It’s no chuckling matter

27 Mar 2018

Written by Tom French

To micro, to macro, to micro, to macro...


I think the Chuckle Brothers were on to something. To achieve the task at hand - moving a sofa, for example - Paul and Barry understood the need to work together and communicate whilst doing it. To be more specific, they passed responsibility between each other in an ‘iterative’ manner to ensure that the sofa was moved. They chuntered “to me, to you, to me, to you” while they were at it. Sometimes they dropped the sofa, but that’s OK.

Stay with me. Let's take this analogy to the next level…

Imagine that Paul is a community-based researcher. He speaks with people in depth to learn their stories. He turns these stories in to case studies.

Barry, on the other hand, is an office-based data analyst at a charity that is set up to support people in Paul's community. He never meets the people that Paul speaks with. But he does look at data sets that describe the kind of people Paul meets with. Barry thinks more in terms of groups of people with similar (but not identical) characteristics.

The metaphorical sofa is making the lives better for people in this community. Paul and Barry both like the same sofa. They have a chat and arrange to move it.

OK, I'll get to the point

I suppose I'm one of Good Things Foundation's Barrys, although I occasionally channel my inner Paul (no mental image required). I work with a lot of people that are more at the Paul end of the spectrum (no offence, colleagues). And it's an enriching experience. It helps me to temper my generalist nature and understand the people behind the numbers here at Good Things Foundation.

The case studies we produce at Good Things Foundation are great, too. They clearly demonstrate the impact of work at the micro-level and communicate the complexity of the challenge and what individuals bring to it. Understandably, people relate to the human element of stories. That's what makes us human. That's what we are programmed to do.

Good Things Foundation's sofa includes an element of systemic, (inter)national change as well as hyper-local impact. To be able to communicate this side of our work as well, we cannot rely on case studies alone. To do so would be almost impossible and, due to the the white noise that this would create, we wouldn't be able to highlight clear findings or effective recommendations. We have to override our human instinct and allow an element of abstraction to creep in. This is where the macro-level comes in. What are the other ways we can describe the groups of people with which we work so that we can untangle complexity and focus our efforts?

Barry and I don't necessarily have the answer on where exactly the sofa should be moved to. But we both subscribe to toing and froing between the micro and macro with Pauls. The macro can learn from the micro and vice versa. Each is partially blind without the other. And each should temper the other on a regular basis.

At Good Things Foundation, we recognise this. We are mixed in our methods. To micro, to macro, to micro, to macro (ad infinitum).

What does it look like in reality? An example of this in practice is our NHS Widening Digital Participation programme in England:

  1. Macro. To identify areas of greatest health need we analysed national Index of Multiple Deprivation data to rank CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) Areas. From this, we produced a short list of places in which we'd like to set up 20 'Pathfinders'.
  2. Micro. Once set up, each Pathfinder would explore hyper-local models for engaging people with digital health resources. This would involve talking to people - real individuals - to understand their needs, their motivations and their barriers to accessing health information in this way.
  3. Macro. We then needed a way to aggregate this learning and present it at the national level again. We chose to do this through an interactive map.
  4. Go back to 1)

If you're interested in learning more about our approaches, please feel free to get in touch at