Qualitative Research – Leveraging Interviews

Interviewing is a unique source of information for both researchers and professionals, as it yield rich insights into people’s biographies, experiences, opinions, values, aspirations, attitudes and feelings.  When qualitative information is required for a research, Interviews can provide probing insights which no other research instrument can provide.

Frey and Oishi (1995:01) define Interview as “a purposeful conversation in which one person asks prepared questions (interviewer) and another answers them (respondent)”

Broadly speaking, any person-to-person interaction between two or more individuals with a specific purpose in mind is called an interview.

While Interviews serve the common use as a means of selection – for entry to school or college, getting a job or obtaining promotion, where they are widely as they give an idea of ‘what makes people tick’, of the personality and the motivations of the interviewee, Interviews provide a unique and powerful tool for researchers to obtain information and gain insights in the topic being researched.  They can serve as an important tool which can lead to further research using other methodologies such as observation and experiments.

In research, interviewing may be defined as two-way systematic conversation between an investigator and an informant, initiated for obtaining information relevant to as a specific study.  They involve not only conversation, but also learning from the respondents’ gestures, facial expressions and pauses, and their environment. Interviews require a personal sensitivity and adaptability as well as the ability to stay within the bounds of the designed protocol.

Interviews are among the most challenging and rewarding forms of measurement.

Interviewing allows researchers and groups interested in the study human behavior, such as social scientists, to understand the nuances of human behavior.  It can be use for collecting a wide range of data from factual demographic data to highly personal and intimate information relating to a person’s opinions, attitudes, and values, beliefs, past experience and future intentions.  Interviews can help examine the human element of answering why people think or act in a certain way, thereby forming the basis of qualitative research.  Interviews can be used to elicit information about attitudes and opinions, perspectives and meanings, the very stuff of much interest of both education and sociology.

Interview can add flesh to statistical information. They enable the investigator to grasp the behavioral context of the data furnished by the respondents. They permit the investigator to seek clarifications and bring to the forefront those questions, that, for one reason or another, respondents do not want to answer.

Types of Interviews in Research

Based on communication channel for Interviews

Face-to-face Interviews: This may be one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many – face to face interaction between the interviewer(s) & Interviewee(s).  Face to face interviews are characterized by synchronous communication in time and place.

Face to face interviews can take its advantage of social cues. Social cues, such as voice, intonation, body language etc. of the interviewee can give the interviewer a lot of extra information that can be added to the verbal answer of the interviewee on a question.  In Face to face interviews there is no significant time delay between question and answer; the interviewer and interviewee can directly react on what the other says or does.  An advantage of this synchronous communication is that the answer of the interviewee is more spontaneous, without an extended reflection.  But due to this synchronous character of the medium, the interviewer must concentrate much more on the questions to be asked and the answers given.

Another advantage of this interview method is that termination of a Face to face interview is easy as compared to other interview methods.  In the interaction between interviewer and interviewee enough clues can be given that the end of the interview is near, for example by shuffling the papers and turning off the tape recorder.  An explicit way to terminate the interview is by thanking the interviewee for cooperation and asking if there are further remarks that might be relevant to the topic or the interview process. This can lead to an emergent of a whole new area of information

Using Face-to-face for collecting information are preferred, when:

  • Social cues of the interviewee are very important information sources for the interviewer
  • The interviewer has enough budget
  • The interviewees are physically co-located close to the interviewer or time for travel is acceptable
  • Standardization of the interview situation is important

Written Interviews: Survey instruments, such as pre defined questionnaires are a standardized written interview method of collecting data for qualitative research. This method can be accomplished without verbal communication, but rather with self-administered instruments sent through the mail or via the Internet. Using surveys ensures that a larger sample can be included in the qualitative research since they can be sent out to a greater number of people. Also, the data is systematized, allowing data collection to be more uniform than other interviewing techniques. Survey instruments are a limited form of interviewing, as the questioning is rigid. Answers to surveys are close-ended, with a limited number of answers from which the participant can choose. Another issue with surveys is they are limited by the literacy levels and language of the participant.

Telephone interviews: Almost everyone is familiar with the telephone interview. Telephone interviews enable a researcher to gather information rapidly. Like personal face-to-face interviews, they allow for some personal contact between the interviewer and the respondent. And, they allow the interviewer to ask follow-up questions.

