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Conducting Interview Research Paper

General Guidelines for Conducting Research Interviews

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
Adapted from the Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development.

Sections of This Topic Include

Introduction
Preparation for Interview
Types of Interviews
Types of Topics in Questions
Sequence of Questions
Wording of Questions
Carrying Out Interview
Immediately After Interview
Other Resources

General Information and Resources
Ethics and Conducting Research

Also see
Related Library Topics

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Introduction

Interviews are particularly useful for getting the story behind a participant's experiences. The interviewer can pursue in-depth information around a topic. Interviews may be useful as follow-up to certain respondents to questionnaires, e.g., to further investigate their responses. Usually open-ended questions are asked during interviews.

Before you start to design your interview questions and process, clearly articulate to yourself what problem or need is to be addressed using the information to be gathered by the interviews. This helps you keep clear focus on the intent of each question.

Preparation for Interview

  1. Choose a setting with little distraction. Avoid loud lights or noises, ensure the interviewee is comfortable (you might ask them if they are), etc. Often, they may feel more comfortable at their own places of work or homes.
  2. Explain the purpose of the interview.
  3. Address terms of confidentiality. Note any terms of confidentiality. (Be careful here. Rarely can you absolutely promise anything. Courts may get access to information, in certain circumstances.) Explain who will get access to their answers and how their answers will be analyzed. If their comments are to be used as quotes, get their written permission to do so. See getting informed consent.
  4. Explain the format of the interview. Explain the type of interview you are conducting and its nature. If you want them to ask questions, specify if they're to do so as they have them or wait until the end of the interview.
  5. Indicate how long the interview usually takes.
  6. Tell them how to get in touch with you later if they want to.
  7. Ask them if they have any questions before you both get started with the interview.
  8. Don't count on your memory to recall their answers. Ask for permission to record the interview or bring along someone to take notes.

Types of Interviews

  1. Informal, conversational interview - no predetermined questions are asked, in order to remain as open and adaptable as possible to the interviewee's nature and priorities; during the interview, the interviewer "goes with the flow".
  2. General interview guide approach - the guide approach is intended to ensure that the same general areas of information are collected from each interviewee; this provides more focus than the conversational approach, but still allows a degree of freedom and adaptability in getting information from the interviewee.
  3. Standardized, open-ended interview - here, the same open-ended questions are asked to all interviewees (an open-ended question is where respondents are free to choose how to answer the question, i.e., they don't select "yes" or "no" or provide a numeric rating, etc.); this approach facilitates faster interviews that can be more easily analyzed and compared.
  4. Closed, fixed-response interview - where all interviewees are asked the same questions and asked to choose answers from among the same set of alternatives. This format is useful for those not practiced in interviewing.

Types of Topics in Questions

Patton notes six kinds of questions. One can ask questions about:
  1. Behaviors - about what a person has done or is doing
  2. Opinions/values - about what a person thinks about a topic
  3. Feelings - note that respondents sometimes respond with "I think ..." so be careful to note that you're looking for feelings
  4. Knowledge - to get facts about a topic
  5. Sensory - about what people have seen, touched, heard, tasted or smelled
  6. Background/demographics - standard background questions, such as age, education, etc.

Note that the above questions can be asked in terms of past, present or future.

Sequence of Questions

  1. Get the respondents involved in the interview as soon as possible.
  2. Before asking about controversial matters (such as feelings and conclusions), first ask about some facts. With this approach, respondents can more easily engage in the interview before warming up to more personal matters.
  3. Intersperse fact-based questions throughout the interview to avoid long lists of fact-based questions, which tends to leave respondents disengaged.
  4. Ask questions about the present before questions about the past or future. It's usually easier for them to talk about the present and then work into the past or future.
  5. The last questions might be to allow respondents to provide any other information they prefer to add and their impressions of the interview.

