Questionining is a basic research technique, and you can be required to master it. Your goal is to get interviewees doing all the talking (giving good information) with you only keeping it on track.
Interviews are often excellent for getting detailed information, although there are practical limits about how many people you can interview. They lend themselves best to open-ended questions and information that is not statistical.
Let's assume that you have already identified and stated the specific research problem, and expressed it as a research question and a purpose statement. You have defined a research population, that it, the category of people who will be your research subjects. You have also chosen interviews as a method for collecting data and obtained ethical approval.
In the research methods literature, this approach is known as the “free informal interview.” The main value of interviews is that you can explore new themes as they come up in interviews, so you might also need to let the questions evolve so you can explore them. (You might also find that some questions "dry up" when you've found all there is is to find.) A researcher who only follows a rigid set of questions, with no freedom to explore, might be on the cusp of discovering something important but then miss the opportunity. In fact an interview without freedom to explore is hardly better than a questionnaire with open questions.
If you specify “free informal interviews” in your methodology proposal, you should specify that you will add follow-up questions to your core questions so you can explore aspects of the topic, either as you find out more about the topic or as individual interviewees raise new themes that seem to be worth exploring. However, if your purpose is to compare and analyze the opinions of interviewees, then you should ask the same core questions in all interviews, but add exploratory questions. If your purpose is to get at a larger objective (such as an overaching cultural phenomena), then you can let your questions evolve into better questions as you go, perhaps with an option to re-interview individuals later on.
Most of these principles work the same for focus groups, which are simply interviews with groups rather than individuals.
A list of questions
The idea is simply that you write a list of questions and then interview people. You are trying to create friendly conversations where subjects feel free to explain their thoughts at length.
Put your questions in natural, easy language. This will help both sides; they will be easy for you to ask, and easier for your interviewees to understand the first time they hear them.
One successful approach is to write a list of questions and use them in the following way:
The first few questions are simply getting to know you questions for introduction. However, they often also disclose identity, that is, how people define themselves, e.g. by professonal role and experience.
Introductory questions might also discuss the interviewee's organization.
At this stage interviewees tend to like questions that elicit short answers of factual information. They are easy to answer and encourage them to talk.
You might set introductory questions about the topic before you get to the research questions. These will set the topic so that interviewees are thinking about the same things you are. For eaxmple, if you were interviewing a teacher on an educational topic, you could ask them for general descriptions of their school, their class, what they teach, and the kinds of students they have.
The remainder of the questions are specifically designed to elicit information that will lead to the solution of the research problem. Put some thought into them; they should be open-ended discussion starters. If you're not used to doing interviews, you might want to have some follow-up questions written down as well. When you get more skilled, you'll be able to produce follow-up questions spontaneously as the need arises.
Put questions in an order that feels natural in conversation.
Check your questions. Don't start before the questions are properly developed; it is better to get the questions right first, so that the first interviews are not wasted with poor questions.
Re-focus and simplify questions to make them useful.
Eliminate passive voice.
Make it easy to see how questions progress through a theme. The point is to make it flow like a natural discussion.
Be careful not to make assumptions.
Check that the questions are easy to understand, preferably if only heard once in natural conversation. Some questions are naturally longer and more more complex. However, if you set them clearly beforehand, they could be shorter and simpler.
Avoid asking the same thing repetitively. It will frustrate your interviewees.
Avoid frustrating questions. Some questions can annoy people if they sound like:
How much is a one-dollar candy? (The answer is so obvious that it can be frustrating, and it seems like you're fishing for another answer.)
Have you stopped beating your wife? (Whether you answer yes or no, it still means that you have been beating your wife.)
Some questions look good on paper but then don't work with real people. Try reading the questions out loud to yourself to pick out those that make you stumble. Then try them with a colleague or friend.
Putting people at ease
It's important to put people at ease and create a situation where they are free to speak openly and honestly. You can also make them feel like they know something valuable, and most people love to share their knowledge.
Good questioning preparation and techniques can help prevent or minimize the following problemmatical responses from interviewees:
They give sanitized, safe, untrue answers; they give answers that sound good and protect themselves and others.
They forget things because they are nervous.
They clam up completely, through either nerves or the feeling that they couldn’t possibly contribute anything.
They misinterpret simple questions, looking for some hidden meaning.
They try to sound academic or intellectual.
They give unhelpfully brief answers and are unwilling to expand on them.
Here's how not to do it. Go through and identify each part that would make people uncomfortable:
"I am the famous Dr. Helmut Von Schmidt, Professor of Philosophy at Vienna University. I’m conducting some research and would like you to help.
You must sign a form to be involved. Please read all five pages of fine print.
My interview will follow a questionnaire. It has only 200 questions and will take three days.
