Interviewing Users

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The first part of the interview process involves conducting user interviews. The interviews focus on these four issues:

  1. The types of data users are currently using

  2. How users are currently using their data

  3. The collection of samples you assembled during the first two steps of the analysis

  4. The types of information users require for their daily work

Because these issues are both data-centric and information-centric, you must be certain that you understand and always keep in mind the difference between data and information. Recall from Chapter 3 that data are the values you store in the database, and information is data that you process in a manner that makes it meaningful and useful to you when you work with it or view it. Keeping these definitions in mind will help ensure that you focus on each issue properly and conduct each segment of the interview successfully.

Reviewing Data Type and Usage

You can usually discuss the first two issues at the same time if you carefully phrase your questions at the beginning of the interview. Your objective for this part of the interview is to identify the types of data the users are currently using and how they use that data in support of the work they do. You'll use this information later in the design process to help define field and table structures. Use the data-collection and data-representation samples to help you formulate questions about the user's data. (However, don't actually discuss the samples just yet; you should deal with them separately.) During this discussion, you'll start with open-ended questions, identify subjects within the responses, and then use specific follow-up questions to identify the characteristics of each subject.

As you begin the interview, ask each participant about the work he or she performs on a daily basis. After the participant provides an overall description of the work he does, ask him to explain his job in more detail. Perhaps he can walk you through the job he performs on a daily basis.

Here's an example of a typical conversation that occurs during this part of the interview:

Note how the interviewer starts the discussion with an open-ended question. After the participant responds, the interviewer uses the subject-identification technique to identify subjects within the response. The interviewer then chooses a particular subject and uses another open-ended question to focus the participant's attention on that subject. Because the participant's next response is general in nature, the interviewer focuses on a particular aspect of the subject and uses a more specific follow-up question to elicit a detailed response from the participant.

The interviewer can continue to narrow the focus of his questions as the discussion progresses. As the participant responds to each question, the interviewer continues to use the characteristic-identification technique to identify characteristics of the subject that appear in the response. After he's identified all of the subject's characteristics, the interviewer then moves on to the next subject and begins the entire process again. He'll continue in this manner until he's covered his entire list of subjects. You'll go through the same exact process when you act as interviewer.

Reviewing the Samples

The next round of discussions centers on all the samples you assembled earlier in the analysis process. Your objectives during these discussions are to identify how the objects represented by the samples are used, to clarify the aspects of the samples you don't understand, and to assign a description to each sample.

It should be relatively easy for you to talk to participants about the samples now that you have an idea of the data the participants use on a daily basis. Begin the conversation by asking questions about a specific sample. Figure 6.7 shows an example of a data-collection sample you might use as a starting point.

Figure 6.7. A data-collection sample.


Review your notes from the discussions you held at the beginning of the interview before you ask your first question. You want to determine whether anything you've already discussed is relevant to the sample you're about to discuss. In one of the previous discussions, for example, a participant indicated that part of his job is to keep track of all the organization's customers. Using that statement as a starting point, you could ask him how he uses this particular data-collection sample to perform that task.

"You mentioned in a previous discussion that you keep track of all the customers. How does this screen help you to carry out that task?"

This is a well-phrased question. It begins with a statement that focuses on a particular subject and then continues by bringing the participant's attention to the sample. The question is open enough to elicit a clear and complete response.

Now, assume the participant provides this response:

"This screen allows me to enter new customers, as well as modify and maintain all the information we have on existing customers."

If this reply answers the question to your complete satisfaction, use it as the basis for a description of the sample. On the other hand, if the reply does not completely answer the question, continue with an appropriate line of questioning until the participant clearly identifies the purpose and use of the sample. You must supply descriptions for all of your samples because you'll use them again later in the design process.

A sample's description should be succinct, yet clear enough to indicate the sample's purpose and how it is used. Write the description on a slip of paper and attach it to the sample. Here's an example of a description you might use for the sample in Figure 6.7:

This screen is used to collect and maintain all customer data.

It's necessary for you to understand the sample as completely as possible so that you can write a clear and concise description. If there are aspects of a given sample you don't understand, ask the participant to clarify them for you. For example, assume you're working with the report sample shown in Figure 6.8

Figure 6.8. A report sample.


If you don't know what the abbreviation "SRP" represents, ask someone to tell you what it means. A simple question such as this will often clarify the issue:

"What do the letters 'SRP' represent in the 'Current Product Inventory' report?"

As you compose descriptions for each of the samples, you might find it difficult to write a description for a complex sample. A sample is complex if it represents more than one subject. The sample in Figure 6.8, for example, covers only one subject: products. The sample in Figure 6.9, however, covers at least three subjects: doctor services, nursing services, and patients. You'll often have to work a little harder to determine a complex sample's purpose and use. In some cases, you'll have to use the subject-identification technique to determine what subjects are represented within the sample. Once you've identified the subjects, it will be easier for you to clarify the function or functions of the sample. You can then compose a description that gives a clear picture of the sample's purpose.

