Interviews: suggestions for practice

Comfortable, accessible, safe spaces are required to conduct interviews. Interviewers should consider the physical or digital environment for their interview and check for barriers to participation including time the interview is scheduled, technology required (web conferencing) to join a meeting, costs or other hindrances to physical meeting spaces (transportation, parking, wayfinding), and other signs or signals in the environment that send welcoming or unwelcoming messages. Appropriate seating should be available. 

Interviewees should be instructed about any materials that the organizers might wish them to bring (e.g. screen shots, products of their work, writing utensils). 

Interviewers need their scripts, questions, and any “props” necessary for leading the discussion. Prompts might include images or other materials for participants to focus on or react to (e.g. screen shots, card sorts). 

Interview notetakers may need video or audio recording equipment, technology (e.g., laptop, phone, tablet) or notepaper to record notes and impressions. In some cases, pre-prepared notes might be used (e.g. a checklist of common responses with space for new ideas or suggestions).  Structured, fill-in responses for notes can speed up notetaking; however, notetakers should take care that prepared notetaking tools allow for departures from the expected and do not prematurely “route” interviewee feedback into expected channels or categories.

If video or audio recordings are made; you may wish to transcribe the conversation. Transcription is time-consuming and can be costly and is not always necessary for augmenting notes taken during an interview. No tools are required to conduct interviews. Interviews can be conducted face-to-face, by phone, or by video conference. Should you wish to code transcribed conversations, specialized software such as NVivo and MAXQDA are options; likewise transcriptions can be coded using colored highlighters on a printed or digital version of the transcript, and a spreadsheet. Specialized software can be pricey and can have a high barrier to entry for use.

Further tips

  • Use both an interviewer and a notetaker/observer. The interviewer should conduct the interview; the notetaker should not attempt to participate, their sole job is to record the conversation. Both should be introduced to the interviewee and their roles explained at the outset of the interview.

  • Using interviewers/notetakers from the organization that provides the services/systems under discussion may have a chilling effect on interviewee responses. In order to mitigate the tendency of interviewees to minimize or omit negative feedback, particularly to organizations/institutions that are not-for-profit or perceived as a public good, the interviewer/notetakers should be affiliated with entities perceived as “neutral.”

  • Whether the interview is structured, semi-structured, or unstructured, the interviewer should be prepared with a set of questions prior to the start of the session. Level of structure will dictate to what degree interviewers may depart or extend those questions in response to interviewee feedback. Interview questions should be piloted prior to use; feedback should be sought from individuals that are similar to expected interviewees to ensure questions are clearly stated, jargon free, not leading, etc. Interviewers might also wish to have 2-3 variations of each question in case the initial question is unclear to participants.

  • At the start of the interview, the interviewer should begin with a confirmation of consent to participate and record (if applicable), an explanation of the purpose of the interview, and clear instructions and timelines for engagement.

  • Initial interview questions should be “easy” so that the interviewee gains confidence in responding. All questions should be concise and focused, omit jargon, and (unless there is a particular purpose) avoid hypotheticals. Questions should be asked one at a time and flow logically.

  • During the interview, the interviewer must take care to keep the conversation on main points, actionable feedback, etc. rather than minutiae.

  • Interviewers must also avoid “leading” interviewee responses. Using more open-ended and/or sense-making questions than close-ended questions helps avoid “leading” the conversation.

  • At the close of the interview, the interviewer should provide a review of the conversation, options for interviewee follow ups, and an expression of gratitude for participation.

  • Soon after the interview, the notetaker should check the recording, and if possible both the interviewer and notetaker should create summaries, independently of each other, to capture their initial impressions and findings with regard to the interviewee’s key issues of concerns, attitudes, beliefs or feelings, etc.

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