This chapter aims to help you understand research terminology so that you feel confident when reading about and discussing research studies. It focuses in particular on interviewing for information and describes how to use this research approach, considering that technical communicators often interview subject matter experts, those with advanced knowledge or skills in an area, to gather information.
Although this chapter focuses primarily on face-to-face interviews, interviews may also be conducted via phone, videoconference, or email; thus, the chapter supplies several key tips pertinent to interviews conducted from a distance. Know that much of the guidance presented herein applies to any informational interview, regardless of the means by which it is conducted.
Develop an Understanding of Research Terms
When individuals conduct research, they seek out data—information gathered through investigation—to advance their understanding of a particular topic. Through research, for instance, they may endeavor to answer a question, fulfill an objective, redress a problem, make a decision, support a viewpoint, or determine the legitimacy of a hypothesis. With ends such as these in mind, they select certain research methods, or techniques used to collect, organize, and analyze the data. The research methods they choose may also be influenced by audience expectations or the conventions established for inquiry in various fields. Investigators may also opt to triangulate research methods by using two or more techniques to gather different types of information, to view a focus of inquiry from multiple perspectives, or to guard against relying heavily on one method that may not work well in the context of a particular study.
Using definitions adapted from Last (2019, p. 120), data can be divided into two broad categories.
- Primary Data: This category is comprised of raw data a researcher collects or examines firsthand. Primary data might be gathered via the following means.
- Measurement: Recording numbers that indicate amounts (e.g., temperature, size, frequency, or duration) to pursue a focus of inquiry
- Observation: Observing a focus of inquiry by using human senses or instruments (e.g., a camera, voice recorder, or microscope)
- Interrogation: Using questions to explore a focus of inquiry (e.g., interviews, polls, and questionnaires)
- Participation: Taking part in something to explore a focus of inquiry (e.g., a site or facility visit)
- Secondary Data: This category is composed of data that have already been gathered and systematically organized, commented upon, interpreted, analyzed, or evaluated. Secondary data can be found in the following types of sources.
- Academic Journal Articles: Peer-reviewed reports of research studies
- Popular and Industry-Focused Publications: Books, trade magazines, general-interest magazines, and newspapers
- Online Publications: Popular media sources and industry, government, and non-profit organizations’ websites
- Workplace Documents: Internal reports, production records, committee notes, company memos, newsletters, fact sheets, and instruction manuals
- Audio-Visual Material: TV and radio shows, films, and podcasts
Depending on the research methods investigators select and how they implement those methods, studies may also gather numerical or textual data.
- Quantitative Data: Data that can be measured precisely in numbers.
- Qualitative Data: Data that is expressed in words; although it cannot be precisely quantified, it can provide in-depth understanding of a situation, activity, individual, or environment.
Some studies are also characterized as mixed methods, meaning that researchers apply various methods to collect and use both quantitative and qualitative data.
Regardless of the type of data a study collects or the methods it uses, textbook author Last (2019, p. 121) stresses that the research must be ethical and align with established standards of honesty and integrity. She lists ethical lapses that can lead to substandard research and, ultimately, to serious repercussions, such as failing grades, academic sanctions, damaged reputations, lawsuits, job losses, and criminal charges:
- Fabricating research data.
- Ignoring data that contradicts a researcher’s own ideas.
- Misrepresenting someone else’s data or ideas.
- Using data or ideas from another source without citing and referencing the source.
In addition to vigilantly avoiding these ethical lapses, individuals who conduct research should also strive to eliminate bias when collecting, organizing, and analyzing data. Be aware that bias, or partiality to something, can occur when investigators want to confirm their presumptions or hypotheses about a focus of inquiry. To avoid the issues mentioned in this paragraph, strive to be an ethical investigator by approaching research opportunities with an open, inquisitive mind; by being truthful when reporting on studies; by viewing issues from various perspectives; by representing research accurately; and by correctly citing and referencing sources of information.
Understand What It Means to Interview for Information
When you embark on a research project, a first step is to think carefully about what you wish to explore and how best to go about investigating that topic; in addition, find out whether your field of study has certain expectations for the way research is conducted. These considerations will influence the type of research method(s) you decide to use. Ultimately, you may choose to employ interviews in your research since this method is particularly useful for collecting original, detailed data. When interviewing for information, a researcher asks someone questions to delve into a focus of inquiry. Researchers may interview for information, for instance, to discover how a certain product or approach works in an organization, to investigate the cause of an issue and how to tackle it, to find out how people perform activities or jobs, or to learn about topics that may or may not have been discussed elsewhere. Preparedness on the part of the researcher is key to successfully addressing such purposes.
