What happens when the lights go off?

Qualitative research was required for this project. Electricity supply companies’ key task is to keep the ‘lights on’ for all their customers but most people can manage the odd blackout, if it doesn’t last too long as well as the occasional planned power cut. But they become really concerned that “vulnerable consumers” are equipped to cope as best they can.

Vulnerable consumers are groups of people who must have power all the time – for some it is literally imperative to enable them to go on living. They need to keep their dialysis or oxygen machines running or they may be diabetics who need to keep their medication at a constant temperature.  And elderly, disabled or frail people, particularly if they live alone or supported by carers, need their electricity to keep warm, to cook and for light.

Another group, critically dependent on power supplies, is small rural businesses.  Their electricity is brought to them by overhead lines, vulnerable to trees falling on them, heavy snow and high winds and large flocks of birds, let alone being blasted by shot guns out after pheasants and other game.

This particular power company wanted to know whether these people were aware of an emergency number they could phone for detailed information and whether they would use it.

So we were tasked with recruiting people for focus groups and conducting in-depth interviews.  There was the inevitable geographical spread between cities and countryside, ranging from London to remote rural.

The focus groups were for parents with very young children and separately for people older than 70 years.  Added to these were a mixture of focus groups and in-depth interviews for rural businesses and disabled people and their carers when appropriate.  All very challenging when you pause to think about persuading some of these people to attend a focus group or even to be interviewed in their own surroundings.

The final challenge was to group interviews within a reasonable spread so that our qualitative interviewer could achieve between three and five interviews in a day without spending too much time between appointments.

The result? We made contact with some charming and interesting people. It’s satisfying that we have managed to achieve the target of numbers for both focus groups and interviews. The power company now knows exactly what it has to do. And of course all the participants are now completely clued-up about power cuts and the use of emergency phone numbers!

Pylons for Fieldwork