How to develop an interview guide: Part 1

How do researchers take a topic and formulate a “good” interview guide? In this blogpost, I provide some tips for how to develop interview questions that (hopefully!) will facilitate rich, guided conversations in which interview participants discuss the topics that researchers want to examine.

Considering the relationships between interviewers and interviewees

First, researchers need to identify the members of populations who can provide rich, descriptive accounts of the topic of exploration. Clearly, if interviews are going to be a primary method in an investigation, it will be important to identify people who (1) can provide in-depth descriptions about the topic; and (2) are willing to take the time to talk to a researcher about those topics. There is a rich body of methodological literature that examines the relationships between interviewers and interviewees, and discusses the challenges faced in interviews when people use talk to learn about a particular phenomenon. For example, interviews with children and adolescents are not always straightforward. Thus, adults wanting to examine children’s and adolescents’ experiences via interviews may have to develop specific strategies to facilitate conversations in meaningful ways (Eder & Fingerson, 2002; Freeman & Mathison, 2009; Irwin & Johnson, 2005; O’Reilly & Dogra, 2017). Consideration of the relationships between interviewers and interviewees will assist researchers to make informed decisions about the kinds of interview strategies that may be necessary to talk with a particular population. Since interviewers and interviewees bring a multitude of subject positions (e.g., race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, age, education, professional status and so forth), interviewers may need to think about the kinds of interview format that will work best for a particular study.

Selecting an interview format

Second, methodological literature on qualitative interview abounds with a myriad of terminology to describe different interview forms, including unstructured and semi-structured interviews, in addition to theoretical conceptualizations of interviews, including phenomenological interviews (Seidman, 2012), ethnographic interviews (Heyl, 2001; Spradley, 1979), feminist interviews (DeVault & Gross, 2007), epistemic interviews (Brinkmann, 2007), postmodern interviewing (Denzin, 2001), and intraviews (Kuntz & Presnall, 2012). Then there are forms of interviewing that make use of other data sources such as photos (Cappello, 2005; Clark-Ibanez, 2004; Frith & Harcourt, 2007) or using drawing and other forms of elicitation (Bagnoli, 2009). I have discussed a variety of theorizations of interviews elsewhere (Roulston, 2010). Here, I focus on the specifics of formulating interview questions.

Developing interview questions

A semi-structured interview guide. I’ll begin with a “semi-structured” interview — in which an interviewer asks open questions of multiple participants in ways that allow participants to generate descriptions in their own words. Interviews are “semi-structured” in that the same topics are discussed with multiple interviewees, but the ways in which interviews unfold will differ. This is because the interviewer formulates follow-up questions based on what a participant has said. There are numerous resources to assist with the development of interview guides. One that I have found useful is that of Michael Patton (2015). Drawing from an earlier edition of this book, Patton lays out different kinds of questions that might be asked of interviewees. In Table 1, I have included examples of Patton’s question types.

Table 1: Examples of question types

Focus of questions Example of an interview question
Experiences and behaviors Tell me how you came to be involved in learning music/taking music lessons.

Describe a typical music lesson.

Opinions and values Tell me what you see as the role of your teacher.

What else do you think would be helpful?

Feelings Tell me about the feelings you experience when you perform.
Knowledge Tell me about how the Community Band is organized.
Sensory observations Describe what you hear and see when you are performing in the ensemble.

Source: (Roulston, 2014, adapted from Patton, 2002)

Patton also suggests that questions might be formulated to generate accounts related to an interviewee’s past, current, and future. Let’s look at a worked-out example. If one were to generate questions to do with the topic of recreational reading, one could begin by brainstorming a list of potential topics and then interview questions that relate to each topic. In Table 2, I’ve begun by looking at the first two categories of question types (behaviors and values), and generated potential interview questions. It is also a useful step to write down what one hopes to learn from a question. This should also relate to the research questions, which I have not discussed here.

Table 2: Brainstorming potential interview topics and questions

Potential topics What I want to learn Potential interview questions
Types of recreational reading What do people read for recreation? Thinking back to when you were a child, what did you read for fun? [behaviors – past]

What kinds of things do you read for recreation currently? [behaviors -current]

When you take your next vacation, what kinds of things do you plan to read for leisure? [behaviors -future]

Value for recreational reading Do people value their engagement in reading for recreation? Thinking back to when you were a child, how important was reading for recreation? [values – past]

Thinking about the kinds of recreational reading you engage in now – how important is that for you? [values – current]

Imagine when you have retired from employment – how important do you think recreational reading will be to you? [values – future]


If one has a specific kind of interview in mind (e.g., a phenomenological or ethnographic interview), then the formulation of an interview guide will likely take a different path.

