Interviews are an essential part of the research process. Whether you’re exploring interpersonal communication between older and younger generations or researching the socio-economic effects of a new McDonald’s in your local mall, you need to have razor-sharp interview skills to get the most valuable and reliable data possible.
Why do we use interviews in research? Because of the very, very valuable qualitative data that interviews give us. Statistics are incredibly useful in proving hypotheses, but most of the time they don’t give enough data for academic research. True and proper academic research needs to delve into the subject by getting a lot of different data sets to show a full picture of the subject, and statistics alone just won’t get you there. Qualitative data that’s assembled with good interview technique is super valuable in helping you get the depth of data you need to really understand a subject.
How do you conduct a research interview?
There are three different types of research interviews, and once you’ve chosen which one you’re going to use, it will help you decide how best to set up. If you’re conducting a structured interview where control over the subject matter is strict, you’ll need to create closed questions that follow a very specific narrative and don’t let the subject go off-script. Unstructured interviews, on the other hand, allow more freedom for the conversation to explore other paths, which is great for collecting useful qualitative data. And, as you can imagine, semi-structured interviews have a mix of the two.
We’re not all gifted interview maestros, so it’s okay if you lack expertise. In fact, totally nailing interview technique is almost impossible thanks to a ton of different factors - or, to use common academic terminology, variables. It's your job to keep these under control, as well as ensure you record the research interview as well as possible.
We’ll help you recognize where you might be going wrong so you can up your game and start analyzing your qualitative research data as soon as possible. Remember, no interview, no data, no conclusion.
Here are five practical research interview mistakes you could be making, and our advice on how to fix them:
1. Not doing pre-research into your interview subjects
Interviews are two-way streets, so if you’re hoping to encourage anyone to be open and honest in a research interview setting you’ll need to do your homework on the person you’re interviewing. This isn’t always applicable if you’re looking for a truly random sample of people, but the questions you ask should guide you in finding subjects that fit the bill. Make sure you know enough about them to put them at ease and you’ll get the best results.
2. Not creating an open environment
Everything about your research environment affects the outcome of the interview. Your subjects have to feel confident and comfortable, whether you’re hosting individual interviews or a focus group discussion. Pay attention to how you’ve set up the room - make sure your participants will be comfortable and that the environment is open, so they’re able to tell their story on their own terms.
There are a ton of things to think about when you’re preparing for focus group discussions - we’ve covered them here.
3. Using a bad recording setup
When you’re thinking of ways to design the perfect interview environment, don’t stop after thinking about the room layout. You also need to make sure your recording equipment is high quality and in a central position to pick up everything you discuss - don’t fall at the first hurdle and be left with unusable data. Being able to focus on the interview without worrying about the recording equipment is key.
4. Not preparing your interview questions properly
A lack of preparation is counterproductive in any research project, and academic interviews are no different. Interviews are a qualitative research method, and that means your questions don’t need to be as strict as those in a quantitative questionnaire, for example. But you still need a script to regulate all your interviews and make sure everyone’s asked the same questions.
This is one of the very few areas you can control in your interview prep, so think carefully about what you want to find out and plan your questions accordingly. Try to keep it simple and direct, giving your subject space to thoroughly understand and answer each question.
5. Not having a plan of action for organizing your data
Qualitative data is unstructured, which makes it hard to organize and analyze. Once your recordings are completed, including both individual and group discussions, you’ll need reliable academic transcription software - like Trint - to convert interview audio to text for analysis.
Organizing qualitative data may seem like a huge hurdle, but Trint put together this handy guide to help out.