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Conducting the Information Interview

Module 4: Structuring the Interview

2 people talking about structuring an interview

Stage 4: Structuring the Interview.

QUESTIONS are the heart of any interview. After determining the purpose of your interview (Module 1), conducting research (Module 2), and selecting interviewees (Module 3), it is time to put together your Interview Guide. This Guide will include all the questions and possible probes you will ask in the interview. This is your roadmap that will assist you in gathering the information you seek, as well as developing a productive relationship with your interviewee.

Module 4 focuses on two aspects of interview questions: phrasing questions and types of questions.


In the information interview, you want to ask questions that will elicit the information you need. Carefully-worded questions can motivate interviews to answer freely, accurately, and thoughtfully.

There are five factors in phrasing questions that can help or hinder the information interview process.

  1. Language.

    • Use words that interviewees will understand, but don't be overly simplistic.
    • Be specific, precise, concrete.
    • Watch for words that sound similar and might confuse interviewees.
    • Avoid language that will offend or insult interviewees.

  2. Relevance.

  3. Information Level.

    • Do not ask questions for which interviewees do not have the information.
    • Do not ask questions that insult interviewees' intelligence.

  4. Complexity.

    • Phrase questions so they are simple, clear requests for limited amounts of information.
    • Use simple, not simplistic, language.
    • Do not ask multiple questions, such as, "How and why did you begin your photography career?" or "What movies have you seen lately? How would you rate them and why?"

  5. Information Accessibility.

    • Situational constraints, such as a noisy room or lack of privacy, may inhibit interviewees from providing the information you need.
    • Social constraints, such as an unwillingness to praise ourselves, may inhibit interviewees from providing the information you need.
    • Psychology constraints, such as strong emotions associated with a topic, may inhibit interviewees from providing the information you need.

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Another aspect of crafting questions for your interview guide is asking the appropriate types of questions. Questions may be primary or secondary; open-ended or closed-ended; neutral, leading, or loaded. There are also special types of questions I will discuss below.

  1. OPEN-ENDED: broad questions, often specifying only the topic

    1. highly open-ended: virtually no restrictions

      • Tell me about yourself.
      • What is photography like?
      • How is life in Brazil?

    2. moderately open-ended: restrict interviewees to a narrower response and greater focus

      • Tell me about your first internship at a radio station.
      • What led you to leave your career in advertising and return to school to pursue your interest in photography?
      • What are the main ways that life in Brazil is different from life in the United States?

  2. CLOSED-ENDED: limit answer options; specific response required

    1. highly closed-ended: interviewees select answers from specified choices

      • How would you describe the performance of your new car?
        1. excellent
        2. good
        3. fair
        4. poor

      • What is your class standing?
        1. Freshman
        2. Sophomore
        3. Junior
        4. Senior
        5. Graduate
        6. Other

    2. bipolar: a special type of closed-ended questions having only two options that are at opposite ends of a continuum

      • Have you finished your assignment?
        here the implied possible answers are "yes" or "no"
      • Is the electricity on or off?
      • Do you like or dislike your new computer?

    3. moderately closed-ended: asks for specific information

      • How old are you?
      • In what languages are you fluent?
      • When did you move to Chile?

  3. PRIMARY: introduce topics or new areas within a topic; can stand alone out of context and make sense

    • Describe your ideal job.
    • How do others describe the gardens you design?
    • How did you first get interested in surfing?

  4. SECONDARY: attempt to elicit more fully information asked for in primary question or previous secondary question; may be open or closed

    1. silence: most people are uncomfortable with silence, so will try to "fill" it by talking; as the interviewer, resist the inclination to talk and wait for the interviewee to continue

    2. nudging probes: these "questions" encourage interviewees to keep talking, but don't suggest a particular direction

      • I see.
      • Go on.
      • Tell me more.

    3. clearinghouse probes: these are a check to be sure if you have elicited all the information an interviewee wants to provide on a topic or in the interview

      • Is there anything else you would like to add?
      • Are there any questions I should have asked, but didn't?
      • Was there anything more you wanted to cover?

