Victoria Markovitz
Tips for Conducting Successful Interviews
Victoria MarkovitzJuly 15, 2014

Speaking directly with subject matter experts, stakeholders, and interested parties is often the best way to gain valuable insight on a topic and gather information for a project. At Nexight, we conduct interviews as part of a variety of tasks, including developing reports, creating roadmaps, and leading workshops. Here are some tips for holding fruitful interviews that produce meaningful information:

  1. Do research before the interview. Conducting thorough research is key to developing a successful interview. Knowing background information about the topic of your interview will help you choose the session’s structure and plan thoughtful questions to discuss. Asking interviewees for basic, readily available facts may frustrate them. If you show you are knowledgeable about a subject, the people you interview will give higher-quality answers, rather than simplified responses. This will provide you with new and interesting material for your readers or clients.
  2. Decide what type of interview to conduct. What is the purpose of this interview? Are you trying to get direct quotes for a detail-heavy paper or do you need more general information for a project? Identifying your goals will help you choose the most useful format for the interview. Scientific researchers, such as anthropologists, use three basic types of interviews: unstructured, semi-structured, and structured. These can serve as guides for organizing an interview.
    • -If you will be meeting with sources more than once, an unstructured interview may help break the ice, and serve as a foundation for following sessions. An unstructured interview does not have any preset questions, but progresses more conversationally around a general topic and could help you develop more formal questions. These interviews should take place when both you and the interviewee have a lot of time.

      Semi-structured interviews better accommodate sources with time constraints, but still allow for flexibility. These interviews revolve around a pre-set list of questions that typically need to be answered in a particular order. However, the interviewer can follow up on answers and probe for further details. These types of interviews are effective because they allow you to uncover new information and work well with some groups—such as executives—who often perform best in more formal settings.

      Structured interviews allow researchers to compare the information given in sessions. These interviews are most commonly used for gathering quantitative, rather than qualitative, data. In these interviews, questions must be read exactly, and the interviewer cannot deviate to respond to answers. While these sessions will provide more precise information, they are more rigid than the other types of interviews, and may make some people uncomfortable.

    Other considerations include whether an interview will take place in a group or one-on-one setting and where to hold the interview—whether it will be done over the phone or in-person at an office. While deciding these factors, consider what will make your interview subjects most comfortable and what time considerations may influence their availability. In group settings, interviewers must make sure everyone feels free to share information, and that one person does not dominate the conversation.

  3. Expect the unexpected. No matter how well you prepare for an interview, it may not go as planned. In my experience, I’ve had interview subjects who were abrupt and curt, and others who wanted to talk about a single question for hours. Some people clammed up if I read from a list of questions, but happily talked if I acted more informally. Feeling out the mood of your subjects will help you reframe your approach to suit their personalities, and allows you to obtain more useful information.Identifying the few questions you need answered the most can help when an interview is not progressing as expected. Ask easier questions first, and save the hardest for last, to ensure your subjects don’t burn out during the interview process. Also, in less structured sessions, feel free to ask follow-up questions that probe further into answers. Sometimes new information comes up during an interview. Make sure you fully explore it.
  4. Ask if your sources would like to talk about anything else. I end interviews by asking if I’ve forgotten to hit on a crucial subject, or if subjects would like to address anything else. There may be an angle to the topic that you did not consider, or your sources may know something others do not. In the past, I’ve written entire articles about information I discovered through these follow-up questions.

Conducting successful interviews takes practice, but these tips will help foster productive sessions. By thoroughly researching topics, choosing your structure wisely, and staying attuned to the needs of those you interview, you can gather insightful information for your next project.