Developing a well-constructed interview protocol is by no means an easy task. To give us some ideas on how to formulate well-designed interview questions, Michael Patton (2015) dedicates an entire chapter of his book, Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods, to question formulation. Like with any skill, the key to improving your craft is practice. That’s why I wanted to share a few ideas from Patton and contribute some of my own thoughts to help improve how you formulate interview questions.
One approach I find useful is to consider the category of question you are asking. With qualitative research, the categories of questions can sometimes seem infinite. However, Patton provides a few overarching categories, which can help frame your thinking, allowing you to ask questions with more precision and be intentional with what you are asking. Patton (2015, p. 444) suggests general categories and provides a few question examples, which are presented below. So, when trying to formulate a question, consider the type you are interested in asking:
- Experience and behavior questions: If I had been in the program with you, what would I have seen you doing?
- Opinion and value questions: What would you like to see happen?
- Feeling questions: How do you feel about that?
- Knowledge questions: Who is eligible for this program?
- Sensory questions: What does the counselor ask you when you meet with her? What does she actually say? (Questions that describe stimuli)
- Background and demographic questions: How old are you?
Once the category is known and you start writing or editing questions, some additional strategies are to double check that you are writing truly open-ended questions and avoiding jargon. For instance, don’t assume that your interviewee knows the acronyms you’re using. As evaluators, sometimes we know the program better than the informants! This makes it so important to write questions with clarity. Everyone wins when you take the time to be intentional and design a question with clarity—you get better data and you won’t confuse your interviewee.
Another interesting point from Patton is to make sure you are asking a singular question. Think about when you’re conducting quantitative research and writing an item for a questionnaire—a red flag might be if it’s double-barreled (i.e., asking more than one question simultaneously). For example, a poorly framed questionnaire item about experiences in a mentorship program might read: To what extent do you agree with the statement, “I enjoyed this program and would do it again.” You simply wouldn’t put that item in a questionnaire, since a person might enjoy the program, but wouldn’t necessarily do it again. Although you have more latitude during an interview, it’s always best to write your questions with precision. It’s also a good chance for you to flex some skills when conducting the interview, knowing when to probe effectively if you need to shift the conversation or dive deeper based on what you hear.
It is important to keep in mind there is no right way to formulate interview questions. However, by having multiple tools in your tool kit, you can lean on different strategies as appropriate, allowing you to develop stronger and more rigorous qualitative studies.
Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.