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Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Interviewing Tips

Gathering very rich, detailed, emic data! This is the purpose of our qualitative interviews. As evaluators, we need to think through what questions and interview situations facilitate the collection of the kinds of data that we need to support our evaluations.

Interviews dominate qualitative data collection for monitoring and evaluation, yet “good” interviewing takes a lot of practice! Being able to conduct a good interview is not something that is necessarily instinctive. It is not likely that we are going to be expert interviewers until we’ve spent a lot of time practicing our skills and crafting our individual approach to interviewing. We need to learn the tricks of the trade, learn from what others have written on interviews, and developed our own interview style that works for us as researchers and as individuals.

I have found that preparation is key to conducting a successful qualitative interview. As evaluators, we need to know enough about the topic to have an informed conversation about it—to be able to devise follow up and probing questions. If I have a firm grasp on the material, I feel that I am in a better position to devise more informed questions and have a better interview. I never carry out an interview as my first point of research; I usually carry out observation or participant observation before my interviews to help me create more informed questions. Preparation also helps us understand our respondents, so that we do not have to ask for clarification continually.

I usually spend a lot of time devising possible interview questions before I conduct an interview, even if it has a semi-structured format. I even pilot the question ahead of time with colleagues or members of the local population, to ensure my questions are understood and gather the data I intend. I weed out confusing, double barreled, leading, and judgmental questions; and I try to use simple, straight forward language that the respondent will easily understand. Crafting and revising questions over time helps to develop skills as an interviewer, so that your spontaneous follow up questions are also clear and easily understood. I am always cognizant of what data I need to support the evaluation, as it is very easy to get collect too much data when we use qualitative interviews; but I do not let my Logical Framework and evaluation design limit my thinking and analysis during an interview.

In addition to developing good questions, I find an appropriate venue for the interview, where background noise or activity will not detract from the conversation. I am cognizant of my body language (and that of my respondent) to see what it is communicating. I always ask for consent before recording an interview, and I ensure my respondent confidentiality.

I usually start an interview with an open-ended or a grand tour question. This gets the conversation rolling, putting the respondent at ease, and helps me to learn what the respondent thinks is important. It also helps to build rapport, and can be especially helpful in an unstructured or semi-structured interview, as I can use the information garnered from an open-ended question to formulate new questions. I usually ask follow up questions around the response, towards gaining rich, detailed information that would be much more useful than a yes/no or closed question. On a side note, I also use open-ended questions when I have a difficult or controversial topic. It can help the respondent to be more comfortable, and to build rapport even when discussing difficult topics.

Good interviewing is not only a matter of knowing your topic and preparing questions, however. Interviewing is a skill that is largely dependent on our ability to communicate with people and build rapport. Good interviewers are diplomatic, friendly, and patient. They learn local languages and understand cultural cues. They listen and read nonverbal communication, and are aware of objectivity and bias. Building rapport can go a long way in helping us to use qualitative interviews more effectively.

About the Author

Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

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