Preparing for an Interview
As you prepare to interview for information, establish your project goals in concrete terms, and compose a list of interview questions that is focused on gathering data to meet those goals. Doing background reading on the interview topic, interview participant, or both can help an interviewer construct useful and targeted questions. Consulting tertiary sources—reference publications such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and textbooks that consolidate primary and secondary data—may also help a researcher gain a general understanding of concepts, lines of inquiry, or schools of thought relevant to a certain topic (Last, 2019, p. 119) in order to construct specific questions.
Since each interview is unique, considering that investigators and research participants enter the situation without fixed knowledge of how the interview may proceed or what will be said, it is sometimes difficult to anticipate how many interview questions might be covered during a scheduled interview time. Nevertheless, as a novice researcher, it is best to construct a list of multiple interview questions in advance of the data-gathering session, even though you may not have time to ask everything on the list. Neatly write or type up your questions so you can read them easily during the interview session, and organize the questions in order of importance respective to your research goals so you can gather vital information early on in case you do not have the opportunity to ask all the questions on your list. It may also be helpful to include a few easy-to-answer questions at the top of the list to help you and the interviewee acclimate to the interview situation before you launch into more challenging questions that will likely take the participant time and a certain level of comfort to answer: you might verify the spelling of the interviewee’s name and his or her contact details at the beginning of the session, for example.
Devising a List of Interview Questions
Interviews may be thought of as directed conversations conducted with goals in mind, and it is up to a researcher to keep the conversation going and on track. Interview questions can help in this regard, if you invest time and effort in their thoughtful construction. A list of questions that primarily calls for yes or no answers is unlikely to keep the conversation progressing or help a researcher gather rich qualitative data. Instead, aim to construct a list comprised mainly of open-ended questions, which allow for a range of participant responses, to collect detailed data with an eye toward the goals of your investigation, and reserve closed questions, those that allow for a set choice of responses, for accuracy checking during interviews.
You might compose your list of questions by starting with the prompts who, what, when, where, why, and how and add a so what question that encourages the interview respondent to think about what a circumstance, issue, or matter means. Here are examples of such questions that address writing-related matters.
- Who do you collaborate with when working on writing projects?
- What techniques do you use to ensure your audience is able to understand complex ideas when writing about science?
- When do you prefer to write?
- Where do you like to write?
- Why are proficient writing skills important in your job field?
- How do you begin a writing project?
- Tell me about ethical issues have you encountered when writing on the job? Follow-up question: How did the handling of these issues affect your development as a writer?
Starting with these kinds of direct questions—questions that address interviewees in a direct manner or ask them to discuss their experiences in a direct way—can help you gather information efficiently.
Indirect questions, those that address respondents in an indirect or removed way, can also be useful when asking about sensitive subjects to avoid causing offence. For instance, an interviewer might ask a respondent to speculate about how other people in the same situation feel about a delicate topic and then ask how these views differ from the interviewee’s.
Although you will likely begin the interview with your prepared questions, you may occasionally deviate from this list to pursue interesting points raised during the session. This situation can sometimes lead a researcher down unexpected but fruitful paths in terms of data gathered; however, always keep the goals of your project in mind to stay focused during the session.
Similarly, if an interviewee becomes somewhat distracted from the topic at hand when answering a question and begins talking in depth about another topic, you will need to think of a polite strategy to refocus his or her attention so that you can still collect the data you need to meet your goals. Simply repeating or rephrasing an interview question can be an effective technique in this situation.
Before an interview ends, you might decide to ask a wrap-up question to see if the participant wants to share anything else or discuss a point in further detail. The following is an example of a wrap-up question: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that we have not already discussed? As respondents sense interviews coming to an end, they sometimes relax and share useful and unexpected data in response to such wrap-up questions. Be sure to remain alert for these responses, however, so that you can capture the data.
Requesting an Interview
Keep your research goals in mind when identifying an interviewee for a project. Some projects require interviews with subject matter experts, whereas others call for interviews with members of the general public, and it is a researcher’s job to seek out interviewees who can provide needed information. You can consult secondary data sources when searching for research participants to ensure the participants’ qualifications align with your research objectives: for instance, you might be able to identify a potential interviewee through a campus committee list or in a newspaper article that addresses your research focus. Depending on the research project, you might also be able to tap friends, coworkers, housemates, family members, professors, or other university employees as interviewees or ask these individuals if they know of potential interview participants.
