Home > Human Factors Methodology > How to Conduct a Qualitative Interview (Part 1)

How to Conduct a Qualitative Interview (Part 1)

This is a guide which may helps you to understand what a qualitative interview is and when you can apply it as a method for your research. Please be aware that it is different to everyday communication and different to a counselling interview. In this part you can learn:

  • what a qualitative research interview is
  • forms of qualitative interviews
  • when to apply a qualitative interview as methodology

Check here for the second part (it contains information about how to prepare questions, about the dynamic about expectations and roles of the interviewer and interviewee).

Also related is my post on the thematic map analysis, here.

1. Introduction

This guide introduces research interviews, when to apply them, how to plan and conduct them, required skills, and the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. The concepts and knowledge explained herein are common in all types of interviews as part of the communication and dialogue. The guideline provides a set of tools rather than prescribing rules how the interviewer should behave. It is due to the dynamic communication process in an interview between the two persons talking with each other. The interviewer needs to know the tool set and decide about the most appropriate way to communicate dependent on the cues perceived from the interviewee, the interview’s goals, and selected method and structure of the interview.

An interview is a communicational dialogue and conducting it requires special communication skills. Prerequisites for an interviewer to successfully conduct a research interview are: openness, resistance to interpret the perceived information straightaway, and a sense of patience and listening. This is contrasting everyday communication where everyone wait to say the next bit. The communication process of the interview is strategically motivated towards the research question thereby the interviewer aims to avoid own interpretations. In contrast, avoidance of interpretations is not a typical part of everyday communication. In difference to counselling interviews, research interviews are directed towards the research question rather than to the needs of the interviewee. If the interview aims to explore problems, it typically focuses on a deeper understanding of the sense making context of the problem compared to a counselling interview.

This guide provides basic skills, but their flexible and most suitable application in a dynamic interview situation needs to be learned. Skills should be improved in forms of a technical failure analysis after an interview, for the next one. Besides the communication skills of the interviewer, of course, a successful interview requires a solid research question. A research interview, independent on how good it is conducted, will not help the research if the research question itself is not properly set. The methodological background of how to formulate a research question and knowledge about the topic of the interview are out of scope of this guideline.

2. When to Apply Interviews

Before a suitable method can be selected the research question needs to be clarified. The table below provides an overview of potential search areas (left most column) and whether they are suitable to be explored with qualitative interviews.

When to apply qualitative interviews.

When to apply qualitative interviews.

3. The Planning Process of Interviews

The following four steps are considered the main basic decisions to plan an interview. Other decisions concern only smaller aspects and are dependent on the decisions made in the steps (1) – (4).

Steps to plan a qualitative research interview.

Steps to plan a qualitative interview.

The following table provides an overview of interview types. There exist more types, the table shows just an extract. The interview types support different aspects of your research, e.g., interviewers get a wider range of experience within group interviews, as trade-off it is not possible to delve deeply into social and personal matters compared to individual interviews. If group interviews are conducted, do not forget to observe and note the group dynamics and interaction dynamics, as they are important for the interpretation of the data. To find a suitable interview form, think about your research question that you want to answer with the interview and consider the following criteria (one or more):

Interview forms

Forms of qualitative interviews (interview types).

After the 4 main steps of planning an interview are done, the planning can process to more detailed steps:

  • Write up a guide for action/reaction for the interviewer;
    1. What kind of questions are allowed? How are questions of the interviewee handled? How are inconsistencies in the narration handled? How much empathy is allowed?
    2. Handling of games of power? What other difficult situations could occur during the interview and need to be considered?
    3. How to handle disruptions through third parties?

(this could be solved by selection of an adequate location, see below)

