Identify Further Information Needs and Carry Out Primary Research

Although secondary research is likely to provide a good overview about knowledge, attitudes, practices, norms and demographics relating to the emergency, you may find that some important questions remain unanswered. Additionally, during emergencies communities may deviate from their habitual practices and behaviors, making it hard for secondary research alone to fulfill the information requirements of a communication response. It is recommended, therefore, to accompany the desk review with primary research to obtain data that can help inform a targeted SBCC intervention. As a preparation step, countries can begin identifying types of information they would want survey questions to address for a particular emergency.

Primary research involves gathering firsthand information about the problem being explored. A range of data collection methods exist, and some examples are provided below. It is important to note that a combination of several methods is recommended to obtain a more complete perspective of the situation. The methods listed below are further described in the table below.



  • Observation (with possible quantitative components)
  • Ethnographic studies
  • In-depth interviews
  • Key informant interviews
  • Focus group discussions (FGD)
  • Participatory learning and action
  • Stakeholder meetings
  • Content analysis of existing mass media, including social media


  • Surveys, including phone surveys using calls or SMS
  • Content analysis of existing mass media, including social media

Participatory learning and action is an approach to research that can be incorporated into many of the methods, both qualitative and quantitative, listed above.

More information on participatory learning and action.

Data Collection Methods

These methods, including further information on participatory learning and action, with details of how each can best be used are described in the table below.

If primary research is to be conducted using any of the methods described above, it is necessary to obtain approval form the nationally recognized Institutional Review Board (IRB), that ensure that required ethical procedures are followed. Obtaining approval from the IRB may be a lengthy process, which is not suitable for an emergency communication response. It is therefore recommended to highlight the fact that the research is necessary to guide response effort in the IRB approval request, which may support a more expeditious approval process.