Once you have identified a possible interviewee, contact that person to request the interview. When making contact, be honest and open about your research goals and what you plan to do with the interview data since candor and transparency are central to ethical research. You must also ask the interviewee for permission to audio or video record the interview if that is your intention; if the interviewee refuses, you cannot record, but you may ask permission to take notes instead. It is also a good idea to ask whether you can use the respondent’s name in the interview write up. Again, if the participant refuses, you will not be able to mention his or her name; however, you may be able to use a pseudonym, such as Respondent One, when referring to the interviewee. Relatedly, if the interviewee asks to see a copy of your planned questions prior to granting the interview, be prepared to share these as a gesture of goodwill and as evidence of your dedication to transparent research. Lastly, be considerate of the participant’s schedule by estimating how much time the interview will take so the respondent can make an informed decision about whether to grant the interview.
When scheduling the interview, suggest a quiet location for the meeting that is convenient for both you and the participant. The participant may prefer to meet with you in his or her office or workspace; regardless of the location, the noise level should not affect the interview conversation or prevent you from taking notes or recording the encounter.
Although you may have scheduled an interview with a participant, be prepared for unexpected changes to the plan should they arise. Think of another person from whom you can collect interview data, for instance, if your first participant has to cancel since you will presumably still need data to fulfill the goals of your research project.
Arriving at an Interview
On the day of the interview, arrive on time fully prepared with all the materials you may need: specifically, a watch to keep track of time, pens and paper to take notes, and a reliable voice or video recorder to capture the session (if your participant has agreed to the recording). As a courtesy, ask the participant again if he or she consents to being recorded and to you taking notes on the session. An interviewee may ask to review a researcher’s notes for accuracy, and complying with such a request can help you establish rapport and a relationship of trust with the participant.
While interviews are a valuable means of data collection, they can also be networking opportunities during which you establish relationships—relationships that may prove useful to your professional aspirations—so maintain a respectful, polite disposition at all times. Introduce yourself before the interview begins, dress appropriately for the situation (important for in-person and video-conference interviews), and turn off or silence your cellular phone to eliminate distractions and disruptions.
Maintaining Focus during an Interview
Stay focused as the interview proceeds to gather needed information and to maintain the schedule you and the interviewee agreed upon. Ask one question at a time so the interviewee can concentrate on the topic at hand and so you can listen to the information shared. As suggested, aim to ask questions that encourage the participant to speak freely, and explore interesting avenues of inquiry with follow-up questions when appropriate. If the interviewee has consented to you taking notes during the session, certainly do so, but do not become distracted by trying to record everything said. Instead, write down useful quotations and keywords, and plan to fill in your notes with details after the session ends. Again, think of the interview as a directed conversation, one which you must be engaged in for it to flourish.
Let the respondent do most of the talking during the interview interaction, bearing in mind that your purpose is to collect data. To this end, maintain an objective attitude during the interview by gathering the information you need rather than offering your viewpoints on topics discussed.
At the conclusion of the interview, find out if the participant wants to check the accuracy of the information you have gathered, bearing in mind that correctness is one of the defining attributes of technical writing (see the “Introducing Technical Writing” chapter for further information on this point). You might offer to email the interviewee a typed copy of your interview notes, for instance, to achieve this purpose and to underscore your dedication to ethical research.
Once the interview is finished, consider sending the participant a thank-you letter or email to show that you appreciate that individual’s contribution to your research. Select the genre of communication that you feel most appropriately fits the situation, bearing in mind that interviews provide valuable opportunities to establish professional contacts. When carefully composed, letters can make lasting impressions on recipients since they take time and effort to prepare. The “Writing Print Correspondence” chapter of this textbook provides information about designing and writing letters.
Take Certain Considerations into Account When Interviewing from a Distance
If you decide to conduct a phone, video-conference, or email interview, carefully consider how those modes of communication might affect the interview situation. For instance, in comparison to an in-person interview, a phone interview does not offer an opportunity to observe a participant’s body language—body language that may provide insight into how he or she feels about the interview interaction or the topics being discussed. Since people sometimes speak very quickly on the phone, you will also need to be prepared to ask the participant to repeat points if necessary so that you are able to record them in your notes. If you opt to video-conference with an interview participant, be sure to select a quiet environment for the call and one that is not visually distracting or embarrassing since the interviewee will be able to see you during the data-gathering session. In addition, familiarize yourself with the videoconferencing platform before the interview begins so you can focus on discussion with the participant rather than on technology issues. If you decide to conduct an interview via email, the asynchronous (non-simultaneous) nature of the communication means you will not receive real-time answers to interview questions; therefore, consider establishing a reasonable deadline for responses. Emails do have the advantage of producing automatic transcripts of communication exchange, meaning that interview questions and participant responses are recorded in textual form. Remember to craft email interview questions carefully before sending them to ensure they maintain an objective and respectful tone, are concise and easy to understand, and are free from errors. Also be prepared to ask follow-up questions in additional email messages to track down needed information from a participant when necessary.
