Interviewing 101: An Introductory Guide

Many of us in social sciences use the interview as a primary method for collecting information from people about the topics we research. So, most of you reading this will have a good understanding of the interview process and will probably have done several of them for your own research. But, I have found that it never hurts to review the basics every so often. So, today I am putting up a little introductory guide to doing ethnographic or more broadly qualitative interviews. I was inspired to put this up after reviewing some transcripts from interviews I have recently done while working this summer that need improvement. Creating this introductory guide reminded me of the things I learned as an undergrad and gave me a chance to consciously start to incorporate those very basic, but useful tips into my work as a graduate student. My hope is that at whichever place you are (undergraduate, graduate student, working professional) that this introductory guide will be useful for you. Please leave comments with suggestions of things that could be added or more references that could be included here.

Interviewing 101: An Introductory Guide


What is an interview?

  • An interview is similar, but different from a friendly conversation.
  • It has an explicit purpose to reveal new information.
  • It tends to violate cultural rules of a friendly conversation.
  • The interviewer and respondent will likely feel a bit uncomfortable at times.

What  is the difference between an interview and a friendly conversation?

  • Respondents will do most of the talking and may feel they are doing more than they normally would or should.
  • It is the job of the interviewer to help them get comfortable by asking them to repeat, elaborate, and clarify answers.
  • The interviewer may feel overbearing at times, but with the right kinds of questions and affirmative body language participants can feel comfortable to break the norms of friendly conversation.

Things to consider about the difference?

Power Dynamics

  • Asking questions puts you in control of the direction of the conversation and participants lose a lot of control over the information they disclose.
  • Always remember as a representative for a hospital, you implicitly carry the institutional support, power, and resources with you. ACT RESPONSIBLY!

Expressing Ignorance

  • Remember you are not the expert the goal of the interview is to capture the participant’s experiences in their own words – even if you feel like you have hear it before.
  • Expressing cultural ignorance to remind patients that the things they are saying are valuable, new, and relevant. i.e. “I never thought of it that way…”

Turn Taking

  • Unlike friendly conversations the participant will speak much more than the interviewer.
  • This imbalance in turn taking requires more expressions of interest from the interviewer.
  • These can be verbal “that’s interesting,” utterances like “mmmhmmm,” or even just making good eye contact, smiling, and nodding.
  • Don’t let the interview become a one way street even when they’re doing the talking!

Establishing Rapport

  • Rapport is the relationship that is cultivated between an interviewer and a participant that allows for the feeling of safety when communicating information.
  • It is natural for both parties to feel apprehensive and unsure what to expect and go through and exploratory phase where they learn what the other wants and needs.

What does that difference mean for you, the interviewer?

  • The interviewer takes on a lot of the conversational and social responsibility during the interview and requires more focus and direction than necessary during a friendly conversation.
  • The interviewer listens and engages with the participant while simultaneously planning the next place they want the interview to go.
  • The interviewer also thinks of the interview as a whole and be able to incorporate new information you receive as you go along.
  • So always be ready for a little improvisation.
  • Also, be sure to incorporate what you learn in the interviews into future interviews and research that is the whole point of doing these interviews to learn things you didn’t already know!


How do you prepare for an interview?



1.) Practice beforehand

  • Try it with a friend, but also someone from the target population.
  • This step in the process helps to assure you that your questions and your interview make sense and have a nice flow.
  • Also, it helps you to be sure that information you are looking for you will get with this interview.
  • It will also help you to see new information that you would not have considered asking for previously.
  • You may also realize you need to eliminate some questions.

2.) Organize your data

  • Ask yourself these questions before you being the interviews:
  • Where are you going to store your recordings?
    • Desktop, Shared Folder, Internet Database
  • How will you keep them protected and confidential?
    • Password protected
  • How will you label them?
    • Date, time, name
  • How will you file them?
    • Folders by topic, year, type
  • How will you cross-reference them with other research notes?
    • Labeling and storing notes in the same place

3.) Know your technology

  • You need to understand how you recorder works and be prepared for it to fail.
  • Be sure your batteries are charged.
  • Have a backup.
  • Bring paper and pencils.
  • Bring extra copies of any paperwork needed (consent forms, etc.).

4.) Consider your environment and appearance

  • Dress appropriately for the situation and create a safe place for the participant.
  • Consider how location and attire impact the interviewer and respondent’s comfortable level.
  • Remember, you don’t need to PJs to an interview nor a three piece suite in most cases.
  • Use your best judgment.

How do you explain your purpose?


  • During the interview or at any point while you are interacting with the patient you may be expected to explain many different aspects of the research.
  • Have your responses prepared before you begin interacting with the participant.
  • This will help not only improve your relationship with the participant, but also help to assure yourself that you understand the meaning of your research.

Explaining the Project

  • Give them a brief description of the research and a sense of its application and/or how it impacts them or their community.

Explaining the consent form

  • Be sure participants understand what is on the consent form.
  • Be able explain why you are asking them to sign a form.
  • It doesn’t have to be a detailed explanation, but it does need to be clear and accurate.
  • Make sure they understand it is for their benefit and protection.

Explaining the recording

  • People can be a little anxious when you observe them, write about them, or try to record them.
  • Always be patient and respectful of their comfort levels and boundaries.
  • It is helpful to remind respondents that everything it will be kept anonymous and private.
  • It is helpful to remind respondents that these notes and recordings help you in to do good research.

Explaining the language

  • The goal of research is to get the thoughts and words of participants about their experiences in their terms or everyday language.
  • It is natural for them to try to match you language or some neutral language, but we want to encourage them to talk as they would talk normally.
  • It is appropriate to reiterate that it is ok and desirable for them to be honest and to speak honestly.

