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CPGC Student Research Funding and IRB 2019-2020

Interviewing Methods

In-Depth Interviews are one-on-one interactions that are typically long in duration and conversational in style. These types of interviews tend to seek more personal data: deeper explorations of the participant's lived experience. When formulating interview questions, structure them as open-ended, to encourage your informants to provide rich details and go beyond the basic "yes or no" format. Don't be dismayed when an informant goes off on a tangent that you didn't expect. You may discover new lines of inquiry and connections that you didn't consider before.

Life Story, Testimonial, or Oral History Interviews are even longer still, often taking several sittings. In this mode, you are more of a documentarian than a driver of the content being shared. That is, your informant is offering you the story of their life as a whole, rather than a few targeted topics. Your role is to guide the teller by asking about time periods and relationships, reminding them where they left off last time, and mainly being a respectful listener.

Autoethnography is a research method in which you intentionally incorporate your own lived experiences and positionality. This feminist research method asks you to situate your own experiences within your research process, particularly if you are a member of the community you are studying.

Virtual Interviews can be done via telephone, email, virtual chat, or any other kind of virtual platform. They can be asynchronous (meaning participants are not online at the same time) or synchronous (meaning the exchange is taking place in real time). There are several benefits: you can easily and quickly poll a lot of people; you can interact with people who live far away; you can interact with people with disabilities that find it easier to communicate virtually; if you are doing research relating to social media or virtual interaction then this is your "field." However, there are also drawbacks: responses tend to be shorter, since you might not have the opportunity to probe for deeper responses; the informal nature of the medium may inhibit more "serious" or emotional discussion; and some responses, particularly emails, may be heavily edited, so you do not get spontaneous reactions.

Surveys can be conducted via telephone, face-to-face interviews, mailed questionnaires, or the Internet. Surveys can be used to collect both quantitative data (such as age or other demographic characteristics) and qualitative data (any number of open-ended free-text question). Surveys are a quick way to gather a standardized set of data. When using surveys to predict behavior or assess population characteristics, be aware of common errors (sampling, coverage, nonresponse, and measurement).

Focus Groups are group interviews where the participants interact with each other as well as the researcher. This can be a fruitful method because groups create shared meaning together. People often trigger memories in each other, leading to deeper exploration of topics and sometimes surprising tangents. If participants do not know each other, you may need to provide ice-breaker activities, and bear in mind that people may be very reticent, especially at first. Focus groups can be structured as conversational (letting the participants take the lead) or content-oriented (researcher provides topics and guides the interaction).

Interviewing Considerations & Tips

What makes a good interview question?


  • What are you looking for? Answers to specific questions? Stories? Life histories? 

  • What is the end research product? Audio clip? Full or lengthy interview audio or video? Quote in a written paper? 

  • Balance between staying on topic and staying conversational: How much do you want to redirect the conversation? (Refer to points one and two.)

Often, good questions begin with:

  • “Tell me about a time…” or “Was there a particular time in which…”

  • “In your opinion…”

Good interview questions are usually:

  • Open-ended, rather than resulting in a yes/no. 

  • Related to your research questions, but they are not the same thing. Research questions are answered by analysis of interview questions. 

  • Simple. Try to frame questions in a way that is not too specific or technical. While you’re asking questions about things you may have studied, ask questions as if you had not--i.e. don’t worry about sounding smart through your questions.

  • Reflective of the questions that came before. Try to order questions in a way that allows for conversational flow. Don’t be afraid to switch them on the spot to avoid sudden transitions in conversation.

Interview tips

  • Do a sound test in the room well before your interview in case you need to make an adjustment. 

  • Take notes! Even when you’re recording, there might be observations or thoughts that occur to you that you won’t remember later. Try to leave yourself some free time right after the interview so that you have the opportunity to write some reflections while the interview is still fresh.

  • Thank the interviewee for speaking with you at the beginning and at the end. 

  • Offer water or a beverage if you can and make sure seats are comfortable for the length of time you plan to interview.

  • If recording, get a confirmation of consent to talk to you on tape at the beginning. It can also serve as a way of marking that the interview is beginning and give you a moment to make sure you’re recording. 

  • Try to act confident and comfortable; this will help your interview subject feel more comfortable as well. Practicing turning your recording device on and off a few times and writing “turn on recorder” on the top of your notes will help. After you get the recording going, look at your interview subject, rather than looking at the audio recording device.

  • Let questions breathe: don’t jump in right away if your interviewee doesn’t respond immediately. Leave room for them to continue if they pause, rather than proceeding immediately to the next question. 

  • Be flexible: If the conversation shifts in a direction you didn’t expect, be patient with where it might go.

  • However: Don’t be afraid to gently steer back to the topic at hand with a prompt like, “Earlier you were telling me about X. Can you say more about that?”

  • However Part II: If the shift in conversation is going in a potentially traumatic direction, let the person speaking decide when to shift away.