fun with questions (I)

from a letter home from ghana, in which i tried to explain the basics of how the research on which i was working actually…worked. plus, the response from one of my very favorite people on the planet. roughly, in the research project, we tried to convince people obtaining a malaria medication to subscribe into a text messaging system that would send texts reminding them to complete their full doses of malaria medication. as a qualification, i have had several conversations with folks about the below since being back – and at least one experience asking directions in nyc – that have convinced me that people don’t do that much better with giving directions here in the US.

i write:

one thing we learned is that people are not spectacular at providing directions to their house or even providing details about their house. For example, we spent quite some time looking for a house with a blue door that, in fact, did not have what could even be generously called a blue-ish door. In addition, when we did locate the house (and it took awhile), it was right next to a well-known ‘spot’ (bar), though the only landmark provided by the respondent had been an unnamed provisions shop, of which there were many. This resulted in quite a lot of revision to the questions about how to find our respondents later (more or less ‘do you live near ANYTHING well known, including a church, a water pump, a public toilet, really, anything at all that someone other than you would know about?’)

to be fair, we can quickly review that we were putting our respondents in a somewhat difficult position and that it is kind of miraculous that we got so many eligible and willing participants. let’s quickly recast our research at your neighborhood drug store.

you are either sick or know someone who is sick (or like to be really, really prepared) because you are out buying cold/flu medicine. it’s entirely possible that you have a sick child with you and also a reasonable chance that you or the child (or both) are feverish. you check out and thank the cashier (you’re so nice!) and are getting ready to leave. either the cashier suggests that you might talk to the well-dressed person in the corner with a note-book or the cashier is forgetful and the well-dressed person has to approach you. either way, the well-dressed person asks if you can answer a few questions. maybe you are obliging; maybe you are more like me trying to actively dodge sidewalk canvassers (why is there not a ‘dodge Save the Children’ app yet?). if the person gets you to stop, suddenly s/he suddenly wants to know about a lot more than just the medicine you just bought but also all about the kind of water or toilet facilities your household has or the education level of different household members. i would say (soapbox alert!) the questions ‘would you answer that?’ or ‘could you answer that?’ – asked by the researchers of themselves and their peers – are among the most underutilized questions in questionnaire design.

anyway, the person also hands you a flyer with a phone number that you can call or text for further health information to be texted to your phone. so far, maybe this is a mild annoyance or, at best, a novel break in routine.

but then, the person wants to see you again. maybe. but can’t give you any specific dates or times or information about this potential next visit. the well-dressed person actually fully intends to see you again – at your house, approximately 72 hours later, to inspect your medicine – but can’t tell you that, lest the impending visit change your (or the intended recipient’s) propensity to take the medicine as directed. so, the person is elusive and asks more generally about when you can be found at home on, say, fridays. and asks for your phone number. and detailed directions to your house. and then asks for someone-else-who-knows-how-to-find-you’s phone number and direction to that person’s house as well. (yes, the people give consent to give us their contact information — but still.)

even asking about ‘where you generally are on fridays’ was a big concession in the original research design, as we were aiming for total surprise (see: Spanish Inquisition) as to the timing and purpose of our visit. but, we slowly had to erode the surprise after a lot of turning up at empty houses for follow-up interviews.

awesome follow-up:

just got around to reading this. it makes me want to write my own questionnaires. 

do you know where your house is? why or why not?
are you the only person who knows where your house is?
would you be able to find your own house?
could anyone else find your own house? describe. 
what are some secrets that may be used to find your house quickly?
what are a few possible ways to get lost when going to your house?
name three colors that could be used to describe your house. 
do you have a toilet?
do you like your toilet? 
would your toilet describe him or herself as clean or dirty?
would you trust your toilet’s judgment to answer that question? why or why not?
do people you entertain at home often leave sick? what types of ailments afflict them?
are goats ever allowed into your home?*
even if they are very loud in the back yard? 
what about during parties?
*please note that we did have pet goats in college and they were loud.

Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

3 thoughts on “fun with questions (I)

  1. I actually think the issue of describing one’s house is fascinating. The first time I stayed at Mummy’s, Jessica told me it was a white story building with a brown gate. I spent 30 minutes walking back and forth in front of Mummy’s gray gate before figuring out I was in the right place. But the other day I went to a friend’s house, and she gave precise directions with helpful landmarks. It would be interesting to look at how good people are at giving directions and remembering attributes of their home, etc., and what makes it easier or harder.


    1. Ha! Our interviewer team in Cape Coast really liked to talk about houses being re-painted for funerals and the confusion this could cause. They liked to start these scenarios with “imagine!” as in “imagine, the whole house could be repainted and the street number painted over!”

      It is quite interesting on what attributes people pick out as important, whether they have any sense of how long certain portions of the journey take, etc. I wonder if we are getting better or worse thanks to MapQuest, GoogleMaps, etc.


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