Telephone interviewing is a non-personal method of data collection. Telephone interviewing allows for more personal data and some flexibility in reaching a larger sample of the population of the study. With telephone interviews, one major issue is contacting participants who are willing to spend time answering questions after someone cold calls them. Language barriers may be an issue when the sample constitutes a large population that speaks a different language than the interviewer. Social barriers may prevent participants from being honest with their responses, especially when discussing personal issues. Telephone interviews should be pre-structured with a combination of open- and close-ended questions, and need to be brief to keep the participant’s attention.  One of the advantages of telephone interviewing is the extended access to participants such as:

  • People from all over the globe can be interviewed
  • It enables researchers to contact populations that might be difficult to work with, for example mothers at home with small children, shift workers, computer addicts and people with disabilities.
  • It is a possible means of access to people on sites, which have closed or limited access – such as hospitals, religious communities, prisons, the military, etc.
  • Some personal issues are so sensitive that participants might be reluctant to discuss them face to face with an interviewer.
  • Social cues of the interviewee are less or not important information sources for the interviewer
  • The interviewer has a small budget and less time for travelling
  • Looking for access to people on sites, which have closed or limited physical access – such as hospitals, religious communities, prisons, the military, etc.

Use of interviewers encourages sample persons to respond, leading to higher response rates. Interviewers can increase comprehension of questions by answering respondents’ questions. Fairly cost efficient, depending on local call charge structure good for large national (or international) frames some potential for interviewer bias (e.g. some people may be more willing to discuss a sensitive issue with a female interviewer than with a male one) cannot be used for non-audio information (graphics, demonstrations, taste/smell samples) unreliable for rural areas where telephone density is low.

Although the interviewer can interview people that are not easy to access, But they also have some major disadvantages one of the disadvantages of asynchronous communication of place by telephone is the reduction of social cues. The interviewer does not see the interviewee, so body language etc. cannot be used as a source of extra information.

Many people don’t have publicly-listed telephone numbers. Some don’t have telephones. People often don’t like the intrusion of a call to their homes. And, telephone interviews have to be relatively short or people will feel imposed upon.

Instant messaging interviews:  These are synchronous communication of time, but asynchronous communication of place.  These interviews only applies when both the participants are competent enough in type writing and using (and have access to) computers.  As with telephone interviews, due to the asynchronous communication of place, one of the advantages of instant messaging interviewing is the extended access to participants.   The interviewer can remotely interview people that are not easily accessible. There are disadvantages to this type of interview also such as lack of some elements, as intonation, but with the technological advancement it can be addressed with the use of emoticons with a normal keyboard. Using instant messaging interviews for collecting information are preferred, when:

  • Social cues of the interviewee are not important informational sources for the interviewer
  • The interviewer has a small budget and less time for travelling
  • Looking for access to people on sites, which have closed or limited physical access (such as hospitals religious communities, prisons, the military, and cults)
  • Standardization of the interview situation is not important
  • Anonymity is requested

Internet and E-mail interviews: Internet has provided a new channel for conducting interviews.  Here a list of questions is created and published on the internet.  The respondents are then asked to respond. E-mail interviews are asynchronous communication of time and place. One of the advantages of e-mail interviewing, due to asynchronous communication of place, is the extended access to participants, compared to Face to face interview.

Another advantage of asynchronous communication of place is that disturbing background noises are not recorded. E-mail interviewing has of course the extra advantage that the interviewer can formulate the questions, and the interviewee can answer the questions at his or her own convenience without noise disturbance due to independence of place and time.

Asynchronous communication of place also has the advantage that an e-mail interview can be much cheaper than a Face to face interview, because there are no travelling costs. On the other hand this technique can cost a lot of time. Due to the asynchronous communication of time, the interviewee might have to wait sometimes for days or weeks before he/she answers the questions. This does not only lead to the risk that the interviewee will lose interest in the research, but also to the risk that the interviewee may forget to reply to questions. Sending reminders at an appropriate time to the interviewee can reduce this Using e-mail interviews for collecting information is preferred, when:

  • Social cues of the interviewee are not important information sources for the interviewer (of course dependent on the research problem);
  • The interviewer has a small budget and less time for travelling;
  • Looking for access to people on sites, which have closed or limited access (such as hospitals religious communities, prisons, the military, and cults);
  • Standardization of the interview situation is not important;
  • Anonymity is requested;

And as with using instant messaging, a disadvantage of using e-mail is the complete lack of social cues. Therefore e-mail interviewing “provides a limited register for communication” Using emoticons, as already discussed in the former paragraph, can diminish the effects of this disadvantage. But the interviewer must always be aware that the use of emoticons is not always appropriate according to the interviewee. As each interviewee has his or her own communication style, the interviewer has to adapt the personal communication style online accordingly. There are also researchers that warn for an overestimation of the use of emoticons, as “e-mail messages containing emoticons did not generate different interpretations than did messages without emoticons”

