When project assumptions can be wrong

As an experienced consultant, it is important to be able to make reasonable assumptions within the parameters of a project.  For example, what research method is most likely to work best with a given audience, stakeholder group or other cohort, how much time respondents will be willing to give in in-depth interviews or focus groups, or the likelihood of people responding to a survey in any given situation.  These things come with experience and knowledge of the sector you are working in.  But it also pays to keep an open mind about things because assumptions can be wrong and and this can hinder the opportunities of a project.  Assumptions can be wrong for a range of reasons but in my experience they most likely occur when a situation is new in some way, if a client has an assumption in mind they transfer to me untested, or if, as a society, we have come to make certain assumptions about what certain people do in particular situations.  I have learned from this experience and I would like to share a few examples in which my assumptions were wrong.

In the second week of February 2009, my colleague Annie Talvé and myself had a week of interviews and site visits scheduled throughout Victoria.  Two days before our first interview the Black Saturday bushfires devastated parts of the state.  Many of our colleagues, associates, family and friends urged us to cancel our trip and reschedule, under the reasonable assumption that people would have more pressing matters than to keep our appointments (as well as some well-founded concern for our safety).  We remained flexible should this be necessary, but as it turned out, for our respondents, having us visit in the week was important for them to help restore a sense of normalcy.  Admittedly, our respondents had not been personally impacted upon by the fires, but of course, everyone was touched in some way.  Our respondents were people who were managers of regional and remote museums and historical societies. Once we navigated some alternative routes to reach these people, our visit was important to them as it allowed them to reflect on the importance of their collections, particularly in light of the devastating natural disaster that had affected the state. Any assumptions that we would be unwelcome at this time were clearly wrong.

Eighteen months after the Black Saturday Bushfires I was commissioned to evaluate an art-led initiative designed to help communities with their healing and recovery. Given many of these communities had grown weary of consultation, administration and bureaucracy in the aftermath of the disaster, I reasonably approached this project with caution and sensitivity.  The last thing I wanted to do was to ask people to talk through their experience yet again with yet another consultant representing government. But again, I found this assumption was unfounded. Perhaps it was in the way I approached people, and the care I took not to ask them to recount the disaster (although some wanted to talk about it).  But because I was not a direct government representative, they were more than happy to be involved, as long as they were not expected to fill in any more forms.

Typically, and commonly, we tend to assume that older people are not using the internet and are unlikely to respond to online surveys. According to the ABS, older people are less likely to use the internet than any other age group. In 2009-09 just under one third (31%) of all people aged 65 years and over accessed the internet, almost double the proportion in 2004-05.  This trend is becoming more apparent in social and market research projects I am carrying out as there is usually a reasonable proportion of older respondents in online surveys. We need to think carefully when making an assumption that older people are not using the internet.

In any research or evaluation project that relies on the input of respondents to surveys, interviews, focus groups or other activity, it is not unnatural to assume people will be busy, they are sick of being asked to participate, or have little time to spare.  Of course, there are reasonable assumptions and sometimes they can all be true.  But depending on the subject matter of the project, sometimes these assumptions can be wrong.  Sure, when it comes to topics that do not resonate with respondents (for example, some consumer goods research, superannuation or finance), this is likely to be the case. It can be hard to entice people to participate and this is why incentive payments can be important.  But projects that are close to people’s heart that involve discussing topics such as their local environment, community,  social groups, health, art and recreation, many are keen to participate if they are approached the right way and the survey or discussion guide is designed well to maximise their input and time.  These respondents can actually be considered to be stakeholders, rather than dispassionate respondents.

To make an assumption in a research or evaluation project can be prudent. Assumptions usually stem from experience. But the more experience I have in which my assumptions have been wrong, the more open minded I tend to be about the people I am trying to reach to input into a project.

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