Interviews for Research
Interviews are one way to gather data for research. The data gathered are usually, though not always, qualitative in nature.
Interviews are usually used to explore a topic or topics in considerable depth with a few people. They are not, in general, very useful for eliciting answers to straightforward questions from large numbers of people, when a questionnaire may be more useful.
Although interviews are useful for eliciting in-depth information, they do need careful planning. Before you start, you need to be very clear what areas you want to explore, and that an interview is the best way to do this. In general, interviews are most useful when you wish to discover someone’s viewpoint and why they hold that view, especially when the information is likely to be sensitive.
For more about alternative research methods, see our page Qualitative and Quantitative Research and for more general interviewing skills see Interviewing Skills.
Level of Structure
The first issue to decide is how structured your interview should be.
Highly structured interviews are often used in market research and are basically guided questionnaires (see our page on Surveys and Survey Design for more).
A more usual form, especially for management research and social sciences, is the semi-structured interview.
In semi-structured interviews, the interviewer starts with a list of general introductory questions or topics that they wish to explore. These questions will be used as a starting point for discussion with all the interview subjects, but the format allows you to explore interesting areas in more detail. This format is particularly useful in three cases:
- When your interviewees are likely to provide you with interesting data in different areas but you’re not sure exactly who will provide which information;
- When you want to be able to discuss emerging findings with your interviewees and test out ideas with them, without being held within a rigid structure; and
- When your interviewee is nervous about what you might want to discuss, because you can send the outline of questions to them in advance.
You can also use unstructured interviews, a more ethnographic technique, aimed at exploring your interviewee’s knowledge. However, in research designed to explore a specific issue, rather than just find out what someone knows, this is likely to lead to confusion in the interviewee’s mind about what you want to explore.
Face-to-Face or Telephone?
One-to-one interviews are usually held either face-to-face or on the phone. Both techniques have advantages and disadvantages.
|Advantages||Offer the richest data in terms of body language and non-verbal communication as well as what is actually said.||Often easier to arrange, and managers may prefer them because they are less formal|
|Disadvantages||Can be hard to arrange, especially with busy people.
It takes time and money to travel to meet interviewees.
|Easier for interviewees to cancel at short notice.
Difficult to conduct effectively if you do not already have a relationship with the other person.
As with any research, whether you choose face-to-face or telephone interviewing is often a matter of compromise on time, money, and convenience, in which quality of interaction may suffer. However, with care it is possible to get very good results from telephone interviewing, especially when you already have a relationship with the interviewee.
Skills Needed for Effective Interviewing
As in any personal interaction, you will get a better quality interaction if you take a bit of time to build rapport with your interviewee.
Of course, if you already have an established relationship, this won’t be a problem, but this is often not the case in research, and five minutes at the start of the interview can pay dividends later on in the quality of the data that you obtain.
In qualitative research, with semi-structured interviews, the way that you ask the questions is much less likely to lead to bias than in straightforward surveys. However, there is still a danger of bias if you are tempted consciously or subconsciously to impose your frame of reference onto your interviewee. To avoid this:
- Try to use open questions whenever possible as they are least likely to bias answers (see our pages Questioning Skills and Techniques and Types of Questions for more information); and
- Use techniques of reflection and other clarification techniques to ensure that you have fully understood your interviewee’s meaning, and also to prompt them to say more.
To avoid bias, never use leading questions in an interview.
Interviewers may, however, need to probe deeper into a subject and, for this, specific questioning techniques can be useful.
Types of Probe
- The basic probe is repeating the initial question, which reminds the interviewee what you asked. This is useful if they have wandered off the subject.
- Explanatory probes are questions like ‘What did you mean by that?’ and ‘What makes you say that?’ and are useful for exploring meaning further.
- Focused probes include questions like ‘What sort of…?’
- The silent probe is where the interviewer simply remains silent and waits for the interviewee to say more.
- Drawing out is useful when the interviewee seems to have stopped mid-sentence or mid-idea. Repeat the last few words that they said with an upward inflexion, like a question, or add ‘Tell me more about that’.
- Giving ideas or suggestions would use questions like ‘Have you thought about x?’ or ‘Have you tried…?’
Source: Easterby-Smith, Jackson and Thorpe (2012) Management Research.
Laddering is a very specific interviewing technique which asks ‘Why?’-type questions repeatedly to explore the interviewee’s values and motivations.
This is a powerful technique, but you need to be aware that people may be uncomfortable with this until you have developed at least a superficial rapport and relationship. You can also ‘ladder’ in the opposite direction, where you get more specific until you reach examples, by asking questions like ‘Can you give me a specific example of that?’ or ‘When was the last time that you remember something like that happening?’.
Perhaps most crucially, interviewers need to have very good listening skills. They need to listen to what their interviewee is saying, and also be aware of what they are not saying, but without imposing their own views.
Interviews are a very good way of gathering rich qualitative information from a limited number of people.
While you need enough data to make the research worthwhile, don’t try to interview too many people. The quality lies in the depth of exploration, not necessarily in the breadth of views.