9 Important Tips for Conducting Research Interviews

Whether you are trying to better understand your users’ needs and wants, the price point they are willing to pay, or what they think of your competitors, research interviews are a useful methodology for you. After all, what better way to understand your users than to ask them?

Here are the 9 Dos and Don’ts for conducting better research interviews I’ve pulled from my decade’s experience interviewing parents and kids:

1. Do: Think carefully about the order of the questions you ask

2. Do: Be specific when you ask your questions

3. Do: Practice your interview protocol

4. Do: Introduce yourself to the participant, state your goals, ask for permission, and offer to answer any questions

5. Don’t: Sway your participant to give you the answer they think you want to hear

6. Do: Follow up on topics as necessary

7. Do: Take notes

8. Do: Compile your notes right after the interview

9. Don’t: Be judgmental

Participant interviews can be time consuming and expensive, so make sure you follow these tips to ensure that the data you collect are most useful to you.

1. Do: Think carefully about the order of the questions you ask

Think about the order of the questions you ask. Make sure that you are not leading participants on or assuming too much.

When interviewing parents, I’m not going to ask: “How long do you spend reading to your kids?” It might be that some parents don’t have time to read to their kids or maybe the parents don’t read to their kids, but the aunt or uncle or grandparent reads to the kids. So instead, I’ll ask: “Do you read to your kids?” And then as a follow up, I’ll ask: “How long do you spend reading to your kids in a week, on average?”

If you are interested in collecting demographic information about your participants, do so after you have conducted the interview.

You do not want to trigger participants’ negative self beliefs.

2. Do: Be specific when you ask your questions

When you can, include a time frame in your questions.

This becomes important for two reasons: 1) it is easier for your participant to give a more clear and accurate response to your question and 2) It is easier for you to compare your findings across participants.

For example, if you ask: “how long do you spend reading to your kids”, one parent might say: “everyday I spend about 30 minutes” and another parent might say: “on average, in a week I spent five hours.” Those are pretty hard comparisons to make when it comes time for you to analyze your data. Think of specific time frames beforehand so you can standardize responses across your participants.

3. Do: Practice your interview protocol

I would highly suggest that you practice your interview protocol before you conduct “the real thing”. You can try to conduct it with your friends If you don’t have access to the population you are targeting, but if you do, I would try to do at least 2 interviews, if not more practice interviews with your demographic group that you’re trying to target.

For example, if you are trying to target high school English teachers try to find at least 2 high school English teachers that you can practice your interview protocol on and you’ll notice that there might be some issues with flow, or you’ll find that some questions don’t make sense in the order that they’re in, or that your participants might not understand what you’re trying to ask.

Practicing allows you to revise your protocol before you start collecting data.

4. Do: Introduce yourself to the participant, state your goals, ask for permission, and offer to answer any questions

Write out a script for yourself that you will read to each participant at the beginning of the interview to establish rapport and make the participant feel comfortable.

For example, you could say:

“Thank you so much for agreeing to participate in this interview with me. Before I get to it, I wanted to go over a few things: I’m doing this work for a class project where we’re studying the ways in which parents help their kids to learn how to read. We understand that everyone has a different way of parenting and this interview does not make any judgment of this, so please be as honest as possible during this interview. I will be audio recording this just for note taking purposes and will only share this with other members of the research team. Once the study has concluded and we’ve written up the report, we will destroy the audio recordings. If at any time you would like me to stop audio recording, please let me know and I’d be happy to do so. I will also ask you to take a survey at the end of this interview. Do you have any questions for me before we start?”

There are a few key elements in this script:

  • I’m letting the participant know that it’s going to be audio recorded and that I’m taking notes
  • I’m telling them the general gist of the study — a really broad one-sentence overview of what I’m asking them about.
  • I’m making sure that they feel comfortable talking to me. I want to reiterate that this isn’t going to be shared with anyone.
  • We are not keeping any of these data.
  • They can ask me to stop recording at any point.
  • They can stop this interview at any point.
  • I’m reiterating the expectations for participation. I’m letting them know there’s an interview component and there’s a short survey that they take.

5. Don’t: Sway your participant to give you the answer they think you want to hear

Be positive and agreeable during the interview, however, you want to make sure that you’re not swaying the participant’s responses by showing too much enthusiasm about one thing. For example, if a parent tells me that they read to their kid every night for one hour, I might try to say: “Can you tell me more about that?”