Wording of Questions

  1. Wording should be open-ended. Respondents should be able to choose their own terms when answering questions.
  2. Questions should be as neutral as possible. Avoid wording that might influence answers, e.g., evocative, judgmental wording.
  3. Questions should be asked one at a time.
  4. Questions should be worded clearly. This includes knowing any terms particular to the program or the respondents' culture.
  5. Be careful asking "why" questions. This type of question infers a cause-effect relationship that may not truly exist. These questions may also cause respondents to feel defensive, e.g., that they have to justify their response, which may inhibit their responses to this and future questions.

Conducting Interview

  1. Occasionally verify the tape recorder (if used) is working.
  2. Ask one question at a time.
  3. Attempt to remain as neutral as possible. That is, don't show strong emotional reactions to their responses. Patton suggests to act as if "you've heard it all before."
  4. Encourage responses with occasional nods of the head, "uh huh"s, etc.
  5. Be careful about the appearance when note taking. That is, if you jump to take a note, it may appear as if you're surprised or very pleased about an answer, which may influence answers to future questions.
  6. Provide transition between major topics, e.g., "we've been talking about (some topic) and now I'd like to move on to (another topic)."
  7. Don't lose control of the interview. This can occur when respondents stray to another topic, take so long to answer a question that times begins to run out, or even begin asking questions to the interviewer.

Immediately After Interview

  1. Verify if the tape recorder, if used, worked throughout the interview.
  2. Make any notes on your written notes, e.g., to clarify any scratchings, ensure pages are numbered, fill out any notes that don't make senses, etc.
  3. Write down any observations made during the interview. For example, where did the interview occur and when, was the respondent particularly nervous at any time? Were there any surprises during the interview? Did the tape recorder break?

Other Resources

CASAnet's overview of interviewing principles
Competency-based Interviewing


For the Category of Evaluations (Many Kinds):

To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.

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Evaluation (General)

The following books are recommended because of their highly practical nature and often because they include a wide range of information about this Library topic. To get more information about each book, just click on the image of the book. Also, a "bubble" of information might be displayed. You can click on the title of the book in that bubble to get more information, too.

Program Evaluation

The following books are recommended because of their highly practical nature and often because they include a wide range of information about this Library topic. To get more information about each book, just click on the image of the book. Also, a "bubble" of information might be displayed. You can click on the title of the book in that bubble to get more information, too.

Field Guide to Nonprofit Program Design, Marketing and Evaluation
by Carter McNamara, published by Authenticity Consulting, LLC. There are few books, if any, that explain how to carefully plan, organize, develop and evaluate a nonprofit program. Also, too many books completely separate the highly integrated activities of planning, marketing and evaluating programs. This book integrates all three into a comprehensive, straightforward approach that anyone can follow in order to provide high-quality programs with strong appeal to funders. Includes many online forms that can be downloaded. Many materials in this Library topic are adapted from this book.

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Conducting an interview

Interviews provide a qualitative method of gathering evidence, data or information. Responses are not usually expressed in numerical terms, as might be the case with questionnaires.

If you are planning to carry out interviews as part of a research project, the first things to consider are who you will interview, what kind of information you want to obtain, and the type of interview that will help you to do that.

  • Unstructured interview. The interviewer uses at most an 'aide memoir' - notes to jog the memory - rather than a list of questions. The interview may be like a conversation, with the interviewer responding to the interviewee and letting them speak freely.
  • Semi-structured interview. The interviewer has a list of questions or key points to be covered and works through them in a methodical manner. Similar questions are asked of each interviewee, although supplementary questions can be asked as appropriate. The interviewee can respond how they like and does not have to 'tick a box' with their answer.
  • Structured interview. The interviewer asks the interviewee a series of specific questions, to which a fixed range of answers are possible ('ticking a box'). This is the typical form of interview used in social survey research, and can provide quantitative data, as in a questionnaire.

Sampling

When you design your project you need to take into account how many people you need to interview to make the research valid or for 'population validity'. If you are investigating a narrow but deep subject you may not need to interview that many people. You may be interested in the opinions and experiences of experts or people with direct experience - a purposive rather than a random sample.