  • There is a huge time difference, because interviewer and interviewee live in different parts of the world separated by several time zones, and synchronous interviewing means for one party (interviewer or interviewee) interviewing at night;
  • It is necessary that the interviewee takes time to respond to the developing dialogue. Based on Interview Participants

Panel Interview: These involve several people sitting as a panel, usually with a chairperson to coordinate the questions Interviewing of candidates by one person may not be effective as he cannot judge the candidates in different areas/ skills owning to lack of knowledge and competence in multiple disciplines and areas. Hence most organizations invite a panel of experts, specialized in different areas / fields / disciplines, to interview the candidates. A panel of experts interviews each candidate, judges one’s performance individually and prepares a consolidated judgment based on each expert’s judgment and weighted of each factor. This type of interview is called as panel interview.

The panel method is a method of data collection, by which data is collected from the same sample respondents at intervals either by mail or by personal interview. This is used for longitudinal studies, and so on. The period, over which the panel members are contacted for information may spread over several months or years. The time interval at which they are contacted repeatedly may be 10 or 15 days, or one or two months depending on the nature of the study and the memory span of the respondents.

The panel may be static or dynamic. A static or continuous panel is one in which the membership remains the same throughout the life of the panel, except for the members who drop out. The dropouts are not replaced

The basic characteristic of the panel method is successive collection of data on the same items from the same persons over a period of time. The type of information to be collected should be such facts that can be accurately and completely furnished by the respondent without any reservation. The number of item should be as few as possible so that they could be furnished within a few minutes, especially when mail survey is adopted. Through a pilot study, the average amount of time that a panel member has to spend for reporting can be pre-determined. The panel method requires carefully selected and well-trained field workers and effective supervision over their work.

Group Interviews: The second type of interview technique is a group interview or focus group study. This was defined as “a research strategy for understanding audience/ consumer attitudes and behavior” The members of a focus group should feel very much at ease with each other before conducting the interview, ideally they should perhaps know each other already. The members of the group should be of the same sex and share similar backgrounds in order to rule out any confounding variables. Conversation in a focus group can be either structured or unstructured (often somewhere in between) and can last up to two hours. Discussion is guided constantly by the interviewer whilst the respondents (usually 6-12 of them) discuss and express opinions with each other.

Group interview may be defined as a method of collecting primary data in which a number of individuals with a common interest interact with each other. In a personal interview, the flow of information is multidimensional in focus groups; more than one person at a time is interviewed to collect qualitative data. These group interview sessions include six to 12 participants in order to gather insight and understanding from a clearly defined population. Focus groups are recorded by video or voice recorders, and then transcribed in order to capture the complete interview session. A researcher should also take notes during the session to record any emotions or situations that occur in the interview that would be missed otherwise. Questions are prearranged around a specific subject. However, with focus groups, the questions are open-ended, allowing for greater variability in answers. Participants can piggy-back on an answer and elaborate, or go in a new direction unexpected by the researcher and moderator. When analyzing the answers from focus groups, researchers must interpret the answers that are open to suggestion

Based on Interview Process

Formal/Structured Interview: Structured interviews in their simplest form are sometimes little more than oral questionnaires – used instead of the written form in order to obtain a higher response rate or with respondents, especially children, who might not be literate or capable of correctly completing a complex questionnaire.  In this type of interview, all the formalities, procedure like fixing the value, time, panel of interviewers, opening and closing, intimating the candidates officially etc. are strictly followed in arranging and conducting the interview. The course of the interview is preplanned and structured, in advance, depending on job requirements. The questions items for discussion are structured and experts are allotted different areas and questions to be asked. There will be very little room for the interviewers to deviate from the questions prepared in advance in a sequence.

Closed or structured interviews are defined as a social survey where “the range of possible answers to each question is known in advance. Often, possible answers are listed on the form so that the interviewer simply marks the appropriate reply in each case. This approach is much more standardized using a prearranged list of answers for the respondent to choose from. There is little freedom for flexibility, due to the fixed question order. Each person is given the same questions therefore being uniform. This has its advantages in that the information is easily quantifiable and allows the responses to be compared. Due to the lack of flexibility in this approach, it means that there is “little room for unanticipated discoveries”. People may feel that their response does not fit any of the designated answers
Informal/Unstructured Interview:  At the opposite extreme in interview design are completely unstructured conversations between researcher and respondent, where the latter has as much influence over the course of the interview as the former.  This is the interview which can be conducted at any place by any person to secure the basic and non-job related information. In this interview the candidate is given the freedom to tell about himself by revealing his knowledge on various items/areas, his background, expectations, interest etc. Similarly, the interviewer also provides information on various items required by the candidate.

