The research protocol is the guiding foundation to any good research study. Its detailed design is essential to shaping the necessary steps and a sound approach to answer your research question—like a cookbook that guides your average home cook to make a gourmet raspberry chocolate soufflé. Yet, what happens when you realize you don’t have cream of tartar for your soufflé, or in the middle of conducting research, something unexpected occurs? What happens when you are halfway through an interview and you realize your protocol has a tremendous gap? Here are three tips that have served me well:
1. Know your protocol like the back of your hand.
As stated above, a detailed protocol is foundational to catapult your research. The client’s needs and your team’s expertise should inform the foundation of the protocol. This is why regular client check-ins and internal project team meetings are essential to ensure that the progress of the project is on the correct path. Explicitly communicating to the client your capacity and requiring them to communicate their expectations helps to build the meat and potatoes of any protocol (objectives, questions, methodology, design, etc.). Appropriately leveraging your individual team members’ expertise is also essential to creating a succinct protocol. Another pair of eyes and additional perspectives can lend further clarification in the complete planning of a study.
2. Understand that gaps will happen and substitution is your friend.
Gaps will inevitably happen; and when they do they are an annoyance at best and anxiety-inducing at worst. Even leveraging your team’s expertise or asking your client many detailed questions to ensure their needs are met won’t necessarily prevent a gap. The dynamic nature of qualitative research means this is bound to happen at times. Questions designed by you or your team may appear to miss the mark in the midst of an interview or focus group, not quite getting at what the client needs to know. In those moments, substitute. Rework that question. Provide a little context to your participant–just enough to help them say, “Ah, I understand now, thank you for that clarification.” Not only do you stay within the guidelines of your protocol, you also expand the scope of your study. This works best early on in the data collection process to ensure consistency throughout your study.
3. Change your protocol if necessary.
Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For one, it shows that your research is dynamic. Of course, discuss all changes with your client, including the rationale behind it. You may even consult your team and get their feedback and input before the necessary changes occur. Nevertheless, be flexible when your protocol has to change. You never know what new opportunities or insights you may uncover!
Conducting research comes with the heavy expectation of trying to avoid as much error as possible. Yet, there are bound to be inaccuracies. Having a detailed protocol, a comprehensive understanding of your client’s needs, and an awareness of the need for substitution or even change, are just some of the ways to be flexible with your protocol when those unexpected changes occur. And remember, you can always substitute cream of tartar with vinegar or lemon juice, 1:1!