How to Interview Experts

Interviewing experts can be difficult; they don’t have a lot of time to spare for activities whose benefits are uncertain or in the distant future. On the other hand, most experts are eager to talk about their work to a listener who is genuinely interested. Experts may use a technical vocabulary that you don’t understand, so you need to prepare yourself; spend some time reading about the subject and becoming familiar with its vocabulary.

Steps

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    Develop a set of questions; be sure you understand what you want to learn from the interviews. Write out the questions. Getting to a good set of questions may take several tries. Focus on questions whose answers enable you to take action. Try to keep the questions open ended to encourage conversation.
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    Develop an initial list of interviewees. You will have to trade number of interviewees against completeness of information and breadth of perspective. Try for ‘just enough’ interviewees. It may be better to interview some people before others.
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    Set up the interviews at a time convenient for your interviewees. Schedule at least 45 minutes. Some people may be willing to schedule only 20-30 minutes. However, if you are genuinely interested in what they have to say, they will go on for over an hour. Schedule only two interviews per week. You will need the rest of the time to do Steps 6 & 7.
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    The interview: Introduce yourself; remind them why you are there. Ask the questions, but do it conversationally. Use the list only as a checklist to be sure you have covered everything. Too much structure closes down conversation. Also, be sure to note the information that the interviewee wants you to know. Ask if there are others that should be interviewed. Ask for sample materials/products you can take with you.
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    Each interviewee will touch on a number of topics. You might develop a list of these topics based on the first few interviews, extend it with each following interview, and use it to prompt comments if/when conversation flags. However, if you want to capture the relative importance of different topics by measuring interviewee “mindspace” (see Step 9), do not prompt interviewees by bringing up new topics. Instead review the notes you’ve taken during the interview and give the interviewee the opportunity to make additional comments.
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    Take copious notes. Write quickly to avoid slowing down the conversation; try to write only enough to remind you of the whole thought, but don’t omit key words. Write legibly. Consider recording the interview.
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    Transcribe the notes into simple complete thoughts, statements of only a sentence or a short paragraph. Do it the same day or the following day, or you will lose important information that is only in your head. Save any editing for the next step; for now focus on capturing the complete thought behind each note.
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    Turn the transcribed statements into a stand-alone draft document of the interview. This means finding the topic of each thought, grouping all statements on the same topic together and generating coherent paragraphs on each topic. Add in the interviewee’s title, organization, contact information, the interview date, and your name as interviewer. This usually comes to two or three pages of text.
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    Questions, uncertain interpretations, and incomplete thoughts will become obvious as you write; include them as part of the draft.
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    Give this draft document back to the interviewee for their corrections, additions, etc. Give them a reasonable deadline. Typically, interviewees provide a number of clarifications and respond to your questions. Non-responses and complete rewrites sometimes happen too. If they don’t return the edited interview to you before you need to move on, use it as-is.
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    Synthesize the interviews into a report. Put all the interviews into one document, determine the topic of each paragraph, and sort by topic (use subtopics if necessary). The Table function in most text editors makes this relatively painless. First convert the paragraphs to a one-column table, and then add columns to the left for topic and subtopic; you may want to add a column to the right for interviewee name. Use the Table/Sort command to sort the paragraphs by topic and subtopic.
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    For each topic and subtopic generate a synthesis. Expect conflicting perspectives, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Reorganize the document into sections, each containing multiple topics. Write findings and recommendations based on interviewees' statements. Write an introduction and a conclusion. Develop a briefing.
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    Measure the topics’ mindspace. You can obtain some indication of the importance of a topic or subtopic by measuring how many people talk about it, how often they mention it, or how much they have to say about it. The more interviewees that mention a topic, the broader the group’s interest in it. The more mentions of a topic (by any person) the greater the topic’s importance or ‘mindspace’ in the group. You could also do a word count on each topic. The Pivot table function in spreadsheets makes this analysis straightforward.
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    Review your report and briefing and add any missing contextual information. Review it with some of the interviewees to see how well it captures what they meant. Review it with a sample of your intended audience to see how well it communicates the experts’ message. In each case, present the results as tentative, listen to the comments, and modify as necessary. Restate all inflammatory comments neutrally. Remember, your goal is to enable your audience to take action.
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    Tie up any loose ends and deliver the report and the briefing. Generally, you should include the interviews as an appendix to the report. Who said what does matter. Expect the write up, review, and delivery to take at least as long as generating the individual interviews.
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    Follow up. Your work will become shelf ware unless you stick around to make sure that someone follows through on the actions that need to be taken.

Tips

  • Each interviewee will touch on a number of topics. You might develop a list of these topics based on the first few interviews, extend it with each following interview, and use it to prompt comments if/when conversation flags. However, if you want to capture the relative importance of different topics by measuring interviewee “mindspace” (see Step 9), do not prompt interviewees by bringing up new topics. Instead review the notes you’ve taken during the interview and give the interviewee the opportunity to make additional comments.
  • If there is someone who supports your work and knows the interviewee, have them make initial contact. Then call to introduce yourself and schedule the interview. Tell them the purpose of the interview, the questions you will ask, whether they will have an opportunity to review your write-up (highly recommended), and whether they will be identifiable as the person making the comments.

Sources and Citations

  • Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D. T. (1979). Quasi-Experimentation: Design & analysis issues for field settings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Crandall, B., Klein, G., & Hoffman, R. R. (2006). Working minds: A practitioner’s guide to cognitive task analysis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol analysis: Verbal reports as data (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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Categories: Speaking and Listening Skills