In the past few years, those of us who work in government service delivery have been excited to see growing enthusiasm around bringing user-centered design to government. This philosophy of centering the experiences of the very people government is meant to serve in its design is critical to making government work radically better in the digital age. But it’s crucial to not simply reduce the fullness and nuance of a human’s life and experiences to a single “user” data point in a product development cycle. And that’s where qualitative research comes in.
At Code for America, the goal of qualitative research is to infuse the voices of the people we serve into our process and, ultimately, the products and services we create, and the policies we seek to influence. Our clients often belong to vulnerable communities, and their voices are not always heard in the context of government service delivery. With research, we strive to put people first and see them as complete human beings acting within a broader community rather than just as isolated “users” of our products and services.
Our qualitative research practice at Code for America is grounded in humility, empathy, and respect for participants. We are trauma-informed and we meet clients where they are, physically and emotionally. Above all, we are inspired by the power of individual stories to serve as a catalyst for systemic change.
Raising the voices of the vulnerable to speak truth to the people in charge of creating systems is the heart of our research team’s work. And it’s more important now than ever. Crises act as a magnifying glass on existing inequalities, revealing how broken the system is. In times of crisis—when people desperately need support, when their voices are hardest to hear, when they are being reduced to numbers and overwhelming statistics—that’s when we need qualitative research most. And that’s when it is hardest to do.
And we know big change is needed. Our social services are broken, and families working multiple jobs are unable to build up the savings required to survive a small crisis, let alone nationwide shutdowns. We are not just seeing a surge in CalFresh applications because people have lost jobs, we are seeing an increase in need because our economic systems are fundamentally broken, with too many people forced to exist on the precipice of falling into poverty. It’s a moment where we as researchers have the opportunity to catapult human stories into big systems change.
If only this wasn’t needed at a time when conducting research wasn’t harder than ever. With shelter-in-place orders restricting non-essential travel and outings, our research team has had to stop the vast majority of our normal research practices and pivot to remote research.
While it’s easy to set up a Zoom with our colleagues and hold effective meetings, the pivot to remote for research is more complex. The foundation of our research insights begins with our ability to build rapport and emotional connections with our research participants, to communicate genuine care and to listen deeply. In person, we meet at a library or a McDonald’s or a client’s living room, we buy them a cup of coffee, we play with their kids, we chat about their day, we shake their hand, we are in their community. Each of these tiny, ordinary moments builds the connection that leads to emotionally rich conversation. But now we know that the folks who are most in need, who were difficult to connect with in the before times, are even harder to reach now.
Practically, we are talking with research participants who are running out of data on their phones since they can no longer use free Wi-Fi hotspots at libraries and other public places, and who don’t have computers or webcams at home. Emotionally, we are talking with research participants who are under incomprehensible financial strain. They are overwhelmed, they are afraid, they don’t know how to feed their families and keep their homes—and it feels like no one is coming to help. We often remind ourselves that we are researchers and not therapists, but so many of our clients need therapy right now, need support that is above and beyond food assistance or stimulus checks and we just happen to be a warm voice on the phone.
In this moment, our research team needs to remain emotionally vigilant and nimble. That might mean getting on a phone call and asking “How are you doing today?” and letting the client vent for the next 30 minutes, throwing our carefully crafted discussion guides out the window for another day.
It might mean rescheduling a phone interview five times, or eight times, or however many times it takes to reach someone in need. Usually, we code client comments (categorizing incoming messages for common themes) for a few hours to develop an understanding and build discussion points for a meeting with a county in California. But with 8,000 GetCalFresh applications being processed per day, we have had to rapidly train extra staff and partners at food banks to help us rise to this new need. We have to read and code hundreds of messages each day to inform evolving statewide policy change.
We care about process and clarity and structure—we plan our research intentionally with clear goals, carefully selected methods, and thoughtful demographic samples. But now, in a time of emergency when it feels like we don’t have time to be strategic and our clients can’t wait for support, strategy and thoughtfulness are more important than ever. So how do we keep helping when our process is evolving so fast? How do we keep asking the right questions? How do we code and synthesize data remotely? How do we work effectively with our program staff to use that data to create real, needed change, all while staying sane and emotionally safe in our own quarantines?
We don’t have all the answers, but it’s likely some combination of remaining both flexible and strategic, managing too many Mural boards to count, and staying kind to ourselves. This moment in its urgency and scope is pushing our research team to be more nimble and flexible than ever before, while also staying firmly grounded in the philosophy and principles that guide our research.
On that note, we are excited to announce our Qualitative Research Practice Guide, which provides both a robust and incomplete snapshot of how we do this work at Code for America. We have been hard at work on this guide for the last year, and it was originally conceived of at a time when the majority of our research was conducted in person, both with clients and with each other. Over the last few weeks, we have added more learnings about how to transition research methods in a remote world, as well as advice for remote synthesis.
This moment is also clarifying the fact that the clients we serve are the same across all areas of Code for America’s work. A mom who just lost her waitressing job and is applying for CalFresh, is also filing taxes to get her refund and stimulus check. An individual who is formerly incarcerated is looking for record clearance and also navigating Medicaid applications. A daughter is trying to help her mother who is on Supplemental Security Income receive her stimulus check and additional funds for food when she can’t be there to help in person. We know these overlaps and connections exist, but we see them more and more in times of crisis, when people around the country are relying on the support of all of these programs at once.
Ultimately, research is a tide that lifts all boats. It is fundamental to developing government services that better and more equitably meet the needs of communities, especially in moments of crisis. Raising the bar on quality of research raises the bar on quality and effectiveness for everything that we seek to do for the world. Amplifying client voices is our ethical imperative, so that we can harness the energy of this moment into positive long term change—both in the way essential government services are built, and the delivery of the services themselves.
To learn more about our research philosophy and get practical tips for how to conduct qualitative research, download the Qualitative Research Practice Guide.