11 tips for running effective qualitative research interviews

You could say that there are two types of research — when the researcher is present and is able to steer the conversation (e.g. an in-depth interview), and when she is absent and isn’t interacting with the participant (e.g. a survey). Writing good survey questions is a whole topic of its own, but interviewing people effectively does take practice even if you think you’re confident and chatty.

This article includes tips for running effective in-depth interviews.

  1. Ask open-ended questions as much as possible. These are questions that can’t be answered with ‘yes / no’. Closed-ended questions do have their place, but you can usually turn them into more informative ones by starting with ‘why’, ‘how’ or ‘what’.
  2. Ask non-leading questions as much as possible. Always consider whether part of the answer is accidentally contained in your question, or whether you are subconsciously directing the participant to answer in a certain way. Think of it as interviewing a witness, when the other attorney can complain that you are biasing the outcome. Try to balance questions by including both ends of a spectrum (e.g. not ‘how easy was that?’ but ‘how easy or difficult was that’). Don’t ‘butter up’ what you’re testing (e.g. not ‘do you think this design is modern?’ but ‘what do you think of this design?’). However, as with closed-ended questions, ‘leading’ questions have their place, e.g. to force an opinion or to clarify your understanding of a participant’s answer.
  3. Turn people’s questions back at them. Participants will invariably ask you questions, e.g. if they are frustrated or curious. Resist the temptation to tell them all about it! Ask them right back — ‘Well, what do youthink about this / how this works?’, ‘Well, how would you like to see it working?’ It will reveal a lot.
  4. Use the ‘Five whys’ technique. Don’t give up questioning early, keep drilling to get to the core reason why someone does or thinks something. E.g. ‘Why do you shave?’ — ‘To look good’. You could stop here, but you don’t have the whole story yet — without asking ‘why’ again you might be presuming incorrectly. Do they want to look good to impress a new love interest, or maybe their boss (and even then — why? To better fit into a new social circle? To get a promotion?). Suddenly the customer needs for whatever you’re designing are diverging, and you’re getting different customer segments. A gap between what people want and their current means of getting there is a design opportunity, but people often can’t clearly state their motivations without prompting. (By the way, it’s called ‘five whys’ because by the fifth ‘why’ you will have surely got it — but you don’t have to ask five times!)
  5. Use basic prompts. Some participants explain themselves beautifully, with others it’s ‘water out of a stone’. But avoid getting flustered and building over-elaborate questions. Two of the most powerful interviewing prompts, used by professionals like journalists are ‘Tell me more…’ and ‘And then what happened..?’ Also, try the trick of repeating the last few words of their last sentence, but as a question, to keep them talking and elaborating.
  6. Keep people talking with silence. This may sound completely counter-intuitive, but just try it! Most people find silence unbearable and will get an urge to fill it. After they finished talking, but you think there is more to it, just let the silence hang… Combine it with a subtle gesture like raising your eyebrows and face slightly, keep looking at them. Before long they’ll spill the beans. Don’t over-do it though, or it will become weird and irritating — it’s more of a precision tool for certain situations. It also doesn’t work well for phone interviews.
  7. Ask people to refer to real-life examples and stories as much as possible. I find this crucial and spend a good bit at the start of each interview to get such ‘context’ about them, their life, and activities relevant to the research. After the participant is gone, it’s invaluable for understanding whether what you’re designing will really be useful to this person or not. It can also turn out that something a participant says she does ‘all the time’ was actually once, a year ago. This leads me to the next point…
  8. Don’t be afraid to cross-examine using previous answers. If you notice that the participant is contradicting himself, don’t be afraid to call it out gently but directly. E.g. ‘I just want to check something. You said earlier that you only have one bank account. You also said that you would use the feature of this app which allows you to view all your bank accounts together. Can you explain?’. It can also help as a reality check if you notice the participant being overly enthusiastic about something you’re showing her: ‘I’m just wondering, based on what I heard from you earlier… Would you, personally, really do this in real life? Can you give me a few examples of real situations when you would do this, or when it would have been useful to you in the past?’
  9. Ask people to recall strong emotions and specific events to jog memory. It’s a good way of eliciting stories especially relevant to them, e.g. ‘Tell me about a time you were really frustrated by… / had a fantastic experience with…’ Or get them to think back to a time when they did / bought something, then work backwards a little to explore what led up to it, and then work forwards to find out what happened next. Ask people to recall exactly where they were, what the weather was like — little things like that are actually powerful ‘snags’ that bring memories flooding back.
  10. Don’t lose focus of what you need to discuss, and keep an eye on the time. It’s very easy to drift off into interesting conversations which don’t actually move your work forward. Don’t feel awkward to gently but firmly change course. It’s a good idea to point out in the introduction that time is regrettably short, that you have a bunch of interesting stuff to cover, and to ask the participant not to feel bad about you skipping between topics.
  11. Don’t stay wedded to the discussion guide, if you feel it makes sense. Make choices about where to take the conversation. Pursue fruitful new lines of conversation, and ask questions out of order with the discussion guide, if you feel it makes sense. Park new questions in your head to ask later. Clients observing research often say to me afterwards ‘I don’t know how you manage to keep it all in your head!’ I find that when I am running the interview, it just happens —but it takes practice, and is one of the main things that come with experience. Jotting down prompts also helps 🙂

Finally, these are just useful techniques. It’s helpful to remember that each interviewer has a different personality and a different way to ask questions, which will develop with experience.

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