A Step-By-Step Guide To Conducting A Successful Research Interview

Human beings are inquisitive by nature. Besides reading and observation, verbal interactions like conversations and interviews help us gain more knowledge. That's why they're an essential part of conducting research.  

Every study poses a question that needs to be addressed. Often, these queries rely on interviews to gather detailed participant data—which is crucial for developing credible analysis and results. The difference between a bad and a great interview could make or break an inquiry.

In this article, we'll discuss the basics of the interview process and provide some tips for developing your skills as a researcher.

I. Preparing for a research interview  

Preparation is just as important as data gathering in research. Deciding the framework of your study sets you in the right direction and helps you focus on the problem you want to solve. Seven major steps are involved in this stage:  

1. Defining research objectives

Your study's primary aims are the general objectives, which are the foundation for the specific objectives. The former includes an overview of your research goals, while the latter breaks down the concepts into relevant points.

Together, these goals will explain the core research aspects, helping you explain:

  • Why the inquiry is worth pursuing
  • How your study can contribute to available resources  
  • The scope and depth of your research  
  • The formats and channels you'll use when gathering data  
  • When you're supposed to finish
  • Who is involved

Identifying these details can help you proceed with the right course of action—including the questions to ask, the type of data required, how to establish your arguments and form a conclusion.  

2. Identifying target interviewees

Your participants must be directly involved in the topic you want to discuss. Consider their demographics (age, gender, location, etc.), experience, and roles, depending on the nature and type of information you hope to collect. Seek to have an equal representation to get diverse inputs.    

For instance, if you're discussing job satisfaction and inflation, recruit staff members who had to resign, were let go, and continued working during the period covered. You can also invite human resource executives from different business niches that were slightly, moderately, and heavily affected by the closures and policy shifts due to operational cuts.      

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to reaching saturation—the point where sufficient data can be collected—in qualitative studies. However, a review published in 2022 suggested that most research should conduct 9 to 17 interviews or 4 to 8 focus group discussions to reach this desired level.  

3. Developing interview questions

Questions raised during a discussion can facilitate a deeper understanding of the issue. Generally, quantitative research utilizes close-ended questions, while qualitative studies use open-ended and probing questions.    

a. Close-ended questions

Close-ended questions can be answered by yes or no or through pre-defined options. They work perfectly for quantitative research because you can assign a numerical value to each option—facilitating quick analysis.    

b. open-ended questions

These queries encourage interviewees to provide more information. Questions that start with 'how' offer more detailed responses that boost your data-collection methods and uncover insights that are easy to miss.

c. Probing questions

As the name implies, probing questions take interviewing to the next level by encouraging participants to provide more details. They typically start with 'why' and 'what.'  

When formulating research interview questions, you must consider the following points:

  • Your questions must always align with research objectives, even if you're using open-ended or probing queries.
  • Use clear, simple, and concise language to make it easier for your participants to understand. Avoid jargon and technical phrases.
  • Additionally, avoid misleading or complex questions that confuse your participant—resulting in ambiguous responses.
  • Use neutral terms.
  • Refrain from using leading questions that reflect your bias.
  • Arrange your questions logically to promote a cohesive discussion.  
  • Consider the interviewee's comfort level when discussing sensitive or taboo subjects.

Run a test interview with your colleagues or have your questions reviewed by a supervisor. Ask for their feedback and revise as necessary.

Keeping these considerations in mind helps you develop questions that effectively elicit valuable, insightful responses from your participants. They also contribute to the overall success of your research project.  

4. Choosing the interview format

Identifying how you'd want the interview to be conducted saves time and ensures you can collect the required data. Three primary modes come to mind:

a. Structured interviews

Structured interviews work well for research activities that seek to get similar specific information. These interviews often use close-ended questions and work well for specific research types, including clinical studies. Job screening interviews, especially automated ones, also use this tool. You can read more about structured interviews to understand their applications, pros and cons, and the processes involved—from designing, analyzing, and presenting your findings.

b. Semi-structured interviews

This interview format sits in between structured and unstructured interviews. Thus, it uses closing questions and open-ended or probing queries—depending on a participant's answers. Semi-structured discussions are ideal if researchers want to get pre-determined datasets and explore interviewees' insights further.  

c. Unstructured interviews

It might sound like you can ask any question when conducting unstructured interviews, but this isn't the case. This interview type is still purposive and needs to stick to your study objectives. As such, it requires more experienced interviewers to make it work.  

Characterized by a free-flowing conversation, unstructured interviews are useful when drilling into the issue's whys and hows. Its very nature allows participants to express themselves more freely by answering open-ended and probing questions. These interactions may be time-consuming and might branch into several off-topic issues. But if you're seeking authentic and insightful data, this could be your top choice.          

5. Picking the right interview channels

Research interviews can be done in person, through phone, or online. Choose one that fits your study objectives. Tapping social media platforms to conduct virtual surveys and interviews is sometimes a good idea. However, determine how your target interviewees might feel about it before starting.  

For example, a study published in 2022 about the differences between online interview modes (audio, video, chat, email, and survey) revealed that participants are less likely to agree to a webcam interview. Only 49% of those surveyed with webcam access agreed to go on video, likely because of anonymity issues. The study also revealed that audio and video interviews had the lowest completion rate, below 40%, among the modes tested. (See 'Logistical differences across mode are important.')          

