Research Methods for Information Research

2. Asking questions (and getting research answers)

2.9 Making questions interesting

A high response rate to a questionnaire is most likely to be achieved:

  • if people find themselves wondering what other people are saying in reply to the questions because they want to know what other people are doing (especially if they know that the results will be made public), or
  • if they find the questions or tasks set of interest in themselves.

How can we make questionnaires more interesting?. A striking feature of library and information questionnaires is how much they resemble each other, both in the ground covered and in the progression from closed question (yes/no or tick box) to amplification for each area covered. This presents a real opportunity: what can we do to really engage with respondents so that we can get a better idea of how they view and interpret the situations that interest us? A few ideas:

Staying within the confines of the traditional (and seriously inhibiting) question and answer mode, how about asking a challenging question? Two examples that I have encountered over the years are:

  • What is the most unpleasant experience that you have had in a public library?
  • If you could consistently obtain one item of information for your work whenever you needed it, what would it be?

There is usually only a limited number of ways in which people are likely to behave when working with information. Rather than unpack these in a sequence of questions, why not describe the main options as scenarios or vignettes? We used this method some years ago to check out how closely the social workers that we had spent weeks observing mirrored the behaviour of other people doing the same jobs elsewhere. An added refinement was that we asked people to change the chosen scenario to make it a closer fit to their own working behaviour by adding words, crossing out bits or changing numbers. For instance, faced with someone who spends two hours every day reading and responding to e-mails, someone else might change the description to make the pattern less regular or to reduce the time. It was not too difficult to devise a set of rules for interpreting the changes made to reflect emerging differences. One result of administering scenarios was that we discovered a type of social worker extant in various parts of the country that we had not observed and didn’t know about beforehand.

Why stop at descriptions? Presenting people with photographs, drawings or plans of a real or imagined information service area and asking for comments may well illicit the type of useful reply that will be most useful - because it was unanticipated.