Too much of our own 'satisfaction research' only reinforces how smart we are in constructing our questions. These questions may be based on elegant and popular theories of change, can trace their lineage to a long line of previous research evidence, and be posed to people in objective ways in controlled environments to rule out extraneous variables. But what do the answers or data teach us? You don't have to look any further than today's headlines that "obesity among 2-4 year-olds in the US is declining!" Well…maybe, in some states. Unfortunately, as the research report the headlines are based on owns up to: "The specific factors that might have contributed to the differential changes in obesity prevalence by state could not be readily identified."
Public health surveillance systems, and epidemiology more broadly, are good at describing problems. However, they provide little if any insight into how to solve the problem they describe. I devote two chapters of my book to using different research methods to search for insights to solve problems. My belief is that not knowing how to conduct 'solution seeking' research is a significant constraint for people trying to improve public health and social conditions.
Let's take the example of aging-in-place, an important area in the aging and health space. Suppose you wanted to improve the quality-of-life and extend the time people could live safely, independently, and comfortably in their homes. What would you do first?
Hopefully, you thought about "research" or "talk with them." Let's go from there.
What questions would you ask them… would you want to do a survey… conduct focus groups… visit senior centers?
Or, might you do in-depth interviews with seniors in their homes… interview their caregivers… ask seniors to give you a guided tour of their home and describe a typical day in their life?
Now, which of those approaches might help you better describe the problems associated with aging-in-place? Which ones would give you a better understanding, empathy with seniors and their caregivers, and insight into how to address the problems of aging-in-place?
How can you shift yourself, and the people and organizations around you, from designing and using research to describe problems to seeking solutions to solve them?
- Try asking people 'why" - not once, but up to five times. That will cut down on the number of questions you can ask people to describe a problem and shift you into listening to how they experience it.
- Resist the default option of focus groups to talk about the problem and instead design research to search for solutions to it. Solutions, by the way, are something many people you call your 'target audience' are happy to explore with you.
- Understand people's jobs-to-be-done, motivation and values instead of getting caught up in assessing knowledge, attitudes and barriers according to the latest theory or research study.
- Begin with understanding the context and environment rather than assuming there's something 'wrong' with the people you intend to serve.
- Enable seniors in their ongoing quest to define and share themselves, their values, their je ne sais quois, with others.
- Support their abilities and expose them to new interests to keep them busy, vital members of society.
- Help them retain a sense of sovereignty, independence and control by enabling and supporting daily routine.
- Help them stay mentally and physically active through supporting and enhancing everyday events.
What we need is more research for solution seekers; the world already has plenty of it for problem describers.