If you are interviewing a small number of people you must make sure that the sample is as appropriate as possible to your research.

Larger samples are normally employed in quantitative research using methods such as questionnaires.

Preparing an interview guide

When preparing an interview guide you need to keep in mind the following points.

  • Make sure you introduce yourself and explain the aim of the interview. Also adhere to academic ethics by making sure the interviewee is fully aware of the purpose of the research
  • Devise your questions so they help to answer your research question, and make sure all the questions are relevant
  • Try and have a sequence to your questions or topics by grouping them in themes that follow a logical sequence
  • That said, make sure that you can easily move back and forth between questions or topic areas, as your interviewee may naturally move on to another subject
  • Make sure your questions are clear and easy to understand - only use technical or academic language if you are sure your interviewee will understand what you mean
  • Do not ask leading questions. Make sure people are free to give their own, honest answers.

Kinds of question

Kvale (1996)* has identified nine types of question asked in qualitative interviews. Keep these in mind when you are composing your interview guide.

  • Introducing questions: 'Why did you...?' or 'Can you tell me about...?' Through these questions you introduce the topic.
  • Follow up questions: Through these you can elaborate on their initial answer. Questions may include: 'What did you mean...?' or 'Can you give more detail...?'
  • Probing questions: You can employ direct questioning to follow up what has been said and to get more detail. 'Do you have any examples?' or 'Could you say more about...?'
  • Specifying questions: Such as 'What happened when you said that?' or 'What did he say next?'
  • Direct questions: Questions with a yes or no answer are direct questions. You might want to leave these questions until the end so you don't lead the interviewee to answer a certain way.
  • Indirect questions: You can ask these to get the interviewee's true opinion.
  • Structuring questions: These move the interview on to the next subject. For example, 'Moving on to...'
  • Silence: Through pauses you can suggest to the interviewee that you want them to answer the question!
  • Interpreting questions: 'Do you mean that...?' or 'Is it correct that...?'

Recording the interview

In both unstructured and semi-structured interviews a method of recording the responses is required. This can be by digital recording or note taking (with the informed consent of the interviewee). In either case the interview process is a flexible one, with the emphasis on the answers given by the interviewee.

You should make sure that your interviewees have agreed to be interviewed. If they agree to be interviewed but decline to be recorded you can still go ahead with the interview, although your note taking would focus on writing down key points.

Transcription

Once you have completed your interviews you will have to transcribe your notes by copying what was said into a word-processed document. Modern digital recorders allow you to download a recording onto a computer and then slow it down to a useful speed. Transcribing can take a very long time - a ten-minute interview could take one hour or more to transcribe, depending on how quickly you can type, how fast the interviewee speaks and how clear the recording is.

If you only have a short time in which to complete a research project make sure you do not over-estimate the number of people you can interview and transcribe.

Once you have completed the interview, reflect on how it went. Was there anything you could have done better? Do you need to add any questions or topic areas? Is there anything you should have explained to the interviewees?

Analysing interviews

Once you have transcribed your interview(s) you may have a lot of data. How are you going to analyse it?

Some of it won't be useful, perhaps because the interviewee didn't keep to the subject, or gave background information which is not needed.

Of the relevant information, you could pick out key points and quotes to illustrate your points. You could also code the information - essentially you could turn a qualitative interview into quantitative data. You would do this by identifying passages of text and applying labels to them to show that they are an example of a theme. For example, if you asked 20 people how they travelled to work and one of the answers given was 'by car' this would be one thematic code. 'By bike' could be another, as could 'walking', etc.

You could perhaps code car as '1' and 'bike' as '2' etc, and then add and analyse the data in a spreadsheet, thus giving you the chance to generate charts and graphs to better illustrate your answers.

You could also use a qualitative research tool such as Nvivo, a program that helps you to classify your data using codes. Alternatively, if you had a small sample you could simply create a table on a piece of paper listing how many people said 'car' and how many said 'bike'.

* Kvale S. (1996) InterViews: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviews, Sage Publications, California