Preparing for a research interview

by Jan 8, 2020

One can only really learn how to interview by conducting interviews, but thorough planning and reading interview guides does help. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you are preparing for your research interview.

Before the interview

Finding people to interview can sometimes be challenging, but usually people are happy to talk about their experiences and thoughts on different subjects. Make use of the people you know or contact an organisation or association related to the research topic. Social media is also a powerful way of finding people to interview, and newspapers and phone calls still work, too.
The same questions do not work for everyone. The interviewees can be individuals or groups representing different backgrounds, age groups, professions, sexes and other social identifiers. The backgrounds of the interviewees, as well as the research questions, should steer the formulation of the interview questions. What are you asking, from whom and how?

Prepare the questions with care

Think about what it is that you want an answer to. Let others read your questions and conduct a test interview if you mean to use a relatively static structure from one interview to the next. When you allow an outsider, or your thesis supervisor, to read your questions, you can be sure that they are understandable. The language used in academia is often complicated for people not immersed in the research world. The test interview helps you arrange your questions into the right order and hone them to better match your research goals.

Start with the easy ones

The interview situation may make both the interviewer and the interviewee nervous, so you should start with short general background questions that lead towards the topic. Conducting an interview is about building trust and the interviewee should be given enough time to think about their answers and space should also be made for silence and off-topic discussion when the situation calls for it.

Remember that the time is a limited resource

An interview that lasts for over an hour is cumbersome to both the interviewer and the interviewee, so avoid an overly long interview script and instead conduct more than one interview or streamline your research question. Sometimes the discussion veers from place to place and useful information keeps pouring in, so setting enough time aside for the interview is important. Also note that the longer the interview is, the longer it will take to transcribe.

Talk about what you are doing and why

Keep the interviewee informed both before and after the interview. It is polite to ask the interviewee to consent to the recording of the interview and to send the research results to the interviewee once they are ready. This kind of co-operation leaves a good and ethical impression and reminds the interviewee of the trust that exists between interviewee and interviewer.

Prepare for surprires

Being late, having the phone ring during an interview and misplacing the interview materials are human errors that can and do happen to everyone. Be sure to record everything in at least two places and try to adhere to your own schedules. Schedules often stretch and reaching people can be difficult. Interviewees might not provide the kind of information you were expecting, so fine-tuning the interview questions might sometimes be in order.

Make sure your equipment works

Interviews are usually recorded, so you should learn how to use your recorder, smartphone or video camera before the actual interview situation. Bringing a pen and paper or a computer to the interview is also often a useful move. However, do not overemphasize the importance of your tools lest your interviewee becomes flustered and nervous as they focus on the technology instead of the interview.

Learn your interview script by heart

Listening to your interviewee is key. Some questions might receive answers before they are even asked, so it is important to pick out useful information from the interviewee’s answers. You can also go back to matters that were brought up earlier and ask clarifying questions if something is left unclear or if you want to know more about something.

Respect the interviewee

You can steer the interviewee in the right direction but you should not feed them answers. When the discussion veers off-topic, steering the interview back to the research questions is both allowed and justified.
In qualitative research, the aim is to reach people’s experiences and thoughts regarding a certain topic, and they might not correspond with models found in textbooks. People understand and interpret questions in their own way, but keep in mind that every answer is potentially valuable to you. Also remind your interviewees of the value of their answers.

When planning an interview, think about how you will build trust, maintain your focus on what is important and keep your interviewees informed. Each interview is different, good luck.