The art of asking questions
There are different types of interviews. What we briefly present here are informal conversational and formal semi-structured interviews. If ever possible, the language of the interviews should be the mother tongue of the interviewees.
Informal conversational interviews occur naturally, and questions flow from the immediate context and situation. They allow flexibility in pursuing topics in whatever direction appears to be appropriate. The photo shows a coming together of two bacteriologists, who are concerned about increasing antimicrobial resistances, and a livestock smallholder farmer who has a fish pond and a layer-hen facility in Vietnam. They talked about occurring events such as animal diseases, market price fluctuations for eggs and use of antimicrobials for chicken and fish. In this informal conversation, the farmer mentioned also the struggles and conflicting policies of the chicken market. Such an informal interview is flexible and closely linked with observations and with a certain situation.
However, selection of informants is due to a situation. Data is not systematically collected, which can lead to bias and to data that is difficult to organise and analyse. Bias can come from the interviewee side, such as misunderstanding of the purpose of the interview, courtesy bias or a hidden agenda. Bias can also arise on the side of the interviewer due to the dress or appearance, suggestive questions, and the desire to help the respondent.
An informal conversation
© Swiss TPH (E. Schelling)
Semi-structured interviews allow for focused, conversational, two-way communication. An interview guide is prepared beforehand and provides a framework for the interview (for example, the probing categories are defined). However, the interviewer is free to explore beyond the interview guide. The interview is usually recorded (notes, tape or video), transcribed and analysed following conventional qualitative analysis techniques. The recording helps to keep detailed answers that can be thoroughly reread or reheard and allows for secondary analysis of data using a different focus.
In summary, the strengths of a semi-structured interview are to probe into an area of interest and to ask similar questions to several key informants, generating rich, detailed data collection. Weaknesses are similar to the informal interview: researcher bias, informant bias, and limited comparability.
The quality of the information is largely dependent on the interviewer’s skills in asking questions. If trust, common interest or empathy for the interview partner do not exist, it seems difficult to get good information. Such connections can be made, for example, by emphasising the participant’s perspective, so that an interviewer shows that he or she acknowledges the opinions of the interview partner. In fact, the participant is the expert. A good interviewer is an engaged listener who adjusts their style to the partner – and has a neutral attitude (Mack et al. 2005).
Before starting an interview, the interviewer should make special arrangements allowing for a private and conducive interview setting, such as thinking about transportation of participants and preparing some refreshments for participants This includes finding a private setting for the interview site. No great interviewer dropped from heaven. Professional experience helps much to improve interviewing skills. If you are less experienced, the list below likely helps, but some practice beforehand seems as a good idea. You could practice interview techniques with your friends and make a social game event out of it, for example playing interview scenarios together and giving positive points to good reception and ‘Dos’ and negative ones to ‘Don’ts’.
Dos of good interviews are:
- Begin interviews with a friendly and familiar greeting.
- Listen with attention to every piece of information from respondents.
- Explore key words, phrases, and terms as they occur in the discussion.
- Listen to impressions, topics avoided by the informant, deliberate distortions and misconceptions or misunderstandings.
- Ensure a natural flow of discussion by guiding the informant from one topic to the next.
- Give the respondent room to talk.
- Be open to unexpected information.
- Avoid influencing responses through your own perceptions or leading questions.
- Avoid moving too quickly from one topic to the next.
- Avoid interrupting the informant.
- Do not mislead informants about the subject matter in order to obtain information.
It is an art to do interviews and ask questions under any circumstances, including during quantitative surveys. The main take-home message is: ask unbiased questions – or conversely: do not ask leading (or suggestive) questions. These are questions that influence the interviewer and introduce a bias. Avoid questions that lead to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Examples of leading questions, in contrast to unbiased questions are:
Variants of leading (suggestive) questions
- Most smart people in this community go to the doctor after being bitten by a strange dog, don’t they?
- Was one reason that you went to the doctor because you were trying to prevent rabies?
The same example formulated as an unbiased question
- I’ve heard some people in this community say that most smart people go to see the doctor after having been bitten by a strange dog, and others say that they know smart people who do not go to the doctor in the same case. What do you think?
- What do you mean when you say . . .?
- Why do you think . . .?
- How did this happen?
- How did you feel about . . .?
- What happened then?
- How did X affect you?
Before finishing an interview, ask the interviewees if they have anything they would like to add and offer them an opportunity to ask you anything. Lastly, thank them sincerely.
Mack et al. (2005). Qualitative Research Methods: A Data Collectors Field Guide, North Carolina, Family Health International.
© University of Basel