In-depth interviews are one of the most important tools in qualitative research. Thanks to them, we can obtain detailed and rich data that help us understand human behavior, motivations, and experiences.

The topic is very extensive, and a book could be written about in-depth interviews alone, so in this article, we will focus on tips and tricks for people who have a basic understanding of what such interviews look like so their data collection is as useful as possible.

Preparation for an in-depth interview

Ask good interview questions

It is obvious that for the research process to be truly effective, you need to prepare for it properly. And you don’t go to a meeting without a research script.

The interview script should include the main questions and a supporting questionnaire. The main questions should be open, allowing the interviewee to freely express their thoughts and feelings, which may lead to the discovery of new perspectives and details. Guiding questions help you delve deeper into a topic and obtain more detailed information.

Various types of questions stimulate different aspects of the interviewee’s thinking and reactions. Depending on how the question is phrased, the interviewee can focus on various aspects of their experience, leading to more comprehensive and richer data.

Closed questions are useful when we need specific information or want to confirm facts. A feeling-focused survey can help you understand the emotional context of the interviewee’s experience, and hypothetical questions can help you understand how the user would react in different scenarios.

Diversity in the formulation of questions allows for better exploration of the topic, discovery of hidden aspects, and obtaining a more complete picture of the study. Here are examples of different types of questions you can ask to obtain the most useful qualitative data:
Relations

  • “Who helps you create a training plan in your clan?”
  • “What has your customer service experience been like in recent months?”

Explain to a layman

  • “Imagine that I want to arrange to play CS with my friends for the first time. What should I do?”
  • “What was it like step by step, as if you were explaining it to someone who had never used mobile apps?”

Clarification

  •  “What do you mean, ‘I just need a system messenger’?”
  • “Can you explain more what you mean by ‘big changes’?”

Looking into the future

  • “Imagine dating in 5 years. What will it look like?”
  • “What would you do if you won a large sum of money?”

Comparison

  • “How does your way of arranging a game differ from that of your friends?”
  • “What are the main differences between your current workplace and your previous one?”

Listing

  • “Can you list all the things you need to do to meet someone to play CS?”
  • “Can you list all the features that are important to you when choosing a mobile phone?”

Example

  • “Using the example of your last game with friends, tell us how you arrange to play together…”
  • “Please give me an example of a situation where you had to make a difficult decision at work?”

Retrospection

  • What was it like to arrange a game 3 years ago compared to today?
  • Have you had a similar situation in the past? How did you survive it?

Sequence

  • “What does it look like to arrange a game with friends step by step?”
  • “What happens next after…?”
  • “May I ask what happened earlier?”

Using in-depth interviews, avoid closed questions…

Once we have prepared the questions in the scenario, it is worth reviewing them again to check whether they lead to a yes/no answer and meet our research goals. Formulate open questions, encouraging the interlocutor to describe their experiences, feelings, and opinions more elaborately.

For example, the participant may answer the question “Do you work remotely?” with one word – “yes” or “no”. Instead, it’s better to ask open-ended questions such as “What does your typical workday look like?”. This question encourages the interviewee to describe their everyday experiences and may lead to more detailed and valuable information. You can also prepare additional follow-up questions to improve the data collection method.

Be ready to be flexible

Even though you have a prepared interview script (I hope our in-depth interview guide will help), be flexible and open to any changes or unexpected topics that may arise during the conversation. Sometimes the most valuable information appears when we allow our participants to express their thoughts freely.

Provide comfort and trust in the research project

At the beginning of the face-to-face interviews, make sure participants feel comfortable and trust you as the researcher. Introduce yourself to the focus group, explain the purpose of the study, and ensure that all responses will be confidential and anonymous. This will help create an atmosphere of openness and trust, conducive to deep and honest conversation.

Prepare a sheet for notes

Prepare the notes template that includes spaces for important information, key questions, main points discussed by the interviewer, and additional comments. Organizing the structure of your notes will make it easier for you to later analyze the collected data. You can create a sheet in the Google Sheets or Airtable tool so that you can easily fill in the data. Use color separation of observations from the respondent’s statements. Also, conducting in-depth interviews, have a place to enter data and information about participants and all necessary links and references to the recordings.

Beware of cognitive traps

During the in-depth interview process, respondents tend to provide answers that are consistent with social norms and expectations. This happens because people often rationalize their behavior to avoid cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when their actions are illogical or inconsistent with accepted norms. For example, someone may rationalize the impulse purchase of an expensive item by saying that they “really needed it” or that “it was a special occasion,” even if their true motivations were different. These types of rationalizations can influence the honesty of responses because respondents try to present their actions in a way that is socially acceptable and logical.

Not all important aspects of human experience can be expressed in words. Many emotions and motivations remain in the “unverbalized” sphere. This means that respondents may have difficulty accurately describing their true thoughts and feelings. They may be unaware of some of their internal motivations, or may not have the language to express them. What is important to them may be hidden deep in the subconscious and require more subtle research methods, such as observing body language, tone of voice, or narrative analysis, to be fully understood.

Both researchers and respondents may encounter various cognitive pitfalls that may affect the quality and reliability of the obtained data. Here are some of the most common cognitive traps:

Anchoring 

It involves over-reliance on the first information received when making decisions. For example, if a respondent shares a particularly strong belief or emotional experience early in the interview, the researcher may unconsciously focus on that thread while ignoring other important topics.

Overconfidence effect 

This is the tendency of people to overestimate their knowledge and skills. Respondents may be overconfident in their answers, which may lead to incomplete or incorrect data. Similarly, researchers may be overconfident in their interpretation of responses, which may lead to erroneous conclusions.

Bias blind spot 

The tendency to notice cognitive errors in others but not in oneself. Researchers may be aware of cognitive pitfalls but may have difficulty recognizing that they themselves are falling victim to them, which may threaten the purpose of in-depth interviews.  

Confirmation bias

Interpreting information in a way that confirms your own beliefs and hypotheses. Researchers may unconsciously ask questions in such a way as to obtain answers that confirm their initial assumptions. They may also ignore or downplay information that conflicts with their beliefs.

The effect of social expectations 

Respondents’ tendency to provide answers that are socially acceptable or that they believe will please the researcher. Interview participants may hide their true thoughts and feelings to avoid negative evaluation. For example, they may avoid admitting to behaviors that are considered socially unacceptable, even if they are relevant to the particular research.

Halo effect 

Our overall impression of a participant influences our perception of their responses. To minimize this effect, focus on the content of the response, and the purpose of the interview, not the participant.

Information overload

A large amount of information can be obtained during an interview, which can lead to cognitive overload. To avoid this, try to take notes and group information as you go. This way, your data from the participants will allow qualitative research results.

In-depth Interviews in Qualitative Research

In-depth interviews are a real gem in a researcher’s arsenal. They allow us to delve into the world of our respondents, offering a wealth of detailed data or insights that can’t be found anywhere else. However, to get the full potential out of them, you need to properly prepare for qualitative interviews and conduct them under best practices. Only this way you can obtain a more complete picture of the studied phenomena and valuable knowledge that can bring real benefits.