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The Innovation Process
Activity 1.2 D

Answer your outstanding questions

This activity involves carrying out desk reviews, interviews and focus group discussions (FGDs), and direct observations to answer the questions you have identified in the previous activity.

Each of the methods in this activity area entail varying degrees of risk. We highlight some key things to consider for all the sections below, and then reiterate some more specific issues under each of the methods.

Things to consider

  • Ensure that consent is obtained in an appropriate manner from anyone who is the subject of your research.
  • Whenever you are engaging in research with affected, vulnerable and sometimes traumatised people, there are profound power dynamics and potential for harm. It is therefore critical that you adhere to best practice regarding human subjects research and humanitarian principles.
  • If you are interviewing, or speaking to disaster-affected community members in FGDs, you may be discussing particularly sensitive, or traumatic issues. Ensure that you have pyscho-social support on hand, or a quick referral mechanism so that any participant who discloses information about human rights abuses and protection issues, or relives a traumatic experience can be provided with counselling and appropriate and confidential disclosure channels.
  • Check whether any communities have been involved recently in research by humanitarian agencies, such as assessments or evaluations. You should not be overburdening people with requests to participate in information gathering exercises.
  • In the early days after an emergency response people have little if any time to participate in research activities; if they are working for humanitarian organisations they will be overstretched, while affected people are often trying to find relatives and friends, salvage possessions and are trying to work out how they can obtain basic goods and services, shelter and even food. Be respectful of time as it is in very short supply for most people in these circumstances.
  • Ensure that there is a good mix of potential interviewees and FGD participants, that the interview questionnaires and FGDs are appropriately designed. Ensure that the process is inclusive and has vulnerable members of the community involved.
  • Ensure that any primary data gathering (interviews, FGDs and observations) abide by humanitarian principles and research ethics. Ensure that you protect any data collected.
  • If you are carrying out any research on a sector, ensure that you have a good understanding of the standards for that sector.
  • Ensure that any research activities you plan do not pose unnecessary security risks for your staff and any volunteers.
  • Be aware that carrying out interviews and observations in the community (even if only a ‘conversation’ or quick ‘tour’) can engender risk to the researcher, participants, and to practitioners or service providers, if carried out in insecure environments.

Note: Innovators should be focusing on capturing (documenting descriptive data, highlighting relevant findings) and synthesising (distilling) information, ie, not yet analysing or interpreting information (which is for the Root Causes and Contributing Factors module).

Desk review


First, drawing from the activity above, you’ll need to go out and collect relevant studies, reports, or other materials. You can carry out open-source research on the web, by using a search engine (like Google) to query a set of key search terms related to your topic.

You might also start by researching relevant thematic ‘community of practice’ forums, think tanks, and other online repositories to generate information on your topic. Finally, you might consider looking up (or even reaching out to!) widely cited scholars or practitioners on your topic, since it is likely that they have a consistent body of work in their particular areas of expertise.

Next, you’ll need to annotate and synthesise the information from the studies, reports or other materials you’ve found.

Read more

Activity 1.1a: Learn from evaluations and reports



While the selection of interviewees, development of questionnaires, and generation and transcription of interview data is not meant to be as robust as would be in the case of a formal study, you will still have to make informed decisions around (1) who you will talk to, (2) for what purpose, and (3) what kinds of information you’d like to learn.

We therefore recommend carrying out interviews after you’ve identified relevant stakeholders to speak to and drafted a plan detailing your questions and approach.

Examples of rapid-inquiry interviews can include reaching out to experts or practitioners involved in existing interventions or delivery of services that relate to your problem area (such interviews are a great way to get a sense of what works, what doesn’t, and why.)

You might also want to leverage interviews to speak directly with potential end-users of your solution, who may be end-users of an existing (perhaps underperforming) service or product. This helps generate first-hand knowledge with regard to problems and/or opportunities.

Further resources

IDEO (no date). Interview, Design Kit.
[General interview guidance]

IDEO (no date). Expert Interview, Design Kit.
[Expert interview guidance]

Harvard University (no date). Strategies for Qualitative Interviews
[In-depth reading on qualitative interviews]

Focus Group Discussions


Focus group discussions (FGDs) can be an excellent way to generate information and insights, as well as see where there is agreement in a group and where there are disagreements on the topic you want to discuss.

It can be a quicker way of gaining insights than trying to interview the same number of people individually. However, you will need to run three to four FGDs to make sure that you can have homogeneous groups in each FGD. This is important to make sure that groups are comfortable discussing issues with each other. For example, don’t run an FGD with a mix of adults and children, or in some contexts with women and men.

Running three or four FGDs requires skilled facilitation, and a significant amount of preparation. Make sure that the location of the FGD is a comfortable and safe place and at a convenient time for participants.

Further resources

Data Innovation Project (2017) Guidelines for Conducting a Focus Group .
[A good in-depth guide on running focus group discussions]

IDEO (no date) Group Interview, Design Kit.
[A brief guide to group interviews; more appropriate when discussing the FGDs with work colleagues]

Observation tour


There are different ways that you might capture first-hand observations of the delivery of humanitarian programmes and the experience of those involved. Consider some of the following options:

  • Peer-to-peer observation: looking at how other actors might be tackling this problem
  • Non-participant observation: just observe what happens in a process or situation
  • Shadowing: follow the ‘problem holder’ around while they are dealing with the problem (to be used with humanitarian staff)

Useful links

Activity 1.1c: Observe the problem