Improving Your Interview Game: One Rule and Five Tricks of the Trade

Feb 19, 2019 by Matt Baker, Laura Ahearn Comments (0)

If adaptive management is about responding to changes, we need information about those changes -- and good information at that

One method that is used often and is particularly well suited to this type of learning is interviews, especially in-depth, semi-structured interviews. In our work with USAID and its implementing partners on gathering a range of information, we have taken an intentional approach to learning from what has worked well and not so well in the interviews we have conducted. So for those who regularly use interviews in international development for performance monitoring or information gathering, and for those who are just starting out, we offer one rule and five tips.

We offer one cardinal rule: Thou shalt not treat interviews as surveys. It is critically important to treat qualitative interactions as opportunities to learn about how and why, not just what. As such, interviews should be understood and interpreted as the social interactions that they are, complete with verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, unspoken nuances, multiple layers of context, and other interactive complexities that are not available for analysis in surveys.

Here are five tips that stem from what we have learned while conducting and analyzing many interviews over the past couple of years. We hope they help you too.

  1. Acknowledge the value of interviewees’ contributions and try to reciprocate in some way. The time that interviewees take to speak with you and the insights that they share deserve to be reciprocated in some manner whenever possible. Sometimes the reciprocity can take the form of simple knowledge sharing from interviewer to interviewee. Since knowledge is power, whether in a local community or a large federal government agency, it can sometimes be challenging to be frank with interviewees, but withholding information is almost always self-defeating, as it destroys trust and exacerbates power differentials, making it difficult to interact on an equal footing. Instead, be prepared to share information or insights in areas of mutual interest and elicit feedback from interviewees on topics for which they have relevant experiences or expertise. In addition to direct interviewer-interviewee reciprocity, it is sometimes possible to provide reciprocity on a larger level. For example, in one case, we provided material support to offices that agreed to take part in our study in order to reduce the burden of participation. This is not always possible but in certain contexts may be essential to effective participation. In all cases, the quality of the interactions -- and often the value of the interviews -- will be increased if interviews are treated less like opportunities for knowledge “extraction” and more like investments in social and professional relationships.
  2. The best conversations emerge out of shared experiences and confidences. It is therefore essential to get to know your interviewee and topic ahead of time to make the most of every engagement. It is critical to learn as much as possible in advance about the person you will be interviewing. With the rise of social media and platforms like LinkedIn, simple online research can be a starting point. Taking the opportunity to seek out peers and colleagues to talk to ahead of time can also be useful. Doing so can help you formulate the most illuminating questions and establish or deepen rapport. It also means that you don’t waste the interviewee’s time asking for information that could be obtained in a different way.
  3. “It’s all data.” Data collection should be ongoing, as information can emerge at any moment. All interactions, including meetings about the research itself, can be opportunities to learn more, so take good notes on these events in order to inform your analysis. Social settings are great for establishing rapport and having unguarded (or less guarded) conversations. In the same vein, sometimes the best insights emerge after the official interview or event is over -- and after the tape recorder is turned off or the notebook/laptop is put away. Leave time for this, listen well, and take notes right afterward. Offhand comments or throwaway lines can be the most illuminating. (Of course, you should be upfront with interviewee about the confidentiality status of all remarks, making sure to honor “off the record” requests.) Whenever it is appropriate, use a tape recorder or have a colleague take verbatim or near-verbatim notes. If all you have from an interview are paraphrased notes that incorporate the researcher’s on-the-spot analysis, it won’t be possible to return to the conversation to look for connections, implications, and topics that you did not initially think you would need.
  4. Be adaptive during interviews to maximize their utility. Identifying the most effective ways to establish rapport and lay a foundation for a successful interview will require flexibility because interviewees and contexts will differ dramatically. Sometimes chit-chat will help to grease the conversational wheels. For example, if a contemporary event is of shared interest, talking about it can be a useful icebreaker. When the interviewee is a talker, it is generally a good idea to let them talk; just nudge them in productive directions from time to time much as you might adjust the trim on a boat in order to move gently in the right direction. For interviewees is who are not talkers, ask a few warm-up questions about their experiences; most people like talking about themselves. Most of all, be open to taking different approaches depending on the interviewee.
  5. Mix things up in order to allow for illuminating and novel insights. It’s important to ask open-ended questions and guard against leading the interviewee to respond the way you might hope. Use noncommittal probes to elicit more information, and be tolerant of long-ish silences. In addition, be sure to ask different kinds and types of questions and incorporate different kinds of activities into an interview -- this can generate useful information. In most semi-structured interviews, it’s helpful to have a few standard questions that you can easily analyze. These will also provide hooks to dig deeper during your conversation. You can use prompts such as, “Describe x in three words,” or “Name all the Xs you can think of,” elicit stories (“Tell me a time when…”), ask for metaphors or similes (“If you were to tell me how y is in shorthand, what would you say?”), and even request drawings (“Could you draw the way that z works?” All of these approaches help to uncover different kinds of information. In the same vein, try using props (“Where would you locate yourself in this picture?”) and other types of data collection methods to break up the rhythm of the interaction. We often employ process diagrams, concept visuals, and even simplified pie charts to generate reactions and information from participants.

Interviews can provide rich and critical insights to how and why things are the way they are, and how things have changed, thereby supporting effective adaptive management. In the complex types of environments where development interventions often occur, interviews can provide extremely valuable information. Because interviews are an art, however, they require rigorous preparation and forethought, along with a willingness to experiment and adapt, often in real time.