On the contrary, a parent might say: “I really don’t have that much time to read to my child.” You might not want to say: “Oh, that’s too bad.” You want to be neutral or positive and say: “Can you tell me more about that?” or “Can you tell me more about your experience and trying to find time to read to your child?” You may also want to validate the participant’s position by saying: “Other parents I’ve spoken to have mentioned that as well. Can you tell me more about that?

6. Do: Follow up on topics as necessary

You, as the interviewer, are the expert in what the research question is, and what you want to get out of the interview. And so if there are certain points of the interview where you’re curious to hear more, you can. It’s a semi-structured interview, so you can interject and say: “Can you tell me more about that?

I follow up when the participant says something that may be contradictory to what they said earlier.

For example, if at the beginning of an interview a parent says that they have strict rules on screen time and the amount of time that they let their child watch TV, but then later on in the interview they mentioned the kid watched TV for four hours that day, I might say something kind of reflecting on that first answer, I might say: “Can you remind me how often you let your child watch TV?” Or: “I noticed that earlier you mentioned that you had specific rules, can you can you tell me more about how that plays out with your kids?

Maybe you’ve done 5 interviews with participants and on that 6th interview, you’re finding that the participant has very different views than the previous 5. You might want to expand on that and ask: “Can you tell me more about that?” Or “I noticed you said X, can you tell me what you mean by it?

7. Do: Take notes

While you are practicing the interview protocol. It is also a good idea to practice how you’re going to take notes.

The rule of thumb is not to have your computer screen open in front of the participant. It is very distracting to participants. They might think that you’re not paying attention, or that you’re kind of a little bit more distant from them.

In an ideal situation you would have a separate person there to take notes while you’re fully engaged with the participant. I understand having another researcher with you is not always possible. You can also audio record the conversation if that’s okay with the participant and then take just kind of more general notes. Or you can also take kind of copious handwritten notes and let the participant know ahead of time “I’m going to be a little bit slower. I’m going to try to write down as best I can.

I would also suggest to want to make sure that you’re maintaining some eye contact with your participant and not just staring down at your notes, because it’s hard to have a conversation with someone who’s just staring at their notes or typing away.

Notes help you contextualize what was said.

During an interview, if the participants starts laughing or giggling, I would write that down. And sometimes those kinds of things aren’t picked up on by an audio recording, so I would definitely make note of that. Or maybe the participant seems really confused. Maybe you had to ask a lot of follow up questions. So I would also indicate [that] the researcher, the interviewer had to follow up on this multiple times.

For example, I was interviewing a parent about screen time who made statements like: “I don’t want my kids on any screen time” but then later stated: “Oh, well, when we’re on a long plane ride or there’s a long car ride I download apps for my kid.”

I make sure to note this. I wouldn’t write: “parent contradicted himself,” I would instead write: “it seems like this parent has very specific time and a place for screen time, but generally perceives himself/herself as someone who is anti-screen time.”

8. Do: Compile your notes right after the interview

I would highly suggest compiling your notes right after the interview. This is especially important if you have two interviews in one day. Even if you’re audio recording the interviews, you want to make sure that you still have all the interactions fresh in your head and that you can jot down any notes.

Do not wait until the next day to compile your notes. I know this is easier said than done, but it’s really important to do it right after the interview.

9. Don’t: Be judgmental

You want to make sure that you’re never imparting any judgment on what the participant is saying.

As I stated earlier while introduction yourself, it is important to add a statement in the beginning where you say: “We understand that everyone has a different way of parenting and this interview does not make any judgment of this, so please be as honest as possible during this interview.” This is especially important for a sensitive topic like parenting. You can also sympathize and think about your facial expressions, maybe don’t nod vigorously and you can just ask them: “Can you tell me more about that” or “Can you explain?

To sum it up

Conducting research interviews is more of an art than a science. There isn’t necessarily a play-by-play manual out there on how to conduct a research interview. Remember, you will get better at it over time.

Katerina Schenke, PhD, is Founder and Principal at Katalyst Methods, where she works with educational media companies to design and evaluate games, software, and assessments. She also works with organizations that care about learning, like Facebook, the University of California-Irvine, and the Los Angeles Unified School District, to run research projects that help them to improve educational policy and practice. Learn more at katalystmethods.com

Katerina Schenke, PhD. is a researcher | learning designer | data scientist

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