Tactics in Field Research: Storytelling

February 11, 2020

We recently shared our tips and experience with card sorting as a method for field research. It allows participants to explain their expectations and understanding of various topics while compiling rapid survey results that are easily incorporated into further evaluation.

To continue the theme of “designing under the mango tree,” we wanted to offer another way to work with end users to facilitate collaborative decision-making and user acceptance testing.

This time, it’s with storytelling.

Because you want to secure the end users’ buy-in, it’s important to develop your digital solution with their experiences and points of view at the forefront. It helps to establish reliable and relatable user workflows and with understanding the unique challenges of your users.

Our approach to storytelling was inspired by the IBM Design team and, as you might guess, prompts participants in a study to tell a story. Like card sorting, it can be helpful to use a set of cards, but this time, they represent roles, processes, and directional arrows, which participants can use to build a narrative.

This approach to user research can enable investigators to assess the mental model of participants in terms of how they look at hierarchical concepts and processes. For example, we recently used storytelling to help understand how frontline workers in the largest e-nutrition program in the world perceived the process of growth monitoring for their beneficiaries.

This allowed us to observe what kind of hierarchies existed in the program, as well as the relationship between different actors and processes. The activity was done as a group exercise, and results were collected on a pre-made notetaking guide.

First, a group of 8-10 frontline workers from different centers was gathered and given a deck of approximately 32 cards covering actions, roles, and directions. Once we made sure everyone understood what each icon or picture meant on each card, the group worked together to place the action and role cards in order within the specified growth monitoring workflows. Then, they added the directional arrows to denote the standard approach.

After 10 minutes of discussion and revision, one of the frontline workers was nominated to tell the story the group and agreed on. Finally, our facilitators asked a few follow-up questions, such as whether they felt and process or role was missing, who the most important character was, and what the effect of removing certain workflows would be.

This process yielded some important insights for us with regard to the local context of these universal workflows, including whether these formal processes were even being followed. These kinds of insights allow programs to pinpoint key points for intervention to improve protocol adherence.

Of course, careful attention needs to be paid to ensure participation is more-or-less equal among participants, which might take a little time as the group gets to know each other. As such, it’s also important to keep the groups relatively small – a good limit being around 10 participants.

When the program was considering adding a semi-automated digital communication tool, we used storytelling again – this time to understand where in the workflow it might be most effective.

The process was fairly similar at the start: Another 8-10 frontline workers gathered to organize the same deck of role and action cards in the order they felt best represented the workflow. Then, they were handed another card that represented the new digital tool.

This time, they used another 10 minutes of discussion to understand and agree on each of the points at which the tool could prove useful. But their discussion helped us understand now only when the tool might be helpful but how. For instance, used at one point, it might be a complementary messaging tool to make sure the instructions they gave really hit home. But at another point, it might serve as a useful monitoring tool for the frontline workers to review how well their instructions were being followed.

This modified approach helped us understand the frontline workers’ perceptions of their role in the process and we might introduce a new one. But again, it was important to ensure the participants all felt comfortable voicing their opinions, otherwise, the more vocal participants could have biased the representation of these workflows.

If used correctly, storytelling can be an effective method of uncovering users’ perceptions and understanding of key processes in your program. While card sorting can help clarify the relationship between components, storytelling builds on this approach by allowing for new components to be introduced and incorporated by the participants themselves. In this way, storytelling can open up brand new conversations and possibilities for your program.


To learn more about how to design and build your mobile applications, check out our Guide to Mobile Data Collection.

Written by
Dimagi
Namrata Tomar

Field Manager

Read more from
Staff Blog

The World's Most Powerful Mobile Data Collection Platform

Start a FREE 30-day CommCare trial today. No credit card required.

Get Started

Learn More

Get the latest news delivered
straight to your inbox