Data collection: Interviews,Observations,Document analysis

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Data collection methods

Based on the research paradigm and the chosen research method, there are a series of data generation methods that can be used. Most of the times, several data generation methods are used for the same study.


Interviews can be suitable for:

  • obtaining detailed information on a specific topic;
  • asking questions that are complex, or open-ended, or whose order and logic might need to be different for different people;
  • explore emotions, experiences or feelings that cannot be easily observed or described via pre-defined questionnaire responses;
  • investigate sensitive issues.

Interviews are widely used in case studies and ethnographies, but can also be used in surveys, action research and research through design.

Types of interviews

    • structured
    • semi-structured
    • unstructured

Interview preparation

  • gathering background information on the interviewees and their context
  • drawing a list of topics/questions to be sent to your interviewees as a preparation for the interview
  • carrying out at least one practice interview with a colleague, if you have never done a research interview before.


  • you must communicate the interviewee the purpose of the interview and the likely duration, and decide on a date, time and place;
  • leave enought time between interviews to allow writing up your notes.


  • taking notes
  • audio recording
  • video recording

Conducting the interview

  • Introduce yourself and your research
  • ask for permission to record the interview
  • give the interviewee assurances about anonymity and confidentiality
  • make some introductory conversation to put the interviewee at ease
  • start with simple, factual questions about the interviewee's work environment
  • use aids: photographs, ads, screenshots, websites
  • use prompts, probes and checks
  • try to be non-judgemental and keep a neutral tone
  • in conclusion, invite the interviewee to talk about any points that were not addressed
  • thank the interviewee and ask him/her if they agree to check your summary or transcription of the interview later on.


  • plan to make notes immediately after the interview
  • transcribe the conversation from audio/video recordings; it can take up to 5h to transcribe 1h of interview, so plan carefully!
  • send the script to the interviewee for a check;

Internet-based interviews

  • video link
  • VoIP
  • email

Advantages and disadvantages of interviews


  • good at dealing with topics in depth and in detail
  • they are flexible
  • the interviewees tend to prefer a conversation to a dry questionnaire


  • time consuming
  • can be unreliable, misleading
  • require good social skills
  • not appropriate for making generalizations.


A questionnaire is a predefined set of questions, assembled in a pre-determined order.

  • they are frequently associated with surveys, but they are used in interviews as well;
  • they are handy when we are trying to collect information from large numbers of people;

Questionnaires can be:

  • self-administered
  • researcher administered

The question content and wording, together with the order of the questions, are extremely important. Adapting - or getting inspiration from - existing questionnaires might prove very useful.

According to (Peterson,2000), each question should be:

  • brief
  • relevant
  • unambiguous
  • specific
  • objective

Question types

  • open questions (a blank space is left for respondents to fill)
  • closed questions ( a pre-defined range of answers is provided)

Format of questions and responses

  • yes/no answers
  • quantity questions
  • agree/disagree with a statement
  • degree of agreement/disagreement - Likert scale
  • scale questions
  • Semantic differential scale
  • list questions
  • rank order questions

Layout and structure

  • introduction (purpose of the research, sponsor, return address and date by which it should be returned)
  • confidentiality matters
  • instructions
  • logical order of questions
  • demographic questions at the end
  • clear layout
  • adequate font

Pretest and pilot

Validity and reliability

Internet-delivered questionnaires:

  • via email
  • web-based


  • can be used within any research strategy;
  • it can take various shapes and use different senses and/or equipment;
  • covert research - the fact that they are observed is not known to the participants
  • overt - the participants are informed about the observation taking place

Systematic observation

  • the type of events to be observed, the frequency and duration are decided in advance;
  • it usually involves counting or timing, so it leads to the generation of quantitative data;
  • using an observation schedule from the literature might prove useful;
  • multiple observers can work on the study, if they are properly trained and use a common observation schedule;

Participant observation

  • the researcher takes part in the situation under study, in order to experience life from the perspective of participants;

Types of participation:

  • complete observer
  • complete participant
  • participant-observer
  • practitioner-researcher

Document analysis

Found documents

  • Produced by organisations:
    • formal records: personnel,sales records, shareholder reports, minutes of meeting
    • informal communications: notes, memos, email
    • public records: electoral registers, registers of births, marriages and deaths
  • Produced by individuals:
    • personal papers: diaries, logs, letters, phone texts, emails
    • documents from everyday lives: shopping lists, bus&train tickets
  • Publications:
    • academic literature
    • popular literature
    • guides, manuals
  • Secondary data
    • research data and field notes from previous studies
    • publicly funded surveys
    • internal organisational research
  • Multimedia:
    • photos, videos, comic strips, signposts, models
    • sound and music
    • electronic sources - screenshots, websites, online communities archives

Researcher generated documents

    • field notes
    • photographs
    • diagrams
    • storyboards
    • use case scenarios

Planning and conducting document-based research

  • Obtaining access to documents
  • Using secondary data and archives
  • Evaluating documents
  • Analysing documents
    • documents as vessels
    • documents as recipients

To watch

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