Digital data collection is the process of collecting data electronically through the use of technology such as personal digital assistants (PDAs), smartphones and tablets, and has gained growing attention over the past decade.

The alternative, traditional method of data collection is paper-based forms – an approach riddled with risk. Data collected through paper-based methods can easily get lost or damaged (e.g. fire, fading with age, misplacement). The data also need to be digitised or manually collated before data analysis can take place, which is in itself a time-consuming and costly process, with more room for human error.

Digital data collection, on the other hand, has clear benefits: data can be analysed immediately, quality of data is exceptional due to validation/skip logic, costs are lower as there’s no need to pay multiple resources to collect and transcribe the data. Data security, although a point of debate for some, is possibly one of the biggest benefits as the data captured can be securely stored in the cloud (safe from rain and fire).

Here’s how to avoid five common mistakes when going digital:

1. Don’t copy directly from paper to digital

Organisations may be tempted to copy their existing paper-based forms directly into a digital platform, but it’s a temptation that’s best avoided.

It’s an understandable mistake, as the initial setup costs are much lower and the field team can get started earlier, due to their familiarity with the paper forms. Although this may seem like a logical starting point, it’s crucial for organisations to spend time planning their digital forms upfront to avoid costly changes later on.

It’s crucial for organisations to spend time planning their digital forms upfront to avoid costly changes later on.

This planning period also presents organisations with the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate and simplify their processes. Spending more time developing and testing the digital forms upfront (e.g. incorporating validation and skip logic) will result in higher quality data that is easier to analyse.

2. Get buy-in from the field team

Leaders can mistakenly assume that their field teams will be as excited as they are to switch from traditional paper data collection tools to digital versions. In reality, people don’t like change, so it’s crucial to get buy-in from your team by involving them early on in the digitisation process.

The field team is far more likely to adopt the digital system if they’re comfortable with technology, so be sure to provide early training for any team members who feel unfamiliar. Finally, educate your team on the benefits of using the new system so that it’s clear how the tech will have a positive impact on their work (e.g. simplified data capture, time saving).

3. Provide refresher training

It’s crucial to train all members of the team, regardless of role differences.

For example, if the data management teams don’t attend the field team training sessions, a number of negative outcomes can occur. Field teams are left feeling unsupported, and data management teams are unable to provide day-to-day support for their field teams due to their unfamiliarity with the processes, technology, and tools. It’s vital for all team members to be on the same page when it comes to processes and day-to-day usage of a system.

By conducting refresher training, you’ll ensure your team is comfortable using the new system. This is also a great opportunity to illustrate process changes with mock scenarios, and provides another opportunity to increase team buy-in through a demonstration of the advantages of using the system (e.g. decreased time and effort). This reduces the likelihood of your team reverting to paper-based data collection methods.

It’s important to consider the various roles when conducting training – from frontline workers and admin staff, to your data management team. Each team member needs to know the crucial part they play in ensuring project success.

Each team member needs to know the crucial part they play in ensuring project success.

One way to achieve this is to map out a strategy to train new team members and provide a guide for what to do and who to contact when support is needed.

4. Test thoroughly before going live

Organisations frequently underestimate the time it takes to comprehensively test digital forms before going live. Time invested in thoroughly testing forms upfront will help ensure the success of the project, improve the quality of data collected, and decrease data analysis time.

Making changes to forms once teams have been trained and are in the field can be incredibly costly. The quality of data may also be negatively impacted if fieldworkers are using older versions of the form. Ideally, you should have a dedicated quality assurance person on your team. This person ensures the correct processes are followed and that quality data is being captured. Find out more about effective testing in this article.

5. Consider how data will be analysed from the get-go

Start with the objective of the data collection in mind to ensure you’re asking questions that result in useful data.

Start with the objective of the data collection in mind.

It’s a good idea to involve the statistician responsible for analysing the the data early in the process. They can help identify which types of questions (e.g. qualitative or quantitative) need to be asked in order to get meaningful data, as different types of questions are analysed in different ways. The statistician can also give you an idea of the sample size required to confidently make inferences about a population.