Figure 6.9. An example of a complex report sample.


Let's say you're working with the report sample shown in Figure 6.9 and you have questions regarding the nursing services. You wonder whether the organization is using this report as an indirect means of maintaining a current list of nursing services. A question that elicits a yes or no response from a participant is not going to help you much at all, so you need to use an open-ended question that will elicit a more informative response. You could begin your discussion of this sample with this question:

"What nursing services do you provide besides those listed in this sample?"

This type of question gives the participant an opportunity to provide you with a detailed response; furthermore, you've given yourself the opportunity to ask follow-up questions as warranted by the participant's reply. To continue the example, say you receive the following answer:

"We provide various specialized services for the more complex patient. You see only the general services on this report. However, I can show you a complete list of our services that Katherine maintains on her computer."

You can continue with the process of writing the sample's description if this reply clarifies the point in question and you now understand the purpose of this report sample; otherwise, continue asking follow-up questions until everything is explained to your satisfaction.

Reviewing Information Requirements

The final issue you'll discuss with users concerns their information requirements. The objectives of this discussion are to determine whether individual users receive information based on data they don't directly control or maintain, to determine what types of additional information they need, and to determine what types of information they can foresee themselves needing in the future. You'll use the information you gather during this discussion later in the design process to help define and verify field and table structures. You can also use this information as yet another way of determining whether you accidentally overlooked anything during the previous discussions.

Current Information Requirements

Users typically receive the information they use through a variety of reports. Therefore, the best way to begin this discussion is by reviewing the report samples. This time around, though, you're not so concerned with how the reports are used as you are with the data upon which they are based. It's quite common that information on some of the reports a user receives is based on data he does not personally create and maintain. In this situation, you must determine the origin of that data so that you can identify all the data used by a user, whether he uses it directly or indirectly.

Select a report from the report samples and work with one of the participants to determine what data is used to produce the report. Ask him if he creates and maintains the data on which the report is based. You can move on to the next sample if he answers yes, but you'll need to identify the origin of the data if he answers no. Here's an example that illustrates this process.

Say you have an assistant named Kendra who is beginning a discussion with a participant named Joyce regarding the report sample shown in Figure 6.10

Figure 6.10. A sample report.


As Kendra begins the conversation, Joyce mentions that she works in the telemarketing department. When Kendra first asks about the sample report, Joyce indicates that she receives it every Monday morning. So Kendra asks her the following question:

"Do you provide the data that's used to generate this report?"

Her next course of action depends on Joyce's response. Kendra can move on to the next sample if Joyce's answer is yes; however, it would be a good idea for Kendra to ask a follow-up question to make certain that Joyce's answer is true.

"Do you personally enter and maintain this data on a daily basis?"

If Joyce's answer is still yes, Kendra can definitely move on to the next sample.

On the other hand, if Joyce's answer to the original question is no, Kendra will need to ask a few follow-up questions. First, she'll ask Joyce whether she contributes any data to the report. If she does, Kendra will then determine what data Joyce specifically submits. Then Kendra will ask whether or not Joyce knows the source of the remaining data.

To continue the example, say Joyce's reply to the original question is no and that the following dialog takes place after her response:


"Can you tell me, then, if there is any data that you contribute to the report at all?"


"I do supply the customer's name and phone number."


"Then you don't supply the customer type or the last purchase date. Is that correct?"




"Can you tell me who provides this data?"


"I'm not really sure, but . . ."


"Do you have an idea of where these items come from?"


"As a matter of fact, I do. They come from the sales department."


"That sounds good to me. I'll make a note of that on this sample, and then we can move on to the next one."

Note that as the dialog begins, Kendra first tries to determine whether Joyce submits any data at all to the report. When Joyce reveals that she contributes two of the items for the report, Kendra then poses a follow-up question to verify that Joyce is not submitting any of the other data. Finally, Kendra tries to identify the source of the remaining data by asking Joyce if she knows from where the data originates. In this case, it takes only two well-phrased questions to find the answer. If Joyce could not answer the last two questions, Kendra would need to continue her investigation with other participants.

You're sure to obtain all the information you need about your report samples if your discussions progress in the same manner as the preceding dialog. Remember: Follow-up questions are a crucial part of the conversation. You must phrase your questions properly to elicit the types of responses you need from the participants.

Additional Information Requirements

The next subject of discussion is additional information requirements. The objective here is to determine whether users require additional information that is not being delivered to them currently. If this is the case, you must identify what additional information they require and then define new data structures to support this extra information later in the design process.

Start this conversation by directing the participants to review the reports they currently receive. Ask them whether there is other information they would like to see in their reports. Next, direct them to discuss the additional information, which reports the information will affect, and the reason they believe the information is necessary. Then determine whether the additional information represents new subjects or new characteristics. If it does, identify each new item and add it to the appropriate list. Finally, review the participants' comments and determine whether there are further issues you need to discuss with them in regard to the reports. Here's an example that illustrates the process.

