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I receive at least two questionnaires every week, mostly from
design students, asking me to provide them with information and/or
wisdom—which, as it happens, I am happy to do. Yet these
questioners don't always approach it effectively. Given the volume
(and I know I'm not alone in receiving these requests), I think
it's time someone offered some advice.
A reporter's bag of tricks. (Flickr user
liltree, under Creative
Most emails begin along the lines of "I know you are busy, but…"
and then continue in variations of "I am working on a report [or
thesis or whatever] and would appreciate your valuable comments."
Valuable is an operative word. However, sometimes—and indeed
more often than I would like—they write: "I have to do a report on
a designer and my professor assigned you to me." Not exactly
flattering. That is often followed by something like, "Would you
answer the following questions so"—and this is unstated, but the
meaning is clear—"you can tell me who the hell you are and give me
enough basic information so I don't have to do more than a simple
Google search on your name?" Every so often they add, "I should
have done this earlier, my project is due tomorrow…."
Let us begin with a brief discussion of the word "etiquette"
from the French étiquette, signifying "a ticket of
admission." Having first appeared in English in 1750, it is a code
of behavior that outlines "expectations for social behavior
according to contemporary conventional norms within a society,
social class or group." It could be argued that if enough people
practice "bad" etiquette, that would become the standard or norm.
Nonetheless it is still rude if the receiver takes offense. Since I
frequently receive those "you were assigned to me" queries, I could
assume that the professor who "assigned" me neglected to establish
the proper etiquette of first contact or, even worse, accepts this
greeting as the "norm," discourteous as it may be. Whatever the
reason, the student has started off on the wrong foot and with most
people will not get the desired result. Email has made approaching
"assigned" designers easy, but it is just as easy for us to ignore
them if the email does not strike a positive note.
The introductory greeting is just the first hurdle. I will
usually give the student benefit of the doubt (or blunder), but
most interviewees (busy as they are) don't have the tolerance for
naiveté. My advice would be to say, "I have selected to report on
you because I admire the work you've done and have some questions
that would enlighten me, as well as my classmates, if you would be
so kind as to answer them." Don't grovel but acknowledge the
Earning someone's limited attention is just the first part;
getting answers to the questionnaire is the goal. So, avoid the
boilerplate and ask some good questions. Forget the "Where were you
born?" "How did you get into design?" "What's your favorite
color/typeface?" "Are you now or have you ever been…?" approach.
Start with a question that shows you've done some preliminary
research or, even more ambitious, have a thesis about your subject
that you'd like to have proved or disproved. The fact is, everyone
likes answering smart questions and will often come back to you
with smart answers (although even the best of questions may only
elicit short answers from those who have no patience for email—in
that case, suggest the option of a phone or Skype interview).
Now that you've impressed your subject with an astute opener,
this should segue nicely into the ideal scenario. If an interviewer
demonstrates the preferred etiquette that shows respect (and some
deference), then a good rapport should follow suit. But to be
certain we're on the same page here: When "cold calling" with a
questionnaire, you are better off starting out with a preliminary
note requesting the interview, either by email or voice, or even
face to face. We all have our preferences; I usually prefer going
the email route, but on occasion I will do a phone interview or,
more rarely, if time permits, an in-person one.
The criteria for how, where and why are simple. Foremost is
convenience: Email is fast and efficient for both parties. Second
is time: Telephone can save time (perhaps not for you since you
will need to transcribe, but it may be better for your subject—and
if the thesis presented by the interviewer demands detailed
responses, it makes more sense to do it verbally). Third, a
convincing argument: If the reason for an in-person visit tickles
my fancy, I'm happy to meet the inquisitor. There is one more
criterion: place. I receive a large number of requests from distant
locales, so so email is the way to go.
What makes a "smart" questionnaire? Here are some good questions
that I received recently. Since it was a focused group of questions
on design writing, it gave me the chance to respond with more depth
than my usual boilerplate answers. Although the questions revealed
that the asker was on a fishing expedition, they nonetheless built
to a nice crescendo.
Similarly, I received this one a few months ago. The first
question almost stopped me as it belied the more purposeful aim of
the subsequent ones regarding hand lettering (run-on sentences
Focus is the key to a good questionnaire (or interview). Too
often the fishing expeditions reveal a lack of research or
understanding. When the question-giver succeeds in convincing her
subject that the questionnaire is not a "one size fits all" form
letter, and that a concept bolsters each question, the subject is
more likely to engage, and even be insightful. One last thing to
remember: Don't ask questions that do not pertain to the person
asked, and most of all, don't say "Dear Mr. X" when you're sending
it to Mr. Y. Now, that's an interview stopper.
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