General information

Look who’s talking: Conducting a needs assessment project to inform your service design

If you can’t tell, I’m on a research data services kick of late, mostly because we’re in the throes of trying to define our service model and move some of our initiatives forward all while building new partnerships.

What I didn’t mention in my previous post is all the lead-up work we’re doing to lay the groundwork for those awesome services I discussed. And there is quite a bit to do in that regard, so I thought it would be helpful to provide some tips on what you can do to set the stage for a successful launch of these types of services. Here goes!

If you have a specific population/audience in mind for your services, getting feedback from them is essential. This can take many forms, although we tend to rely on the tried and true (and often dreaded survey). Which is great if you want to collect a high amount of data that may or may not lead to follow-up questions. But what if you want to do something a little different?

  • Getting started

If you want to publish or share your results, get Institutional Review Board (IRB) clearance first. This is a pain, and it often falls in the Exempt category, but because there are people involved in your research project, it’s best to get the green light from the IRB board so you don’t have to worry about it later. This will entail filling out forms describing your project, how you will collect and manage the data, and how you will ensure compliance with human subject research protocol such as confidentiality. Prior to submitting something to IRB, the principal investigator will have to complete CITI training or something similar to verify his/her understanding of the processes involved.

  • Let me count the wayssurvey


Decide how you want to conduct your needs assessment. Each methodology has its pros and cons. I mentioned surveys are always popular and they tend to yield high numbers. But the drawback is that you cannot ask for clarification, participants have a limited number of choices (especially if you have a lot of multiple choice questions), and you have to design your questions very carefully so that they are clear, and are asking what you really need to know, otherwise the results could be skewed or meaningless, or both.

Interviews are great if you want to gather qualitative data and don’t mind reaching smaller numbers, but having more in-depth information might be more useful for your purposes. As with surveys, IRB will require that you have a clear script in place and that you ask the same questions every time so you will need to make sure you have this information ahead of time. Sending teams of two to each interview might be helpful so that you have two sets of note-takers who can catch different things and can cover for each other if something unexpected comes up. If you plan to record a conversation, this will need additional clearance from IRB and you will have to make sure you have a clear process in place for starting and stopping the recording and letting participants know they are going to be recorded or taped.

Another option is to conduct focus groups. This can also take various forms, groupeverything from asking questions, to leading participants through a design process as part of a design thinking activity, or simply asking for feedback in reaction to a prototype of some sort. You will have to make sure you recruit a representative group, have a location, a clearly established process, and a way to guide the conversation as it unfolds in addition to capturing what was said.

A final alternative is to conduct ethnographic and participatory research. Instead of simply asking a question, you are letting your audience tell you what they want or expect for a specific service. In other words, they are taking an active part in the design process itself. Nancy Fried Foster is an expert in this area, and I highly recommend looking at her work if you’re interested in this methodology. Having participants draw a picture of their “ideal” space or service can lead to some fun conversations!

  • Who’s on first

Who will conduct the assessment? This may be everyone in a specific unit or department, a handful of people, or even just one person. Your methodology will influence the number of data collectors needed. You will also want to think about any training the group will undertake as part of these activities. Especially if you’re collecting data in a more qualitative format, you will want to ensure that everyone is doing this in as uniform a fashion as possible and you may need several training sessions to prepare.

  • The right stuff

Have all your materials ready ahead of time, especially if they involve asking specific questions, or having participants walk through a set of prescribed activities. Make sure you have instructions clearly spelled out and provide handouts for anything that requires a deeper explanation.


  • Getting Organized

Schedules are tough to organize even for internal meetings, let alone with others on campus, so having a form where participants can designate their preferred time or fill in one of their own is much easier than playing email ping-pong in nailing down a date and time.

  • Marketing is key

We found out the hard way that one approach is not always ideal. We sent out a mass email to faculty only to receive two responses. When liaisons sent out the same exact message, we saw an immediate increase in numbers. Make sure you explain the purpose of the research and make it as easy to indicate willingness to participate as possible. The source of the message counts as well-an email from a generic library account may not garner much attention, but a forwarded message from a department head might do the trick.

  • Data analysis and dissemination


I won’t get too much into the weeds of how to analyze the data you collect, except to say that you will need to set aside ample time for this activity. Once the results are compiled and you have your action items identified, make sure you share the results back with the participants so that you can show them the product of their involvement no matter how small. This will go a long way towards ensuring that they will actually use the bright, shiny new services you create based on their input.

  • Follow-through

Whatever you do, make sure you do something! There’s nothing worse than collecting valuable (hopefully) information only to have it sitting dormant for months on end because this wasn’t high on someone’s priority list. Make sure you have the commitment and resources you need before you begin the project so that you can implement the ideas that emerge as a result in a timely manner.