Observing = Understanding: Why in-person interviewing matters

For those of you wanting some insight into how to do research, this post is for you.

Back when I was in journalism school, our profs told us repeatedly “Go, don’t phone.” They argued you’d only get better reporting if you actually went and witnessed events yourself.

Of course when I got out into the big, bad world, I discovered “going” wasn’t always in the cards. So I learned to rely on telephone interviews.

Now that I’m researching the experience of work and time in interactive agencies, I have an advantage: I worked in an interactive agency and know first-hand what goes on. But I don’t know how people understand their own experiences, how work invades their homes, and what their partners think.

Compare the following three examples:

  1. The family of three had no television, but a computer monitor set up on a credenza in the living room. The coffee table had a wireless keyboard for the “TV” and my interviewee had his own, work-issued laptop sitting right next to it. When I asked him why his work laptop was there, he said, “That’s its place. If there’s something else there, it’s temporary.”

    What did I take this to mean? That work has now taken up permanent real estate, not just in my interviewee’s life, but in his family’s home. All three of them see his work (literally) everyday. It flickers into the night as they gather, as a family, in the “living” room.

  2. There was no evidence of a work computer anywhere. As we sat over tea at her kitchen table she told me that’s because she doesn’t bring work home. “But do you have a computer?” I pressed. “Oh yes,” she says, “It’s in there,” pointing to a closed door. “Do you ever do work there?” I ask. “No,” she says.
  3. Another kitchen table, and another pot of tea. We can hear music streaming from down the hall. “That’s the computer,” she explains to me. She tells me later that she doesn’t bring her laptop home, but she does us a USB key to periodically transfer files and work at them at home.

What is the significance here? Each person has negotiated their relationship with their work tools differently. One person fully embraces the sense of ownership his company has given him over his laptop. He brings it back and forth to work everyday, but his family sits next to him as he answers emails or checks on work.

Another worker chooses to draw a line by not bringing her computer home, yet she brings home work, in a deceptively small package, that occupies her as her husband and their friends entertain themselves in the living room.

And a third worker draws a distinct line: no work at home. She can’t even see her computer because she puts it behind a closed door.

Each one of these workers believes they don’t work at home. Yet each one of them has very different symbolic relationships with icons, artifacts, and remnants of work as they come into their homes.

The long and short of it: Go, don’t phone. You never know what subtleties you will find.

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