We can interview you at my office at the University, room no. 3072, in the philosophy department.
Do you mind if I have these three other professors observe you?
I need to record every word you say during the interview; I’ll put the microphone near your mouth so we get a good recording.
Every word you say will be carefully analyzed by my team of scientists in the back room.
Try the following approaches to get people to talk. It is not usually difficult; most people like to talk about what they think they know.
Ask about people's past experiences. Some people find it easier to tell a story than to analyze theory.
Interviewees are sometimes reluctant to speak. In these cases, you can simplify the question (all the way back to a simple yes/no question if need be) until they answer the blatantly obvious, then build back up to the complexity of your original question.
Interviewees don’t always grasp the point of a question the first time they hear it, even if it is very well written, and handling a misunderstood question is sometimes awkward. (If it happens, you can break the question into simpler questions, or talk them around in a circle so you can ask again.)
When you ask a question, some respondents respond with very short answers that are nearly useless, and you need to ask follow-up questions to draw them out.
Although you should write questions in an order that flows like a natural discussion, people often don't give answers that way. When answering a question, they might add details that are relevant to previous questions, or anticipate future questions. Consequently, you might not progress through questions in the same order that you wrote them. Just check that they are all answered when you end the interview.
Take the opposite view and get them to explain their ideas. How would you respond to someone who said …?
In some research, the real questions are not just about what respondents think, but why they think like they do. For these you will need to follow up your follow up your What ...? questions with exploratory Why ...?questions.
In a group, make sure that everyone who wants a say gets a say.
In a group, you can ask individuals what they think; they might simply be waiting for you to ask. For example, What about you, Krissy? What do you think? then follow it up with: Mel, what do think? However, some people want to just be listeners and don’t want to speak. It’s okay; they might contribute later when they are more comfortable in the group.
Give everybody an opportunity to speak.
Defend quiet or less articulate participants, especially when they have good ideas.
In a group, you could identify issues that will make people take different opinions and discuss the matter with each other.
In a group, you might need to close down inappropriate lines of discussion immediately, such as destructive gossip, way off track, argumentative, etc.
Control people who talk too much. The best way is to deflect: The people on that side of the room have been quiet; what do you think? Close people down only when you have no choice: I think we need to give someone else a turn.
Silent periods, however, are not always bad. A silent period allows everybody to think about something in particular before they answer. You can get them to give answers by staying quiet, but you lose the opportunity if you talk too much. Put another way, you can give them a reflection time, which is very helpful if the group is accustomed to talking without thinking. You can build on new discussion once the silence has finished.
Cultural aspects of questions
There will probably be cultural aspects to asking good questions. For example, people of one culture differentiate sharply between the purpose (hidden agenda) of the question and what it is that is asked (direct intent). They might not answer what you asked, but respond according to what they perceive your purpose to be.
As another example, they might answer your question very well, but their idea of a reason might not seem logical to you. In that case, you need to identify what kind of cultural logic they are using. If you dismiss the answer, you have dismissed an excellent learning opportunity.
Who should you ask?
People might become embarrassed if you push them for an answer and they honestly don't know. It might be totally inappropriate to ask a person of the opposite sex, or of particular age groups.
Some people will be recognized as knowing more than others. People will generally know who has the job of safeguarding their cultural knowledge. Those people may be university staff, shamans, reclusive mystics, artisans, or grandmothers. They maintain their knowledge, perhaps act as a resource to the general population, teach it to others, and pass it onto their replacements in the next generation.
Some safeguarded knowledge might deliberately be kept secret, and some knowledge is considered too "deep" for most people to understand. They may also use specific terminology that is different from the general populace.
How much depends on who they think you are?
Be aware that your race, age, gender, apparent class or role could affect the research. For example, if you are a male, then you might have limited access to women informants in some societies and only be able to research amongst men.
Alternatively, you might receive very different answers from a female researcher. This is not bad, but you need to realize that your identity is a factor in what you can learn. Obviously, then, a woman might be able to do very good research amongst women if only men had previously researched that group of people.
People will also probably give better answers when they know you better and trust you more. If they think you are a genuine friend who wants to learn, they will likely give you an honest answer. But if you say that you are writing a graduate dissertation, they can feel threatened by your role and very pressured to provide a clever answer. They might decline, especially if they have much lesser formal education, or they might manufacture a fictitious answer. There are cases when researchers have become disrespected, and people make up spurious, fictitious answers.
Watch your attitude. If people suspect you disagree with their views or don't like them, they might change them to accommodate you.
Make sure the points of your questions are clear.
Make sure you fully explore all the relevant issues.
Be aware that:
New issues might emerge as being of higher priority that those you wanted to ask about.