Open-ended or unstructured interviews are defined as “an informal interview , not structured by a standard list of questions. Fieldworkers are free to deal with the topics of interest in any order and to phrase their questions as they think best.” This type of structure uses a broad range of questions asking them in any order according to how the interview develops. Open-ended questions allow the interviewer, if they wish, to probe deeper into the initial responses of the respondent to gain a more detailed answer to the question.  The richness of the data is therefore entirely dependent on the interviewer. They themselves, must judge how much or how little they should probe or say themselves.

Semi-Structured Interview: There is a half-way house, where the researcher designs a set of key questions to be raised before the interview takes place, but builds in considerable flexibility about how and when these issues are raised and allows for a considerable amount of additional topics to be built in  response to the dynamics of conversational exchange.   Semi-structured interview often starts with a basic checklist of areas to be covered in the interview in the form of questions. The interviewer guides the interview, but permits the various aspects of the subject to arise naturally and in any order.  Hence an interview guide is preferable. It is characteristic of semi-structured interview that more or less open questions are brought to the interview situation in the form of an interview guide .They are the form most often used in education research.

In-Depth Interview: In-depth interviewing is a qualitative research technique that involves conducting intensive individual interviews with a small number of respondents to explore their perspectives on a particular idea, program, or situation. : In this type of Interview, the candidates would be examined extensively in core areas of knowledge and skills of the job. Experts in that particular field examine the candidates by posing relevant questions as to extract critical answers from them, initiating discussions regarding critical areas of the job, and by asking the candidates to explain even minute operations of the job performance. Thus, the candidate is examined thoroughly in critical / core areas in their interviews.

In-depth interviews are useful when you want detailed information about a person’s thoughts and behaviors or want to explore new issues in depth. Interviews are often used to provide context to other data, offering a more complete picture of what happened in the program and why.

In-depth interviews should be used in place of focus groups if the potential participants may not be included or comfortable talking openly in a group, or when you want to distinguish individual (as opposed to group) opinions about the program. They are often used to refine questions for future surveys of a particular group.

The primary advantage of in-depth interviews is that they provide much more detailed information than what is available through other data collection methods, such as surveys. They also may provide a more relaxed atmosphere in which to collect information—people may feel more comfortable having a conversation with you about their program as opposed to filling out a survey.

However, there are a few limitations and pitfalls, each of which is described below:

  • Bias: Because program or clinic staff might want to “prove” that a program is working, their interview responses might be biased. Responses from community members and program participants could also be biased due to their stake in the program or for a number of other reasons. Every effort should be made to design a data collection effort, create instruments, and conduct interviews to allow for minimal bias.
  • Time-intensive: Interviews can be a time-intensive evaluation activity because of the time it takes to conduct interviews, transcribe them, and analyze the results. In planning data collection effort, care must be taken to include time for transcription and analysis of this detailed data.
  • Interviewer must be appropriately trained in interviewing techniques: To provide the most detailed and rich data from an interviewee, the interviewer must make that person comfortable and appear interested in what they are saying. They must also be sure to use effective interview techniques, such as avoiding yes/no and leading questions, using appropriate body language, and keeping their personal opinions in check.
  • Lack of Generalization:  When in-depth interviews are conducted, generalizations about the results are usually cannot be made. The reason is that small samples are chosen and random sampling methods are not used. In-depth interviews however, provide valuable information for programs, particularly when supplementing other methods of data collection. It should be noted that the general rule on sample size for interviews is that when the same stories, themes, issues, and topics are emerging from the interviewees, then a sufficient sample size has been reached.

Based on Interview Technique

Stress Interview: This interview aims at testing the candidate’s job behavior and level of withstanding during the period of stress and strain. Interviewer tests the candidate by putting him under stress and strain by interrupting the applicant from answering, criticizing his opinions, asking questions pertaining to unrelated areas, keeping silent for unduly long period after he has finished speaking etc. Stress during the middle portion of the interview gives effective results. Stress interview must be handled with at most care and skill.

Behavioral Interview: Behavioral based interviewing is interviewing based on discovering how the interviewee acted in specific employment-related situations. The logic is that how one behaved in the past will predict how one will behave in the future i.e. past performance predicts future performance.

Topical interviews: These interviews are concerned with the facts and sequence of an event. The interviewer is interested in a reconstruction of the experience and what happened; the researcher actively directs questions in pursuit of precise facts.

Life histories Interviews: These interviews deal with individual experiences or rites of passage. In oral histories, one collects information about a dying lifestyle or art skills. These result in narratives and stories that interpret the past.

