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Section 1:  Overview

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How to use this manual
triangle.gif (460 bytes) What is formative research?
What do you want to know?
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As in Michelle’s case, a lot of “informal” formative research takes place every day in most agencies. But there are good reasons to go beyond and formalize these kinds of day-to-day research. Program staff often know what their clients’ needs are and what kinds of programs will attract and help clients. They may know this through experience, intuition, common sense or observation. Formative research can add to this by:

Testing     Often, intuition turns out to be wrong. In many cases, what seems to be a common sense response turns out not to make a lot of sense when it is further examined and tested.

Counting    Agencies may have a general idea of what’s happening in their community, but it is important to get some numbers to understand the full extent. For example, staff may know of one young gay man of color who has recently disappeared from the scene after seroconverting and has not accessed any treatment or case management resources. By conducting a survey or interviews, an agency can find out if this a problem common to all young gay men, only young gay men of color, or certain individuals. If it is a large problem, agencies may want to develop a new program to address this problem among young gay men of color. If it is a few individuals, targeted outreach may be a better and more cost-effective solution.

Writing it down    Even though agencies have resources and have collected information, it is important to document it by getting it down on paper. Lessons learned can be shared with other agencies, not just in local counties or states, but across the country. As one agency director said, “Fresno is more like Kansas City than San Francisco or LA.” Funding agencies need to be shown that formative research was used to shape programs. And policy makers can be more convinced by a survey of eighth graders than by staff’s assurances that kids are using alcohol at younger ages.

NOTE: Formative research is not about being judgmental, or rating the competence of an agency or the performance of staff. It is not about proving that what an agency does is “right” or that programs “work.” Formative research gives service providers a means to reflect and learn about their programs and their clients.

Case Study
  As part of a strategic planning process, Tim’s agency in Fresno conducted surveys, focus groups and interviews about their programs. “Taking the time to do that helped us in many ways. It validated who we are and what we did, made us feel proud of the things that we’re doing. It gave validity to some intuitive things we felt we needed to do for our clients. It made us realize we have a lot of expertise in these population subgroups. And it gave us a road map for the future, a guide to broadening our services.”



Because formative research has a different scope than that of traditional outcome research, even results that show that something doesn’t make sense or isn’t feasible can provide valuable feedback for an agency or program. If the goal is to prove that a program works so that an agency can continue to receive funding, then agencies may worry that they’ll find negative or confusing results. Not so with formative research. Negative results are also sources of information, and often one of the best learning tools for an agency. The beauty of formative research is that it can be conducted BEFORE implementation, as a means to avoid failure or overblown expectations once programs are in place. It also can be conducting DURING implementation, to correct and fine tune programs that are underway to make sure they continue to be as effective as possible.

Formative research is not so much about finding out whether or not a program works as it is about finding out how a program can work best to serve the needs of the community.

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Good Questions, Better Answers --  1998 California Department of Health Services and Northern California Grantmakers AIDS Task Force  -- http://www.goodquestions.com