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Developing and refining interview questions

Planning an interview for your project.
A woman being asked a question by another

Read through these different types of interview and approaches to conducting an interview. This will help you reflect on and refine your own interview questions.

Types of interview

  • one-to-one or individual interviews: participants are interviewed one at a time
  • focus groups or group interviews: participants are interviewed as a group, sometimes with something to stimulate discussion, such as a video or an image to look at

Interview approaches

  • structured interviews: the interview questions are worked out in advance and are the same for everyone. This type of interview is useful if you want to compare participants’ responses.
  • semi-structured: the main interview questions are worked out in advance but can be supplemented by prompts or additional questions depending on the answers. This type of interview is more flexible and allows you to get more in-depth information.
  • unstructured: the interview is led by the participant and there are no set questions just a topic or theme. This type of interview can be useful if you want to find out things that are very specific to the individual and can be more like a conversation. This can be useful if you want to explore a topic at the beginning of your project.

The kinds of interview questions you will ask will depend on the type of interview you are conducting and the kind of data you want to collect.

In the previous step, the researchers gave an example of the difference between a research question and an interview question. The interview question was different from the research question – it didn’t simply repeat the research question, but was simpler so that the participant could answer it and provide data that could eventually be used to answer the research question. Framing interview questions needs practice. We come to this in the next step.

Open vs closed and leading questions

If you want to get someone to talk, then you should avoid closed questions. For example, instead of asking:

  • was your journey good/bad today?

You can ask:

  • how was your journey today?

This also helps you avoid leading questions. You must be careful not to impose what you think on your interview participants. Questions beginning with “How…?” or “What..?” can be useful to draw out your interviewee, e.g. what happened on your way to work?

Follow-up or probing questions

In a semi-structured interview, you can ask follow-up questions in order to explore further some of your participants’ answers. To do this, you can just nod or smile to encourage someone to keep talking, or add a simple prompt such as:

  • can you tell me more about that?
  • how did that make you feel?

Or you can ask questions to clarify your participants’ responses. e.g.

  • when you mentioned […] can you explain what you meant?

Remember to keep your eye on the data you want to collect and help your participants to tell you things that will help you answer your research question. You should not ask them your research question directly because they will find it too hard to answer. Instead, you can ask your participants to recall an incident relevant to your topic and describe what happened, then use prompts to explore it further. For example, if you want to find out how the weather influences travellers’ choice of transport, you could ask participants to recall a time when it was raining and ask them what happened.

Exercise: Your interview question

Post to the Padlet (via the links below) an interview question you think this would help to answer each of the research questions:

Then select a range of questions (you can choose your own or others’) and record in your Research Notebook the types of people that you would interview, the different perspectives they could bring, and the questions you would ask each of them.

Read other people’s responses on the Padlet, and comment on the important issues that you see coming up on how best to plan your interviews.

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