All great intranet solutions, and indeed most great business solutions, rely on gathering information from and about the intended audiences, consumers, stakeholders or other groups of interest. Many believe that techniques which draw on large numbers of participants produce more credible results, but qualitative techniques are often the only way to get the information you need. Even with few participant numbers qualitative research can produce very robust results.
Why numbers can be great
Surveys have an appeal because they return numbers. Numbers give people a sense of certainty and in the right circumstances, this is useful. Numbers can make research easier and allow teams to:
- collect quantifiable information that can be simple to analyse
- quickly summarise vast amounts of information
- mine the data for interesting patterns that make for engaging visuals
- conduct sophisticated statistics where we can test ‘significance’ and even quantify our level of confidence in a result
Overall quantitative research allows us to describe what is happening:
- what are the demographics of our audience
- how many people visited our site
- how many searches were successful
Numbers are much less good at is answering why. Science relies heavily on using numbers to validate assumptions on why things are happening, but the numbers themselves do not provide insight.
Most staff know why, so ask a few
Intranet professionals are rarely focused on individual staff needs but want to find solutions to issues that impact the majority of staff. Furthermore, if issues of interest span the organisation, it will not be necessary to sample large numbers of staff. Relatively small numbers will bring relevant issues to light.
For example, with needs analysis a handful of well chosen staff (see Selecting staff for stakeholder interviews) is all that is needed for a skilled interviewer to begin to identify significant areas where the intranet can help improve information flow.
More specifically, if an issue to be uncovered is being experienced by half of the organisation, by interviewing 10, the chance of not identifying the issue is one in a thousand. With multiple issues, multiple audience groups working in different environments, 20 staff is enough to uncover sufficient points for improvement for even the most ambitious intranet improvement projects.
Usability testing also draws significant insight from a very few users. Flaws in your preliminary designs are visible for all to see. Nielsen Norman Group research shows that each new user will identify a third of the errors not yet identified. Though this may not sound like much, it means that just five users is all that is required to identify over 86% of the flaws.
Other research and design techniques that leverage end-user perspectives in this way include:
- card sorting
- tree testing
- contextual inquiry
But beware the focus group. These are thought to bring the best of both worlds: efficient use of the time with a lot of participants using qualitative techniques. But only one participant can speak at a time and it can be difficult to create the rapport needed to get the depth required.
Insight is an emergent quality
Insight emerges from careful questioning, attentive listening and well thought through analysis more than large numbers of research participants. What emerges is a picture of the information environment and what interventions will have the most impact. Some are realistic, some less so, but overall they can be used to provide a clear sense of direction. Following implementation the numbers can then point to measurable improvements.