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One of the projects I have most enjoyed working on as a University Innovation Fellow in ASU’s Office of University Initiatives has demanded that I gain a deeper understanding of the challenges adults face when they consider pursuing or attempt to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Over the course of this project, I have been charged with being both a designer and a researcher, and one research method that I have found to be of great value has been interviewing. That is because no matter how much one reviews the existing literature, sifts through data or speaks with experts, nothing can replace speaking directly to those whom one is attempting to design for.
Below are a handful of the techniques I like to use when preparing for, and conducting, interviews.
Start with a survey: When possible I like to design, disseminate and analyze a survey prior to conducting interviews. In addition to providing information that interviews cannot (e.g. insight into the scale of a problem), a survey can also be used as an effective tool for recruiting individuals for interviews. To this end, I will often include the following as a final survey question, “Would you be willing to discuss your survey responses with a researcher?” If the answer is yes, I prompt respondents to provide their contact information. Interestingly enough, in my latest survey nearly half of all respondents volunteered to be interviewed. This resulted in far more volunteers than I could possibly have sat down with, but as a researcher that’s an awfully good problem to have. If you choose to employ this technique make sure to place this question at the end of your survey when respondents have a strong grasp of the nature of your research and know exactly what they have been asked to disclose.
Use your survey questions to structure your interview script: If well-constructed, the survey itself can undergird the interview script. “Walking through” a person’s survey responses during the interview offers an opportunity to uncover rich contextual insights and confirm that you are interpreting your survey results accurately. I find that an additional benefit of starting with a survey is that I am able to enter interviews with considerable information about each individual I will be speaking with. Having this level of knowledge in advance allows me to efficiently glean the information needed in a time constrained environment.
Don’t be afraid of the truth: This may seem so obvious that it’s not worth stating, but in reality when a single individual has been charged with being both the researcher of a problem and the designer of a solution to that problem the distinction between those two endeavors can easily become muddled. When acting as a researcher, the designer can have a tendency to spend more time ideating in his or her head while in the interview room rather than actively listening. The designer may also only take note of comments that buttress a preconceived design direction. Such behaviors can lead to a worst case scenario where a designer grows fearful of asking a question that threatens the very foundation of his or her pre-cooked design solution. When performing the researcher role it is essential to make a best effort at understanding the world as it truly is rather than how one wishes it to be. Therefore, successful interviewing requires one to quiet their design mindset and tune into their curiosity. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be testing assumptions or taking note of potential design directions while conducting interviews. The point is rather to not allow these impulses to undermine the truth finding mission of design research.
Bring a childlike curiosity to your interviews: In addition to keeping your design impulses at bay, a childlike curiosity will enable you to take advantage of unanticipated opportunities and pursue lines of inquiry that you hadn’t considered while planning for your interviews. For example, in my latest project, I altered my interview script to accommodate a new line of inquiry based on a theme that unexpectedly emerged halfway through my scheduled lineup of interviews. While it was unfortunate that I wasn’t able to pose this new set of questions to everyone that I interviewed, I was still able to confirm the very real existence of an unforeseen obstacle keeping some from pursuing higher education. This insight may quite possibly evolve into an entirely new project to be added to my portfolio of work, and it never would have surfaced had I not allowed myself the freedom to responsibly stray from the script and let my curiosity be a guide.
Be humble and respect your interview “subjects”: No matter how smart you are, and regardless of how many degrees you may have, your knowledge is limited and you can always learn from others regardless of their background or their highest level of formal education. When interviewing, remember that all people have a wealth of knowledge from their lived experiences and they are truly the experts in the room when it comes to those experiences.
Remain cognizant of the real and perceived power dynamics in the interview room: As the questioner, the individual conducting the interview is granted control over the conversation and is the one doing the examining rather than playing the role of the examined. This arrangement can easily put the interviewee in an uneasy state of mind. If this occurs you are unlikely to mine the rich insights you are after as the individual being interviewed may not be entirely forthcoming. So, how do you avoid this pitfall? First, don’t think of an interviewee as a test subject. He or she is first and foremost a human being and should be treated as such. Therefore, rapport building is entirely appropriate. Most importantly, however, remember that your job isn’t to judge the person that you are speaking to. If you abstain from this all too common human default behavior, your authentic intentions will shine through. One useful technique is to simply repeat or summarize what has been said especially if it is an important point. Doing so confirms that you have captured and understood the main idea, while the person being interviewed will feel validated and heard.
Be gracious: Remember, by accepting your invitation to be interviewed, the people you spoke with were willing to be vulnerable. They may have even taken a risk by sharing very personal information with you. Honor and respect this in a way that will give them the confidence to take that risk again and participate in future research studies. Your interviewees and fellow researchers will appreciate you for it!