Research Methods for Information Research

2. Asking questions (and getting research answers)

2.7 Research interviews: breadth versus depth

A few years ago I conducted two lengthy interviews with the Directors of a film archive and a film library in Hollywood. With these two interviews, both of which lasted several hours, what struck me in playing back the tapes was how little questioning I actually did once the respondents had picked up what we were doing in the case studies and how they fitted into the consultancy project. With one of the respondents I started four questions in a ninety minute period, and each time she saw where I was going before I had finished and focussed in on the right area. The other respondent gave a well-structured and lengthy overview of the situation, that anticipated and disposed of several of my questions in advance. Both respondents were also prepared to go into the kind of depth that is unusual in interviews and to be more candid about motives and characters than is usual.

The question that I was left with was – do we sacrifice depth for breadth in information research design? Would we do better to try to negotiate real access to say five interview respondents for lengthy periods of time rather than conducting fifty structured interviews? In other words, should we be drawing much more heavily on the ethnographic research tradition of lengthy emersion in an alien culture rather than gravitating towards market survey techniques when conducting information research? Or, should we opt for observation of people using information at work rather than (or as well as) interviewing them about what they do?