namely in projects at the discovery and alpha stages (they tend to involve user research or sector scoping research). However, it maps less neatly onto later stages of development (for example of a prototype) and full scale research. On reflection, it is also very text heavy, involving a lot of formal writing.

What template should we use for research practice standards across different project journeys?

I’m interested to continue exploring whether there are alternative and more helpful approaches to undertaking and/or documenting research in the context of multidisciplinary and applied research. I’m now starting to consider whether there is a way to set up project management and communications using digital tools (Slack or Trello for example) to perform similar roles to the Research Project Design Framework when setting up a project or reporting against this. There might also be alternative models to undertake research alongside delivery teams, whilst retaining independence, informed consent and critical reflection. An agile approach to research could involve lighter upfront planning and core decisions after short cycles of interviews or survey responses.

If you have any resources to share please do get in touch. Otherwise, please feel free to make use of the ODI ’Best practice research guides’ and do share how you get on!

You can find out more about the ODI’s work on their blog (the one for this project is here).

If you’d like to hear about or take part in future research, do sign up to the mailing list or keep following my stories here on Medium.

Think Social Tech: Research, design and learning consultancy supporting tech for good initiatives (previously @comicrelief tech for good)

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