Explaining the interview

  • Some participants will be curious about the interview.
  • Be sure to communicate why you are doing an interview.
  • Also let them know before you begin what they should expect.
  • This is part of building a healthy relationship and trust with them.

Explaining the question

  • When you ask a question be prepared for the participant to misinterpret it or for yourself to say it in a confusing way.
  • Always have a solution if you can for misunderstandings.
  • You need to be able to explain what kind of question you are asking and why you are asking it.

How do you formulate an interview question?


  • There are many types of interview questions.
  • It is a good idea to be familiar with each kind so you can work them into your interview, but also so you can be prepared for improvisational moments.
  • Remember in an interview keep questions simple and open-ended.
  • This means they should be limited to one or two sentences and in most cases be something you can’t answer with yes or no responses.

Non-leading questions

  • Avoid leading questions because they tend to suggest a particular answer or imply that one answer is expected or more correct.
  • Leading questions can be useful in specific cases, but in general avoid leading questions and use non-leading questions.


Effective Probes

  • Even when you ask an open ended question the participant may not directly open up or provide much detail.
  • A probing question will help you to get those details.


Descriptive questions

  • It may seem that you get the same answers over and over from different participants or they you can anticipate what they say, but their details will prove important for later research purposes.
  • Remember you are not the expert they are so pay attention to their descriptions they will likely show you something you hadn’t considered before.


1.) Tours: Ask about a specific space.

  • For this question you ask them to describe a space like the doctor’s office or their home. It helps to better understand how they understand the spaces they occupy.

2.) Example: Ask for a hypothetical scenario.

  • For this question you ask them to tell you a hypothetical scenario. It helps to better understand how they would react in certain instances or what kinds of scenarios are important for them.
  1. Experience: Ask for a memory.
  • For this question you ask them to tell you about a memory. This will help you to better understand their social history and what kinds of events are significant to them.

4.) Native Language: Ask to rephrase answers in their own terms.

  • You can asks them to describe something they have previously or not previously described in their own terms. This helps you to understand how they experience something in their language and their terms

5.) Hypothetical-Interactions: Ask a response to a constructed scenario.

  • You present them with a scenario and ask them to describe how they would respond to it. This helps you to understand how they would respond in a given scenario and what they think about particular social situations.

Structural Questions

  • These questions help you to find out about the participant’s social domains and how participants organize their knowledge.
  • These questions generate long descriptions, but the goal is to get and understanding of things, spaces, places, and activities that structure the participant’s daily life.


Contrast Questions

  • These questions help you to understand how the participant constructs meaning and makes distinctions.


Discovery Questions

  • Consider, what questions people in the research space are already asking.
  • What trends appear?
  • What topics elicit the most response?
  • You may also ask participants what questions they would ask.
  • Ask participants descriptive questions that will give you, the researcher an insider’s view.
  • It is your responsibility as a researcher to discover new questions or points of interest in the process of research.

A few more tips about questions:

  • Have probes and pauses ready for when the participants won’t answer or gives minimal responses.
  • If the participant answers a different question than the one you think you asked it is ok to politely call attention to it and redirect.
  • If the question they answered is a question you ask later in the guide, consider improving a bit and reorder your question.
  • Avoid “why” questions as they may have a judgmental feel that can cause participants to give answers they expect the interviewer wants or become distant and unresponsive.



What to do when…?

  • The participant gets upset:
    • Empathize, remain neutral, offer to stop recording and/or the interview
  • You think the participant contradicts themselves:
    • Consider whether you need clarification and call attnetion to the discrepancy using “I” Language – “I am a little confused can you help me?”
  • You think the participant is telling you what you want to hear:
    • Remind them you are interested in their unique perspective and reiterate that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers.
  • Others are participating more than your participant:
    • Remind the participant that the questions may be personal and if you feel comfortable ask others to leave blaming it on the study protocol.
  • You run out of time:
    • Prevent this by keeping close watch on the clock and if possible as interviewee for more time, but be realistic and respectful.

How do you make the interviewee more comfortable?


  • Trust, respect, and comfort are key elements of a successful interview and a successful relationship with the participant.
  • To build these things you can use positive body language and show interest.
  • You must also be realistic and understand that every interview and participant won’t be as you imagine or desire, but it is never a waste of time to work with someone because you always have something to learn.
  • Remember you must always respect their boundaries and be as patient as possible.

How do you help the respondent to share?


  • When interviewing always encourage participants to be explicit, including repeating things they have already said or clearly stating shared cultural knowledge.
  • When an interviewer repeats things said by a participant it shows they are paying attention and are interested.


  • “Doctors are confusing,” may mean different things when sitting in a primary care physician’s office versus an Emergency Department room.
  • Encourage participants to clarify what doctors, when, and why.

How do you make yourself more comfortable?

  • Come prepared with a complete interview guide.
  • Have follow-up questions for each major question.
  • Practice the interview beforehand.
  • Let the participant talk.
  • Acknowledge what they are saying, but hold interruptions.
  • Slow down, pause, and collect your thoughts.
  • It is ok to break momentarily to collect yourself just let them know.
  • Accept silence and moments of quiet.

Always Remember!

  • We all want to do great research, but not every interaction or interview will go well.
  • Know when to cut your losses and not to blame yourself.
  • But, critical self-reflection is very important – just don’t take it personally.
  • Respect goes a long way.
  • It is ok to have fun while doing research.
  • When you can it is important to consult others on your team, others who you look up to, and others who are expert in your field or your research.

I hope this interview guide has been helpful. Comments and suggestions are always welcome!



Spradley, J.P. 1979. The Ethnographic Interview.  University of Michigan.

Andres, Judithe. 2012. Why as Why: The When and How.

Reigle, Matt. 2015. Interviewing 101 Powerpoint. Thomas Jefferson University.


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