Interviews are a method of qualitative research

The point of a qualitative interview is to let the respondent tell their own story on their own terms.

Information in this guide is adapted from Harvard University

Types of Interview Questions

  • Direct questions: ‘Do you find it easy to keep smiling when serving customers?’; ‘Are you happy with the way you and your husband decide how money should be spent?’ Such questions are perhaps best left until towards the end of the interview, in order not to influence the direction of the interview too much.
  • Indirect questions: ‘What do most people round here think of the ways that management treats its staff?’, perhaps followed up by ‘Is that the way you feel too?’, in order to get at the individual’s own view.
  • Structuring questions: ‘I would now like to move on to a different topic’.
  •  Follow-up questions: getting the interviewee to elaborate his/her answer, such as ‘Could you say some more about that?’; ‘What do you mean by that . . .?’
  • Probing questions: following up what has been said through direct questioning.
  • Specifying questions: ‘What did you do then?’; ‘How did X react to what you said?’
  • Interpreting questions: ‘Do you mean that your leadership role has had to change from one of encouraging others to a more directive one?’; ‘Is it fair to say that what you are suggesting is that you don’t mind being friendly towards customers most of the time, but when they are unpleasant or demanding you find it more difficult?

Interview Tips

  • At the beginning of the interview, state the date, the name of the interviewer and interviewee, each person’s location, and if relevant, the connection between the interviewer and interviewee (e.g., “I am interviewing my grandmother”).
  • Jot down some questions in advance, so that you are prepared. 
  • Questions should be simple. Do not ask more than one question at a time.
  • The best questions are those which elicit the longest answers from the respondent. 
  • Do not ask questions that can be answered with one word.
  • But…feel free to go off script! If your interviewees take you in a different direction, let them tell their stories. Sometimes you can end up hearing about fascinating things you wouldn’t have known to ask about. 
  • Ask open-ended questions (i.e., questions that begin with “why, how, where, what kind of,” etc.).
  • Ask follow-up questions to get your interviewee to provide more details.
  • One of the most important things to do as an interviewer is to let the other person talk! Don’t feel like you have to fill empty spaces. Give your interviewees a chance to tell their stories. The focus should be on the interviewee!

A Successful Interviewer is...

1. Knowledgeable: is thoroughly familiar with the focus of the interview; pilot interviews of the kind used in survey interviewing can be useful here.
2. Structuring: gives purpose for interview; rounds it off; asks whether interviewee has questions.
3. Clear: asks simple, easy, short questions; no jargon.
4. Gentle: lets people finish; gives them time to think; tolerates pauses.
5. Sensitive: listens attentively to what is said and how it is said; is empathetic in dealing with the interviewee.
6. Open: responds to what is important to interviewee and is flexible.
7. Steering: knows what he/she wants to find out.
8. Critical: is prepared to challenge what is said, for example, dealing with inconsistencies in interviewees’ replies.
9. Remembering: relates what is said to what has previously been said.
10. Interpreting: clarifies and extends meanings of interviewees’ statements, but without imposing meaning on them.
11. Balanced: does not talk too much, which may make the interviewee passive, and does not talk too little, which may result in the interviewee feeling he or she is not talking along the right lines.
12. Ethically sensitive: is sensitive to the ethical dimension of interviewing, ensuring the interviewee appreciates what the research is about, its purposes, and that his or her answers will be treated confidentially.

Should you Record and Transcribe?

  • It helps to correct the natural limitations of our memories and of the intuitive glosses that
    we might place on what people say in interviews
  • It allows more thorough examination of what people say
  •  It permits repeated examinations of the interviewees’ answers
  •  It opens up the data to public scrutiny by other researchers, who can evaluate the analysis
    that is carried out by the original researchers of the data (that is, a secondary analysis)
  • It therefore helps to counter accusations that an analysis might have been influenced by a
    researcher’s values or biases
  •  It allows the data to be reused in other ways from those intended by the original
    researcher—for example, in the light of new theoretical ideas or analytic strategies.
  • It introduces a different dynamic into the social encounter of the interview, and recording equipment may be off-putting for interviewees.
  • Transcribing is a very time-consuming process. It also requires good equipment, usually in the form of a good-quality tape recorder and microphone but also, if possible, a transcription machine.
  • Transcription also very quickly results in a daunting pile of paper.