Research: Conducting interviews

Last updated: Sunday, July 11, 2021

Having looked at questionnaire-based surveys as a method of gathering research data, we now turn to a different method: interviews.

Interviews of various kinds are the most commonly used data collection technique in qualitative health care research. Whether you choose to interview participants on an individual or group basis will depend upon your research question. Interviews are not an 'easy' option, and if you've not done any before you will need some mentor/ tutor support.

One-to-one interviews 

Although there are various kinds of interview, a common approach is called the semi-structured interview. Here, the researcher employs a schedule of mainly open questions to enable aspects of a particular topic to be explored in detail. Usually the researcher will ask the same questions of all participants, although not always in the same order, but will prompt interviewees as necessary to explain or expand upon their answers.

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Good tips for one-to-one interviews include:
  • Prepare carefully and try to make your questions sound natural and not like an interrogation. 
  • Avoid leading questions where participants may guess the response you are seeking. Write down some prompts designed to clarify what interviewees mean; if you make these up on the spot they can unintentionally become leading questions. 
  • Allow enough time; don’t rush your participants. Let the participant know what time they have, and make sure they can give you this amount of time. 
  • Minimise distractions as far as possible, and pick a setting where the interviewee is comfortable. 
  • Ask for formal consent before interviewing, and ensure this includes permission to record the interview for later analysis if you are going to do this. 
  • Learn to listen. Give the interviewee time to think. You may miss valuable information if you speak too early. 
  • Run a few pilot interviews first to practice your technique, ensure the questions are clear, develop a ‘patter’, and to make sure you know how the audio equipment works. 

Focus group interviews 

Focus groups are a group interview where the participants are encouraged to interact with one another, with the researcher simply acting as the facilitator. They take longer to transcribe and analyse than one-to-one interviews so be careful not to run more than you can handle.
Good tips for focus groups include many of the points above for one-to-one interviews, but also:
  • Ensure that the composition of your group is appropriate; you may aim for a relatively homogenous group so that participants can discuss their shared experience, or alternatively a diverse group to explore different perspectives of an issue. 
  • The average number of participants per group is generally between 4-10; but you can run more than one group. 
  • Consider the setting of your group carefully; some participants may find a hospital environment intimidating. 
  • Use a second researcher to take notes, to run the audio equipment, and to arrange refreshments. 
  • Establish some ground rules for the group: e.g. not talking over one another, and turning off mobile phones. 
  • Plan how to deal with any very vocal participants, and how to encourage quieter people to contribute.

The analysis of interviews is more complex than for quantitative studies and various specific methods have been used with names such as thematic analysis, grounded theory, and phenomenology. In broad terms, after transcribing the interviews you need to look for similar words or meanings conveyed by the interviewees. This may enable you to draw out patterns and relationships in the data and establish common themes or, conversely, to illustrate a diversity of experience. Then you can try to describe generalisations about the interviewees' experiences as part of your final report. Often, the results of interviews will give rise to new ideas which can be tested by further research or by piloting a different way of offering a service.