Conduct Research Ethically and with Care
Regardless of whether research draws upon primary or secondary data or gathers quantitative or qualitative data or both, it presents an exciting way to advance knowledge—if it is conducted ethically and with care. In particular, interviews can be a useful means of collecting original research data when they are thoughtfully planned and executed, as this chapter emphasizes.
Activity A: Explore Research Approaches in Further Depth
To explore research approaches in further depth, read an essay entitled “Introduction to Primary Research: Observations, Surveys, and Interviews” (Driscoll, 2011) at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/writingspaces2/driscoll–introduction-to-primary-research.pdf. Afterwards, consider the essay’s application to your own experiences or coursework by answering the questions on page 173 of the text. Be prepared to talk about your answers in class.
Activity B: Experience a Recorded Interview
Having read through Driscoll’s (2011) piece and the current textbook chapter, work with a partner to devise a bullet list of best-practice guidelines for conducting informational interviews. Keep these guidelines in mind as you proceed through the rest of this activity.
Activity Segment One:
To better understand how interviews work and to discover how they can be used to gather and communicate scientific information, listen to a podcast entitled “Sounds Fishy: Acoustic Studies of Florida Fish” at https://mote.org/podcasts/item/sounds-fishy-acoustic-studies-of-florida-fish (Nickelson & Rutger, 2017), which was produced by Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, a research institute that studies aquatic life. The podcast is one episode of Mote Marine’s Two Sea Fans podcast series; according to the institute’s website (Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, n.d., para. 1), the purpose of the series is “to help listeners become more ocean-literate.” While listening, take notes on the following questions.
- How does the podcast appeal to a general audience?
- How do the interviewers, Hayley Rutger and Joe Nickelson, encourage Dr. Jim Locascio, Manager of Mote Marine’s Fisheries Habitat Ecology Program, to make his research easy for a general audience to understand?
- How does the scientist point to a direction for future research?
- How does the scientist explain the significance of his sound research?
- How does the scientist refer to published research?
- How does interviewer Hayley Rutger encourage the scientist to discuss his other research?
- How does interviewer Joe Nickelson encourage the scientist to discuss why the general public should care about his research?
- Why does interviewer Hayley Rutger relate the scientist’s findings to human hearing?
Activity Segment Two:
Share your answers to the questions in activity segment one with the class. In addition, discuss your responses to the following items with the class.
- How is your bullet list of best-practice guidelines reflected in the podcast interview?
- Consider the podcast in terms of interview content, interview questions, and interview techniques. How does it help to inform your own interview practices?
- Why might a podcast be a useful genre for communicating science, particularly to a general audience?
Homework: Interview Someone about the Use of Technical Communication in the Workplace
Collect original data by conducting an interview with someone who works in a field that interests you to discover how that person uses technical communication in the workplace. You are responsible for identifying and contacting your interviewee and for developing your own interview questions. Refer to the bullet list in the “Devising a List of Interview Questions” section of this chapter for example questions. The interview should last approximately 20 minutes.
Prepare for the interview by reviewing published sources to investigate how writing is approached in your field, what forms of workplace communication are used in your field, and/or how much importance is placed upon effective communication skills in your field. You may also wish to explore connections between clear, coherent, concise, concrete, complete, and courteous writing—in other words, attributes of effective technical communication—and success on the job. This research should help you construct effective interview questions.
Summarize the highlights of your research in a short report, formatted as a memo. Consult the “Writing Print Correspondence” chapter of this textbook for guidance when composing and formatting your memo. When writing, address the following questions:
- What themes do you recognize in the published research?
- How does your interview data relate to these themes?
Your report should draw upon at least three sources, one of which must be your interview data. Remember to cite and reference outside sources of information in the report.
Use the multipage handout, produced by Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University (2018), to refine your report.
Driscoll, D.L. (2011). Introduction to primary research: Observations, surveys, and interviews. In C. Lowe, & P. Zemliansky (Eds.), Writing spaces: Readings on writing (Vol. 2, pp. 153-174). Parlor Press. License: CC-BY-NC 3.0. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/writingspaces2/driscoll–introduction-to-primary-research.pdf
Last, S. (2019). Technical writing essentials: Introduction to professional communications in the technical fields. University of Victoria. License: CC-BY 4.0. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. (n.d.). Podcast: Two sea fans. https://mote.org/podcasts
Nickelson, J., & Rutger, H. (Hosts). (2017, March 14). Sounds fishy: Acoustic studies of Florida fish [Audio podcast episode]. In Podcast: Two Sea Fans. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. https://mote.org/podcasts/item/sounds-fishy-acoustic-studies-of-florida-fish
Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University. (2018). Common problems in grammar. License: CC-BY-SA 2.5. http://sass.queensu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Common-Problems-in-Grammar.pdf