Say you're beginning this discussion and you've just asked the participants to review the report samples they currently use. One of the participants is reviewing the sample report shown in Figure 6.11.

Figure 6.11. The sample report being reviewed by a participant.


You now instruct this particular participant to note the additional information she would like to see on the reports and to provide a brief statement indicating why the information is necessary. It doesn't really matter exactly how she makes the notations so long as they are clear and attached to the report in an obvious manner. In this case, she decides to use large sticky notes as a means of documenting her comments. She's specified two new fields she'd like to add to the report, along with the reason for their inclusion. She's also suggested possible locations for the fields by writing their names on the report itself. Figure 6.12 shows the sample report with her comments.

Figure 6.12. A report sample with a participant's comments.


Next, determine whether there are new subjects or new characteristics represented in the additional information. Examine each report and apply the subject-identification technique and the characteristic-identification technique to the comments attached to the report. Here's an example of how you apply these techniques to the first comment in Figure 6.10:

"Can we include the vendor name? It would make it easier to identify a specific graphics/06infig14.gif."

Here you've identified both a subject and a characteristic. (Note that the subject and characteristic aren't directly related: "vendor name" is a characteristic of a vendor, not of a product. There's no problem here, but you should be aware that this apparent mismatch of subjects and characteristics is typical. You'll address this issue later in the design process.) Now, check your subjects list and characteristics list to determine whether you've already accounted for these items. If you have, move on to the next comment and repeat this procedure.

If you do discover a new subject, add it to your list of subjects and then identify as many of its characteristics as possible. When you're finished, add these items to your list of characteristics, move on to the next comment, and repeat the entire procedure. In many instances, however, you'll only identify new characteristics. Don't be alarmed. People often want to add items to a report that are characteristics of subjects that are already represented by the information on the report.

Finally, re-examine each report and determine if you have questions or concerns about the notes participants have made. For instance, you may question the rationale behind one participant's belief that specific fields are necessary on a given report. Or you might wonder why another participant wants to exclude certain fields from one of his reports. You definitely want to make sure that the fields he wants to exclude are truly unnecessary and that removing them will not have an adverse effect on the information the report provides to other people. In either case, the inclusion or exclusion of fields will affect the final database structure.

If a report has one or more remarks that are cause for concern, review it with the appropriate participant and settle as many of the issues as you can. You can usually resolve all your concerns with a few simple questions, but in some cases the resolution to certain issues will not become apparent until later in the design process. For example, you might have noticed that certain fields appear on two or more reports. It's difficult to determine if the fields are being unnecessarily duplicated until you begin to define the field and table structures. When you encounter an issue that is difficult to resolve at the present time, make a note of it and put the report aside for later review.

Future Information Requirements

The last subject of discussion concerns future information requirements. Your objective here is to identify the information that the participants believe will be necessary for them to receive as the organization evolves. Once you identify these future information requirements, you can ensure that you define the data structures necessary to support that information.

You first need to make sure that every participant has some idea of how the organization is evolving. The nature of the organization's evolution will determine what new information participants will require. If several people are unacquainted with these issues, you'll need to obtain this information from management and then relay it to the participants prior to the discussion. Once everyone is familiar with these matters, you can begin the conversation.

Start the discussion by directing the participants to think about the future evolution of the organization and how it may affect the work they do on a daily basis. You'll often find that some participants are going to have a difficult time envisioning this scenario. When this happens, use questions such as these to help them focus their thoughts:

How will the organization's evolution affect the amount of information you'll need to do your job?

Do you think you'll need additional types of information to carry out your duties effectively as the organization evolves?

How will the evolution of the organization increase the time you spend on your daily tasks?

Can you predict what types (categories, not specific items) of new information you'll need in order to carry out your duties as the organization evolves?

Do you anticipate a need for new information if your duties are increased as a result of the organization's evolution?

Keep in mind that most of the participants' answers will be based on speculation. There's no accurate way for them to predict what types of information they'll really need until the organization's evolution occurs. However, if you can anticipate their hypothetical information requirements, you can prepare for them by defining the necessary data structures in advance.

As the participants respond, use the subject-identification technique to identify brand-new subjects and then add them to your list of subjects. Then use the characteristic-identification technique to uncover new details concerning existing or new subjects and add them to your list of characteristics.

You can sketch ideas for new reports or data-entry forms to help participants visualize the types of information they may need in the future. These sketches can then help you identify new subjects or characteristics that the database structure needs to address. If you create several rough drawings of sample reports, be sure to assemble them in a separate, clearly marked folder. Then code each revision so that you can compare it with earlier revisions. Figure 6.13 shows an example of a preliminary design for a future report.

Figure 6.13. An example of a design for a new report.


Continue the conversation with users until you're satisfied that you've accounted for as many of the participants' future information requirements as possible. When you've completed the discussion, you're ready to conduct interviews with management.


You can use all of the techniques you learned in this section for the management interviews as well. Therefore, the next section is somewhat shorter and more concise.


Part II: The Design Process