What is an interview?

Interviews are usually defined as a conversation with a purpose. They can be very helpful to your service when you need together information about the way in which people experience your service.  Interviewing has been described as an art, rather than a skill or science. In other cases, it has been described as game in which the interviewee gets some sort of reward, or simply as a technical skill you can learn. But, no matter how you look at it, interviewing is a process that can be mastered by practice.

Why should you conduct interviews?

Using an interview is the best way to have an accurate and thorough communication of ideas between you and the person using your service. It’s a more thorough form of communication that surveys because you can engage with the person on a more personal level. In addition, you have control of the question order, and you can make sure that all the questions will be answered.

Moreover, you may benefit from the spontaneity of the interview process. Interviewees don't always have the luxury of going away and thinking about their responses or, even to some degree, censoring their responses. You may find that interviewees will blurt things out that they would never commit to on paper in a questionnaire.

When interviews are not the best option

Interviews are not the only way of gathering information and depending on the case, they may not even be appropriate or efficient. For example, large-scale phone interviews can be time-consuming and expensive. Questionnaires and surveys may be the best option in cases where you need information form a large number of people. Interviews aren't efficient either when all you need is collecting straight numeric data. Asking your respondents to fill out a form may be more appropriate.

How should you conduct interviews?

Being a good interviewer has been described and a special skill set that that is held be some people and not by others. Certainly, interviewing may come more easily to some people than to others, but anybody can learn the basic strategies and procedures of interviewing.

Interview structure

To begin with you should decide how structured you want your interview to be. Interviews can be formally structured, loosely structured, or not structured at all. The style of interviewing you will adopt will depend on the kind of result you're looking for. You may wish to undertake a structured

In a highly structured interview, you simply ask subjects to answer a list of questions. To get a valid result, you should ask all subjects identical questions. In an interview without a rigid structure, you can create and ask questions appropriate the situations that arise and to the central purpose of the interview. There's no predetermined list of questions to ask. Finally, in a semi-structured setting, there is a list of predetermined questions, but interviewees are allowed to digress.

Types of interviews

Now that you've decided how structured you want the interview to be, it's time to decide how you want to conduct it. Can you do it through the phone, or do you need to it face-to-face? Would a focus group be most appropriate? Let's look at each of these interview types in depth.

Face-to-face interviews

Face to face interviews

The face-to-face interview, also called an in-person interview, is a popular method to seek feedback from the people you work with.  Face-to-face interviews are useful when you want to talk to people who may be vulnerable or you want to talk about subjects that may be considered sensitive.  They are also a good method to use when you want to minimise non-responses to questions as people are more likely to share their thoughts in conversations with you.

Face to face interviews are a fairly common way to gather information from customers. There are a number of advantages to face to face interviews:

  • The ability to fully explain the purpose of the questions;
  • It is easier to clarify anything that might be unclear in the interview;
  • You can gauge the person’s comfort with questions being asked by observe body language;
  • You can gain additional information that might not have been covered in the interview but that arises during spontaneous conversation; and
  • You can maintain some control over when and how the interview is completed.

There are however, disadvantages to this approach as well.

  • There is the potential for the person to respond more positively than they might actually feel because it can be difficult to complain to a person's face;
  • Differences in race, age, class between the you and the person that might affect how the person responds;
  • There may be interviewer bias; and
  • Face to Face interviews can be time consuming and very costly

Tips for successful face to face interviews

  • Prompt the person to expand on their answers where needed.
  • Do not judge what people are saying or share your thoughts, simply listen actively.
  • Make sure you have methods for communicating that suit the person you’re interviewing, maybe drawing, building a timeline, telling a story.
  • Ensure you take notes or record your interview to capture the person’s responses.

Review: face-to-face interviews

Face to face interviews are a fairly common way to gather information from customers. There are a number of advantages to face to face interviews:

  • The ability to fully explain the purpose of the questions to the respondents;
  • It is easier to clarify anything that might be unclear in the interview;
  • The interviewer can gauge the persons comfort with questions being asked by observe body language;
  • Interviewers can gain additional information that might not have been covered in the interview but that arises during spontaneous conversation; and
  • Interviewers can maintain some control over when and how the interview is completed.

