Desktop reviews don’t have to be boring

  • Published: by Amy Samson | Permalink

Many evaluations I’ve worked on have either been focused around or include a desktop review. This could be of existing documents and/or trawling the web for other sources for information.

Trying to find relevant information is not always easy and can be very overwhelming, particularly when you have a big pile of documents to go through! It’s easy to fall into the trap of including too much information (just in case) into the report which then ends up huge and essentially just repeating what is already out there. This isn’t a very useful or analytical approach.

So I thought I’d share a few strategies which I have found helpful when having to trawl through a lot of information.

  1. Understand the end game. Is the review a main part of the evaluation or a contributing data source? What needs to come out of this report? An analytical conclusion or a summation of data?
  2. What are the key evaluation questions? Write them down. These guide your data collection and help keep you focussed on what information is important. Think of them as your interview questions and the data sources as your subject.
  3. Develop a report structure. This I find is the most important – it is your roadmap. By working out report headings (focused around the evaluation objectives) you’ll have a clear understanding of what information you need which means you won’t miss things and you won’t get lost. You should be able to intelligently read through your sources and address your headings. No one wants to have to go back over reports again and again re-checking data. But remember too that new information may emerge so you might need to add new headings as you go along – don’t become so focussed that you miss the little unintended outcome gems.
  4. Interrogate methodically. Go through your data sources methodically, one at a time, using your headings as a guide to pulling out the relevant information for your report. Don’t forget to attribute quotes and information (I find footnotes very useful for this) and include a list of all the data sources. Whether you state this up front or include in an appendix is up to you.
  5. Data presentation. Try to be as succinct as possible, use your own words and don’t data dump. By this I mean just cutting and pasting big sections of text from other reports etc. This isn’t useful and most likely, your audience has already seen this text many times and doesn’t need to see it again in your report! There may be different ways you can present the data. Could a table or graph be useful? Maybe an infographic could tell a great story?

While not exhaustive, hopefully these ideas give a little food for thought, help you to craft an interesting story and enjoy what is often seen as a hard slog!