Evaluation interviews: These interviews examine new programs or school developments and suggest improvements. Since evaluation deals with incorrect behaviors as well as positive ones, justifications of behaviors result may consist of myths and unresolved tensions.

Focus group interviews: In these interviews, people meet to share their impressions and changes of thinking or behavior regarding a product or an institution. Participants may be strangers and make an effort to preserve their competency and may not admit faults.

Cultural interviews: They focus on the norms, values, understandings, and taken-for-granted rules of behavior of a group or society this type of interview reports on typical shared activities and their meanings. The style of interview is relaxed and questions flow naturally with no fixed agenda. People are interviewed several times so that emerging themes are pursued later. . The partner then relates what is important with examples. The truth of the fact is not as important as how well it illustrates the [cultural] premises and norms. In the cultural interview, the interviewer is partner and co-constructs the interview and report. The cultural report, besides being the expert story, is credible because it consists of the words of members of the culture. It is assumed that people are basically honest and that they share similar views.

Case Interviews:  Case interviews are broad, two-way discussions, rather than one-way tests and there is no perfect answer. Interviewee will be assessed more on how they go about dealing with the problem, rather than on the specific answers they come up with.

Group Discussion Interviews: There are two methods of conducting group discussion interview, namely, group interview method and discussion interview method. All candidates are brought into one room i.e. interview room and are interviewed one by one under group interview This method helps a busy executive to save valuable time and gives a fair account of the objectivity of the interview to the candidates.

Under the discussion interview method, one topic is given for discussion to the candidates who assemble in one room and they are asked to discuss the topic in detail. This type of interview helps the interviewer in appraising, certain skills of the candidates like initiative, inter-personal skills, dynamism, presentation, leading comprehension, collaboration etc.

Interviewers are at ease in this category of interview because of its informality and flexibility. But it may fail to cover some significant portions of the candidates’ background and skills.

The Stages of an Interview investigation

Steinar Kvale, suggested that there is no common procedure for research interviews but an interview investigation can be outlined in seven method stages: thematizing, designing the study so it addresses the research questions, the interview itself, transcribing, analyzing, verification and reporting.

The research interview is characterized by a methodological awareness of question forms, a focus on the dynamics of interaction between interviewer and interviewee, and also a critical attention to what is said

  • Thematizing: Formulate the purpose of the investigation and describe the concept of the topic to be investigated before the interviews start
  • Designing: Plan the design of the study, taking into consideration all seven stages, before the interview starts.
  • Interviewing: Conduct the interviews based on an interview guide and with a reflective approach to the knowledge sought
  • Transcribing: Prepare the interview material for analysis, which commonly includes a transcription from oral speech to written text.
  • Analyzing: Decide, on the basis of the purpose and topic of the investigation, and on the nature of the interview material, which methods of analysis are appropriate.
  • Verifying: Ascertain the generalizability, reliability, and validity of the interview findings. Reliability refers to how consistent the results are,, and validity means whether an interview study investigates what is intended to be investigated.

Reporting: Communicate the findings of the study and the methods applied in a form that lives up to scientific criteria, takes the ethical aspects of the investigation into consideration.

General procedure for conducting the interview

Understanding the Role of the Interviewer

Interviewers now are increasingly seen as active participants in interactions with respondents, and interviews are seen as negotiated accomplishments of both interviewers and respondents that are shaped by the contexts and situations in which they take place. In other words, researchers are not visible, neutral entities; rather, they are part of the interactions they seek to study and influence those interactions. The interviewer’s role is complex and multifaceted. It includes the following tasks:

  • Identifying and gaining cooperation of Interviewee – The interviewer has to find the respondent. In door-to-door surveys, this means being able to locate specific addresses. Often, the interviewer has to work at the least desirable times as that’s when respondents are most readily available.
  • Motivating Interviewee – The interviewer has to be motivated and has to be able to communicate that motivation to the respondent. Often, this means that the interviewer has to be convinced of the importance of the research
  • Clarifying any confusion/concerns – Interviewers have to be able to think on their feet. Interviewee may raise objections or concerns that were not anticipated. The interviewer has to be able to respond candidly and informatively.
  • Observing the quality of responses – Whether the interview is personal or over the phone, the interviewer is in the best position to judge the quality of the information that is being received. Even a verbatim transcript will not adequately convey how seriously the respondent took the task, or any gestures or body language that was evident.
  • Conducting a good interview – The interviewer has to conduct a good interview. Every interview has a life of its own. Some respondents are motivated and attentive, others are distracted or disinterested. The interviewer also has good or bad days. Assuring a consistently high-quality interview is a challenge that requires constant effort.

