Asking the Right Questions: How to Design and Conduct Interviews

My research concerns a program in Hartford that helps ex-offenders re-enter into society and is focused on reducing recidivism in Connecticut. When preparing interview questions for this project, I went through several stages. I had to make sure my interview questions contributed to answering my research question and were sensitive to the population being interviewed. I also had to make sure that the community partner I was working with approved of the research questions and that they met the ethical standards of the Institutional Review Board. In addition, I created an informed consent form for the interviewees to sign that gave me permission to use their interviews for my project.

First, when creating the questions for these interviews I mainly focused on how helpful or unaccommodating the program has been for its participants. I focused on questions about employment and education because in my research I discovered that those who have little education and/or are unemployed are more likely to repeat their crimes after they are released from prison.

Second, I focused on the structure of the questions. In Professor Rachael Barlow’s presentation on how to conduct an interview, she told us how interviews consist of main questions, probes, and follow-up questions. Main questions can be open-ended or  close-ended. Open-ended questions start with words such as “how” and “do” to elicit a longer response from the interviewee. For example I asked, “How effective has Community Partners in Action been with the re-entry process, specifically in terms of finding a job or educational program?”  This way of framing the question is ideal because it gives me more information about the program. Professor Barlow advised us that using “why” in the beginning of a question can be seen as accusatory. This advice especially applied to the people I was interviewing because they have criminal records and are usually more likely to feel judged by the interviewer than a participant without a record. Close-ended questions usually are useful to lead into open-ended questions or for a more quantitative analysis. For example, one of my questions is, “How many weeks did it take for you to find this program (Project Starr) after you were released from prison?” A close-ended question gives me specific numbers that I can work with, rather than a long response.  Probe questions are back-up questions if the main question does not evoke a satisfactory response. One of my probe questions is, “What are some of the other challenges you faced trying to go back to school or gaining employment after your release?” This was a probe question to the main question, “How would you assess the opportunities for people released from prison to find a job or educational program?” The probe essentially asked the same question, but asked interviewees to elaborate more in their responses.

Another great technique that worked for me was asking interviewees “tell me more” questions or follow-up questions about something interesting they said. When I was interviewing one of my interviewees, he named a couple of programs in the area that helped ex-offenders. I then asked him to elaborate on the different programs in the area, and this gave me a lot of great information. Another good suggestion was to avoid assessments. For example, saying phrases like, “I bet she was so excited.” This should be avoided since it is risky to make assumptions about their life because it could offend the interviewee. Something else I tried to avoid was formulations. This is restating, or paraphrasing inaccurately, what the interviewee said. This also has the possibility of upsetting the interviewee.

Lastly, I had to coordinate the interviews with my community partner and divide the interviews among my group of interviewers.  Parolees had to be excluded from the interviews because they were considered a “vulnerable population” by the Institutional Review Board. Our community partner gave us each a room to conduct our interviews. My group and I conducted interviews with two interviewees each.

When interviews are conducted in an organized fashion with the cooperation of a community partner, it can be an enjoyable and life-changing experience for everyone involved. The handful of students that assisted me with these interviews loved conducting the interviews and getting to know the clients in the program. Most importantly, I learned a treasure trove of information about the program from the participants and now have a better sense of how I can assist my community partner and its clients with my research project.

This entry was posted in Current reflections on the process, Fellows 2014-15, navin, Reflections on the Process (2014-2015). Bookmark the permalink.