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Should I show my interview questions to respondents in advance?

July 27, 2016

2014-02-15When I conduct in-depth interviews I always do so with the aid of an interview schedule, which is a list of questions to guide each conversation.  After a briefing from my client, I prepare a bullet-point list of questions and prompts running to one or two pages in length.  Following this document ensures I ask everything that I need to ask to meet my client’s needs.

This is our internal document, for me and my client.

Before I speak to them I give respondents a broad overview of what they can expect from the interview.  For example, I might say:

I am evaluating Project Fish, which will involve me talking to people that took part in the project about their experiences of how it went and the difference it made, if any.  The conversations should take about half an hour.

That’s all I typically say.  But a few times of late, my clients have asked me to show respondents a copy of my interview questions in advance.

This isn’t standard protocol.

But, certainly there are good reasons to do this.

Seeing the interview questions in advance can be helpful to the respondent.  This may be particularly the case for certain types of respondent, such as:

  • Anxious respondents – perhaps those from vulnerable groups. Seeing the interview questions can be reassuring.
  • The research-sceptical and those undecided about participation. Seeing the interview questions can encourage response.
  • Very busy respondents – perhaps those being interviewed in the course of their work and those with senior jobs. Seeing the interview questions helps them to focus on the relevant subject matter and switch quickly into the right frame of mind for the interview.

Seeing the interview questions in advance also allows the respondent to prepare for the interview by thinking about the subject matter or reviewing old files and documents.  This may be useful if the subject in question is not front of mind because:

  • The respondent is forgetful.
  • The respondent has other priorities.
  • The questions relate to events that took place some time ago or have been ongoing for an extended period.
  • The questions relate to a project that is complex and multifaceted.

But there are downsides:

If you give people your list of questions they often expect to be asked that list of questions.  Full stop.  Nothing else.  But in qualitative research, the interview schedule should be a guide rather than an absolute script.  Often I probe for more detail, or follow up new issues that arise, or skip about the questions to make the conversation feel more natural and logical for the respondent.

In my experience, when given the opportunity some respondents prepare their answers.  Often to the extent that they read them out from a document that they have typed up in advance.  When this happens I have found it is difficult to interrupt them with probing questions or follow-ups, and diverging from the questions tends to throw them off balance.

In this situation I find it is difficult to take control of the conversation and steer it in the direction I need to meet my data collection needs.

The integrity of the methodology is thus low.

Additionally, the rigidity of reading out pre-prepared responses means there is no genuine flow or rapport built up through the course of the conversation, which is a problem, because it hinders the ability of the respondent to speak freely and think creatively.  You miss out on the depth by failing to collect the anecdotes and side issues that usually arise naturally in conversation.  And when we get to the ‘hard’ questions at the end (i.e. ‘what was difficult about the project?’ or ‘what would you change next time?) the respondent can be unwilling or unable to engage.

The quality of data collected is thus low.

But sometimes clients feel the need to distribute the questions in advance, and occasionally respondents themselves ask for them.  When asked, I have come to a compromise position.

Rather than sharing the internal interview schedule document, I prepare a short-form version of the key topics which goes into a little more detail and provides some structure without being too restricting.  Here is an actual example:

The conversation will be informal, and although there would be no need to prepare it would be good if you could refresh yourself on your role in the project to date if it isn’t likely to be front of mind!  Topics we will cover will include:

  • How and why you got involve
  • Your expectations of the project
  • Tasks and activities undertaken
  • What went well? / what was challenging?
  • What difference the project has made, if any
  • How the project has met your expectations
  • Plans and next steps for the project

This appears to have met the needs of both client and respondent without compromising the methodology or data.

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