There are however, disadvantages to this approach as well.

  • There is a lack of privacy for the for the customer;
  • There is the potential for customers to respond more positively than they might actually feel because it can be difficult to complain to a person's face;
  • There may be language barriers if working with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds;
  • Differences in race, age, class between the interviewer and customer that might affect how the person responds;
  • It can take considerable time complete interviews with talkative customers; and
  • There may be interviewer bias.

Although the first five disadvantages are self-explanatory, interviewer bias requires a brief explanation: It is likely that more than one staff member would be conducting these interviews over time, and responses might differ depending on who is actually asking the questions. One staff member might be well-liked and could encourage customers to discuss their answers in detail, while another staff member might resent even having to gather the information, and her or his impatience could come through to the respondent and impact the interview process. Interviewers, intentionally or unintentionally, can affect the quality and quantity of the information being obtained.

Adapted from Sullivan, C. 2001 Evaluating the outcomes of domestic violence service programs: some practical considerations and strategies. National Electronic Network on Violence Against Women

Telephone interviews

Telephone interviews

The telephone interview is a popular method to seek feedback from the people you work with and can be less costly than face to face interviews. Telephone interviews can take place any time that suits the person being called and the worker. Many of the same advantages and disadvantages of face-to-face interviewing apply here; the exception being, of course, that you won't be able to watch nonverbal behaviour.

Telephone interviews are sometimes the method of choice when you want to interview a people after services have already been received. For example, after a the person  has left the service, stopped coming to support groups or activities, left counselling services, ended his/her involvement with a legal advocacy program, or the like, the service may still want to talk with him/her about their experience of the service. Advantages to this approach include:

  • such interviews can be squeezed in during "down" times for staff;
  • the customer might feel cared about because staff took time to call, and this might enhance the likelihood of their willingness to answer some questions;
  • important information that would have otherwise been lost can be obtained; and
  • the worker might end up being helpful to the person they call.

A drawback of the telephone interview approach is that you will only talk with a select group of customers. For example, those with phones, those who have provided you with current contact information, those who haven't moved, those who have the capacity to use the phone, and this group may not be entirely representative of your customer group.

Here are some tips to make your phone interview successful:

  • When calling people, you might interview them straight away or make a time to call back.
  • Decide if you wish to use open ended or closed questions, have them ready.
  • You may want to prompt the person to expand on their answers where needed.
  • Do not judge what people are saying or share your thoughts, simply listen actively.
  • Ensure you take notes or record your interview to capture the person’s responses. Write down the information as you hear it; don't trust your memory to write the information down later. If recording – make sure you ask for the persons consent to do so.
  • You may have to make special considerations for people who may be vulnerable, for example, ensuring the safety of women who have used a domestic violence service. 
  • Time will vary depending on how many questions you have. However, it’s important not to make your interviews longer than is suitable for the person you’re talking to
  • Be extra motivating on the phone, because people tend to be less willing to become engaged in conversation over the phone.

Review: telephone interviews

Telephone interviews are sometimes the method of choice when staff want to interview a customers after services have already been received. For example, after a customer has left the service, stopped coming to support groups or activities, left counselling services, ended his/her involvement with a legal advocacy program, or the like, the service may still want to talk with him/her about their experience of the service. Advantages to this approach include:

  • such interviews can be squeezed in during "down" times for staff;
  • the customer might feel cared about because staff took time to call, and this might enhance the likelihood of their willingness to answer some questions;
  • important information that would have otherwise been lost can be obtained; and
  • the worker might end up being helpful to the person they call.

A drawback of the telephone interview approach is that we will only talk with a select group of customers. For example, those with phones, those who have provided us with current contact information, those who haven't moved, those who have the capacity to use the phone, and this group may not be entirely representative of your customer group.

Adapted from Sullivan, C. 2001 Evaluating the outcomes of domestic violence service programs: some practical considerations and strategies. National Electronic Network on Violence Against Women

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Listen to Barb, Chantelle and Hanna from Women's Shelta, who were interviewed as part of the client experience project by Marlene Butteriss from the Queensland Council of Social Service.

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