This page offers some tips about how to interview people for your research or evaluation project. The tips talk about interviewing one person but are also useful if you are interviewing more than one person, or if the person you are interviewing brings people to support them.
The most important skill that an interviewer can have is the ability to listen and be interested in what the person being interviewed is saying. Your goal is to guide the person being interviewed on a research journey.
Introduce yourself in a way that is appropriate for both you and the person being interviewed. Showing this sort of respect is important in its own right. It is also about making the person feel at ease in the company of an interviewer.
Check with the person being interviewed that they know: what the interview is about, what sort of recording of the interview you will be doing, how long the interview will take, what will happen to their information, and any other informed consent information that you need to provide. Remember that this information is important background as you are inviting the person to participate in the interview and knowing this information will inform their decision-making. Don't forget to ask them if there's any other information you should have provided but didn't (that is, if they have any other questions).
At this stage, and anywhere else in the interview, it's okay to admit you don't know the answer to a question and that you'll have to get back to the person later with an answer.
Interviewers should not make any assumptions about the person they are interviewing based on, for example, the location or ‘look’ of a person’s house. The house is not an indicator of a person’s income, intelligence, or networks. Assumptions should also not be made about how a person’s income is obtained. In addition, no-one should be asked to explain their identity or their knowledge of their culture to anyone. So the interviewer needs to leave their assumptions at the door and be natural, warm and friendly towards the person being interviewed.
The questions you ask should be affirming. For example, rather than asking about crime in the person's neighbourhood you might like to ask about what the person likes about living in their neighbourhood. This will give them an opening to talk about the good things that are going on whereas a question about crime may not provide them with this opening. It is likely that they will also talk about the bad things that are happening, or will do so in response to a prompt from you.
You may have an interview schedule with a list of questions you want to ask, or you may have a number of broader topics you want to discuss. It's important that you are familiar with the questions or topics so that you're not referring back to them all the time (rather than paying attention to the person you are interviewing). It may be useful to put the interview schedule or guide on the table, or to give a copy to the person being interviewed, so that they can also see it. If you have the opportunity, you may want to send it to them in advance of the interview so they have a chance to think about what they'd like to say during the interview.
Be the Best Listener You Can Be
Remember that the interview is about the person who is being interviewed; it is not about you. So there is no need for you to share a lot of information about yourself. Sometimes a little bit of sharing can help build rapport and help the person being interviewed to relax. Too much sharing of your own experiences turns the interview into a conversation between two people and while this may be very interesting, it is not an interview.
You will also need to work hard to be an objective interviewer. This means that during the interview you need to let go of any prior history you have with the person being interviewed or the topic of the interview. So ask questions even though you may know the answer; don’t pass any judgements about what the person is saying; and don’t give your own version of events if you were involved in an occasion that they are describing. Be active and interested in what they are saying – asking questions that clarify what is unclear and probing to find out more details about particular experiences and/or events that are only touched upon lightly.
You need to also be aware that that there may be times during the interview when events and/or experiences are difficult to remember. For example, when the person you are interviewing is relating events and/or experiences that are sad, frustrating, or have perhaps resulted in tragedy.
In these interviews the participant is in the ‘driver’s seat’. They get to decide what they talk about and whether or not difficult things are disclosed during the interview. It is important for you to respect their boundaries and to be supportive.
They also have the right to say things ‘off the record’. So they may ask for the tape recorder to be switched off so that they can tell you something that helps you understand their story but which they don’t want recorded. This is okay. It’s also okay for them to refuse to answer a question and/or to stop the interview altogether. Their participation is entirely voluntary.
The person who is being interviewed will probably be thinking quite a lot during the interview. They may not have told parts of their story before and/or you might be asking them to re-examine events and/or experiences from a new angle. They might also need time to reflect or time to just gather their thoughts. This all means that there are going to be times of silence during the interview when they take time out to do this.
What might actually be a very small pause may well seem like a long silence to an interviewer who wants the interview to go well. The important thing is not to panic and not to feel that you have to talk in order to fill the silence. (If it is a time of reflection then your talking will definitely disrupt this moment.)
It’s better to wait than to interrupt a silence
Remember that the person being interviewed is in the ‘driver’s seat’ and if they need to be silent then you need to respect that. Let them be the first one to speak.
Going off the Topic
It can be hard to judge whether or not you should intervene when the person you are interviewing seems to be going off the topic. Sometimes they may talk around in a circle that, at the end, is all relevant to the topic even if you weren’t so confident of its relevance when they were in the mid-response. At other times a person may continue to go off down a path that will not return to the topic by itself. You are going to have to try and tell these two apart.
You might also like to draw a person back to the topic with some prompting questions related to the topic. For example, if they are off on a tangent, talking about their children, you might like to say something like: 'Were you able to access healthcare when you needed it for your children?'
Closing the Interview1
When the interview is done you will need to do a few tasks in addition to thanking the participant for their time and their contribution to the research. You can check that there is no other information that they want to add by asking:
Is there anything else I should have asked you about?
Do you feel that you’ve given a fair picture of yourself?
You might also like to debrief by asking the participant how they have found the interview process:
What are your feelings about this interview and all that we have covered?
When you have asked all the questions you want, it is time to bring closure to the interview. This is the time when you can offer reassurance to the participant that you can relate to or can understand what they have said. It is also the time to express your gratitude for the time you have spent together.
You should then repeat for them what will happen with their interview from this point (for example, that it will be transcribed and the transcript will be returned back to them so that they can add, amend and/or delete information).
Then, just as in the meeting and greeting, the closure is a time for you to close the meeting the way you feel comfortable doing. It may also be appropriate for you to leave a koha (thank you gift) for the person you have interviewed.
There will be occasions when information that is shared with you in an interview will be disturbing and/or upsetting and you will want to debrief with someone. Identify this person before you start your interviews so that they know what you are doing and that you may call on them to debrief.
You should also put in place safeguards if you feel the people you are going to interview may be at risk in some way. For example, they have a health problem that may they are not getting attended to, or they may need to speak with an elder. How you connect the person you are interviewing with the help they may need is an issue you will need to work out before you begin any interviewing and may well be part of an ethical consent process for the research.
Designing and Conducting Semi-Structured Interviews for Research. Prepared by Ted Zorn, Waikato Management School.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Qualitative Research Guidelines Project. Interviewing.
1. From Atkinson, R. (1998). The life story interview. Thousand Oaks: Sage.