This post was written because of a helpful conversation with my friend and brilliant scientist Mariana García Criado, who mainly does ecological research in the Arctic but sometimes does interviews in Scotland.
The first time I ever conducted an interview was during a scoping trip to Tanzania in 2017, towards the start of my PhD. I’ve conducted many interviews in a few different styles since then but my memories of being a first time interviewer, and being pretty nervous about it, are still fresh. So I’d like to share some of the things that I have learnt about interviewing: some of the really basic stuff and things that stick in my mind as being news to me when I started, that I hope will be useful to others who are new to interviewing.
What you want to get out of your interviews will determine what style of interview you conduct. There are lots of texts on social research methods, including different styles of interview, and I definitely recommend reading some of these (I’ll include a list at the end of this post) and having discussions with other researchers for choosing appropriate data collection methods. This blog post is not going to go into depth about any specific interview style, or tell you how to be an expert interviewer in all circumstances. Rather, here are some practical considerations for conducting interviews. FYI: the main interview styles I am familiar with are semi-structured 1:1 interviews, walking interviews, Focus Group Discussions and participatory mapping. The below applies to all of these interview styles and, I think, more:
- You will probably want to ask way more questions than you have time to ask in your interview, so go into it with a clear plan. Think carefully about what your core research questions are, and what information you don’t want to leave the interview without. Write those ideas down in a ‘priority questions’ list which you’ll have to hand during each interview. If you want, you can also have another list with secondary discussion points and questions – stuff you’ll talk about if there is time – or you can ignore a secondary lists and trust yourself to follow up on the interesting topics as they come up.
- During each interview, be open to finding out surprising information and veering away from your planned secondary questions if something else interests you. Or switching up the order of the questions if it seems more appropriate for how the conversation is going, or if you find a question has been answered without you needing to ask it. Just make sure you come away with the priority questions answered.
- If a participant goes off topic, return to the original question later, rephrasing it in the clearest way you can. Remember that in most cases you should not depend on a single response to a single question for any meaningful research findings. So if a participant doesn’t know the answer to a particular question or really doesn’t get it after you’ve tried asking in several different ways (and therefore won’t provide a relevant answer anyway) you can let it go.
- Conduct some pilot interviews. This will help you refine your research questions and interview approach, figure out which questions work and how many you’ll have time to ask etc.
- Even after pilot interviews, be open to adapting your strategies if you find that some things consistently aren’t working or think that something else will work better e.g. if no-one will give you a relevant answer to that sticky question you keep asking, then are you sure you’re asking the right question? There might be some features of your interviews that you really need to be consistent between participants (e.g. anything you plan to analyse quantitatively), in which case think about the trade-offs associated with making changes part-way through data collection (such as less data or having to recruit more participants) and make a decision.
- Be friendly, be nice, and remember that your interviewees are helping you out. Aside from this being basic manners, it’s also helpful for you if participants feel comfortable and more willing to provide detailed, honest responses.
- Think about interview ethics and always get informed consent from respondents. Your institution will likely have specific ethics requirements which will help you to think about this fully.
- Start interviews with a plain language statement. This should include a brief, clear spiel about who you are, why you’re conducting the interviews and what you’re hoping to get out of them. This, again, is both ethical and helpful to you. If participants know your purpose (and are hopefully supportive of it!) then they are encouraged to give you the specific information you’re interested in. You should also tell respondents roughly how many questions you will ask them and/or how long you expect the interview to take.
- Give respondents a way to follow up with you, contact you if they have questions later, and possibly send on additional information.
- Think about how best to record the interviews, based on both your research aims and practical considerations. I took notes on a tablet and made audio recordings too. It’s been helpful to have recordings for some transcriptions, but I’ve been able to use my notes for lots of my analysis which saves time and/or money compared to getting full transcriptions. Having typed (rather than hand written) notes has also saved me lots of data entry time. Whether this works for you will really depend on the kind of research you’re doing, how comfortable you and the respondents feel about you taking notes/recording, and how happy you are with those notes at the end of the day. And do note that not getting full transcripts is a bit contentious in social research generally so discuss this with your supervisor before deciding whether this is right for your research.
- Supplement your notes with your own observations and perspectives at the end of each interview and each day, and fill in gaps where you remember something but didn’t have time to write it. I discussed interview notes with my research partner and translator, Mercy, at the end of each day to make sure I didn’t miss anything either.
- On making notes: it can be helpful at the end of each interview to jot down whether you thought the interviewee was open and honest, and why, if it seemed like there was something they didn’t tell you, or if there is something else you now want to ask. This will help with any follow-up interviews and your analysis.
- Don’t worry about taking pauses to check you’ve asked all your priority questions or to finish jotting down a note. Pauses are normal and fine. Don’t worry if interviews feel strange to start with or you have to ease into the process a bit. Also normal and fine. Don’t worry. You’re just a person talking to other people, and it will all be okay!
Below are some helpful texts that I used while planning interviews and other research methods. Some of them also include great practical tips:
- Research for Development: A Practical Guide by Sophie Laws et al.
- Introduction to Social Research: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches by Keith Punch
- Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research by John Creswell and Vicki Plano Clark
Lots of luck with your interviews!