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  • Writer's pictureannaschurmann

The Perfect Interview Starts with the Right Question...

Updated: Mar 7, 2021

Using the right questions to unlock a topic

My favourite experience as a researcher is asking a question that makes the respondent’s eyes light up. They say something like “I’ve never thought about it like that before” and you can see them mentally reorganise everything they know, lining up new insights to answer your question.

It feels like you and the interviewee are co-creating new knowledge – it’s almost alchemy. The right questions can unlock a topic, open it up, and reframe it so different solutions are visible and possible.

How do we create interview questions like this? Sometimes it seems such interviews are serendipitous, that they cannot be anticipated or designed. That’s partly true but of course we can also sharpen our tools to help make it happen.

Experience has helped me create questions that allow a good rethink. I imagine these questions like a crowbar leveraging open and old rust-crusted chest, wood splinters everywhere. I have already written here about how my daughter asking a million “why” questions inspires and spurs me to keep asking questions. Here are some additional lenses below to help questionnaire design:

Defining the context

· Look for the key priorities and incentives that have shaped the scenario you are examining “What are the incentives that shaped this” “What priorities shaped this”

· As much as incentives, fears and risks also shape how health systems play out. Identify the risks in the scenario and how people have worked around them (because this often happens implicitly, but getting people to identify these practices can be revealing) “What are the risks of this approach; How did you work around these risks?”

· Find out what it takes to make this work: “When things are working well, what are the key contributing/enabling factors?” “whose support was required to make this happen?”

· Figure out the boundaries and limits of a topic by understanding what the opposing view would be. For example, “what are the reasons we wouldn’t invest in a digital information system (or educating girls)?”.

Mapping the process

· Help respondents stand back from the scenario and see it from a distance or from a more abstract point of view. “If you were starting again, what would you do differently”;

· The secret of building up momentum, ask: “what did it take to get people to commit to this?”

Checking salience

· Identify the beneficiaries of the insights: “Who would benefit from the lessons you have learned?”

· Check the salience: “what is the importance of this for the broader community?”

And to go further…

· Keep a “why” at the end of every answer to keep probing further, drilling down will give you specific responses that are more actionable.

· Expand your sample: Speak to people that will help you see the situation you are examining with fresh eyes: “Who else could I speak to who might have a fresh perspective on this?”

Gently pushing* people to get a fresh take on a situation can be especially useful when you are looking at large bureaucratic systems where people have a strong commitment to the status quo (it’s their job to maintain it, they are married to it and that’s how large systems work). Helping them identify opportunities for system improvement through asking good questions seems to give people a lift, or new confidence.

If you have any additional “lenses” for creating great interview questions, let me know in the comments.

To read more about the importance of questions, see Warren Berger’s “The Book of Beautiful Questions” and “A More Beautiful Question”.

*Who else is sick of the word “nudge”?

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