Method Goal Description Key Considerations Use
Observation Collect information on naturally occurring behaviors in their usual context.­­ The researcher goes to the location of interest and stays among the people whose behaviors he or she wants to observe, taking note of what happens. Data gathered can include information on individual behaviors, relationships and dynamics within the household and in the community. Even one or two days of observation can provide helpful insights into what people do and how, and into some of the norms governing their practices.
  • Requires observers who know and understand the culture of the community being observed.
  • People being observed may not act as they usually do because they are aware of being observed.
  • There is a risk that during an emergency people may be more distrusting and observation can become harder
To obtain insights into the physical, social, cultural and economic environment where people live, while exploring their behaviors, relationships and activities.
In-depth Interviews Elicit individual perspectives on the issue being investigated. The person being interviewed is the expert on the subject matter and the interviewer is the student, learning from what the respondent has to say. Open-ended questions need to be asked in a neutral manner and the interviewer needs to listen carefully to the responses, asking follow-up questions based on the answers received. The interview can be recorded so as to allow for a natural feel to the conversation.
  • Interviews need to be conducted in local language and translation may be expensive. Requires proper training of interviewers.
  • Can be time-consuming to transcribe the data for analysis.
To collect data on individuals’ personal stories, perspectives and experiences. They are particularly useful when exploring sensitive or personal topics.
Key Informant Interviews Elicit information from a wide range of people who have firsthand knowledge of the community and/or of the issue being explored. Qualitative, in-depth interviews with people who have firsthand knowledge about the topic of interest. This can include relevant professionals, service providers, leaders or residents. The interviews tend to be loosely structured, relying on a list of issues to be discussed rather than on standardized questions. Key informant interviews resemble a free flowing conversation with the interviewer framing questions spontaneously, probing for further information where necessary and taking notes or recording what is being discussed.
  • Requires careful selection of key informant to ensure representative information is gathers.
  • Can be a quick way of obtain key information during an emergency.
To obtain an understanding of the motivations, behaviors, attitudes and perspectives of the community of interest. They can provide insights into general practices, behaviors, norms, culture and expectations within the community.
FGDs Elicit group perspectives on an issue or topic. They involve working with small groups of individuals (8 to 12 people) and asking open questions to the group. The group dynamics stimulate conversations and reactions. FGDs are not a method used to conduct multiple in-depth interviews in a group setting.
  • Requires significant planning and introduction of the activity to the community and leaders beforehand.
  • Can be more expensive for fewer participants.
  • Can be time-consuming to transcribe data for analysis.
To elicit data on cultural norms of a group and generate a broad overview of issues of concern. FGDs are particularly useful to explore normative beliefs and attitudes and to discover a variety of perspectives within the population.
Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) Facilitate learning about communities by actively engaging with them. This approach to research involves community ownership of the research process and can be incorporated into both qualitative and quantitative research designs. Often, it combines the use of visual approaches created by the participants with group discussions. An example could be asking participants to draw a map of the community and then discussing it as a group both qualitatively and quantitatively. The process facilitates collective analysis and learning, and as such engages participants more actively in defining and resolving the issue being addressed.
  • Requires trained facilitator.
  • Requires planning and introduction of the activity to the community and leaders beforehand.
To learn about and engage with communities. PLA is intended to facilitate the process of collective analysis, learning and ownership.
Stakeholder Meetings Gather knowledge and ideas from relevant stakeholders and keep them engaged. They consist of engaging with those who are involved with or have an interest in the issue. Stakeholders (discussed in Unit 1) are brought together in a meeting to discuss the issue being explored, share findings, and exchange knowledge, ideas and strategies.
  • Provides limited perspective and should be combined with another method.
  • Can be useful during an emergency to gain trust of community members and identify how best to enter communities with a communication response.
To support stakeholder ownership and engagement and to assist with coordination and harmonization of activities, messages and approaches.
Surveys Obtain information about what most people think/do/ know about the issue through a questionnaires that can be conducted in person, online or over the phone. Using questionnaires with a large number of respondents. Surveys are generally time-consuming and therefore not always an appropriate method in an emergency. In Liberia, SBCC practitioners initially used GeoPoll to gather data as folks were not allowed into the filed because of the virus.
  • Allow for larger sample size but do not provide qualitative data.
  • Household based surveys can be time-consuming and expensive to conduct and analyze and may therefore not be appropriate for an emergency.
  • Telephone or SMS surveys exclude people without access to a phone (typically women or older people).
To gather quantitative information about the population being surveyed, such a sociodemographic characteristics, knowledge, attitudes and practices.

Primary Research Beneficiaries

Remember that much of the primary research you conduct will require close collaboration with the affected communities in order to know how the emergency is affecting them and their behaviors. Involving the communities from the early stages of your communication response can also increase their engagement and support for your activities. Beware of “survey fatigue,” or “participation fatigue,” where affected communities are repeatedly surveyed by multiple organizations who come to deliver response activities. As communities see more and more actors approaching them but no concrete changes, they can become frustrated, disillusioned, disengaged and even resistant.

What’s more, having been asked the same questions multiple times, interviewees might repeat answers they believe are “correct.” One way to avoid this issue is to ensure coordination of studies with the government and other organizations. The tips in the box below should help you address some of the common challenges associated with carrying out primary research in an emergency.

Tips for Conducting Primary Research

Be mindful of ethical considerations, including in-country requirements. IRB approval is required in most countries to carry out research; although some review boards have special procedures for emergency situations, obtaining ethical approval can take a long time and may not be possible during an outbreak. You must ensure that you respect ethical requirements for whatever primary research you plan to conduct. Discuss these with the IRB in the country and other relevant institutions (such as universities and research institutes).

Look for partners who may have strong research expertise and can support the primary research that needs to be conducted.

Involve the community and its members in the research process. They can contribute to developing the approach and the questions, recruiting participants and conducting the research.

Train data collectors and enumerators in the research methodology and ethical considerations (e.g., confidentiality and informed consent).

Ensure confidentiality and put systems in place that protect the confidentiality of any data collected.

Obtain informed consent, ensuring that participants know exactly the purpose of the research, how the information will be used, and that they may opt out of the process at any stage with no consequences.