Obtaining the data you really need: on conducting qualitative interviews

I have been planning a new qualitative research project, and reading draft proposals and draft methodology chapters for students I am coaching, so I have been thinking about qualitative data lately; particularly how to get the right kinds of data from participants when we are conducting interviews.

There are three main forms of interview that are discussed in methodology texts and guides: structured, semi-structured and unstructured. Generally, when embarking on a qualitative project, students tend to opt for semi-structured interviews. This enables them to have a set series of questions, hopefully well connected to their theory and literature, but also to create space for participants, or interviewees, to add views and insights that may not strictly follow the questions. It’s sort of a best-of-both-worlds scenario. Unstructured interviews are hard to manage, especially for postgraduate students, many of who are doing this form of fieldwork for the first time. And fully structured interviews can veer into not allowing any space for additional, unpredicted insights and information – they can, in other words, limit the conversation, and also the kind of data collected. *Caveat: you do need to choose the right tool for your project, regardless of whether it is hard to do or not.

But, semi-structured interviews, while they seem to be a dominant preference for many students doing qualitative research via interviews, are not easy to do well. A key issue I am thinking about in relation to my new project, and that I assist other researchers with, is this: how do I conduct the actual interview so that I get the data I really need? What tools or techniques so I need to be aware of? I have listed a few points here that have helped me, and that are also the product of my own mistakes and learning in conducting qualitative interviews.

interview 1

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  • The point of the first interview is to get a second interview. 

I didn’t know this during my own PhD, which was also my first major research project. I did one set of interviews, and I do recall, on reading the transcripts, wishing that I could go back and ask some of the questions differently or find out more about specific issues. But I didn’t really know I could (and I didn’t plan for this so I ran out of time). But, now it makes complete sense. Unless you are interviewing someone you already know well, chances are you and the interviewee will be strangers to one another. Establishing a rapport, and trust, can take time – certainly more time than one interview allows for. So, you need to make the goal of the first interview establishing a connection that will enable you to go back, and talk to that person again. You may get the basic data you need in the first interview, but chances are that you will need more that interview #1 can yield. You will want richer, or deeper responses to some of the questions, or will see that certain questions could be asked differently, to yield slightly better, or more relevant, responses considering your research questions and aims.

Plan enough time for at least two interviews, and ensure that you check with the interviewee that you could approach them again if needed. Listen to the recording of the interview as soon as you can, then, make notes, and think about what the data is saying in relation to those research questions. Then work out whether you have enough of the rights kinds of data to include in your analysis, where any gaps are, and plan interview #2 accordingly.

  • Record your interviews and take notes.

You always want to audio-record the interviews, so that your transcription, analysis and reporting will be accurate, and rich. But, you also want to take notes – not so many that you are unable to maintain eye contact and engagement in the interview, but have a notebook and pen to record things that the audio may not capture. Perhaps body language is a factor to consider in terms of the kind of data you are generating – if participants appear nervous, or distracted, this may be something you want to consider in the analysis alongside their words. Perhaps what their words say, and what their body language says are two different things, and this could be important as a possible finding. Perhaps they mention names of other people you could consider interviewing as well, or names of websites, documents and other sources of information you need to follow up on. All of this can be captured in a few short notes, and can add to the richness of your overall findings and analysis later on.

  • Plan for a pilot interview.

This has been a big point of learning for me. I tend to get over-eager in interviews, and I just plain talk too much. I find myself listening to the audio and cringing, and wishing I could just be quiet, and let the interviewee talk! There are two benefits, here, to a pilot interview: the first is that you can practise being an interviewer. You can work out how to record and take notes, how to talk less and listen more, how to direct and redirect the conversation as needed, and how to manage your own facial expressions and body language, to remain as neutral as possible so as not to bias or shift the interview in unhelpful directions (like looking shocked or disapproving at something an interviewee says to you). The second is that you can figure out whether the style you are using and questions you have as a guide are yielding the answers you need. Are there too many questions? Are some of the questions too long and ‘wordy’? Do any of the questions yield answers that seem a bit off topic, or that are repetitive? Make notes and adjust the interview plan before the real interviews begin. You need to do a pilot with someone who represents the interviewee demographic, and preferably with enough time to make changes and adjustments before you start meeting with the study’s group of participants.

interview 2

Photo by nappy from Pexels

  • Plan for a conversation, rather than a Q&A session.

This has been a really big point of learning for me. In a qualitative study, regardless of the topic, you need rich, detailed data. Qualitative research is about depth, rather than breadth, in simple terms. Thus, you need depth in the data, to achieve depth in your analysis, findings and conclusions. Thus, what you want to do with conducting the interview is create a conversational space, rather than a stiff, Q&A session where you ask a long list of questions, and the interviewee responds. The best way, I find, is to start off by asking the interviewees to tell me a story, related to the research I am doing and my interview questions. For example, if I am doing a project on postgraduate supervision, and my interviewees are students and supervisors, I don’t want to start off with something like: “Do you enjoy supervising students, and why or why not?” (Typical kind of question you find in interview schedules). This will not help me to get a richer sense of what the supervisor does as a supervisor, and what aspects they do and do not enjoy. So, what I could rather do is ask the question like this: “Can you start off by telling me a bit about your current supervision situation?” And then just listen. In that response, then, I listen for what aspects they seem to like, or not like, and in the follow up, I could ask: “You seem to find supervision a struggle, rather than a joy, right now. Would you say that is accurate? Could you say a bit more about that?” And then listen. And so on. So my questions become a guide, but not a determinant to the structure of the interview.

The main thing in doing qualitative interviews, I am learning, is for an interviewer to have empathy. Trying to be in the moment, and create a sense for the interviewee that their stories are valuable, and worth sharing and hearing, enables the creation of a rapport that can lead to follow-on interviews, and that can encourage interviewees to see me as an ally, and someone who will share their stories responsibly, ethically and with care. This is crucial when you are working with people who trust you enough to give you truthful stories, experiences and accounts. Ultimately, you need to listen closely, and record accurately, so that what you share in your study is able to meaningfully shape knowledge, research and practice in your field.

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