Training the Interviewers

One of the most important aspects of any interview study is the training of the interviewers themselves. In many ways the interviewers end being the measures, and the quality of the results is totally in their hands. Even in small studies involving only a single researcher-interviewer, it is important to organize in detail and rehearse the interviewing process before beginning the formal study.

Following major consideration should be addressed for interviewer training:

  • Describing the entire study – Interviewers need to know more than simply how to conduct the interview itself. They should learn about the background for the study, previous work that has been done, and why the study is important.
  • Communicating the sponsor of research – Interviewers need to know who they are working for. They — and their respondents — have a right to know not just what agency or company is conducting the research, but also, how the research is paid for.
  • Teaching about survey research – While you seldom have the time to teach a full course on survey research methods, the interviewers need to know enough that they respect the survey method and are motivated. Sometimes it may not be apparent why a question or set of questions was asked in a particular way. The interviewers will need to understand the rationale for how the instrument was constructed.
  • Educating the sampling logic and process – Naive interviewers may not understand why sampling is so important. They may wonder why one goes through all the difficulties of selecting the sample so carefully. They should be explained that sampling is the basis for the conclusions that will be reached and for the degree to which the study will be useful.
  • Explaining interviewer bias – Interviewers need to know the many ways that they can inadvertently bias the results. And, they need to understand why it is important that they not bias the study. This is especially a problem when you are investigating political or moral issues on which people have strongly held convictions. While the interviewer may think they are doing well for society by slanting results in favor of what they believe, they need to recognize that doing so could jeopardize the entire study in the eyes of others.
  • Piloting the interview – When one first introduces the interview, it’s a good idea to walk through the entire protocol so the interviewers can get an idea of the various parts or phases and how they interrelate.
  • Explaining respondent selection procedures, including reading maps – It’s astonishing how many adults don’t know how to follow directions on a map. In personal interviews, the interviewer may need to locate respondents who are spread over a wide geographic area. And, they often have to navigate by night (respondents tend to be most available in evening hours) in neighborhoods they’re not familiar with. Teaching basic map reading skills and confirming that the interviewers can follow maps is essential.
  • Identifying respondents – Just as with households, many studies require respondents who meet specific criteria. For instance, your study may require that you speak with a male head-of-house between the ages of 30 and 50 who has children under 20 living in the same household. It may be impossible to obtain statistics in advance to target such respondents. The interviewer may have to ask a series of filtering questions before determining whether the respondent meets the sampling needs.
  • Rehearsing the interview – Several rehearsal sessions should be conducted with the interviewer team.  Videotaping of rehearsal interviews can be done to discuss how the trainees responded in difficult situations. The interviewers should be very familiar with the entire interview before ever facing a respondent.
  • Explaining supervision – In most interview studies, the interviewers will work under the direction of a supervisor. In some contexts, the supervisor may be a faculty advisor; In order to assure the quality of the responses, the supervisor may have to observe a subsample of interviews, listen in on phone interviews, or conduct follow-up assessments of interviews with the respondents. This can be very threatening to the interviewers. One needs to develop an atmosphere where everyone on the research team — interviewers and supervisors — feels like they’re working together towards a common goal.
  • Explaining scheduling – The interviewers have to understand the demands being made on their schedules and why these are important to the study. In some studies it will be imperative to conduct the entire set of interviews within a certain time period. In most studies, it’s important to have the interviewers available when it’s convenient for the respondents, not necessarily the interviewer.
  • Building the Interviewer’s Kit – It’s important that interviewers have all of the materials they need to do a professional job. Usually, one will want to assemble an interviewer kit that can be easily carried and includes all of the important materials such as: A “professional-looking” 3-ring notebook (this might even have the logo of the company or organization conducting the interviews) maps sufficient copies of the survey instrument official identification (preferable a picture ID) a cover letter from the Principal Investigator or Sponsor a phone number the respondent can call to verify the interviewer’s authenticity.

The Actual Interview

Each interview is unique, like a small work of art whether it’s a two-minute phone interview or a personal interview that spans hours, the interview is a bit of theater, a mini-drama that involves real lives in real time.

Each interview has its own ebb and flow — its own pace. To the outsider, an interview looks like a fairly standard, simple, prosaic effort.  But to the interviewer, it can be filled with special nuances and interpretations that aren’t often immediately apparent. Every interview includes some common components. There’s the opening act, where the interviewer gains entry and establishes the rapport and tone for what follows. There’s the middle act, the heart of the process that consists of the protocol of questions and the improvisations of the probe. And finally, there’s the closing act, the wrap-up, where the interviewer and respondent establish a sense of closure.