    4. probes to increase depth of content: these probes encourage interviewees to provide greater information about a particular topic

      • What happened after you found your old guitar in the attic?
      • Tell me more about your experiences as a bicycle messenger in New York.
      • Explain the process for re-installing computer software in greater detail.

    5. probes to increase clarity: these questions focus on clarifying particular words interviewees use

      • I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "incompetent."
      • How are you defining "excellent"?
      • What do you mean when you say the website's design is "drab"?

    6. probes to identify feelings: with these probes, the interviewer attempts to have the interviewee explore feelings underlying particular statements

      • Why do you think you feel that way?
      • What led to your happiness when you were a child?
      • What were you feeling at the time?

    7. probes to get the other back on track: use these when the interviewee veers far away from the topic or doesn't answer the question you asked

      • So how did that affect you?
      • Let's return to your years as a newspaper editor.
      • You began by talking about the first short story you wrote.

    8. mirror or summary questions: summarize series of answers to insure understanding

      • I'll review what you've covered . . .
      • I want to be sure that my notes are accurate. First . . .
      • Let me check to see if I understand your points . . .

    9. reflective questions: these restate the answer given to check that the interviewer has heard the interviewee correctly

      • Did you say the article was old or bold?
      • Your sister's name is Irene or Joleen?
      • Was that in 1988 or 1998?

    10. hypothetical probes: pose a hypothetical situation and ask interviewees to respond

      • Suppose you could live anywhere in the world. Where would that be?
      • Imagine that you could go back in time. Who is the one person you'd like to meet?
      • Say you've just won the lottery--$50 million. What would you do with money?

    11. reactive probes: the objective of these questions is to test an interviewee's reactions to a controversial statement; these should be used with care as interviewees may become offended and abruptly end the interview

      • A recent newspaper article characterized your work as, "unimaginative, void of any feeling, and tragically over-priced." What is your response?
      • The university you attended has a reputation as a party school. What do you think about that?
      • Most of the students in your classes receive As or Bs. How do you explain that?

  5. NEUTRAL: seek straight-forward answer; typically, the questions you ask in the information interview are neutral

    • What is your favorite color?
    • How would you describe the music you play?
    • Where were you born?

  6. LEADING: imply or state expected answer in question; generally, you will want to avoid these questions in the information interview

    • Wouldn't you agree that older home have more charm than modern ones?
    • Don't you think essay exams are easier than multiple choice?
    • Aren't you a big fan of the Indigo Girls?

  7. LOADED: imply both answer and some negative belief, behavior, etc. on the part of respondent; provides a strong, direct, virtual demand for a particular answer; often include emotionally-charged language, name calling, entrapment; these are not appropriate questions in an information interview

    • Are you still as boring as you were 10 years ago?
    • How can you rot your brain by watching that idiotic television show?
    • So you're going to take that worthless idea of yours to the boss?

  8. TAG: inserted at end of answer; often weaken impact of answer; you want to avoid these as an interviewer (or an interviewee) in the information interview

    • You agree with my assessment, right?
    • I feel that's a good idea, don't you?
    • You don't have to answer that question, okay?

  9. MULTIPLE: two or more questions asked at the same time; also called double-barrelled questions; you'll want to avoid these in an information interview as they confuse interviewees

    • How did you like your trip to Hollywood? What was the most interesting part? Meeting the star of the movie, getting to walk around the movie lot, being mistaken for a star?
    • Name your three favorite authors, the books you like best by each author, and why you like those books.
    • Tell me about the first house you remodeled. Where was it located? Why did you choose that house?

In developing the Interview Guide for your information interview, you want to design questions that will help your interviewee give complete, thoughtful, and coherent answers. Base your questions on the interview's purpose, what you know about the topic, and what you know about the interviewee. Careful preparation will increase the likelihood of a productive information interview.

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