Home > Human Factors Methodology > How to Conduct a Qualitative Interview (Part 2)

How to Conduct a Qualitative Interview (Part 2)

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 second part you can learn:

  • roles and relationship of the interviewer and interviewee
  • about expectations and how they influence the interview
  • how to prepare questions and type of questions
  • to understand and influence the dynamics of an interview

Check here for the first part (it contains information about what a qualitative research interview is, forms of qualitative interviews, and when to apply a qualitative interview as methodology).

1. Relationship between Interviewer and Interviewee

The interview is a dialogue created between interviewer and interviewee. Both share a room for communication which they can use for their purpose, or not. The following figure illustrates this room.

Participants have their expectations for the interview. Typically they participate because they have an interest in the research topic and feel they can contribute to the knowledge. During the interview the participant applies effort to identify how much it is appropriate to say and how they say it. They attend to what the other expresses with words and with gestures. This perception in consequence subsequently shapes the responses, considering reactions before and anticipated consequences of what they say. Some researchers recommend to avoid spontaneous reactions, but considering the spontaneity of a face-to-face dialogue the way a communication develops naturally this is not possible. No reaction will be interpreted, likely negative, by the interviewee. Reactions towards the communication and different expectations are a natural process of communication and nothing bad to happen. The researcher should be aware of the own reactions and of differences in the interpretations, and possibly discuss them.


2. Expectations towards the Interviewee and Strategies of Narration

Qualitative research aims to reconstruct sense or subjective points of view. Sense is otherwise presumed from a pragmatic point in quantitative research. Sense is not objective but subjectively formed through interaction with people. Sense is recognised through repeating patterns in the interaction. Further each articulation needs to be considered as it is context bound and needs the context in which it appeared to interpret its sense. Because the sense of the interviewed person is potentially different to the sense of the interviewer it is important to create an atmosphere of openness in the interview so that the interviewed person is able to narrate her sense.

It includes that the interviewer avoids interpretations of what the other half “means” and remains more reflective. It helps to avoid interpretations if expectations towards interviewees are thought of before the interview is conducted. Expectations can reach from a similar relevance system like the own, to application of basic rules for communication to characteristics of the interviewee being communicative and competent. It is important to be aware of those prejudices to create an open atmosphere in the interview and to be able to react to unexpected contradicting statements of the interviewee. Interviewees may challenge and clarify the researcher’s language use and suppositions. That is part of their role. Because the interview aims to understand what the interviewee wants to narrate, they should be encouraged in doing so by explicit or subtle ways. The interactional style should be flexible to respond to this. It might help in such situations if the researcher adopts the learner stance.

Sometimes there is an alienness between interviewer and interviewee based on their different culture, age or social context. But it is not necessarily a problem. To generate the necessary feeling of nearness in an interview, it is enough when interviewees have the feeling they can be understood. For the interviewer it is important to understand and be able to handle the feeling of alienness. A shared background of interviewer and interviewee influences breadth and depth of the interview. With a shared background fewer words are needed to explain information, it costs less effort for the interviewee and it makes it more likely that the interviewee gives a credit of trust. Typically an interview is broader and more detailed with a shared background. In the preparation for the interview the interviewer should be prepared for potential differences and their meaning, it eases to “feel into” the position of the interviewee. However, sometimes it can be better if interviewer and interviewee do not have a shared background, so the interviewee will give more detailed explanations which would have been otherwise potentially presumed and not narrated.


3. Understanding another Perspective, and Positioning Questions in an Interview Situation

Openness means that the interviewee gets the room to structure the conversation. It leaves a choice for the interviewee to decide about the relevance of the question in his system of meanings, interests, and importance. It is different to standardised methods which define the answers and questions and predefine a relevance system. Questions in an interview in general should be neutral, open-ended, concern one topic, and be clear. The following things should be avoided in interview questions, because they harm the flow of conversation:

  • No ambiguous questions or such that cannot be answered from the interviewee
  • No questions with alternatives, or such that are more than one question in one
  • No judging aggressive questions
  • Questions need to remain in the language used by the interviewee, avoidance of terms
  • No questions that cannot be expected from the interview context or such whose intention is not clear
  • Careful, if any, application of closed questions (if, they should be used as detailed questions)

The first sentences of an interviewee articulates need to be carefully analysed. They reveal how the interviewee interpreted the question, which type of self-expression he/she uses and how he/she uses the room for narration given in the interview. There is a difference if the interviewee starts with “I” or “My father” – it defines in which context he/she wants to talk in the interview, more on a personal level of experience or more including relationships to others. Not all interviewees require / want an open atmosphere to narrate. Some need the reassurance from the interviewer, if they are talking about the “right” thing and to reassure if they are understood correctly.

It is important to pay attention to the non-verbal signals of an interviewee. Some researchers suggest that the interviewer should avoid emotional reactions in the interview at all and give at best no signals. Considering the dynamics of a communication process it would lead to an artificial situations. Be aware that giving no signals at all will be interpreted as signal by the interviewee as well, and most likely as a negative one, e.g. the lack of interest. Take care to provide subtle positive non-verbal signals, they encourage the interviewees their narration:

  • Eye contact
  • Friendly tone
  • Gestures like a smile, a assuring “Yes”, “hhm”
  • To endure breaks
  • Calm but not stiff posture
  • To select a posture towards the interviewee

Specifically if the interview is of a topic diving deep into the social context and personal matters of the participants it is important to rapidly develop a positive relationship. The relationship starts with a broad and open-ended first question of the interview. The question should give the interviewee time to hear what is being asked and to think about how to respond. As an encouraging strategy to ask for further details without disrupting the interviewee, the interview could repeat words used by the interviewee asking for their clarification. If the first step in the interview is mastered successfully there is an atmosphere of comfort in which the participants are not afraid of offending another and find satisfaction in the interviewing process. This may open up the possibility to ask questions which were too sensitive to ask at the beginning. Throughout the interview the interviewer’s goal is to encourage the interviewee to share as much information as possible, this involves non-verbal signals as well.

The researcher’s / interviewers own assumptions experiences can influence the way and manner questions are asked – e.g., leading questions or “why” questions indicate that the interviewer, if been in the same situation, would acted differently. In case questions do tell more about the person asking the question rather than they provide additional information from the interviewee. In narrative / ethnographic interviews it is suggested to keep questions concerning understanding to a minimum and leave it to the interpretation to clarify the incomprehensibleness. In a dialogue interview the clear interpretation of the narration is part of the dialogue, also if there should be conflicts they should be clarified by additional questions. The following is an overview of types of questions:

  • Questions to stay in a flow of conversation
    1. They are typically free of presupposition
    2. Such that remain in the situation, e.g., ”Could you describe that in more detail?”, “Please, tell me more about this.”, “What does it mean?”
    3. Such that push the flow of the conversation forward, e.g., “And then?”, “What happened then?”
  • Questions to direct the conversation
    1. Direction refers to the speed of the interview and the topic of the interview
    2. Such as detailing of already named aspects, e.g., “Could you please name an example for …?”
    3. Such as introduction of new topics, e.g., “Was … important?”
    4. If specific information, potentially such that should be compared over the set of interviews, could be requested via rating scale. This should be applied only when the context of the rating has been properly discussed in the interview beforehand (see Section 1, when to apply an interview).
  • Paraphrasing
  • Questions to evaluate contradictions, self-expression
  • Leading questions
  • Questions about facts and knowledge

An example of a good open-ended question and a more restricted one. Be aware that the second question is open-ended as well but assumes a certain influence of the participant’s previous experience which we do not know. Researchers should avoid those assumption in their question.

  • Have your previous experiences with technology influenced you or not influenced you to buy the driver assistant systems in your current car?
  • How does your previous experience with technology influence you to buy the driver assistant systems in your current car?

Paraphrasing is typically not used as a strategy to direct interviews, but it is good to improve attention as especially long narrations can overload the short-term memory of interviewers. Also paraphrasing helps to reduce the own impulse to comment from the own experience.

It is difficult to avoid presupposition in an interview, it should be checked that it does not affect the research question negatively.


4. Interaction in an Interview Situation – Dynamic and Formation

Be aware that the style selected in the introduction phase of the interview remains typically the one for the interview, and is hard to change. Power in an interview can be used by both. The interviewer can use power in sense of directing and knowing the questions, and the interviewee can use power in sense of provision of information in a certain way and at a decided time. To utilise their power interviewees can apply different strategies – e.g., to break through the question-answer set by asking questions to the interviewer, by a narration which is clearly independent of the questions or by a clear statement to tell the topic by their interpretation. It is helpful to be aware of potentially occurring games of power beforehand and write down a code of how to react. Here are tips how to react to games of power:

  • Make it clear for yourself that it is just a game and not related personal to you
  • If there occurred personal question, advise to a time after the interview where they can be answered
  • Remain on the interview level, e.g. do not reprehend

To be practised before the interview:

  • Practice open questions and requests for narration
  • Think of strategies to represent security
  • Learn to endure breaks
  • Do not change the type of questions

Pauses are an element to reduce speed in an interview, presumed the interviewee gets to use the communication room and the break is not disrupted by the interviewer. The interviewer needs to carefully decide if a break was a measure of style or a request to switch the roles, e.g., dependent on where the interviewee is looking – if a closing statement came before the break and the look is focused on the interviewer it is likely that a request for a role change. Questions should be directed towards the research question. If the participant feels unease it can influence the interview with larger pauses and the interviewee narrowing down lengths of answers. The interviewer should be aware of this and avoid to suggestive questions, they should stick to open questions.

Statements indicating a pause in an interview.

Statements indicating a pause in an interview.

Be aware that there is not one truth. In varying contexts a person might tell a story different. Social reality in itself is already an interpreted and constructed image of reality. E.g., the experience of the same event can be told from very different points of view. To understand the truth of the narration it needs to be set in the logical context of the interviewee. Further there is a difference in how the event occurred in the past, how it was perceived and how it is narrated now.


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

Additional literature to understand how interview dynamics change with age, gender, and social class of the interviewer:

Manderson, Lenore, Bennett, Elizabeth, and Andajani-Sutjahjo, Sari (2006), “The Social Dynamics of the Interview: Age, Class, and Gender”, (online) http://qhr.sagepub.com/content/16/10/1317.full.pdf

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