Interview protocol design
On this page you will find our recommendations for creating an interview protocol for both structured and semi-structured interviews. Your protocol can be viewed as a guide for the interview: what to say at the beginning of the interview to introduce yourself and the topic of the interview, how to collect participant consent, interview questions, and what to say when you end the interview.
These tips have been adapted from Jacob and Furgerson’s (2012) guide to writing interview protocols and conducting interviews for those new to qualitative research. Your protocol may have more questions if you are planning a structured interview. However, it may have fewer and more open-ended questions if you are planning a semi-structured interview, in order to allow more time for participants to elaborate on their responses and for you to ask follow-up questions.
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Use a script to open and close the interview
This will allow you to share all of the relevant information about your study and critical details about informed consent before you begin the interview. It will also allow a space to close the interview and give the participant an opportunity to share additional thoughts that haven’t yet been discussed in the interview.
Collect informed consent
The most common (and encouraged) means of gaining informed consent is by giving the participant a participant information sheet as well as an informed consent form to read through and then sign before you begin the interview. You can find the template for participant information sheets and informed consent form on the Imperial College London Education Ethics Review Process (EERP) webpage. Other resources for the EERP process can also be found on this website.
Start with the basics
To help build rapport and a comfortable space for the participant, start out with questions that ask for some basic background information. This could include asking their name, their course year, how they are doing, whether they have any interesting things happening at the moment, their likes and interests etc. (although be careful not to come across as inauthentic). This will help both you and the participant to have an open conversation throughout the interview.
Create open-ended questions
Open-ended questions enable more time and space for the participant to open up and share more detail about their experiences. Using phrases like “Tell me about…” rather than “Did you ever experience X?” will be less likely to elicit only “yes” or “no” answers, which do not provide rich data. If a participant does give a “yes” or “no” answer, but you would like to know more, you can ask, “Can you tell me why?” or “Could you please elaborate on that answer a bit more?”
For example, if you are interviewing a student about their sense of belonging at Imperial, you could ask, “Can you tell me about a time when you felt a real sense that you belonged at Imperial College London?”
Ensure your questions are informed by existing research
Before creating your interview questions, conduct a thorough review of the literature about the topic you are investigating through interviews. For example, research on the topic of “students’ sense of belonging” has emphasised the importance of students feeling respected by other members of the university. Therefore, it would be a good idea to include a question about “respect” if you are interested in your students’ sense of belonging at Imperial or within their departments and study areas (e.g. the classroom). See our sense of belonging interview protocol for an idea.
Begin with questions that are easier to answer, then move to more difficult or abstract questions
Be aware that even if you have explained your topic to the participant, you should not assume that they have the same understanding of the topic as you. Resist the temptation to simply ask your research questions to your participants directly, particularly at the beginning of the interview, as these will often be too conceptual and abstract for them to answer easily. Asking abstract questions too early on can alienate your participant. By asking more concrete questions that participants can answer easily, you will build rapport and trust more quickly.
Start by asking questions about concrete experiences, preferably ones that are very recent or ongoing. For example, if you are interested in students’ sense of belonging, do not start by asking whether a student “belongs” or how they perceive their “belonging.” Rather, try asking about how they have felt in recent modules to give them the opportunity to raise any positive or negative experiences themselves. Later, you can ask questions which specifically address concepts related to sense of belonging, for example whether they always feel “respected” (to follow on from our earlier example). Then, at the end of the interview, you could ask your participant to reflect more directly and generally on your topic. For example, it may be good to end an interview by asking the participant to summarise the extent to which they feel they ‘belong’ and what the main factors are.
Note that this advice is particularly important if dealing with topics that may be difficult to form an opinion on, such as topics which require students to remember things from the distant past, or which deal with controversial topics.
If you are asking open-ended questions, the intention is that the participant will use that as an opportunity to provide you with rich qualitative detail about their experiences and perceptions. However, participants sometimes need prompts to get them going. Try to anticipate what prompts you could give to help someone answer each of your open-ended questions (Jacob & Furgerson, 2012). For example, if you are investigating sense of belonging and the participant is struggling to respond to the question “What could someone see about you that would show them that you felt like you belonged?”, you might prompt them to think about their clothes or accessories (for example do they wear or carry anything with the Imperial College London logo) or their activities (for example membership in student groups), and what meaning they attach to these.
Be prepared to revise your protocol during and after the interview
During the interview, you may notice that some additional questions might pop into your mind, or you might need to re-order the questions, depending on the response of the participant and the direction in which the interview is going. This is fine, as it probably means the interview is flowing like a natural conversation. You might even find that this new order of questions should be adopted for future interviews, and you can adjust the protocol accordingly.
Be mindful of how much time the interview will take
When designing the protocol, keep in mind that six to ten well-written questions may make for an interview lasting approximately one hour. Consider who you are interviewing, and remember that you are asking people to share their experiences and their time with you, so be mindful of how long you expect the interview to last.
Pilot test your questions with a colleague
Pilot testing your interview protocol will help you to assess whether your interview questions make sense. Pilot testing gives you the chance to familiarise yourself with the order and flow of the questions out loud, which will help you to feel more comfortable when you begin conducting the interviews for your data collection.
Jacob, S. A., & Furgerson, S. P. (2012). Writing Interview Protocols and Conducting Interviews: Tips for Students New to the Field of Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report, 17(2), 1-10.
Welch, C., & Piekkari, R. (2006). Crossing Language Boundaries:. Management International Review, 46, 417-437. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs11575-006-0099-1.pdf