Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
This article applies to one-to-one interviews as well as focus groups, which are just another variation of the interview.
I discuss several practical hints on how to conduct an interview.
Most of the hints deal with simple, perhaps even obvious issues.
However, your interview can easily fail if you don’t pay attention to the minor details.
Appearance is important when doing an interview. It is best for you, as the interviewer, to dress according to existing norms or in a fashion similar to the respondents, and not in a way that may lead the respondent to think that you represent a particular point of view, value system or institution. You need to be friendly, relaxed, and pleasant. Show an interest in the welfare of the respondent. Spend a few minutes with small talk to establish a proper relationship. To provide honest answers to questions, the respondent should feel comfortable in your presence. Appropriate appearance and demeanour provide a basis for establishing a comfortable relationship and rapport with the respondent.
Of course, you and the respondent should introduce yourselves if it is the first time that you are meeting. Before asking specific questions, you should briefly explain the purpose and scope of the interview. You should also explain to the respondent what you plan to use the information for. In practice you would already explain the purpose of the interview to the respondent when you approach him or her to ask for an interview. You should also give the respondent an opportunity to ask questions and to raise any concerns that she or he might have. The respondent should be allowed to question the purpose, scope and uses of the interview or discussion.
It is necessary to prepare an interview schedule as well as your interview questions, and then to address the questions in the words indicated on the interview schedule. Do your best not to rephrase questions, because this can spoil the consistency of your data collection process – it might not be possible to realistically compare information obtained with differently phrased questions posed to different respondents. Even so, you need to be ready to provide alternative explanations of questions if the respondent does not understand and asks for an explanation.
Conduct the interview in a professional and courteous manner and show sensitivity to issues of race, class and gender. Read questions without error or stumbling, in a natural, unforced manner. To accomplish this, you need to prepare thoroughly in advance and to practise asking the questions aloud so that you will be familiar with the questions.
It is important to take notes as the respondent answers your questions. This can be done by making an electronic voice recording of the interview, even though some people feel uncomfortable “talking to a machine”. Written notes can also be effective, although it can break your concentration and it is difficult to write everything at the speed that some people talk. Recording the answers electronically is generally most useful with open-ended questions, and such questions should be asked using clear language. Open-ended main questions can be supplemented with secondary questions which probe the respondent’s responses.
Probing for further clarification of an answer is a skill that, if misused, can lead to incomplete or inaccurate responses. You should allow sufficient time for the respondent to answer your questions without interrupting or cutting responses short. Probes should be neutral so as not to affect the nature of the response. You can write probes next to your main questions while doing the interview or in advance, so that you will have enough time to plan the probes well.
It is important to strictly manage the time spent on the interview. You might invoke negative responses to your questions if you make an appointment for thirty minutes and then keep on asking questions after an hour. On the other hand, spending too little time and rushing through the interview might lead to you not obtaining the data that you are looking for, so you will waste time rather than to save time. It might be necessary to remind the respondent of the purpose and scope of the interview from time to time just to make sure that she or he does not digress too much, thereby wasting time on irrelevant topics.
An interview should be prepared and conducted in such a manner that the flow of valid and reliable information is maximised while distortions of what the interviewee knows are kept to the minimum. The challenge in interviewing lies in excavating information as efficiently as possible, without contaminating it. To achieve this, you should formulate reliable questions and provide an atmosphere conducive to open communication. The following are some of the most popular interviewing techniques:
- Interviews may take place face to face or at a distance, e.g. over the telephone or by email.
- Interviews may take place at the interviewee’s or interviewer’s home or place of work, in the street or on some other ‘neutral’ ground.
- At one extreme, the interview may be tightly structured, with a set of questions requiring specific answers or it may be open-ended, taking the form of a discussion. In the latter case, the purpose of the interviewer may be simply to facilitate the subject’s talking at length. Semi-structured interviews lie between these two positions.
- Different forms of questioning may be practiced during the interview. In addition to survey questioning, you can also have classroom, courtroom and clinical questioning, as well as personal interviews, criminal interrogation and journalistic interviewing.
- Prompts, such as photographs, can be useful for stimulating discussion.
- Interviews may involve just two individuals – you, as the researcher, and the interviewee, or they may be group events (often referred to as focus groups), involving more than one subject and/or more than one interviewer.
- The interviewee may, or may not, be given advance warning of the topics or subjects to gather any necessary information.
- The interview may be recorded in a variety of ways. It may be electronically copied, or the interviewer may take notes, or one person may take notes while someone else asks the questions.
- Interviews may be followed up in a variety of ways. A transcript could be sent to the interviewee for comment. Further questions might subsequently be sent to the interviewee in writing. A whole series of interviews could be held over a period, building upon each other, or exploring changing views and experiences.
After asking and having all your questions answered, you should thank the respondent and allow time for him or her to make comments or suggestions regarding the topic of the questions or the interview in general. It is important to end the interview on a positive note. Sum the interview up for the participant to confirm or amend conclusions.
Finally, you need to go through the interview recordings and/or notes as soon as possible, while they are still fresh in your memory. You need to process and analyse the responses so that you will be able to report the outcomes of the interview accurately to the relevant person.
You should do the following when conducting an interview:
- Dress in a non-intimidating manner.
- Adopt a friendly, relaxed and pleasant attitude.
- Introduce yourself.
- Explain the purpose of the interview.
- Tell the respondent what you will use the data for.
- Allow the respondent to introduce him- or herself and to ask questions.
- Prepare well for the interview.
- Conduct the interview in a professional and courteous manner.
- Take notes during the interview.
- Strictly manage the time for the interview.
- End the interview on a positive note and thank the respondent.
- Work through your notes as soon as possible after the interview.
You can achieve flexibility in your interview through the following:
- The interview can take place face-to-face or online.
- The venue for the face-to-face interview can be your home, office or any other suitable and safe place.
- The interview can be structured, semi-structured or unstructured.
- You can use different forms of questions.
- You can use prompts to stimulate discussion.
- Interviews can involve one respondent or a group of respondents.
- The interview can be recorded in a variety of ways.
- Interviews can be followed up in a variety of ways.
There are three issues that are critically important for the success of an interview.
They are a positive attitude, proper preparation and professional execution.
If you pay attention to these three issues, you should succeed in gathering the data that you need for your research.
Good luck with your studies.