Studying Your Users to Improve Services: Surveys of, and Interviews with, Industry Researchers Revealed Lessons That Information Professionals in All Sectors Can Apply to Their Organizations

By Taylor, Jenny Emanuel | Information Outlook, March-April 2014 | Go to article overview

Studying Your Users to Improve Services: Surveys of, and Interviews with, Industry Researchers Revealed Lessons That Information Professionals in All Sectors Can Apply to Their Organizations


Taylor, Jenny Emanuel, Information Outlook


In 2011, the Dow Chemical Corporation reached out to several universities in an attempt to create research partnerships. one project that evolved from this effort was a partnership between the university of Illinois libraries and Dow's Technical Information Services (TIS) unit.

The primary aims of this project were to study how employees conduct research at Dow and to use the collected data to influence the development of future internal search tools and improve the research services offered to Dow's workforce. As the primary university investigator on this project, I was interested in studying a group of information users who normally are not accessible to me and whose research needs differ from those of faculty and students in an academic setting. Also, I wanted to identify the research skills that were important to scientific researchers working in industry, especially the skills that graduate students should learn if they desire to work for a large research-oriented corporation such as Dow.

Over the next two years, my colleagues and I studied researchers at Dow using surveys and observational interviews. What follows is a summary of what we did and what we learned, and some tips on how others could conduct a similar study within their organization.

Study Methodologies

The study consisted of three phases: an initial overview survey, semi-structured observational interviews, and a follow-up survey to obtain feedback on changes that were made based on data collected during the first two phases.

The initial survey, conducted in the first half of 2012, provided us with an overview of how research is conducted at Dow and included questions about the resources and technologies used, the preferred training methods, and the demographic characteristics of the workforce. A survey link was sent by e-mail to members of Dow's Research and Development Division; employees who received the e-mail were told that if they participated in the survey, they would have the opportunity to win a $50 gift card to Amazon.com. Approximately 1,000 employees participated in the survey, providing the project team with valuable information about the individuals who use TIS tools and services as well as the tools they use.

The survey asked researchers if they were willing to participate in a follow-up interview. These interviews, which took place during the latter half of 2012, provided us with richer data than the survey because we were able to ask more specific questions. A graduate student at the university of Illinois performed the interviews remotely using teleconferencing software, which allowed us to view and record the researchers' computers while they searched for information online.

Before conducting the interviews, we developed question prompts (e.g., "search for information on a chemical compound") because we were unsure whether the participants would already have a topic in mind. However, almost all of the researchers were eager to show us--usually in great detail--how they had found information for one or more specific projects. They also had plenty to say about the research tools available to them.

We followed up on this "show and tell" by asking the interviewees to talk about search tools (for both their personal and professional use) and specifically what they like and do not like about these tools. We also asked them to describe their ideal scholarly search tool and how they would like to be trained to use this tool. All told, we conducted 27 interviews, averaging 45 minutes in length. Each interviewee received a gift card to Amazon.com for participating.

After the interviews, TIS made several changes to its research services, revised its section on Dow's intranet, and created training videos. We decided to get feedback on these changes, so in 2013 we surveyed the same users who had participated in the original survey. The 2013 survey focused on the new Website, with questions such as "Is the layout useful to your needs? …

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