Research Methods (1) Interviews

3. Designing an interview

An interview is an interpersonal encounter. It requires skills such as building rapport, empathy and active listening.

When designing an interview, here are some things to consider:

  1. Purpose of the interview:
    • What kind of data are you looking for? Can you find this information elsewhere?
    • How will the interview findings be presented?
    • How will you determine if an interview is ‘successful’?
  1. Participants:
    • Who are your participants?
    • How many participants will be required for the purposes of the study?
    • How will participants be recruited? (see: ‘Locating/recruiting participants’ in this module)
    • How will you protect your participants?
    • Will participants take part in more than one interview, e.g. as in life histories where data is collected over a period of time, or longitudinal studies that follow participants over time?
  1. Length of the interview:
    • How much time do you have available to conduct the interview? Note that transcribing interviews is also a time-consuming process – the longer the interview the more time-consuming the data analysis process.
    • How will you establish rapport with the respondent? Is the interview the first time that the interviewer and respondent will meet, or is there a pre-existing relationship?
  1. Schedule of questions:
    • structured, semi-structured and unstructured interviews exist along a continuum; no interview is completely scripted, and none are completely unscripted.
    • Simple questions with minimal set-up efficiently solicit responses from respondents.
    • Begin with ‘easy’ questions to warm up the respondent and develop a rapport, and build from there.
    • Open-ended questions invite rich responses (i.e. questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”).
    • Use probing questions (e.g. ‘Can you tell me more about that?’) to elicit more in-depth responses.
    • Be aware of the respondent’s verbal and non-verbal communications, and take cues from these when probing or when approaching sensitive topics.
  1. Data analysis:
    • How will the data generated be analysed? This will determine how structured the interview will be, e.g. if comparative analysis is required, or if the same kind of data needs to be collected and aggregated.

Reflection Exercise:

Step One:

  • Immerse yourself in your topic to establish what it is you want to know and what it is you want to find out.
  • Formulate an interview schedule with interview questions that use commonly understood language, commonly used words, avoid ambiguity, and avoid leading questions.
  • Include different types of questions, including factual, descriptive, thoughtful and emotional questions.

Step Two:

  • Before going into the field, practice doing the interview three, four or five times if possible.
  • Conduct pilot interviews with other members of your research team, or volunteers, and use the feedback to refine the questions.

Step Three:

  • Look into whether you can access skills workshops to prepare for conducting your interviews. For example, in active listening and observational note-taking.


Sample interview schedule or guide for in-depth interviews with low-income women.

[Download here].


Strategies for Qualitative Interviews:

Designing and Conducting Semi-Structured Interviews for Research

Anderson, K. and D. Jack (1991) ‘Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analysis’, in S. Gluck and D. Patai (eds) Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Briggs, C.L., 1986. Learning how to ask: A sociolinguistic appraisal of the role of the interview in social science research (Vol. 1). Cambridge University Press.

DeVault, M.L. 1990. ‘Talking and Listening From Women’s Standpoint: Feminist Strategies for Interviewing and Analysis,’ Social Problems 37(1): 96–116.

Mauthner, Natasha S. and Andrew Doucet. 2003. “Reflexive Accounts and Accounts of Reflexivity in Qualitative Data Analysis,” Sociology, 37:413-31.

Mauthner, N.S., O. Parry and K. Backett-Milburn (1998) ‘“The Data are out There, or are They?” Implications for Archiving and Revisiting Qualitative Data’, Sociology, 32: 733–45.

Song, M. and I. Parker (1995) ‘Commonality, Difference, and the Dynamics of Disclosure in In-depth Interviewing,’ Sociology, 29: 241–56.

Wolf, D. (1996) ‘Situating Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork’, in D. Wolf (ed.) Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork. Boulder, CO: Westview Press