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Research Paper On Interview Techniques

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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Library's Business Planning Blog
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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):

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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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There are three fundamental types of research interviews: structured, semi-structured and unstructured. Structured interviews are, essentially, verbally administered questionnaires, in which a list of predetermined questions are asked, with little or no variation and with no scope for follow-up questions to responses that warrant further elaboration. Consequently, they are relatively quick and easy to administer and may be of particular use if clarification of certain questions are required or if there are likely to be literacy or numeracy problems with the respondents. However, by their very nature, they only allow for limited participant responses and are, therefore, of little use if 'depth' is required.

Conversely, unstructured interviews do not reflect any preconceived theories or ideas and are performed with little or no organisation.4 Such an interview may simply start with an opening question such as 'Can you tell me about your experience of visiting the dentist?' and will then progress based, primarily, upon the initial response. Unstructured interviews are usually very time-consuming (often lasting several hours) and can be difficult to manage, and to participate in, as the lack of predetermined interview questions provides little guidance on what to talk about (which many participants find confusing and unhelpful). Their use is, therefore, generally only considered where significant 'depth' is required, or where virtually nothing is known about the subject area (or a different perspective of a known subject area is required).

Semi-structured interviews consist of several key questions that help to define the areas to be explored, but also allows the interviewer or interviewee to diverge in order to pursue an idea or response in more detail.2 This interview format is used most frequently in healthcare, as it provides participants with some guidance on what to talk about, which many find helpful. The flexibility of this approach, particularly compared to structured interviews, also allows for the discovery or elaboration of information that is important to participants but may not have previously been thought of as pertinent by the research team.

For example, in a recent dental public heath study,5 school children in Cardiff, UK were interviewed about their food choices and preferences. A key finding that emerged from semi-structured interviews, which was not previously thought to be as highly influential as the data subsequently confirmed, was the significance of peer-pressure in influencing children's food choices and preferences. This finding was also established primarily through follow-up questioning (eg probing interesting responses with follow-up questions, such as 'Can you tell me a bit more about that?') and, therefore, may not have emerged in the same way, if at all, if asked as a predetermined question.

The purpose of research interviews

The purpose of the research interview is to explore the views, experiences, beliefs and/or motivations of individuals on specific matters (eg factors that influence their attendance at the dentist). Qualitative methods, such as interviews, are believed to provide a 'deeper' understanding of social phenomena than would be obtained from purely quantitative methods, such as questionnaires.1 Interviews are, therefore, most appropriate where little is already known about the study phenomenon or where detailed insights are required from individual participants. They are also particularly appropriate for exploring sensitive topics, where participants may not want to talk about such issues in a group environment.

Examples of dental studies that have collected data using interviews are 'Examining the psychosocial process involved in regular dental attendance'6 and 'Exploring factors governing dentists' treatment philosophies'.7 Gibson et al.6 provided an improved understanding of factors that influenced people's regular attendance with their dentist. The study by Kay and Blinkhorn7 provided a detailed insight into factors that influenced GDPs' decision making in relation to treatment choices. The study found that dentists' clinical decisions about treatments were not necessarily related to pathology or treatment options, as was perhaps initially thought, but also involved discussions with patients, patients' values and dentists' feelings of self esteem and conscience.

There are many similarities between clinical encounters and research interviews, in that both employ similar interpersonal skills, such as questioning, conversing and listening. However, there are also some fundamental differences between the two, such as the purpose of the encounter, reasons for participating, roles of the people involved and how the interview is conducted and recorded.8

The primary purpose of clinical encounters is for the dentist to ask the patient questions in order to acquire sufficient information to inform decision making and treatment options. However, the constraints of most consultations are such that any open-ended questioning needs to be brought to a conclusion within a fairly short time.2 In contrast, the fundamental purpose of the research interview is to listen attentively to what respondents have to say, in order to acquire more knowledge about the study topic.9 Unlike the clinical encounter, it is not to intentionally offer any form of help or advice, which many researchers have neither the training nor the time for. Research interviewing therefore requires a different approach and a different range of skills.

The interview

When designing an interview schedule it is imperative to ask questions that are likely to yield as much information about the study phenomenon as possible and also be able to address the aims and objectives of the research. In a qualitative interview, good questions should be open-ended (ie, require more than a yes/no answer), neutral, sensitive and understandable.2 It is usually best to start with questions that participants can answer easily and then proceed to more difficult or sensitive topics.2 This can help put respondents at ease, build up confidence and rapport and often generates rich data that subsequently develops the interview further.

As in any research, it is often wise to first pilot the interview schedule on several respondents prior to data collection proper.8 This allows the research team to establish if the schedule is clear, understandable and capable of answering the research questions, and if, therefore, any changes to the interview schedule are required.

The length of interviews varies depending on the topic, researcher and participant. However, on average, healthcare interviews last 20-60 minutes. Interviews can be performed on a one-off or, if change over time is of interest, repeated basis,4 for example exploring the psychosocial impact of oral trauma on participants and their subsequent experiences of cosmetic dental surgery.

Developing the interview

Before an interview takes place, respondents should be informed about the study details and given assurance about ethical principles, such as anonymity and confidentiality.2 This gives respondents some idea of what to expect from the interview, increases the likelihood of honesty and is also a fundamental aspect of the informed consent process.

Wherever possible, interviews should be conducted in areas free from distractions and at times and locations that are most suitable for participants. For many this may be at their own home in the evenings. Whilst researchers may have less control over the home environment, familiarity may help the respondent to relax and result in a more productive interview.9 Establishing rapport with participants prior to the interview is also important as this can also have a positive effect on the subsequent development of the interview.

When conducting the actual interview it is prudent for the interviewer to familiarise themselves with the interview schedule, so that the process appears more natural and less rehearsed. However, to ensure that the interview is as productive as possible, researchers must possess a repertoire of skills and techniques to ensure that comprehensive and representative data are collected during the interview.10 One of the most important skills is the ability to listen attentively to what is being said, so that participants are able to recount their experiences as fully as possible, without unnecessary interruptions.

Other important skills include adopting open and emotionally neutral body language, nodding, smiling, looking interested and making encouraging noises (eg, 'Mmmm') during the interview.2 The strategic use of silence, if used appropriately, can also be highly effective at getting respondents to contemplate their responses, talk more, elaborate or clarify particular issues. Other techniques that can be used to develop the interview further include reflecting on remarks made by participants (eg, 'Pain?') and probing remarks ('When you said you were afraid of going to the dentist what did you mean?').9 Where appropriate, it is also wise to seek clarification from respondents if it is unclear what they mean. The use of 'leading' or 'loaded' questions that may unduly influence responses should always be avoided (eg, 'So you think dental surgery waiting rooms are frightening?' rather than 'How do you find the waiting room at the dentists?').

At the end of the interview it is important to thank participants for their time and ask them if there is anything they would like to add. This gives respondents an opportunity to deal with issues that they have thought about, or think are important but have not been dealt with by the interviewer.9 This can often lead to the discovery of new, unanticipated information. Respondents should also be debriefed about the study after the interview has finished.

All interviews should be tape recorded and transcribed verbatim afterwards, as this protects against bias and provides a permanent record of what was and was not said.8 It is often also helpful to make 'field notes' during and immediately after each interview about observations, thoughts and ideas about the interview, as this can help in data analysis process.4,8