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The type of questions you ask and the way you ask them will make all the difference to the quality of your interviews.

Now, that’s a good question!

The quality of data drawn from your participant depends on how you structure the interview and the questions asked. Let’s find out how this is done.

Carefully consider how you will structure your interview to capture the data you need. First, decide on an approach.

  • With a structured approach, you will ask the same series of questions to each participant.
  • If unstructured, you’ll begin with some general queries and then try to allow the participants to steer the direction of the interview.
  • With a semi-structured approach, you will prepare an outline of questions you would like answered, but facilitate the discussion in a flexible manner. This will permit the participant to lead the conversation at times.

Once you have an idea of how you will approach the interview, you’ll need to work on your introduction.

How to get started

Begin by thanking the person for participating in your research and introduce yourself briefly. Ask if it’s OK to record the interview and explain why you’d like to do so.

It’s good to break the ice by sharing a little bit about yourself, such as your background and what it is about your research you’re most passionate about. This leads into the purpose and nature of your research undertaking, which is also important to cover.

You also need to tell your participant:

  • How they came be to selected.
  • Their privacy will be protected when any of their information is produced in written form. Reassure them that the data generated will be de-identified and responses treated in strict confidence.
  • Not to be concerned with giving a particular response. Stress that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers and that you are simply looking to learn more about their experiences and opinions.
  • They are free to ask questions or halt the conversation at any time. Reassure your participant there is no pressure to perform in a particular way.

Asking the right questions

Asking too many closed-ended questions can destroy the flow of your interview. Let’s explore the difference between open, closed-ended and probing questions.

Closed-ended questions

These types of questions often result in a yes/no or other one word response. When they are used in a survey or questionnaire, they restrict the number of answer options. In an interview, they can be damaging if you’re asking too many consecutively, as they can create an atmosphere that feels more like an interrogation than a conversation.

Closed-ended questions don’t encourage further conversation or draw descriptive information from your participant, so use them sparingly in your interview.

For example:

  • Do you like your job?
  • Did you have a good childhood?
  • How long have you been sick?

Compare these to an open-ended alternative:

  • Can you tell me what you’re enjoying most in your job right now?
  • How would you describe your childhood?
  • How has this illness affected your life?

Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions allow the participants to respond in their own words and in a variety of ways. They don’t narrow down the options for response and are difficult to respond to with just one word. This prompts more meaningful answers based on the participant’s own knowledge and feelings.

Some quick examples of open-ended questions are:

  • What inspired your love for travel?
  • What does family mean to you?
  • How did the idea first come to you?
  • Why was the thought of childbirth so frightening for your sister?

Probing questions

This is a follow-up type of question that can serve you well in your interview when you’re looking for more detailed information than what your participant has just shared. They are more difficult to pre-plan, however the following examples will help you to understand the nature of a probing question.

  • What was the outcome?
  • How did other people see the situation?
  • How did that make you feel?
  • What happened next?
  • Can you tell me more about that?

More tips for using questions well

  • Make sure your interview questions will lead to you gathering the data you need to match your research question and hypotheses.
  • Don’t put words into your participants mouth with leading questions, such as those starting with ‘Wouldn’t you agree that…?’ It’s much better to ask neutrally worded questions. This will definitely improve the chances of an authentic response to your question.
  • Ask your interview questions from different angles to enhance the validity and reliability of the response.

Interviewing skills develop with practice

If you are conducting interviews with another person, they might agree to share feedback with you on what is working well and what might benefit from a different approach.

After each interview, take time to reflect on the interaction. For example, think about times when it felt like you built good rapport and also identify when you found the connection more shaky. What might have contributed and how can you improve your approach next time? Keep open to change and consider journaling your experiences.

Your task

Draft three examples of open questions you could use in an interview relevant to your research question. Select the comments link and share your questions with the class. Happy questioning!

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

Griffith University

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