Chapter 8: Data Gathering

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The main goals of the chapter are to accomplish the following:

  • Discuss how to plan and run a successful data gathering program.
  • Enable you to plan and run an interview.
  • Empower you to design a simple questionnaire.
  • Enable you to plan and carry out an observation.


Data is everywhere. Indeed, it is common to hear people say that we are drowning in data because there is so much of it. So, what is data? Data can be numbers, words, measurements, descriptions, comments, photos, sketches, films, videos, or almost anything that is useful for understanding a particular design, user needs, and user behavior. Data can be quantitative or qualitative. For example, the time it takes a user to find information on a web page and the number of clicks to get to the information are forms of quantitative data. What the user says about the web page is a form of qualitative data. But what does it mean to collect these and other kinds of data? What techniques can be used, and how useful and reliable is the data that is collected?

This chapter presents some techniques for data gathering that are commonly used in interaction design activities. In particular, data gathering is a central part of discovering requirements and evaluation. Within the requirements activity, data gathering is conducted to collect sufficient, accurate, and relevant data so that design can proceed. Within evaluation, data gathering captures user reactions and their performance with a system or prototype. All of the techniques that we will discuss can be done with little to no programming or technical skills. Recently, techniques for scraping large volumes of data from online activities, such as Twitter posts, have become available. These and other techniques for managing huge amounts of data, and the implications of their use, are discussed in Chapter 10, “Data at Scale.”

Three main techniques for gathering data are introduced in this chapter: interviews, questionnaires, and observation. The next chapter discusses how to analyze and interpret the data collected. Interviews involve an interviewer asking one or more interviewees a set of questions, which may be highly structured or unstructured; interviews are usually synchronous and are often face-to-face, but they don’t have to be. Increasingly, interviews are conducted remotely using one of the many teleconferencing systems, such as Skype or Zoom, or on the phone. Questionnaires are a series of questions designed to be answered asynchronously, that is, without the presence of the investigator. These questionnaires may be paper-based or available online. Observation may be direct or indirect. Direct observation involves spending time with individuals observing their activities as they happen. Indirect observation involves making a record of the user’s activity as it happens, to be studied at a later date. All three techniques may be used to collect qualitative or quantitative data.

Although this is a small set of basic techniques, they are flexible and can be combined and extended in many ways. Indeed, it is important not to focus on just one data gathering technique, if possible, but to use them in combination so as to avoid biases that are inherent in any one approach.