The American Evaluation Association national conference in Washington D.C. just wrapped up last week. It is the largest annual evaluation focused event with about 3,000 evaluators this year. It was an enlightening experience for me and left me wondering why I don’t go every year. Here are a few of the thoughts I took home from the conference. I was only there for about 3 days so this is reflective of my limited experience of the event.
These evaluator people are friendly and have an obsession with improvement- Almost everyone I met was friendly and helpful. There was a focus on how to help each other do our work better: data visualizations, reports, presentations, and even blogs. That makes sense since this is arguably our main task as evaluators: How can we make programs, projects, and products better?
I attended the Data Visualization TIG meeting which was filled with comedy and insight. Many of the affiliated evaluators blog, which encouraged me to move past obsessing over picking my WordPress theme and to start posting. It is refreshing to attend a conference and be immersed in new ideas and reminded of old ideas that need to be revisited. I also realized that I can get my evaluation intellectual dose on a regular basis through ongoing communication and contact with other evaluators through their twitter, blog and other posts.
Strive to increase the utility of evaluation reports- It is a rare soul that reads the entire evaluation report after I submit it. So how can I put the information into a more digestible format? How can I provide more concise feedback and that takes less time to understand. One presenter suggested an executive summary style report with all or most of the results showing up in an appendix. To top it off she develops a 1-pager with visuals that summarize the main points. I think that approach makes sense most of the time, it will largely depend on the stakeholders, their backgrounds and roles in the project. I am going to give it a try on a report I just developed.
In an effort to create a visual product that is more accessible to stakeholders we developed what we called a Visual Evaluation Report. Essentially, it is a video summary of a domestic violence and high conflict divorce program, Bridging Families and Communities, as well as a review of the evaluation findings. Check out the YouTube video here, I would love to hear some feedback. We recently reposted it with some edits so the number of views shown is much less than what we previously had.
Improve the visual display of quantitative results- There were tons of examples of “good” versus “bad” graphs at the conference talks. Most of the time our products are not shared with researchers and evaluators but with stakeholders with limited quantitative experience. The design of a graph is key to its interpretability. The colors chosen, the layout, labeling… everything. The fact is, while the APA style guide and accompanying resources might have suggestions in this respect, we should strive to continually make our visualizations better. For instance, I liked the idea of examining palettes of colors that work well together and considering how color-blind individuals would visually process colored figures. So the design of my bar charts will not be a stagnate template but instead will be constantly improving. More on that in future posts.
Also, consideration of how evaluation reports that use colors in figures will look when printed in black and white is important. We have all seen it and the product can be a disaster. Sometimes it is worth it to print high quality color reports and send them to stakeholders directly. Many people still prefer to print out reports.
Cost-effectiveness is a perennial evaluation issue– I took a 3 hour cost-effectiveness workshop with Edward Broughton, Director, Research and Evaluation, USAID-ASSIST & USAID-Health Care Improvement Project. We looked at using cost and probability to determine the true costs of initiatives. Funders typically want to know if the programs they fund make an impact in a more cost-effective way compared to other approaches. I am excited to incorporate these tools into my practice to address this and other economic questions. There are innovative approaches to assess the relative value of programs that strive toward “social equality, environmental sustainability and wellbeing” such as the methods discussed by such groups as the Social Return on Investment Network (http://www.thesroinetwork.org).
For me, there are many reasons to travel to Denver. Visiting my friends from high school, college and beyond who have ended up in that region, hiking at Chautauqua in Boulder, and walking around downtown Denver, to name a few. Next year in October, #EVAL14 is added to my list.