You wouldn’t go hiking in a pair of dress shoes, right? Like the variety of shoes in your closet, there are a variety of data collection methods in all different shapes and sizes. The trick is finding which data collection method fits! Today’s post will help you determine which method is best for your evaluation.

What are Data Collection Methods?

Data collection is the process of gathering information from different sources with the goal of answering a specific question (your evaluation question). The method, or procedure, that you use to collect your data is your data collection method. Four common ones are: surveys, interviews, focus groups, and observations.

  • Survey: questionnaires that ask respondents to answer a set of questions. While these questions can be closed or open-ended, the purpose of surveys is to collect primarily quantitative data. Surveys can be administered online, by phone, by text, or in print. 
  • Interview: a conversation between two people—an interviewer and an interviewee—during which the interviewer asks primarily open-ended questions. Interviews may occur face-to-face, on the phone, or online. Interviews provide qualitative data.
  • Focus group: a dialogue between a group of specifically selected participants who discuss a particular topic. A moderator leads the focus group. Focus groups provide qualitative data.
  • Observation: a person (the researcher or evaluator) observes events, behaviors, and other characteristics associated with a particular topic in a natural setting. The observer records what they see or experience. Observations may yield quantitative or qualitative data.  
How to Pick the Right Data Collection Method

By this point in your evaluation you should have: 

Determined the goals and scope of your evaluation

  Written your evaluation question(s)

If not, you can circle back to those posts here and here, respectively. Now you’re almost ready to start collecting data—the fun part! First you need to decide which data collection method to use. Take a look at the pros and cons of each data collection method in the chart below. Use this to help you narrow down which methods might fit your evaluation.

To further narrow down your data collection method search, ask yourself the questions below. Do your answers rule out any of the methods? Reference the pros/cons chart for help. 

  What is most essential to you? Consider whether it is important for you to answer questions of how and why (more likely qualitative data) or what, how often, and to what extent (easier with quantitative data). 

  What will you be asking? Complex topics may lend themselves better to methods that allow for follow-up questions. Taboo topics may require additional anonymity. Think about what methods will make your participants feel most comfortable and safe responding to you.

  What are your constraints? Be realistic about the amount of time and resources you have. Choose a method that meets those constraints.

Conclusion

If none of these methods seem to fit your needs, don’t be afraid to branch out and find a collection method that is best for you or take a mixed-methods approach and use multiple techniques! For some other interesting ideas, here’s some additional articles on a collaborative photography method, oral histories, and other creative evaluation methods.

In our next post we’ll start our deep dive into the most popular data collection method—surveys. Stay tuned!