πŸ““ Semi-structured interviews: Stick to only a few big questions, but leave room for follow-ups

One of my responsibilities in the Equity in the Making lab is to create an interview guide that will help us learn what makerspace leaders in the UNC system consider to be defining features of a makerspace. I originally thought this was going to be a survey, so I came up with a list of about ten questions and then in conversation with my colleagues on the project, added four more. I realized in that conversation, however, that it was an interview guide for a semi-structured interview, not a survey. I told my colleagues I’d take our list of questions and hone it so that it was “more interviewy, less survey-y.” What did that look like?

Each question was getting at a larger issue of the spatial arrangement of a makerspace, especially as it would relate to one of the five senses. The next phase of the project involves using VR to build an imagined “definitive” makerspace, so we want to capture the kinds of things that should be included in that VR environment; this is why I focused on sensory input specifically. The questions were designed to draw out specifics that participants might not think of as falling into these categories; for example, we might be hoping they’d talk about equipment and they would instead talk about the mood or vibe of a space.

I learned from Dr. George Noblit, who taught my advanced qualitative methods class, that if you’re doing an interview for about an hour, you probably should stick with a few big questions. He once gave us an assignment to interview another grad student using only these three questions:

  1. Before grad school?
  2. During grad school?
  3. After grad school?

I interviewed a friend and indeed, just those three questions took an hour for us to talk through. For my dissertation, I had 6 major questions, and that usually took 30 minutes to an hour depending on the participant. Dr. Melo said she wanted these interviews to run about 45 minutes, so I stuck with five questions.

I collapsed the original 14 questions into 5, but I then detailed potential follow up questions. This is, in my experience, the best way to be sure you get the kind of detail your hoping for if you’ve got a reticent participant. You start with the big question and see what they say. Then you can dig deeper if something they say is really promising, or bring in one of the prepared follow-up questions if they answer you quickly and you need more detail.

To see what this looks like, you can look at [the interview guide for my dissertation]. I’m setting up the EITM questions in a similar format.

In addition to the five questions I developed for this interview guide, I also added two more that I learned about in my qual classes, though I can’t remember if it was with Dr. Noblit or with Dr. Sherick Hughes:

  1. Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn’t?
  2. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?

These are some of the richest questions you can ask, so I highly recommend including them as the last two questions before the demographics questions in any semistructured interview. In the case of my dissertation interviews, my second participant answered that first one by asking if I’d like to know the specifics of which resources she uses, and of course I wanted to know that and then I incorporated that into every interview afterward. When I was doing a coursework project and interviewing someone about a project they were working on, they answered these questions with “Don’t you want to know why I’m doing this?” and “Wouldn’t you like to hear my plans for [the term of the project]?” and of course the answer to both was yes, and that probably added another 30 minutes to an hour to our interview. (This won’t always be the case. Some participants are more forthcoming than others.)

I hope this has been helpful. If you’re working on a semistructured interview project, how is it going?

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh