The Interview Guide

When we want to know more than the boxes and circles on a survey can reveal, we turn to the open-ended interview. Thoughtfully designed and skillfully delivered, interviews generate an infinite possibility of responses—more than we ever thought to ask.

By its nature, the interview is a fluid process. But, not unlike surveys, interviews require pre-designed questions to steer the questioning in a consistent way. This ensures that the short time we have with the interviewee is used efficiently and we use the same line of questioning with each interviewee.

The pre-designed interview guide is used for both individual interviews and focus groups. It is generally one of two types:

  • A checklist of possible topics
  • A fixed set of open-ended questions

Checklist Approach

An experienced interviewer may use a “checklist” rather than a prescribed set of questions to conduct the interview. By a checklist, I mean a list of topics to be explored under one broad category, not a list of yes-or-no items. For example, a study exploring the needs of seniors to “age in place” in a new public housing project might include the following checklist:

Housing features:

  • Meals
  • Transportation
  • Housekeeping
  • Safety
  • Socializing
  • Medical care

Using a broad open-ended question, interviewees might first be asked to describe the housing features they feel would be necessary to meet their needs. A good group of interviewees would probably cover many of the topics on the list with little or no prompting from the interviewer.

The experienced interviewer would use the checklist as a flexible tool to move the interview through the topics, not necessarily in the order they are written, but in response to where the interviewee (s) takes the discussion (within given topic areas).  At the same time, the checklist helps the interviewer keep an eye on out for topics that are not mentioned by the interviewee. And finally, the interviewer can weave those topics not covered into the interview at the appropriate  break in conversation.

As you might imagine, it takes a good deal of preparation and skill to conduct an interview by checklist. The interviewer must be thoroughly familiar with the items on the checklist and the intent of the study. S/he must also be adept at spontaneously developing relevant questions, keeping track of what has been covered and what has not, engaging each respondent appropriately, making sure the interview flows smoothly, and keeping the entire interview focused on study goals — and doing all of it simultaneously!

The main benefits of the checklist approach include:

  • The dialogue can evolve naturally, rather than according to a prescribed set of pre-formed questions.
  • The interview can be customized to the interviewee’s experiences and conversational style.
  • Topics that prove especially rich can be probed more deeply than others.
  • Those topics no one thought to ask about can be allowed to emerge.

Fixed Question Set

Instead of a checklist, most individual interviews and focus groups in applied research settings are conducted using a fixed set of fully structured questions developed in advance of the interview. These questions (usually between five and ten per interview) are written as open-ended complete sentences and are carefully worded to elicit a broad range of responses. Accompanying each question is a set of prompts designed to steer the conversation into areas of particular interest, especially those not raised by the interviewee.

Here’s an example of a fully structured question on the same topic (aging in place) used in the above checklist example:

Other senior adults have told us they want to grow old in an environment where they feel safe and can easily get to the store and bus stop. They want to be independent as long as they can and want to have important services close by. What would the ideal “aging in place” environment look like for you?

Prompts: What about crime? Noise levels on the street? Public transportation needs? Proximity to your doctor’s office, post office, library, etc.? Walkability?

In contrast to the checklist question above, this question focuses on just one aspect—the individual’s exterior environment. Other questions might be designed to address the interior environment, for example, or medical support needs (e.g., medication reminders). With the fixed question approach, each question in the set is fully developed and can stand on its own.

Questions in fixed question sets are written in an engaging conversational tone and sequenced in a way that follows a natural progressive line of thinking. All questions are asked the same way (usually read out loud) and in the same order. Prompts are used if necessary to raise topics that do not naturally arise during the open-ended interview.

Benefits of the fully developed question set include:

  • All respondents answer the same question, increasing the comparability of responses across interviews or focus groups.
  • Decision-makers can see exactly what will and won’t be asked, giving them an opportunity to provide input on questions and increasing the likelihood they will use the results.
  • A less skilled interviewer or lay person can conduct the interview.
  • It’s easy to make sure that all intended topics are covered.
  • Analysis can be easily organized to follow the sequence of questioning.

Which Interview Guide is Best?

Two factors are important in answering that question: the anticipated level of interviewee engagement and, secondly, the skill level of the interviewer. Many interviewees have a lot of knowledge but it’s often tacit and takes a bit of probing and prompting to reveal. Others who may be considered experts in the topic (doctors, parents, program directors, etc.) can easily articulate their experiences.

Regarding interviewers, veterans are adept at handling a variety of question types and engaging reticent interviewees with minimal support; less experienced or lay interviewers benefit from a detailed guide with written out prompts and probes. So, in general, a checklist works best in situations when the interviewer is highly skilled or interviewee (s) are openly knowledgeable and articulate; a  fixed question guide works best in situations in which the interviewer may be less experienced or when respondents require lots of probes and prompts to reveal what they know.

A Third Option: The Hybrid Approach

If I were conducting my own research, it would be great to use a checklist approach—I could make adjustments in the interview guide as findings were revealed and not have to consult with anyone. But generally, that’s not the case. I’m usually hired by a client group to conduct a study in which the study agenda is theirs, not mine.

To meet the multiple needs of the most client groups, I’ve found that using a hybrid approach (combining checklist and fixed-question approach) is the most effective. I start by constructing a detailed question guide with probes (fixed question set approach), which I share with the client group before conducting any interviews in order to gather their input. I also let the client know immediately after conducting the first interview or focus group if a question doesn’t seem to be working as intended so we can eliminate or change it.

When I’m actually in the interview/focus group, I ask questions in some variation of the original, but almost never word-for-word (checklist approach). I like the flexibility to adjust my questioning to the tenor of the interviewee(s) and allow them some latitude in how the topics roll out. It makes for a more naturalistic approach that seems to increase the comfort level of interviewee (s) resulting in a deeper conversation. That way I also have the opportunity to expand on certain topics we didn’t know would be so rich or explore areas raised by interviewees that neither the client or I thought to include.

But regardless of the study type or topic, the best question guide is the one that not only includes the right questions but enables the interviewer to be successful in asking those questions with a live audience.  Any approach that produces high quality, usable data is the right approach.

Wishing you great success in designing and executing all future interview guides!

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  1. Maggie Miller
    Maggie MillerMarch 30,12

    Susan, thank you for this! It’s really helpful, and the timing is perfect. In a couple of weeks I’m going to be mingling with teachers, students and parents at a science celebration. I just knew that my questioning guide was too stilted, and that I wouldn’t get through it, given the amount of distraction. Your post gave me some great ideas about how to make this work!

  2. Michael Smith
    Michael SmithApril 6,12

    I agree, your post is “timely” as I’ve struggled interviewing for lack of time & trying to interview interviewees at events.

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