A phenomenological interview. For example, if a researcher were to use a phenomenological interview to examine the “experience of loss of a parent”, then one might only need a single question to prompt story-telling. For example,

  • Think back to when you experienced the loss of your mother, and tell me about what happened.

Ensuing questions would be formulated from what the participant has already said, for example:

  • You mentioned _____, tell me more about that.
  • What happened then?
  • Can you describe what that felt like?
  • Is there anything else you would like to share about losing your mother?

An ethnographic interview. In the same way, an interview guide taking an ethnographic approach would depend on what a researcher has observed and experience in ongoing fieldwork. That is, the development of interview questions in an ethnographic study is embedded within extended fieldwork in which the researcher develops an “ethnographic record” through observation and participation in the setting, before going on to ask questions in informal and formal settings. Spradley (1979) suggests a formal sequence for doing this kind of work through asking descriptive questions, and then later structural and contrast questions, although actual fieldwork is likely to take a much messier form than suggested by his linear 12-step developmental sequence. Some of Spradley’s suggestions for asking descriptive questions have provided question types that are commonly used in interviews that may not be ethnographic, for example:

  • Walk me through a typical day.
  • Tell me how you would typically go about doing X.

Tips for formulating questions

I conclude with a few often-cited tips for formulating interview questions.

  • Pose open, rather than closed questions.
  • Sequence interview questions from broad to narrow.
  • Avoid the inclusion of possible responses in questions.
  • Pose one question at a time.
  • Avoid posing multi-part questions.

There are numerous excellent resources that provide assistance to researchers developing an interview guide. For more information, see Kvale and Brinkmann (2009), Rubin and Rubin (2012) and Seidman (2012).

Best wishes with your interviews.

Kathy Roulston


Bagnoli, A. (2009). Beyond the standard interview: the use of graphic elicitation and arts-based methods. Qualitative Research, 9(5), 547-570. doi:10.1177/1468794109343625

Brinkmann, S. (2007). Could interviews be epistemic? An alternative to qualitative opinion polling. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(8), 1116-1138.

Cappello, M. (2005). Photo Interviews: Eliciting Data through Conversations with Children. Field Methods, 17(2), 170-182.

Clark-Ibanez, M. (2004). Framing the Social World With Photo-Elicitation Interviews. AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST., 47, 1507-1527.

Denzin, N. K. (2001). The reflexive interview and a performative social science. Qualitative Research, 1(1), 23-46. doi:10.1177/146879410100100102

DeVault, M. L., & Gross, G. (2007). Feminist interviewing: Experience, talk, and knowledge. In S. N. Hesse-Biber (Ed.), Handbook of feminist research: Theory and praxis (pp. 173-198). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Eder, D., & Fingerson, L. (2002). Interviewing children and adolescents. In J. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research: Context and method (pp. 181-201). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Freeman, M., & Mathison, S. (2009). Researching children’s experiences. New York & London: The Guilford Press.

Frith, H., & Harcourt, D. (2007). Using photographs to capture women’s experiences of chemotherapy: reflecting on the method. Qualitative Health Research, 17(10), 1340-1350.

Heyl, B. S. (2001). Ethnographic interviewing. In P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, & L. Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of ethnography (pp. 369-383). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Irwin, L. G., & Johnson, J. (2005). Interviewing young children:  Explicating our practices and dilemmas. Qualitative Health Research, 15(6), 821-831. doi:10.1177/1049732304273862

Kuntz, A. M., & Presnall, M. M. (2012). Wandering the tactical: From interview to intraview. Qualitative Inquiry, 18(9), 732-744. doi:10.1177/1077800412453016

Kvale, S., & Brinkmann, S. (2009). InterViews: Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

O’Reilly, M., & Dogra, N. (2017). Interviewing children and young people for research. Los Angeles: Sage.

Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (4th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Roulston, K. (2010). Reflective interviewing: A guide to theory and practice. London & Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Roulston, K. (2014). Conducting and analyzing individual interviews. In C. M. Conway (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of qualitative resarch in American music education (pp. 250-270). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rubin, H. J., & Rubin, I. S. (2012). Qualitative interviewing: The art of hearing data (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Seidman, I. (2012). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College.

Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


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