November 14, 2014

Notes On Conducting Research Interviews

Two of my projects involve conducting research interviews, so I've spent the last couple of weeks interviewing a very large number of people for the very first time in my life. Despite major differences in the projects’ goals (auditing workplace culture vs. documenting emotional journeys), I've noticed a surprising amount of common ground around what makes an interview successful.

If you ask someone to generalize about their experiences, you tend to get a certain type of answer. Measured, vague, a little bit distant. But if you ask them to describe an experience or the emotions surrounding it, you get a very different sort of answer. Less canned and self-aware, more emotionally present and nuanced. These are the questions that really seem to resonate with people. Camera-conscious responses give way as something in them opens up and responds.

Your synthesis of an experience is always a few steps away from the experience itself. The world comes in through perception and feeling, and is then parsed into intellectual understanding. By asking for description and emotion, you get people closer to the moments you’re interested in, prompting them to relive their experiences and bring you along for the ride.

Here are some other things I’ve learned about interviewing people:

  • Ask open ended questions that will elicit either a story “tell me about when…” or a feeling “describe how you felt when…”
  • Let silence happen. It’s tempting to fill the silence if your subject hesitates, but they’re hesitating because they’re struggling to articulate something or negotiate an emotional space. Either way, it’s important to give them room to do so.
  • Keep recording after you ask your last question. The two of you will start to chat and they will often make the most interesting and insightful remarks of the whole session.
  • Don’t accept jargon. Last week I asked someone what he meant by “bro-ing out” and got a four minute treatise on genuineness, open communication, and empathy in the workplace. For real.
  • Don’t be so focused on your questions that you lose awareness of your subject. Be attentive to their reactions and ready to pivot if they say something interesting or make a feelings face.
  • Be attentive to your reactions too. If you’re bored, change the subject. If you’re confused, ask for clarification. If you’re skeptical, say so, say why, and say it kindly.
  • Prepare like crazy. I can’t stress this enough. It might actually be impossible to over-prepare for an interview.

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