The Opening Act

  • Reciting the “Elevator Speech” – In many ways, the interviewer has the same initial problem that a salesperson has.  They will have to get the respondent’s attention initially for a long enough periods that they can sell them on the idea of participating in the study. Many of the remarks here assume an interview that is being conducted at a respondent’s residence.  The analogies to other interview contexts should be straightforward.
  • Gaining entry – The first thing the interviewer must do is gain entry. Several factors can enhance the prospects. Probably the most important factor is one’s initial appearance. The interviewer needs to dress professionally and in a manner that will be comfortable to the respondent. In some contexts a business suit and briefcase may be appropriate. In others, it may intimidate. The way the interviewer appears initially to the respondent has to communicate some simple messages — that they are trustworthy, honest, and non-threatening. Cultivating a manner of professional confidence, the sense that the respondent has nothing to worry about because one knows what they are
  • Introducing – Without waiting for the respondent to ask questions, one should move to introducing themselves. They should have this part of the process memorized so that they can deliver the essential information in 20-30 seconds at most. State the name of the organization represented. Show identification badge and the letter of introduction.  Have as legitimate an appearance as possible. If one has a three-ring binder or clipboard with the logo of organization, have it out and visible.
  • Explaining the study – At this point in time briefly explain the study.  Keep it short, one or two sentence description of the study. Big words, jargon and unnecessary details should be avoided.  The respondent doesn’t have to or want to know all of the neat nuances of this study, Some time should be spent on assuring the respondent that they are being interviewed confidentially, and that their participation is voluntary.
  • Using questionnaire intelligently – The questionnaire is a friend. It was developed with a lot of care and thoughtfulness. While one has to be ready to adapt to the needs of the setting, the first instinct should always be to trust the instrument that was designed. A rapport need to establish with the respondent. Reading the questions directly from the questionnaire will appear unprofessional and disinterested. Often, there might be nervousness on both parties that should be addressed carefully. Memorizing the first few questions, and referring to the instrument only occasionally, using eye contact and a confident manner will help set the tone for the interview and help the respondent get comfortable.
  • Asking questions – Sometimes an interviewer will think that they could improve on the tone of a question by altering a few words to make it simpler or more “friendly.”  This should be avoided.  The questions should be asked as they are on the instrument.  If there was a problem with a question, it should have been raised during the training and rehearsals, not during the actual interview. It is important that the interview be as standardized as possible across respondents There might be temptation for one to think the change made while asking the questions are inconsequential, in fact, it may change the entire meaning of the question or response.
  • Sequencing – During the interview, it may happen that a respondent bring up a topic that will be covered later in the interview. The jump to that section of the interview should be avoided.  It is likely that one may lose the place where the order was interrupted and result in omitting questions that build a foundation for later questions.
  • Elaborating – Just to encourage the respondent to give more information ask for elaboration. For instance, it is appropriate to ask questions like “Would you like to elaborate on that?” or “Is there anything else you would like to add?”
  • Obtaining Adequate Responses – After asking a question, probe. If the respondent gives a brief, cursory answer. Just to elicit a more thoughtful, thorough response? Just probe.  Silent probe – The most effective way to encourage someone to elaborate is to do nothing at all – just pause and wait. This is referred to as the “silent” probe. It works because the respondent is uncomfortable with pauses or silence. It suggests to the respondent that the interviewer is waiting, listening for what they will say next.
  • Repeating – Use the old psychotherapist technique.  Say something without really saying anything new. For instance, the respondent just described a interesting experience they had. Just say “What heard you say is that you found that experience very interesting.” Then, just pause. The respondent is likely to say something like “Well, yes, and it gave me a unique experience, even my family enjoyed it. In fact, my wife…”
  • Encouraging the Respondent explicitly – Often, encouraging the respondent directly is required to obtain best answers. It should be done in a way that does not imply approval or disapproval of what they said as it could bias their subsequent results. Overt encouragement could be as simple as saying “Uh-huh” or “OK” after the respondent completes a thought.
  • Clarifing – Sometimes, just to elicit greater detail ask the respondent to clarify something that was said earlier.  For example, say, “You just were talking about your interesting experience; can you tell me more about that?”
  • Recording the Response – Although we have the capability to record a respondent in audio and/or video, most interview methodologists don’t think it’s a good idea. Respondents are often uncomfortable when they know their remarks will be recorded word-for-word.  They may strain to only say things in a socially acceptable way. Although one would get a more detailed and accurate record, it is likely to be distorted by the very process of obtaining it. This may be more of a problem in some situations than in others. It is increasingly common to be told that your conversation may be recorded during a phone interview. And most focus group methodologies use unobtrusive recording equipment to capture what’s being said. But, in general, personal interviews are still best when recorded by the interviewer using the traditional pen and paper approach.
  • Recording responses immediately – The interviewer should record responses as they are being stated. This conveys the idea that the interviewer is interested enough in what the respondent is saying. Record certain key phrases or quotes verbatim. Develop a system for distinguishing what the respondent says verbatim from what are characterizing.
  • Including information obtained through probing – One needs to indicate every single probe that one uses. Developing shorthand for different standard probes are helpful.
  • Using abbreviations or other techniques to record expediently – Abbreviations will help to capture more of the discussion. Develop a standardized system. If an abbreviation is created while the interview is happening, have a way of indicating its origin.

