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Only equality prepares us to accept differences in terms other than hierarchy and subordination; on the other hand, without difference there is no equality - only sameness, which is a much less worthwhile ideal. Only equality makes the interview credible, but only difference makes it relevant. (Portelli, 1991, p. 43)

Interviewing is something you do as part of a number of methods. Because interactions with humans has an ethical dimension, it is important to think about interviews, secure ethics clearance, structure them, and archive the results appropriately.


Why you might want to interview people

Interviewing can take place as part of informal or formal processes.

  • Interviews can be useful for understanding stakeholders in design situations.
  • Interviews can help develop personas for a human-computer interface design process.
  • Interviews can be part of a project like an oral history project, and you may want to digitize the interviews.
  • Interviews can be part of usability testing where you interview participants before and after.

Things you should think about when developing an interview strategy

  • What is the reason for interviewing?
  • Who will be doing it and how will they be trained?
  • Will different interviewers get different results? Are you (the interviewers) part of what gets documented in the interview?
  • Will you practice interviewing each other as part of the training? Is it important to interview yourselves to record your perspectives?
  • What will you do with the interviews? Will they be recorded? Will you record audio or video? Will you gather or shoot pictures of documents and objects discussed in the interview?
  • Do you need ethics approval before you interview? How will you get that?
  • What are you doing when you interview? Are you listening? Are you collaborating with interviewees? Are you co-creating testimony?
  • What themes or issues do you want to get at? What questions will get at those themes and issues?
  • What technologies will you use and why? What are the advantages and disadvantages of Skype, in person, with video, with just audio, or phone?

Things to do before interviewing

  • Be clear about what you need to get from the interviews. Develop a set of questions to ask.
  • Get training on interviewing. Develop a training system if there will be many interviewers.
  • Develop an interview protocol (what should happen in what order.)
  • Get ethics clearance.
  • Practice on each other to get a sense of how it feels and to document your perspective.
  • Test the technology to make sure it works if you are recording.
  • Develop a list of who to interview based on criteria. Consider who you are leaving out.

Example Protocol for Interviews

Here is an example of an interview protocol.

  1. Identify people to interview through some process or using criteria.
  2. Contact people and see if they are willing to be interviewed.
  3. Get their consent to be interviewed in the form needed for ethics.
  4. Conduct a first interview and record it to audio (or video).
  5. Have interviewer write a short Research Note summarizing what was learned from the interview within 24 hours of interviewing. Circulate this to team to see if there are issues to follow up.
  6. Conduct a second interview and record it.
  7. Have interviewer were a second short Research Note summarizing what was learned and circulate.
  8. Have interviewer write a Chronology with the questions asked, the time stamp for the asking, a summary of the answer, and a few keywords. These could be entered into a database.
  9. Send a copy of the two recordings with a Thank You note. Ask if they want to change their consent.

This throws a new light on an old problem: the observer's interference on the observed reality. The positivistic fetish of noninterference has developed outlandish techniques to bypass or remove this problem. I believe we outght to turn the question on its head, and consider the changes that our presence may cause as some of the most important results of our field work. (Portelli, 1991, p. 43-44)


  • The Montreal Life Stories project offers training and has exemplary materials online like their Ethics Guide and their Training materials (which have example Consent Forms).
  • Portelli, A. (1991). The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History. Albany, NY: State University of New York. See the section "On Methodology".
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