Life in the Field: Reflecting on Our Fintech Research Project Methods
Continuous learning is a necessary part of being a field researcher, and over the years we’ve taken much pride in sharing openly about our various methods, especially for course correction and improvement. On the heels of wrapping up the fieldwork segment of our financial inclusion research project, our team of researchers have paused to reflect on their approaches. Banking on Fintech as the research project is better known, is the most extensive field research undertaking Pulse Lab Jakarta has done to date. Thus, we’ve taken the time to do a 360-degree look on how the researchers prepared for the journey, how they put their research skills to the test, and how they went about debriefing after each round.
Although several weeks of synthesis are needed before we can share whatever useful insights, the main purpose of this blog is to reflect on some of the finer aspects of doing field research (which as we will discuss go well beyond the research methods). Covering the scope of five Indonesian cities with near-100 respondents, three prominent private sector stakeholders, and countless valuable anecdotes from micro-merchants themselves, this reflection was also triggered by a Field Study Masterclass workshop some of the field researchers participated in recently.
Before Heading Into The Field
A research 101: It is paramount for researchers to do their homework before any kind of fieldwork begins. Taking on a complex project as this fintech research study, there is very little chance we would have been able to get through the fieldwork without sufficient planning. One of the most crucial takeaways we observed was the advantage of researching potential partners and selecting the right ones to engage with before going into the field.
While many researchers rely on a fixer — a go-to person who is able to plan out schedules, arrange interviews, identify sites, etc. — we relied on our partners. Because we aimed to tap into the stories of micro-merchants who are early adopters of fintech, we decided to engage with fintech companies that were also interested in furthering the financial inclusion agenda, in addition to being able to shed light on the respondents’ context. Therefore, this meant more than just selecting relevant respondents from their database, but also lending a hand with arranging schedules, coordinating on logistics, and ultimately, building trust. In the context of our research, the latter became especially important as discussions around money and finances proved to be quite a sensitive topic for many persons.
Having people in the field who are used to interacting with the respondents also helped to give us a heads up about certain unspoken aspects of the culture. This complemented our remote sensing exercise, in which we endeavoured to ‘sense out’ or get an idea about an area prior to showing up there. We used Google Maps to survey the location that we were expected to be deployed at, then scanned the area to get information about the road networks, kind of building structure, as well as surrounding areas. Indeed, this did not necessarily help us to identify respondents, but aided with shaping our expectations about what the area would look like — thus informing our approach… there were many salaams around housing complexes; some roads were too narrow for cars to pass through; and at times it was better to wear casual flip-flops instead of shoes.
During the Field Research
Despite the many human-centered design research we’ve done in the past, with this fintech research project, one of the repeated challenges was how to navigate discussions around the often personal topic of money. So, we ended up implementing three main principles to guide us.
First, be flexible. While pre-fieldwork planning is important and takes a lot of time, we needed to prepare (and accept) that changes may happen. For some micro-merchants we met with, their busy schedules meant frequent and even sudden changes in appointment times. We were understanding of the nature of their work, and didn’t want to interrupt their regular activities. In fact, we preferred to catch up with them while they were in the midst of their everyday doings. From our end, we ended up having to allocate an extra day at the end of each week of fieldwork to accommodate changes in the schedule, be it for rescheduling or finding new respondents. While we went in with the intention of using a variety of tools such as sacrificial concepts, cue cards, and different frameworks, in practice we only used a few. The reasons varied, from unexpected illiteracy and an aversion to ‘formality’ rather than informal chats, to simply not having enough physical space to lay out all our tools.
Second, start from the respondents’ comfort zone. Instead of beginning with the hard questions about their financial activities, for instance, we set the tone by first asking about their family. While conducting our fieldwork, we found that respondents loved to talk about their past. For example, when nudged to reflect on how they kick started their business, most opened up with a sense of nostalgia. This was observed particularly among older respondents. We noticed that after spending some time talking about their past, the respondents eventually warmed up and became more comfortable with sharing about their current activities at length.
Third, realise that a camera may be a threat. Though useful in capturing nuances in expressions and activities that might be missed during interviewing, some respondents may feel that their privacy or “comfort zone” is being violated. Making a conscious decision when to use the camera and when not to use it was another challenge we encountered, so we took a slow approach by using our cameria sparingly at first, then inched our way into making the respondents feel more relaxed about it. For instance, we of course started with asking for their permission, but without diving right into it, we tried to photograph non-essential artifacts first and then ultimately more personal photos of their activities.
Still, we noticed that reactions to the use of a camera varied across different groups. Our respondents in Bogor and Banyumas, notably, were enthusiastic about being photographed (at times putting on makeup in advance of our visit). While this was not an issue for our research team by any means, we realised that using a camera might cause some persons to be more self-conscious, or in other words attempt to sugarcoat their responses. Our approach thus was to not constantly hold the camera up for recording, but to set it up on a tripod in a non-distracting location, such as behind the respondents.
Debriefing After The Fieldwork
Conducting field research itself can be exhausting, and adding a debriefing wrap session can really push the limits. However, to be clear, this step is as necessary as pre-fieldwork planning. Naturally, we sometimes struggled with remembering the contexts of all the interviews and conversations during the weeks of synthesis given the scope and number of respondents involved in the research. Hence in this case, we tested out methods slightly different from what we were used to.
Our common research repertoire is to regroup at the end of each day to discuss findings and record most of the results. And because we might miss some points during note-taking, sometimes we’d listen back to our recordings for transcription. This method, though effective in some contexts, would take us up to an hour to download and document findings for just one person. Therefore, for fieldwork as rigorous as ours with high mobility and numerous respondents, it was important for us to experiment with something more structured.
Our approach was a 60-minute time-boxed debriefing. Essentially, this method entails two parts: the first half requires setting a 30-minute timer and during this time quietly and individually writing down whatever interesting findings or initial insights of all the respondents we interviewed on post-it notes; and the second half includes spending another 30 minutes to read each note out loud to share with our fellow researchers. That’s it — no discussion.
We tried this method and the team was convinced that it worked better than delving into heavy discussions. Having time to unpack our thoughts individually before sharing actually helped the researchers to organise their thoughts better. Also, only focusing on the important findings and insights helped them to prioritise which findings they wanted to zoom in on and possibly probe for the next day’s interviews. And finally, less discussions = more energy conserved for the remaining days of fieldwork. Only after the end of each round of fieldwork did we allocate half a day to properly unpack the findings, generate insights, and discuss.
Framing, reframing insights and continuously going back to all the raw findings during the synthesis sessions (which take place immediately following the fieldwork to a couple of months after) was a unique challenge for us when it came to recalling all the contexts. So, we digitised religiously. The digitisation process, while important, was not particularly necessary when we were dealing with only around 10–15 respondents. However, with a few dozens respondents, we had to code each respondent, digitise the findings and transcription in a shared folder, then have each team member go through the data so we could all be on the same page. We also made sure to instantly upload photos taken during the interview process, because we found that having a visual recollection of each unique context (the room, the seating arrangements, the colours, etc.) can be a more vivid reminder instead of written notes.
As we admitted at the start of this blog, life in the field as a researcher demands continuous learning and an openness to course correction and improvement. And for our field researchers, looking back on each stage (i.e. before heading into the field, during the field research and debriefing after the field research) of the field research portion of this fintech research project is part of that learning process.
Now that the field research portion has wrapped up, we have shifted gears. Our focus now is on the synthesis phase, and as we begin to write our report, more lessons are sure to be uncovered. Watch this space for more updates on our Banking on Fintech research project.