Will you interview people as part of your research? Much qualitative research depends on detailed interviews with key people working in the research area. Here are some recommendations for handling these interviews.
1. Choose your targets
Choose how many people to interview, and which ones. Depending on the scale of the project and the time available, about twenty well-chosen interviewees should be enough to reflect a wide range of views and perspectives on the field of study.
Your supervisor should be able to recommend at least the first half-dozen or so interviewees. Ask each of these ‘who else should I meet?’ to widen the range of people involved. Choose a range of people with different perspectives. These may be suppliers, manufacturers, and customers, or people from the private, public and voluntary sectors for example, depending on the topics to be discussed.
2. Make it easy for people to meet you
Phone your potential interviewees to make personal contact. If you can’t make contact by phone, then start an introductory email with ‘I just tried to phone you’. Inboxes get so full nowadays that people are tempted to ignore unsolicited emails. And if you don’t get a reply to your email within a couple of days, follow up by phone if possible.
The term ‘interview’ can be off-putting; it reminds people of the stress of job interviews. So tell people that you would ‘like to meet to hear their views’ rather than to ‘interview’ them.
And do fit in with their diaries and preferred locations. A friendly phone conversation asking ‘When is a good time and place for us to meet?’ is more likely to have a positive response than an email saying ‘I want to interview you at X on date Y’
If they don’t want to meet you, for whatever reason, do respect their decision. But by all means ask ‘Is there a colleague of yours who may be willing to share their views with me?’
3. Be professional
At the interview, exchange business cards. Get some made if you don’t have these already. Let them know that they can speak freely and that views expressed will not be attributed to individuals in the report. And if there is anything they want to tell you that they would not wish to have included in the report, you will respect that confidentiality. Sometimes this helps you discover underlying issues, such as ‘the project manager is a bully’ or ‘the funders keep micromanaging things they don’t really understand’ which people may be reluctant to say without the assurance of confidentiality.
Some people use tape recorders in interviews. This can put interviewees on the defensive and reduce the chances of them speaking freely. So take notes instead.
4. Structure the interview
Prepare for the interview with a draft structure. This may include:
(a) background on the interviewee; their job role and knowledge of the work area
(b) open questions; such as ‘What do you believe are the main issues in this area?’
(c) detailed questions; explore these issues and clarify specific points
(d) two final questions; ‘Is there anything else I should know?’ and ‘Who else should I contact?’
Do remember to thank the interviewee for their time and for giving you their views.
5. Send a follow-up email
Email the interviewee within a day or so of the interview. Thank them again for the meeting, summarise the main points you learned from the interview, and ask if there is anything they would like to add or change. We all have times when we think ‘I wish I’d said…’ five minutes after a meeting finishes, so this gives them a chance to add any such thoughts to your research.
6. Acknowledge their contribution
Your final report should include an acknowledgement thanking the interviewees for their help, together with a list of interviewees. The list would usually appear as an appendix rather than in the main body of the report.
7. Let them know the results
If your report is published, perhaps as a conference paper, send an email to the interviewees at the time asking them if they would like a copy or letting them know a web reference where they can find the report.
Some reports, particularly for businesses, may be confidential, and you may not be allowed to send copies to interviewees. In this case, check whether or not you can at least send them a copy of a press release on the work or something similar. Knowing the results of the work does encourage interviewees to be helpful in responding to future requests for interviews.