Important research findings might be very obvious to some interviewees, even if they could not have been anticipated when starting the research.
Don't play Guess what's on my mind.
Give people time. It might be that you are poorly understood or unknowingly asked an offensive question. Be aware that many people might be too polite to tell you, and you will only find out what happened after a considerable period of time.
Give people the right to their own opinions.
Pick up on good ideas that come up and explore them. This is especially important for quiet people with good ideas.
Make people feel glad they contributed, especially when they have very good ideas or are usually shy.
People almost certainly have very good reasons for what they do. Try to find out those reasons. I am consistently surprised that cultures are so logical, even when I don't agree with some values.
It is good practice to maintain the friendship after the series of interviews is over.
“Am I allowed to interview a friend?”
Yes, but you should monitor affinity bias in your data. This cuts both ways: a friend might be more inclined to speak openly and provide information that others are reluctant to give. On the other hand, you might be so sympathetic to their views that your data and interpretation is biased.
“When does the friendly chat end and the interview start?”
This question is especially pertinent if the interview will be recorded. Generally, the first group of questions are “about you” anyway, so they are part of the interview. The chat might be essential to the interview if the persona of the interviewee is essential to the data.
“What makes interview data high quality?”
Whether or not interviews get all the data you need to solve the research problem. Data is better if you get honest answers where people tend to conceal the truth, and if you find any new themes unexpectedly emerging. “Data quality” can also refer to the clarity of the internet connection for videoconferences (e.g. Zoom connection). It can be very relevant if some students have consistently poor connections.
“Is video recording is a good idea?”
Yes, it can be a big bonus; it gives not only body language but also a recording of the tone of voice and intonation that can also convey meaning, which might be helpful in analysis. Zoom's automated transcription is a extra bonus.
“Are some answers better than others?” Some people will give better answers than others and some answers might not seem to make much sense. It might be that they do make sense, but you haven't yet figured out why because you haven't gone far enough into the mindset.
Some people give partial answers simply because they are speaking spontaneously and don't have time to think out their entire rationale. And of course some people simply don't know why or deliberately give you a poor answer because they are shy or feel threatened.
“What about anecdotes?”
Anecdotes are very good evidence of the beliefs of the person giving the anecdote, so they are very useful for investigating cultural phenomena. At an individual level, an individual's anecdotes are essential to defining his/her identity and watersheds. At a group level, anecdotes reflect the values and beliefs of a community. For example, people in organizations use them as folklore to maintain their organization's unique culture and identity. This does not mean that anecdotes are true, so they are considered unhelpful in most other kinds of research.
How will you meet people?
In cultural studies, most of the ethnographer’s work is making friends, visiting them in the homes, attending their significant meetings, and perhaps meeting their friends. The ethnographer might meet with the same people multiple times.
In other fields, you will more likely need to make appointments. Some of the meetings might be in their work hours (either by video-conference or at the workplace), but you might arrange coffee shop alternatives instead.
The question is about scheduling. For example, if you are in education and want to interview school principals or teachers, all full time staff will normally have scheduling difficulties while at school. An interview slot will often have a time limit, and their first question will be “How long will it take?” Unfortunately, it often depends on them, because they might want to expand on particular topics. You might be very reluctant to cut off an interviewee who is providing excellent comments only because time is limited. Then again, it can be quite difficult for them to offer multiple meetings. It will be your role to decide how you will arrange your questions to fit the time available, and whether you want or need multiple meetings.
Interviews have limitations
Interviews are only a snapshot of a person’s views at a particular time. Even though the information is valid and quite usable, it is nevertheless fickle and limited. Consider these examples:
Jeff interviewed Robyn.
Robyn had hardly thought about the topic beforehand, but still gave a rather spontaneous response with a couple of examples. “I’ve never thought about that before but I’d respond that …” After the interview, however, she thought more about her answer and changed her view.
Jessica interviewed John.
John had not thought about the topic before, but gave a reflective response where his view changed during the conversation.
Matthew interviewed Alana on a topic about which Alana had thought extensively for a long time.
Alana gave a good summary but afterwards felt frustrated by its brevity and wished that she had added more information to better represent her views. In fact, she later remembered one crucial factor that she had forgotten during the interview.
Taylor interviewed James.
Taylor’s questions were quite open ended, but James’s responses followed a particular train of thought. Consequently, Taylor did not explore other valuable avenues of discussion.
Several things are happening:
Jeff is not collecting information from Robyn, but causing her to create new information.
Jessica is going with John on a reflective process that creates new information.
Matthew and Taylor are getting an inaccurate taster of Alana's and James' views, not a full picture.
Could improved interviewing technique reduce the effects of these limitations? if so, how?