Improve Your Research by Improving Your Interview Skills

Katie McKenna, Director of Agency Development
How Listening Guides Your Research

Before I went to school for journalism, I wanted to be a therapist. My mom is a social worker and people told me I was a good listener, so it was easy to imagine myself nodding my head while a person sitting on a couch told me about their life. That plan ended when I went to a music festival in Chicago the summer before college. I watched the journalists in the pit scribbling in their notebooks and realized that I still wanted to listen to people’s stories and ask the right questions, only in a different way.

I became neither a therapist nor a journalist. But I did end up in the content department at Portent, where the questions I asked and my ability to listen prove valuable.

At work, I use my listening and interviewing skills often, but a few months ago a client project required me to take these skills to the next level. This particular client built features and solutions without first understanding the pain points that their potential customers had. As a result, they struggled to find a market fit for their product. They were so interested in what they could do with the product and how successful it could be that supporting customer adoption was an afterthought.

Once they realized why they were struggling, they hired us to conduct audience research. Who would want to buy this kind of product? What did they worry about? What publications did they read? What challenges did they have at work? To answer these types of questions, we had to conduct plenty of interviews, which gave me a chance to improve my interviewing and listening techniques.

Here are 4 tips I learned from this process that will help you strengthen these skills during your next research project.

1. Ask open-ended questions

The way you ask questions matters. It’s tempting to focus on what you want to know rather than how you ask, but it’s important to do the latter. If you don’t, you risk interjecting your opinions into the research process even if you’re not aware. Open-ended questions allow the person with whom you’re speaking to give a free-form answer whereas someone can answer a close-ended question with a “yes” or a “no.”

According to the Nielsen Norman Group,

“The most important benefit of open-ended questions is that they allow you to find more than you anticipate: people may share motivations that you didn’t expect and mention behaviors and concerns that you knew nothing about… Close-ended questions stop the conversation and eliminate surprises: What you expect is what you get.”

If you ask close-ended questions, you risk guiding someone’s answers to things you think are true.  Close-ended questions can also bias people into certain responses. Think about these two questions: “What is your morning routine like?” vs. “Do you rush out of the door in the morning?” The first question allows many different responses. The second question makes the assumption that they rush.

I caught myself asking close-ended questions during my interviews with potential customers. I intended to come in with an open mind, but also had an idea of who the interviewees were based on previous conversations with the client. When I caught myself doing this, I reminded myself that I might be wrong about what I thought I knew.

2. Be aware of your biases

It’s impossible not to have some bias creep into your research. But you can reduce the amount of bias by simply being aware.

Erika Hall touches on this in her book, Just Enough Research. She writes:

“Wherever there is research there is bias. Your perspective is colored by your habits, beliefs, and attitudes… You can’t eliminate it completely—but the simple act of noting potential or obvious bias in your research process or results will allow you to weigh the results more appropriately.”

One way to avoid bias is to train yourself not to ask biased questions. One type of biased question found in qualitative research is a leading question, which is a question that prompts a desired answer.  For example, you could ask “Some people think four-season tents are the only way to camp in the winter. What do you think?” To circumvent bias, you could instead ask, “What kind of gear do you bring with you when you camp in the winter?” which keeps the question neutral.

The way you order questions can also introduce bias and impact the responses you receive. A blog post from Qualtrics cites a classic example that occurred during the Cold War:

“A survey was conducted in which American respondents were asked whether or not Soviet journalists should be allowed to visit the United States to write articles for Soviet newspapers. The same respondents were then asked whether or not American journalists should be allowed into the Soviet Union to write articles for American newspapers.

The responses indicated lower support for American reporters among those that had opposed allowing the Soviet journalists to cover the U.S. Interestingly, when these same questions were asked in reverse order—this time with American journalists referenced first—there was greater support among American respondents for allowing both American and Soviet journalists to cover the other’s country.”

To reduce bias, randomize the order of unrelated questions. Just make sure you don’t randomize everything, or you may confuse your interviewees. Instead, create groups of related questions and then make the order of questions within that group random.

3. Pauses can be powerful

Part of being an effective interviewer is being a good listener. And part of being a good listener is knowing when to be quiet. You may get anxious or excited when anticipating someone else’s answer, but it’s important to slow down and not interject.

According to our blog post How to Achieve Content Nirvana,

“The goal of audience interviews is to get people to share their innermost thoughts, not tell you what you want to hear. Expect answers to be long and rambling—in fact, encourage this! It often produces the most original insights.”

If you pause after someone finishes a sentence, you can make sure the interviewee is completely done talking and not holding anything else back. You may get some of your most important information during these moments.

Pausing also slows down the rate at which you ask questions. Having this extra time will help you be more mindful of the types of questions you’re asking, which should help you reduce bias and avoid close-ended questions.

4. Listen, don’t plan

Although it may seem like second nature, listening is a skill most people could stand to sharpen. (I definitely include myself in the “most people” category!)

It’s natural to start formulating a reply when someone else is talking or think about mundane tasks like the laundry you have to do when you get home. I noticed during my interviews that I would start to think about the next question I was going to ask while the person was still talking. To help mitigate this, I now write down any new questions that pop into my head during the interview and then ask them when there’s a break in the conversation or at the end. Writing down my questions allows me to continue focusing on what the interviewee is saying instead of focusing on myself.

Another challenging aspect of listening is that you may become distracted during certain parts of the conversation. Perhaps the person you’re interviewing is talking about something you’re not interested in or that reminds you of something else. Whatever the reason for your distraction, try to become more aware of when your mind wanders and figure out why you’re not listening. Don’t beat yourself up for not paying attention or you’ll be distracted even longer. Just make a mental note when you catch yourself drifting away and get back to the interview.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was guilty of not always following these tips during my audience research project. Even though I had the best intentions to seek the truth and listen intently, it was often a tough process. I’m thankful I was able to learn from the challenges of interviewing and I hope these tips help you strengthen your skills the next time you do research!


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