Deep, efficient, and dialogic study of undergraduate information seeking and use: A methodological exploration



Our purpose is to present the rationale and results of a pilot study applying a meta-theoretically derived approach to focus group or semi-structured group interviewing as a means of obtaining deep data efficiently and dialogically. The project was designed to meet needs of both the senior author (a methodologist) and junior author (a librarian). The exemplar was undergraduate information seeking and use for meeting class assignments. Particular focus was on understanding when and why students decided between quick internet-only versus thorough searches involving multiple sources. The focus group approach was informed by Dervin's Sense-Making Methodology (SMM). Emphasis for this presentation is methodological – to describe the approach and to illustrate the potentials for group interviewing. Empirical results provided here are for illustration only. The pertinent literature review emphasizes methodological sources. The authors are collecting more data from a range of different academic informants and expect to develop empirically anchored reports in the near future.


This paper refers to figures that we have incorporated in a full version of this paper on a web-site at:


Focus group interviewing has become increasingly popular (Morgan, 2002) as it allows researchers and practitioners a relatively inexpensive and rapid method of getting a handle on a question of interest. Numerous writings attend to multiple focus group theories and practices. These emphasize primarily theories of interpersonal, intergroup, intercultural, and trans-border communication. These writings also offer various examples for practice, usually in formulaic ways.

Despite this attention, there is very little work that actually theorizes interviewing as communication practice (Briggs, 1986; Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003; Dervin, 2008). Instead the emphasis is on gaining apriori understandings of cultures and group dynamics rather than specific theoretically-guided procedures of communicating that acknowledge how communicating works. Dervin calls the former “noun” approaches to interviewing. The SMM approach focuses interviewing practice on asking queries that address not only how informants define things but how they see themselves moving and bridging gaps from one situated sense-making instance to another. This SMM “verbing” approach to interviewing mandates a dialogic structuring where the informant is invited as theorist to not only describe his/her material and phenomenological worlds but to ascribe causes and outcomes. Two central mandates drawn from SMM's philosophic underpinnings include: a) disciplining communicating with prescribed talking and listening turn-takings; and b) limiting spontaneity in order to constrain the impact of powerful interests and habitual communication patterns.

The SMM theory and practice of interviewing is drawn from its central metaphor showing a sense-making entity moving from a situation in a context (both at least in part assumed to be gappy) facing the next time-space gap inherent in all human situation-facing. In the metaphor, the sense-maker fashions a bridge (e.g. from habit, caprice, invention, information seeking) across the gap and assesses the outcome (e.g. help, hindrance). [See Figures 1and2). The core set of meta-theoretic concepts that underpin the metaphor are listed in Figure 3. All procedures for the focus group described below derived from this core.


Informants were 29 undergraduate volunteers, primarily communication and journalism majors – juniors and seniors – at a large US public university. The procedures were as listed below. Steps 2 and 4 were audio recorded.

  • 1SELF-ADMINISTERED SMM FOCUS GROUP SCRIPT: Each informant was given 20 minutes to fill in a script [Figure 4] which identified the critical entries that were the group's focus – a time when you: a) did a quick search; b) deliberately did not use a library; and c) did a thorough search. A final question focused on what informants saw as an “ideal” information system and when, where, and how they would use it.
  • 2TURN-TAKING ROUNDS: Each of the four entries was the focus of a round where each informant spoke uninterrupted. During these rounds, the facilitator asked follow up questions drawn primarily from the core set of SMM queries [Figure 5] to flesh out more fully an understanding of how each informant saw themselves as moving through time-space.
  • 3SMM JOURNALING: SMM's interviewing theory mandates simultaneously tapping both intrapersonal and interpersonal communication. Informants used the JOURNALING sheet [Figure 6] to record similar and dissimilar experiences, agreements and disagreements, confusions, challenges, and things that helped.
  • 4FINAL DEBRIEFING: A more open turn-taking focused on informant ideas and disagreements about the “ideal” system and other issues that challenged them from prior turn-takings. The single rule was: “no one talks twice until all who want to have talked once.”


Both investigators read the scripts and journals and listened to the audio recordings twice. Doing this independently, the two investigators converged on the same themes. The senior investigator also applied two content analysis schemes – one that maps informant responses with the SMM Metaphor triangle; a second that taps outcomes informants sought. These schemes have been tested in numerous studies achieving reliability percentages of 85% of above, even with strict beyond chance calculations. (Dervin, Reinhard et al., 2006). The four SMM focus group phases yielded a great deal of data in 105 minutes: 29 informants described 101 source-using helpfulness outcomes: 25 from quick, 47 from thorough, 29 from instead of library searches. For purposes of comparative results presented below the 101 cases are divided into internet only-quick searches (n=57), and multiple sources-in depth searches (n=44).


*Almost all informants displayed a deliberate and situationally anchored trade-off for when and why they chose a quick versus thorough search and when they chose not to use a library. Figure 7 uses the SMM triangle to show how one informant differed in her strategies for the various searching situations.

*Figure 8 displays SMM movement metaphor graphics picturing helpfulness outcomes, along with data counts across all 101 outcomes. Qualitative examples of actual informant statements for each outcome category are also listed. Outcome percentages from most named to least named were: got best info/ understanding (24); intersected right time/ place (20); got control/avoided bad situation (18); road made easier (12); got general/ sufficient information (9); got intrinsic personal pleasure/insight (7); got external rewards, reached goals (7); and followed teacher's mandates (4).

*Figure 9 comparing helpfulness outcomes named for internet only-quick searches to multiple sources-in depth searches shows marked differences. The former were more likely to be evaluated as: intersected right time-place (36%; 0%) got general/ sufficient info (16%; 0%); and road made easier (16%; 7%). In contrast, multiple sources-in depth searches was more likely to be evaluated on: got best info/understanding (36%; 14%); got personal pleasure, insight (16%; 0%); and got rewards, reached goals (14%; 2%). Both were near equally (16%; 21%) seen as helping get control, avoid bad situations.


The data clearly demonstrated the specificity of informants' search strategies. Because the analyses did not impose a focus on averages, the dispersion across informants showed amid the commonness:

  • Some informants said they avoided the library because of finding sufficient information quickly on the internet, their physical locations, or the perceived difficulty of library systems. Yet, other informants were upset or surprised by some fellow students' lack of library use.

  • Although, the majority voiced a preference for internet searching and shortcuts (e.g. Wikipedia, Cliffsnotes, Sparksnotes), a substantial third expressed concern regarding reliability and trust

  • A surprising number of students asked “are we all lazy?” Yet, almost all were affirmed by knowing others were also sometimes using internet-only quick strategies. Some learned of sources they'd never heard of before.

  • The largest divergence and animated discussion involved whether the ideal information system should or could focus on accuracy versus “acceptable alternative” perspectives or truths.


The purpose of these focus groups was to adapt/test an application of SMM. Richer data than expected was received. Planned subsequent rounds will add specific questions and probes to more fully understand student definitions and perceptions of what constitutes library use and specific sources consulted.