Research Methods for Information Research

3. Some types of interview

3.7 Critical incident interviews

We are regularly employed by national education and health information agencies as well as library services to conduct critical incident interviews based on enquiries that they receive. The usual approach in this type of interview is to select up to fifty substantial enquiries (not request for contact addresses etc.) which form the critical incidents. Then:

  1. arrange telephone interviews with the enquirers.
  2. remind the enquirer at the beginning of the interview about the particular contact with the agency (using the enquiry record completed at the time). Two difficulties to watch for here are:
    • when the enquirer is in such frequent contact that recall of the particular incident is hazy (options: proceed and hope that remembrance returns or negotiate discussion of a more recent and memorable enquiry)
    • when what the agency treated as an enquiry is regarded as a conversational gambit or part of an information exchange by the ‘enquirer’ (response: proceed but record the different interpretation of what was going on).
  3. glean contextual information. Ask the enquirer why they were seeking that information at that time (what triggered them to make the contact; what was happening in their organisation or in their own life that brought this to the fore). Ask about any other information sources tried and why.
  4. Evaluation: what useful information, if any, was obtained from any of the sources tried and why was it useful (and if relevant, how did the agency response compare with other people’s)?
  5. Quality assurance: were the staff of the agency outstandingly rude, slow to respond, slapdash – or the opposite? (People do tend to remember outstandingly good treatment as well as the bad experiences).
  6. Impact: was any use made of the information provided and if so, did anything happen as a result?
  7. General comments on the enquirer’s experience of the services provided by the agency.

Following this approach to enquiries tends to provide a better picture of how the service fits into the evolving world of a range of users, as well as of the main factors that affect people’s readiness to make enquiries. This approach can also provide a basis for enquirers to make direct comparisons of services (including such elements as format and presentation) and can produce occasional but powerful information about the real impact of information on people’s life and work, because it offers a very specific and direct focus for the user to make a judgement.

More strategically, sets of interviews can readily be translated into case studies for use in promoting services and discussing options with senior managers. Perhaps most importantly, service managers report that they find this type of information useful in reviewing and fine tuning their services in ways that traditional library statistics don’t touch.