6. Scheduling research interviews

An interview schedule guides you in collecting key information about the participant. Determining how long you'll take can be difficult—especially when conducting unstructured interviews. Digital health product interviews, for instance, could take 20 minutes to 1 hour. It could take longer for studies that require more participant data and information.

When estimating, include the time it takes to make your introduction, interview questions, discussion time, and closing statement.  

7. Preparing the necessary materials

Your tools will depend on your chosen interview channel. For instance:

  • Transcripts from electronic interviews (emails and chats)
  • Software transcriber for online audio and video interviews using the software

It would help if you reviewed the notes if taking this route.

In-person interviews

You or another team member can also use audio and video recorders for personal conversations. Let the participant sign a consent form before starting.        

II. Conducting the interview

As part of the ethical standards of research, you must only proceed with the interview after a participant's agreement. Once you've secured a consent form and have the tools ready, it's time to start the conversation.

1. Establishing connection

Building rapport breaks down the walls between you and your participant. However, it's also important to maintain professional boundaries to ensure that the gathered data is reliable. With good interview skills, you can make anyone comfortable enough to share their honest ideas, experiences, and opinions while also ensuring data integrity.  

Introduce yourself and explain the purpose of the research. You can also briefly touch on the format and the covered topics. Indicate what types of data will be collected and where you plan on using it. At the same time, confidentiality and anonymity should be ensured to gain their trust and ensure a more open and honest discussion. You must also employ all means to ensure you keep these promises.    

2. Asking questions

Always keep the interview on track by holding a guide for in-person interviews. Use active listening to understand what your participant. Avoid being robotic and probe for more information when necessary. More importantly, gauge the interviewee's comfort level by analyzing non-verbal cues.  

3. Taking notes

Use a recording device, but remember to capture key points and quotes. It's good to have a backup file in case the equipment malfunctions.

4. Wrapping up the interview

After ensuring you've met your interview goals, ask for validation from your participant. To ensure accuracy:

• Summarize the main points.

• Ask if the interviewee has any questions or additional comments, and if you got some of the points inadvertently wrong.

Thank the individual for participating in the interview. You may also ensure confidentiality and anonymity at this stage.

III. Best practices for research interviews

Before anything else, though, provide a safe space for participants to share their experiences and opinions. After ensuring a conducive setting, remember to:

  • Be prepared and organized
  • Build trust
  • Ask clear and concise questions
  • Practice active listening
  • Remain neutral and unbiased
  • Respect the interviewee's time and privacy
  • Most importantly, refrain from putting words into your participant's mouth.

IV. Post-interview

Start reviewing the transcriptions to analyze the data. This is one of the most time-consuming and crucial parts of the research.

1. Assessing and cleaning data

Note that not all data is useful for your study. To save time and ensure you're on track, evaluate and retain the relevant ones.

2. Choosing your data analysis strategy

Ensure that your data analysis addresses the question or problem comprehensively. You can then use any of these methods, depending on your objectives.

  • Causal analysis measures cause and effect.
  • Descriptive analysis interprets data to explain what happened.
  • Diagnostic analysis discusses why something happened.  
  • Exploratory analysis determines relationships between variables.
  • Inferential analysis forms generalizations by sampling a small group.
  • Mechanistic analysis identifies certain datasets that impact other variables.
  • Predictive analysis aims to uncover future trends.  
  • Prescriptive analysis gathers insights from other analysis strategies to form a plan of action based on potential outcomes.

A good rule of thumb is to compare and contrast specific datasets to identify themes and patterns. You can also follow up with interviewees for some clarifications, if necessary.

3. Drawing conclusions

Review your research aims, hypothesis, and analysis before formulating a conclusion. Avoid showing your biases when writing one, and stick to the results—which may not always show the results you expect. Keep an open mind and always consider other perspectives when explaining your findings.    

V. Compelling reasons for developing your research interview skills

In the context of research, developing good interview skills is essential for several reasons:

• Ensuring quality data

Effective interviewing techniques facilitate the collection of accurate, detailed, and relevant information from the person you're interviewing. This ensures that your research is based on high-quality data.

• Minimizing biases

We all have biases. And it can be difficult to stay objective when conducting a study. A skilled research interviewer can hurdle this challenge by being aware of their differences and the participant's status, culture, and belief systems.  

• Learning to adapt

As a researcher, you'll likely meet persons from different backgrounds. You'll learn how to deal with these individuals more effectively with time and practice. For instance, you can adjust your communication style or tone to generate the answers you seek.

• Managing time effectively

Research activities are often time-bounded, which can be a challenge for qualitative studies—which rely primarily on interviews and discussions when gathering research data. An experienced interviewer can manage time and still arrive with productive conversations.      

• Improving research outcomes

Learning how to conduct research interviews more effectively also improves your data-gathering activities—allowing you to gather more accurate and comprehensive data. With no stone left unturned, you can put together a valuable inquiry.

Final thoughts

Strong interview skills are crucial to obtaining meaningful research data and arriving at credible conclusions. And this goes beyond asking the right questions. The points discussed above not only explain the process for conducting interviews. They also show relevant insights on how to improve your interviewing skills.  

But here's the catch: they can only be sharpened with constant practice. So use them whether or not you're conducting formal research. Doing so helps enrich your knowledge and build meaningful connections with almost anyone.