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Getting the most out of qualitative interviews

29 November 2018 - BY Kaitlyn Myers

How to avoid the 3 most common pitfalls in qualitative interviews

Qualitative interviews can be an invaluable method of collecting insights  -as long as you’re listening carefully and remain agile in responding to your subjects’ answers.

Qualitative research is a fundamental part of developing hypotheses around issues that have people at the center. Qualitative interviews are extremely powerful and are complementary to a quantitative approach, which can subsequently be used to test the hypotheses you’ve developed.

A common method of conducting qualitative research is interviews. Usually conducted one-on-one, ideally face-to-face, and lasting anything from 30 minutes to two hours, with sample group sizes usually approaching double figures.

By their nature, qualitative interviews are open rather than too formulaic. However, to get the most out of them, you need to guide them carefully, ask the right questions (open, not leading), and listen intently.

These are the three most common pitfalls and how you can avoid them.

1. Not asking the right questions

A major pitfall of qualitative interviews is the inherent bias of the interviewer and the subsequent questions that are asked. As humans, we all have bias and the interviewer will likely have their own perspective on the subject being discussed, and their own views on the answers they expect to – or would like to – hear. This must not be allowed to compromise the integrity of the interview.

To conduct a successful qualitative interview, questions must be phrased to elicit the best responses that help understand the interviewee’s thoughts, opinions and perspectives – not phrased to validate the interviewer.
Questions should be:

  • Neutral and non-directional – to avoid bias.

  • Contextualized – give the interviewee the background to the question to help frame their answer.

  • Phrased to prompt storytelling – ask them to describe.

  • Always followed up – don’t treat it as a scripted question and answer session. The question prompts an answer that will require further exploration.

2. Recording rather than conversing

The success of a qualitative interview lies in the skill of the interviewer to tease out the critical insights. And to do that the interviewer must be aware of the interviewee’s natural need for approval.

In a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation the interviewee will naturally be conscious of how they portray themselves. They will be reluctant to say or reveal something that may make the interviewer think negatively of them, whether that be an unpopular opinion, a controversial belief or a viewpoint that may dispel the interviewer’s perceived desired outcome. In addition, the interviewee will have their own assumptions about what it is the interviewer wants to hear. Their answers will be framed by that perceived expectation.
To ensure interviewers get the most valuable answers from their qualitative interview, they must:

  • Show that you’re listening – give the interviewee your undivided attention, make eye contact and offer visual cues to reinforce the fact that you’re listening.

  • Listen intently to the answers offered and ask appropriate (open) follow-up questions.

  • Listen for inconsistencies and challenge for clarity.

  • Don’t take the first answer if there are gaps or there’s more to discuss – continue to dig deeper into areas of interest.

  • Listen for the nuances, and follow up appropriately (“Can you explain …”).

  • Don’t interrupt – write down questions to follow up and do so at an appropriate point.

  • Focus on feelings – if the interviewee shows passion about a subject, explore it.

  • Silence is golden – don’t be afraid of silences, the interviewee will likely fill them.

Remember, the interview is taking place to help you gain a deep understanding of the interviewee’s perspective – not to provide evidence to support your hypothesis.

3. Not analyzing deeply enough

A two-hour interview will produce a vast amount of information and, after spending such a great deal of time interviewing, it’s tempting for the interviewer to take the salient points that remain in their memory and act upon them accordingly.

This is dangerous territory and negates the true value of the interview.

Analyze the information and data carefully once all of your interviews have been completed. New concepts, ideas, and nuances will become apparent that help you gain greater insight and enable you to get a broader understanding of the opportunities presented to you.

For more discussions on best practice join NVivo on LinkedIn.