Interviews, or question-and-answer sessions with one or more people, are an excellent way to gather in-depth information from a person or group of people for your primary research project. In contrast to surveys, which gather data from a large sample group of people, interviews can offer you the chance to gather more detailed information from one person or a small group of people. This page presents information on how to conduct a successful interview, including writing good questions, choosing the right people to interview, selecting an interviewing method, recording your interview, choosing an interview location, and transcribing your interview.
What to Ask
A good interview starts with good, clear, and unbiased questions. Generally, for an interview, you will want 5-8 open-ended questions that invite your respondents to explore your topic with some depth. Questions that start with “how” or “why” almost always allow for that kind of exploration, and “what” questions that do not have simple one-word or one-phrase responses can work quite well, too. The structure or organization of these questions matters, which means you want to keep questions around similar topics together so that your participants can answer your questions more easily and thoughtfully. Depending on your interview set-up, you might want to use a semi-structured interview approach, in which you ask follow-up or clarification questions based on a respondent’s answers.
Whom to Interview
One of the keys to a successful interview is choosing the right person to interview. Think about whom you would like to interview and whom you might know. Do not be afraid to ask people you do not know for interviews. When asking, simply tell them what the interview will be about, what the interview is for, and how much time it will take.
How to Interview
When interviewing, you have a choice of conducting a traditional, face-to-face interview or an interview using technology. Face-to-face interviews have the strength that you can ask follow-up questions and use non-verbal communication to your advantage. Individuals are able to say much more in a face-to-face interview than in an email, so you will get more information from a face-to-face interview. However, technology provides a host of possibilities when it comes to interviewing people at a distance. You may conduct your interview over the phone, through email, or even virtually through a video-chat program like FaceTime or Skype. You may also use a text or instant messaging program to interview your participant(s), which allows you to ask follow-up questions during the interview and which transcribes the interview for you.
If you are conducting an in-person interview, it is essential that you find a quiet place for your interview. You can reserve a quiet study room in the library, a residence hall, or other academic building. Do not try to interview someone in a coffee shop, dining hall, or other loud area, as it will be difficult to focus and get a clear recording.
One way of eliminating bias in your research is to record your interviews rather than rely on your memory and notes. Before you record any interview, however, be sure that you have permission to record from your participant(s). Recording interviews allows you to directly quote the individual and re-read the interview when you are analyzing and writing. Most computers and cell phones come with recording equipment built in. Taking notes during the interview, however, is a must: this requires you to pay attention, highlight the most important pieces of information, and form new follow-up or clarification questions for your participants.
Once your interview is over, you will need to transcribe your interview to prepare it for analysis. This means creating a written record that is exactly what was said—i.e., typing up your interview(s). If you have conducted an email or chat interview, you will already have a transcription.
Ask about One Thing at a Time
A poorly written question can contain multiple questions, which can confuse participants or lead them to answer only part of the question you are asking. This is called a “double-barreled question.”
- Double-Barreled Question: What kinds of problems are being faced in the field today and where do you see the search for solutions to these problems going?
- Revised Question 1: What kinds of problems are being faced in the field today?
- Revised Question 2: Where do you see the search for solutions to these problems going?
Avoid Leading Questions
A leading question is one where you prompt the participant to respond in a particular way, which can create bias in the answers given.
- Leading question: The economy is clearly in a crisis, wouldn’t you agree?
- Revised question: Do you believe the economy is currently in a crisis? Why or why not?
Open Versus Closed Questions
Closed questions, or questions that have yes/no or other limited responses, should be used in surveys. However, avoid these kinds of questions in interviews because they discourage the interviewee from providing in-depth information. In the revised question example above, “Do you believe the economy currently is in a crisis?” could be answered with a simple yes or no, which could keep a participant from talking more about the issue, but the “why or why not?” portion of the question asks the participant to elaborate.
Ask Questions Related to Your Topic
It may seem obvious, but you want to make sure that each question you ask is connected to your research topic/question. Whether you are conducting a survey or an interview, you do not want to waste your or your participants’ time. You want to avoid asking too few questions that do not allow you to gather information and data about your topic, but you also want to avoid asking too many unrelated questions that encourage your participants to abandon the interview before it is finished.
Write Clear Questions
Similarly, when you write questions, make sure they are clear, concise, and to the point. Questions that are too long, use unfamiliar vocabulary, or are unclear will confuse participants and you will not get quality responses. (See Surveys for more information about writing good questions.)