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Elevate Your Moderated Research with an Interview Guide

Don’t let moderated research get the best of you, we’ve found your secret weapon. Interview guides keep key questions at the forefront and ensure your best insights are never cut short.

Words by Karen Eisenhauer, Visuals by Danbee Kim

Though we strive for perfection, the hard truth is that the quality of your participant interviews will vary. Whether that be due to time constraints or not probing a question enough, it’s extremely frustrating to feel like you didn’t get enough material.

One of the best ways to set yourself up for success during 1:1 interviews is keeping an interview guide on hand. The guide can act as a cheat sheet in participant conversations to help you get consistent data across each interview.

Even if you don’t actively refer to the document during the conversation, it's still a helpful resource to keep the interview on pace and ensure you hit everything you intended to cover.

If you’re new to constructing an interview guide, we recommend including three sections: an introduction, the questions, and a wrap-up. For more details on the formatting, take a look at our interview guide basics.

Once you’ve created your guide, there's a handful of strategies that can take it to the next level. Keep in mind the goal is to frontload your work—the more detailed and polished your interview guide is, the less you’ll have to think once you’re actually face-to-face with the participant.

To give your guide the extra push it needs, we’ve identified five strategies to incorporate into your interview:

  1. Less questions, more probes
  2. Give each question a “why”
  3. Stay on track with question headers
  4. Identify which questions to cut beforehand
  5. Do a test run

1. Fewer questions, more probes

Participants have a tendency to be unpredictable. While some talk your ear off, others hesitate to get two words out. You can prepare for participant variation by separating out questions and probes. Here’s how we think about them:

Questions are the prompts you need to know the answers to.
These should be directly related to your research objectives and they’re the prompts that, if nothing else, you want to walk away with. Read more about developing interview questions.

Probes help you get the answers you want.
These are follow-up ideas to prompt further conversation around your key question. Probes can be more concrete questions like a re-frame of the original question or they can be follow-ups on their original response.

Not all probes can be written out ahead of time as they’re often in response to what the participant has said. But brainstorming some specific probes can help you be ready to improvise in the moment, especially if you’re a little nervous about the interview process.

Here’s an example:

Question: What does your morning routine look like, and why?

Potential probes:

  • How do you get out of bed in the morning?
  • How do you decide what to wear?
  • Can you give me some examples of what breakfasts you eat?
  • Do you wake up early or late, and why?
  • What’s your preferred commuting method?
  • Tell me more about [participant detail]

A good interview guide won’t have that many questions. Be realistic about how much time each of these questions will take to dig into, and leave ample room for follow-up discussion. Streamline ruthlessly and only ask questions you really need to know.

Including many probes will allow you to go deep into each question and collect the satisfactory answers you need, even with quiet participants. This isn’t to say that you need to shy away from silence—sometimes people just need the extra time to process your question.

But if your scout seems to be truly struggling, then extra probes can be the ticket to sparking meaningful conversation.

2. Give each question a “why”

When asking a key research question, the first answer you hear is likely not the real problem. If you want to fully understand what’s going on, following up is crucial.

This is especially important if a participant expresses a desire or a solution—it’s not always clear what the problem they’re facing is. A great interview guide will have probes built in to chase through the layers of solutions and emotions and get to actual core insight that the participant is offering.

Above is an example conversation where the moderator digs into the scout’s answer by asking, “Why?”

During unmoderated Diary missions, you won’t be able to ask follow up questions, so building follow-up probes (and the appropriate time) into your moderated design will capitalize on the unique opportunities of 1:1 interviews.

3. Stay on track with question headers

In longer form interviews, it’s easy to lose track of time. Organizing your questions into subsections allows you to quickly glance at your guide and see where you’re at and how much you still need to cover.

For each subsection, add in a time estimate for how long these questions should take. You don’t have to stick to them, but they’ll help you keep tabs of your interview pace.

Above is an example of a section heading with time estimate, key question, and probes.

Subsections are also great analytical tools. Record the time stamp of each new subsection on your notes sheet, or if you’re using dscout’s Live tool, you can bookmark sections with the click of a button. This will set you up with an initial map through your data when you’re ready to dig in.

4. Identify which questions to cut beforehand

Even if your interview guide is a streamlined beauty with a few primary questions and lots of backup probes—you still may not be able to get through everything. Variables like scheduling problems, talkative participants, or getting off topic can prevent you from covering all your planned materials.

One bad outcome of this issue is that your final interview questions will consistently get the short shrift due to a lack of time. This is not ideal, especially since the end of the interview is sometimes exactly the time when your participant is finally comfortable enough to give more meaningful answers.

To prevent cutting your best material, decide ahead of time which questions can be eliminated in case time runs short and mark them in your interview guide. If you check your section headings and notice things are starting to run late, drop the low-priority questions and keep forging ahead.

5. Do a test run

Hands down, the best thing you can do for your interview guide is to take it on a test run.

Recruit a participant who seems articulate and thoughtful; make sure they’re from a common segment, so you won’t deplete your actual participant pool.

Then, run through your pilot interview just as you would in your study. This pilot will give you an opportunity to adjust your time estimates, see which questions are meaty or worthy of expanding on, and identify which questions might not be as effective as you thought.

Pilot interviews shouldn’t be used for analysis. Try to avoid making any conclusions based on a test run. If there’s something that surfaces that you want to know more about, incorporate it into your guide and ask your participants.

Once you get your guide in the field, you should avoid changing it. Tampering with your guide mid-field will compromise the integrity of your data and introduce potential biases. That’s why a pilot is all the more helpful to level up your guide structure.

There are some variables that you just can’t control (i.e. chatty participants), but organizing your questions, setting a pace for yourself, and clearing time for your most important questions can alleviate a lot of future stress.

Before your next remote moderated session, explore dscout Live. With Live, you can easily and securely record interviews, isolate your most important clips, and invite observers and note-takers to gather key insights without toggling through tabs.

Or, chat with an expert about conducting research with dscout.

Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.

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