Writing Effective Interview Questions
Part of the challenge of conducting an effective interview is writing the right interview questions. Effective interview questions will have the following traits.
They are Relevant
The interview questions you ask, of course, must be relevant to the topic you are researching and research question(s) you are seeking to answer. As you write your interview questions, think about how each question will contribute to answering your research question(s) and your understanding of your topic. If a question you have in mind isn’t particularly relevant, think of different ones.
Topic: Revising the criteria for when Child Protective Services removes a child from a home
Example1: As a social worker, how many of the parents you deal with are addicted to drugs?
This question, besides sounding rather insensitive, doesn’t really address the topic at hand. Phrased differently, it might get at good information on a different topic, but probably doesn’t not apply to this one.
Example 2: As a social worker, what clues immediately tell you that it may be necessary to remove a child from a home?
This question addresses the kinds of information one might need to know about the topic. The social worker might bring up drug-related issues as part of his or her answer, but it is clear that they are being asked first and foremost about the topic being researched.
They are Open-Ended
Effective interview questions are designed to give the respondent a wide berth for the kinds of answers he or she can give. This means you should avoid writing “yes-or-no” questions and respondents shouldn’t be given a set of answers they can respond with. Instead, it is better to write questions that begin with the interrogative pronouns: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How. These kinds of questions make it possible for a respondent to answer in a variety of of ways. It also encourages them to explain or justify their answers, which produces a longer answer from your respondents and gives you, as the researcher, more data to work with. Although a couple “yes-or-no” or short answer questions are okay, most of your interview questions should be open-ended.
Example 1: Do you post a lot of selfies on your Facebook page?
This isn’t a terrible question, but notice that the respondent is only called upon to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to this question. Certainly, an interviewer can get a lot more out of the respondent regarding this question.
Example 2: On what occasions do you find yourself taking selfies? When do you decide to post them on your social media page?
This question kind of assumes the respondent does in fact take selfies, to which they might simply respond that they don’t take them. But it pushes past the the ‘yes-or-no’ options, calling upon the respondent to recall and explain when they take their selfies and under what conditions they decide to share them with others. This provides much more detailed data than a simple ‘yes-or-no’ question does.
They are Clear
When writing interview questions, you should craft each question with simple, clear prose, making sure there will be no confusion about how to understand the question itself. Respondents need to understand each question and how to answer it or you will not get the information you are looking for. In fact, it is a good idea to test your questions for clarity. Find someone else to read the questions to and confirm whether they can understand them before you conduct your interviews with your selected respondents.
During the interview, if it is clear that your respondent doesn’t understand the question, it is okay to rephrase to help them understand it. But it is better to have a clear understandable question to begin with.
Topic: People’s experiences of medical emergencies
Example 1: When did you realize that you needed to contact medical emergency services because your loved one was experiencing cardiopulmonary distress?
This question is vague and unclear in a couple of ways. First, the technical medical language used in the question may not be understandable to the respondent. Simpler language may be necessary for them to understand. Second, even if the terminology is understood, it may be unclear how the respondent is supposed to answer. The respondent probably didn’t know what kind of medical problem their loved one was having when they called for medical help. They wouldn’t have learned about the specific medical problem until the loved one was seen by a doctor. So the respondent would have to wonder, does the interviewer want to know how I decided I needed to call 911? Or does the interviewer want to know instead when I learned that my loved one was having a heart attack?
Example 2: When did you realize that you needed to call 911 in order to help your loved one?
This question uses simpler language and doesn’t bring in extra details that may cause confusion. It should be pretty clear from this question that the interviewer is asking about the moments before emergency services were called.
They are Applicable
Good interview questions need to be tailored to what the respondents have the knowledge to answer. Facing questions you really don’t have the answers to can be very frustrating. Be sure to consider whether the people you are interviewing have the knowledge and experience to give qualified answers to your questions and rephrase or eliminate questions they cannot realistically answer.
Topic: Viewers’ opinions of the 2017 Superbowl Ads
Example 1: Why do companies choose to spend so much money to advertise during the Superbowl?
This is a worthwhile question to ask if you are researching Superbowl advertising, but it is not applicable to Superbowl viewers because they are simply not in a position to know why or how companies spend their advertising dollars.
Example 2: Why do you think companies choose to spend so much money to advertise during the Superbowl?
Just a small change has made this question applicable to the kind of respondent being interviewed. A Superbowl viewer will not know why companies do what they do, but they can certainly provide their opinions or assumptions about why they do it. Of course, this question would still only help the researcher assess how well viewers understand the reasons for Superbowl advertising. If the researcher wants to know the reality of why companies spend advertising dollars in this way, they will need to interview a company executive or do secondary research on the subject.
They are Unbiased
Good interview questions avoid making any judgmental assumptions about the subject of research or of the respondent. Thus, when writing your interview questions, you should avoid questions that are loaded or leading, meaning that the questions imply that there is a right or wrong answer or that there are right or wrong, good or bad, perspectives on the subject. Such loaded questions can backfire in a couple ways. One, if your questions assume that certain kinds of answers are right, you will not get honest, accurate data. Two, if a respondent feels as though they are being judged, they may give dishonest answers or may refuse to complete the interview. Try to keep interview questions neutral so they do not assume to know what respondents think about the subject being researched.
Topic: The effect of Common Core standards on the classroom
Example 1: As a teacher, how unhappy are you with needing to follow Common Core standards?
Not only is this question a bit vague (How is the respondent supposed to describe their level of “unhappiness” here?), it is a loaded question that assumes that the respondent has a problem with the Common Core standards. In fact, if they are content or happy with these standards, then the question leaves them no way to answer it.
Example 2: What effect have the Common Core standards had on how you teach?
This question helps the respondent give a tangible answer but also does not assume that the respondent feels a certain way about the subject and leaves things open for the respondent to list effects that are positive, negative, or both.