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How to use this manual
What is formative research?
What do you want to know?
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Other suggestions:

•    Keep the questions simple, and ask about only one thing at a time:

More helpful: “What makes it difficult for you to insist on condom use?”

Less helpful: “Thinking about all your past sexual relationships, what are the three things that have made it difficult for you to insist on condom use at times when you or your partner have been drunk, especially if this has been a casual partner?”

•    Avoid yes/no questions, by asking “how?” or “what?” rather than “do you?” or other such questions that elicit yes/no or other one-word answers

More helpful: “What was the most helpful part of the group you attended?”

Less helpful: “Did you find the group useful?”

•    Avoid asking leading questions

More helpful: “What do you think of school-based sex education programs?”

Less helpful: “Do you think sex education programs make more kids have sex?”

•    Make sure the person is able to answer the question, that is, the question should address a topic he or she knows something about, so that they don’t have to make too many assumptions or guesses.

More helpful: “How did you find out about needle exchange?”

Less helpful: “Do most IDUs in California know about needle exchange programs?”

•    Help people come up with ideas. Sometimes people feel put on the spot by your question or simply find it difficult to come up with ideas. If they really draw a blank, you can help them in a non-leading way by suggesting a wide range of alternative responses. For example, when asking about what aspects of an intervention the client might want to change, you can say, “Sometimes people suggest that it should be shorter or longer, that there be more peer educators, or more games and activities, or that a different teacher should be used.”

•    Use introductions to “normalize” answers when asking questions about stigmatized behaviors. When you ask about sensitive or stigmatized behaviors, people are often reluctant to answer you. Sometimes it helps to preface your question with a brief statement such as, “Many people tell us that it is challenging always to insist on condom use; in what situations do you find that most difficult?

The process

•    People conducting in-depth interviews often use follow up questions (also referred to as “probing”) to get more information or to clarify statements already made by the participants. For example,
“Please tell me more about that.” or
“How did that make you feel?”
Stay away from questions that can be answered yes/no.

•    Body language. Show that you’re interested by maintaining eye contact and making sounds indicating you’re listening, such as “um hum, I see, yes”.

Don’t cross your arms, doodle on your interview form, or check the time repeatedly. Those behaviors will signal that you are not interested in what the participant has to say and may decrease the amount of information you are able to obtain.

•    Silence can also be important. Some interviewers feel uncomfortable when participants don’t say anything. However, the participants may simply be composing their answers. Give them time. If you interrupt them, you may miss a thoughtful response.

•    Don’t insist on an answer if the participant seems uncomfortable. Forcing a response may simply make him or her even more reluctant to answer future questions. It may also make the responses less valid.

•   Try to keep the participant focused on the subject. A little drifting may be acceptable, but try to gently bring them back in a positive way (e.g., “I understand that you think teachers need to be paid more, and that’s an important issue. But right now let’s focus on the role of sex education in classrooms, OK?”).

Common challenges/problems

•   Interviewer anxiety. It is important that you get plenty of practice so that you are comfortable with the questions. Practice with a co-worker or friend at least 2-3 times before meeting with a participant. If you are still anxious, you could do your first interview together with a co-worker who is more experienced.

•   Interviewer doesn’t like the participant. It is all right not to like everyone you are interviewing. However, you also need to remember that you are not interviewing the person to establish a personal relationship, but because you are interested in his or her thoughts and feelings about your program. Since most people doing this type of interviewing are likely to be outreach workers it may be useful for them to take a moment and think about what pushes their buttons. If they really feel it impossible to work with a particular kind of participant, it may be possible to reassign those participants to other interviewers. Otherwise, their attitudes may limit the usefulness of the data they collect.

•    Interviewer has emotional reactions to the responses. It is important to realize that an in-depth interview is different from a counseling or education session. Interviewers may find themselves shocked or alarmed at what they hear, but it is important that they keep the goals of the interview in mind. Phrases like, “You had how many partners?” are not likely to encourage the participant to provide you with additional valuable and sensitive information. If you are really concerned with the welfare of a participant, wait until the interview is over and then provide him or her with referral information to a person or agency where the participant can receive help.

•    Interviewer talks too much/ tries to influence participant. This can happen almost unconsciously. Therefore, you may need to carefully pay attention to your own speech. It can be difficult to keep your opinion to yourself, especially if you are interviewing someone about a topic you really care about. Again, however, please remember that the focus here is to solicit information, rather than have a discussion or a debate about the topic.

What do the data mean?

When you analyze the transcripts from in-depth interviews, you place less emphasis on statistics than you would when analyzing the results from a quantitative survey. To help analyze in-depth interview data:

•    Read through the interview responses and look for patterns or themes among the participants.

•    If you get a variety of themes, you may want to see if you can cluster them in any meaningful way, such as by type of participant. You may, for example, find that younger participants tend to think and feel differently from older ones or that men and women respond differently. All of these pieces of information may be very important as you make decisions about who to target with your program.

• It is often useful to jot down some initial ideas about what you think participants will say before you have read any of the transcripts. Then you can compare these with the themes that emerge when reading the responses.

•    You can also identify the responses that seem to have been given with enthusiasm, as opposed to those that the participants answered in only a few words. The notations by the interviewer can be very helpful in this process.

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Good Questions, Better Answers --  1998 California Department of Health Services and Northern California Grantmakers AIDS Task Force  --