  • Develop a set of questions
    1. Start with questions about facts (e.g., demographic questions) to warm-up the participants before starting with personal questions (e.g., opinions or experiences)
    2. Write up of a first request for narration, consider the interview type – e.g. expert interviews should not be started with an open request for narration
    3. Questions concerning ratings or attitude should be prepared in different versions, to have another formulation in case it is not understood
    4. Include a question at the end for the interviewee to ask “Did we forget to talk about something, that you would like to add?”
    5. Interviews are better comparable if the same questions are applied in all in the same form, but this does not take the natural flow of conversation into account. It is suggested to keep the flow flexible. If the questions gather facts, it might be worth to conduct an expert interview (even if the potential interviewee is not considered as expert in a common sense)
    6. The SPSS principle can be applied to generate an interview guide:
      1. S – collection of potential questions,
      2. P – check of the collected questions in relation to openness and knowledge (some have potential for a question, others for a keyword, others for an introduction, and other that require just a short answer could be either in a separate questionnaire or stored as back-up in case the information is not automatically told),
      3. S – Sorting of the remaining question in a topical / time order
      4. S – for each sorted package of questions a request for narration needs to be formulated additionally keywords should be added in a column next to it as they could be used for more detailed questions and the questions should be sorted obligatory (in a certain formulation) and optional
  • Even in a guided-interview, cues for provision of more information (out of the guide) should be taken and asked for, to stay in a conversational flow and to keep the atmosphere of openness. To enable this a guide should not contain too many questions.
  • In a semi-structured interview, note a set of open questions beforehand, it eases the conversation in the interview situation
  • Decision about the duration
  • Decision about the level of similarity between interviewer and interviewee (alienness vs. familiarness)
  • Decision about depth and required extend of knowledge an interviewer must have in the interview topic
  • Decision about the location
    1. Create an open, calm, and friendly atmosphere. The location could be decided by the interviewee, but this involves the risk to deal with very different location during the interviews, and it may include locations where the interview is interrupted by third persons
    2. An open atmosphere is created when two chairs are positioned at a desk over a corner (positioning them in front of each other is offensive)
  • Recruiting of interviewees
  • Creation of the interview elements, e.g. introduction, interview guideline, guide for the interviewer, material to present the project (e.g. participant recruitment)
    • Write up of an introduction, the introduction should include the purpose of the interview, confidentiality (including anonymised data, e.g. by using a participant number), explain the format of the interview, explain how the data if and where the data will be published, indicate the duration, how the participants could get in touch with you after the interview and finally ask if they have questions.
    • Do not forget to inform the participant about when the interview is recorded and ask for their permission (prepare a sheet, so you have a written proof of their permission to record them during the interview session)
  • Sheet for data protection, and form of consent
  • Creation of a template for the interview protocol
    1. Notes of the participants remarks, or recording
    2. Remarks of the atmosphere during the interview, as it could indicate critical situations which need to be considered in the interpretation
    3. Be careful about note taking, it helps e.g., for follow-up questions but do not jump on notes as this influences answers
    4. Audio recording should be preferred as it is more accurate and you store the exact wording from the interviewee, except there is good reason not to use it (e.g. in a very noise environment)

For quantitative research methodological control means repetition with the same results. For qualitative research it is not expected to get the same story in an interview, as the narration depends on the context and “sense” might change. Control for comparison of a series of interviews means to write down rules for the interview and a method for interpretation of the data and to strictly apply those in the interviews. Further difficult situations and potential reactions should be clarified and written down beforehand. The structure and choice of question should be integrated into the interpretation of the interview – “interview mistakes” can give important information.

The social context of the interviewee needs to be considered for interpretation of the narrations as it is important for the definitions of truth and ambiguous meanings – e.g., in some cultures it is not a manner to talk about certain aspects, so they likely will not be talked about. The use of language indicates the social context and intersubjective relations.

Before you start to conduct the interview it is important to run a pilot. A pilot helps to determine the accurateness of the assumed interview duration, if the order of the questions is logically fitting to the narration of the participants, and if there are flaws in the research questions, e.g., ambiguous questions. Questions that are not effectively eliciting necessary information should be dropped and be replaced by new, improved ones. Further a pilot could help to explore when and how it is productive to depart from the planned structure to follow the interviewee’s interests and knowledge. Participants for a pilot should be similar to those that will participate in the implemented interview.


Sources and Additional Information

Helffrich, C. „Qualität qualitativer Daten – Manual für die Durchführung von qualitativer Interviews“, Version 3 (title translated into English: Quality of qualitative data – a manual for the conduction of qualitative interviews)

Free Management Library “General Guidelines for Conducting Research Interviews”, (online) http://managementhelp.org/businessresearch/interviews.htm

Turner, Daniel (III) (2010), “Qualitative Interview Design: A Practical Guide for Novice Investigators”, (online) http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR15-3/qid.pdf

Knapik, Mirjam (2006), “The Qualitative Research Interview – Participants’ Responsive Participation in Knowledge Making”, (online) http://www.socsci.uci.edu/~castellj/sshonors/webdocs/methodolog_interviews_focusgrps/Responsive%20Participation%20in%20Knowledge%20Making.pdf

DiCicco-Bloom, Barbara & Crabtree, Benjamin (2006) “The Qualitative Research Interview”, (online) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2929.2006.02418.x/pdf

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