How to conduct great research interviews

From July through September this year, I conducted interviews with entrepreneurs to find out what it is like to run a business in a rural area of western Massachusetts.  The key themes that emerged from these interviews went into a report on rural economic development opportunities, which I wrote with my co-founder and co-director of  a new nonprofit called Rural Commonwealth. Our report wound up being the subject of a front-page feature article in the regional newspaper, and my co-author and I have been asked to speak about the report at several events since then.

One of the reasons for this reaction to our report was that its findings were based on interviews. We got in a car and drove around hilly western Franklin County asking real, live people about their experiences. This type of research often is left out of reports about rural communities, in Massachusetts and elsewhere. It also is left out of a lot of internal and external research projects conducted by a wide range of nonprofit organizations, for a couple of reasons.

If you are accustomed to doing research at a desk, relying primarily on resources you can access online, the idea of going out and interviewing people may seem unusual or uncomfortable. Certainly, many researchers who are very capable doing independent, computer-based work find this kind of public activity difficult, as I have found over the years while wearing a nonprofit hiring manager hat.

Organizations for which these researchers work can compound the problem by sticking researchers in back offices and not including them in decision-making meetings.  These organizations give a clear, if unspoken, message that researchers are supposed to be at their desks looking at spreadsheets and writing reports, not out having conversations.

Nonetheless, I am a firm believer in the idea that conducting informational interviews – whether for a research report or just to better understand why an organization is facing a particular challenge – is incredibly important. Put another way, I believe

Healthy, well-informed organizations value the ability of researchers to get out of the office and learn through conversations with other people.

For people just warming up to this concept, here are some suggestions to get you started.

Before the interview, list the kinds of information you would like to get from the interviewee. For instance, let’s imagine you work in a college fundraising office, and you have had problems with contact information for incoming parents. You could stay in your office and stew about how Admissions doesn’t understand the importance of good data (not like this ever happens in fundraising offices… totally hypothetical example… really…), or you could go ask someone in Admissions about how they do their work to gain insights into why the data that ends up in your office looks the way it does.

Before interviewing someone in the admissions office, you could develop a list of question that might include things like:

  • What are the key dates in the Admissions process?
  • How is parent contact information submitted? (On paper, via fax? Through an online form?)
  • Is this information always collected in English, or are contact forms available in other languages for parents who have other native languages?
  • Are other offices or alumni volunteers involved? If so, which ones?
  • What are the most time-consuming parts of the process?
  • Remember: we’re talking about an interview, not an interrogation. You’re trying to learn the interviewee’s perspective, not ask questions that come from a negative or accusatory starting point.

If you can, do the interview with the help of one other person. You may start with the same list of initial questions but hear the answers differently. Take another researcher from the fundraising office with you to Admissions. Better yet, take someone from Financial Aid, who may have a completely different perspective. One of you can take notes, and you both can ask questions. Do not take more than one other interviewer with you, however, lest the interviewee starts to feel like he or she is being interrogated rather than interviewed.

Take notes with a pen and paper, not on your phone. I am a huge Evernote fan and use this app on my phone to take notes in meetings all the time. When I do interviews, however, I leave my phone in my pocket and take notes on paper. It is easier to make eye contact and keep the conversation flowing when you take notes this way.

Type up your notes as soon after the interview as you can. The meaning of cryptic pen scratches made during your interview will be forever lost if you don’t type your notes right away.

If you conducted the interview with someone else, share your notes with that person. Did you miss – or misinterpret – anything?



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