6 Steps for an Effective Research Interview

For better or worse, someone somewhere has been where you are now.


Step 1: Decide on Objectives

What exactly are you trying to find out?  Write out your objectives on a notecard.  Keep that notecard in front of you while you write out your questions.  Your questions should, for the most part, be based on clear, concise objectives.  Keep that card with you while you are actually interviewing.  The card will keep you on tract even when a tangent pulls your attention. 

Step 2: Write Out the Questions

Using your objectives as a guide, write out your questions.  As I mentioned in the blog about surveys, make sure none of the questions start with the word “why.”  Ordering your questions will be key.  You’ll want the questions to flow like a conversation.  Otherwise, your interviewee won’t feel comfortable and the interview will feel strained.

It is rather common for people to give shorter than desired answers to your questions, which is why it is important to have a list of probing questions on hand.  Probing questions will help you to dive deeper and encourage the interviewee to provide more information.

 Step 3: Motivate People to Participate

Not everyone will jump at the chanced to be interviewed; in fact, obtaining interviews from people might feel like you’re trying to pull their teeth out.  So to motivate people, you can offer compensation.  You can take them out for coffee, offer financial compensation (based on your budget), or say each interviewee will be put in a drawing for a bigger prize. 

Not everyone will be motivated by the compensation you offer, but for their own personal motives.  I like to start out interviews asking the interviewees what motivated them to sign up.  That way I can make sure the reason they chose to sign up comes to pass.  For instance, one person who signed up for an interview with me wanted feedback on her English language skills.  I listened to her interview and came up with a list of the top areas her language skills needed improvement.  I went over the list during her follow-up interview. 

Step 4: Schedule Interviews

For me, one of the most difficult aspects of an interview is finding a location.  Coffee places tend to be my preference because there’s no pressure to buy anything and no waiters to interrupt.  People tend to feel comfortable in coffee places, but at the same time, there might be some issues with sound interference and with privacy.  Another idea is to reserve a workroom in a library or to find an office space.

Timing is also an important consideration.  If you are worried about privacy, stacking interviews on top of each other (a useful technique to conserve your time) might interfere with privacy issues.  People leaving an interview will run into people coming to an interview.  Besides, you’ll want to give yourself at least a half hour between interviews to write down any notes about the last interview and to prepare for the next one.

Step 5: Maintain Balance between Control & Comfort

Especially when you are interviewing a friend, it is easy to find the conversation going in the opposite direction of your objectives.  Distractions can be good.  They can show you what really matters to your interviewee and can help your interviewee feel more at ease.

Still, you don’t want to end the interview feeling like you don’t have the information you set out to gather.   So find ways to subtly (or not so subtly) bring the conversation back to your main objectives.  Remember to keep your objectives in front of you throughout the interview!

Step 6: Write a Thank You Note

The most important step by far is to write thank you notes after your interviews.  This action shows respect for your interviewee and allows you to continue you a relationship with them.  Also, if you are looking for more interviewees, you can add a note at the end: “P.S. If you know of anyone else who would be interested in sharing their thoughts on this topic, feel free to send them my way!”

When writing thank you notes, I suggest the method found in 7 Levels of Communication by Michael Maher.  Maher suggests using blue ink, writing diagonally (so it won’t look like a Xeroxed copy), and including sincere compliments.

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