The Middle Act

The Closing Act

After going through the entire interview, the interview needs to be brought to closure. Some important things must be remembered:

  • Thanking the respondent – This is important. Even if the respondent was troublesome or uninformative, it is important to be polite and thank them for their time.
  • Setting expectations on when the results would be published – It is annoying, when people conduct interviews and then don’t send results and summaries to the people who they get the information from. The interviewer owes it to the respondent to show them what the interviewer has learned. It’s common practice to prepare a short, readable, jargon-free summary of interviews that the interviewer can send to the respondents.
  • Closing the conversation – Allow for a few minutes of winding down conversation. The respondent may want to know a little bit about the interviewer or how much the interviewer likes doing this kind of work. They may be interested in how the results will be used. Use these kinds of interests as a way to wrap up the conversation..  The interviewer doesn’t want the respondent to feel as though they completed the interview and then rushed out on them — they may wonder what they said that was wrong. On the other hand, the interviewer has to be careful here. Some respondents may want to keep on talking long after the interview is over. Interviewers have to find a way to politely cut off the conversation and make their exit.
  • Documenting Immediately after completing the interview – Write down any notes about how the interview went.  Sometimes one will have observations about the interview that they didn’t want to write down while they were with the respondent.  The interviewer may have noticed them get upset at a question, or they may have detected hostility in a response. Immediately after the interview interviewers should go over your notes and make any other comments and observations

Analyzing the Interview Results

After creating and conducting interview, one must now process and analyze the results. These steps require strict attention to detail and, in some cases, knowledge of statistics and computer software packages. How these steps should be conducted will depend on the scope of study, and the audience to whom one wish to direct the work.


In general there are obviously advantages and disadvantages for using any interview method. It allows questioning to be guided as one wants it and can clarify points that need to be made clearer much more easily than in something like a mailed questionnaire. The technique does however rely on the respondent being willing to give accurate and complete answers  They may often lie due to feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy, lack of knowledge on the topic, nervousness, memory loss or confusion. On the contrary, they may also provide very elaborate answers in an attempt to figure out the purpose of the study. Validity and reliability of the interview data may be influenced by these interviewing is a complex and demanding technique.


Bell, J (1999) Doing Your Research Project (3rd edition), Buckingham, OUP

Clough, P & Nutbrown, C (2002) A Student’s Guide to Methodology, London

Cohen, L ; Manion, L & Morrison, K (2000) Research Methods in Education (5th edition), London

Routledge Falmer Denscombe, M (2003) The Good Research Guide: 2nd edition, Buckingham

Drever, E (1995) Using Semi-Structured Interviews in Small-Scale Research: A Teacher’s Guide, Edinburgh, Scottish Council for Research in Education.

Frey, J.H & S.M.Oishi (1995): How to Conduct Interviews by Telephone and in Person. London: Sage.

Mason, J (2002) Qualitative Researching, London, Sage (chapter 4 contains some useful advice for interview design and how to ensure that the questions you use are consistent with the research design and theoretical framework you employ).

Pollard, A (1985) The Social World of the Primary School, London, Cassell.

Radnor, H (1994) Collecting & Analysing Interview Data, University of Exeter, Research Support Unit, School of Education.

Steinar Kvale, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks California, 1996

Scheurich, J J (1995) A postmodernist critique of research interviewing, Qualitative Studies in Education, 8, 3, 239-252.

Wengraf, T (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing, London, Sage.

Wilson, V (1997) Focus Groups: a useful qualitative method for educational research?  British Educational Research Journal, 23, 2, 209-224.

Wragg, E C (1978) Conducting and Analyzing Interviews, Nottingham University School of Education, TRC-Rediguides.


Ms. Shubhi Maheshwari for being the scribe for this article.









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