Monday, 6 July 2020

Different types of interview questions

I have written about interview technique a number of times before (here), but haven't really explored the different types of data collection questions that there are for qualitative interviewing. 

A number of researchers have developed interesting taxonomies of question types, often relating to specific fields or methodologies - such as Bernard (2011) in anthropology, and Spradley (1979) in ethnography - which we can each use to suit our own circumstances.

The types of questions I tend to use when interviewing are:
  1. Open-ended questions: "relevant and meaningful" which "invite thoughtful, in-depth responses that elicit whatever is salient to the interviewee", not the interviewer (Patton, 2014, p. 631)... which is why we need all the following options to create a sound set of interview questions. Open-ended questions "have no definitive response and contain answers that are recorded in full" (Gray, 2004, p. 194)
  2. Grand Tour questions: these are large, sweeping, general questions asking the interviewee to describe the 'terrain' of their experience, where we learn "native terms about [the] cultural scenes" we are seeking to understand (Spradley, 1979, p. 86). Grand tour questions can be scoped to focus on "space, time, process, a sequence of events, people, activities or objects" (Spradley, 1979, p. 87). The same approach can be used in smaller, 'mini' grand tours. There are a number of types of grand - or mini - tour question sub-types:
    • Typical, e.g., "Could you describe a typical day at the office?" (Spradley, 1979, p. 87)
    • Specific, e.g., "Tell me what you did yesterday, from the time you got to work until you left?" (Spradley, 1979, p. 87)
    • Guided, e.g., "Could you show me around the office?" (Spradley, 1979, p. 87)
    • Task-related (Spradley, 1979), e.g., Could you compile the report and show me what you do where? This can lead to clarifiers
  3. Clarifiers: questions such as "What are you doing now?" and "what is this?" can be used to prompt in Grand tour questions, particularly in Task-related questions (Spradley, 1979, p. 87)
  4. Native language questions: "are designed to minimize the influence of [interviewee's] translation competence", where we ask "How would you refer to it?" about making typing mistakes of a secretary to check our understanding of a particular act, role, person or process, they might answer "I would call them typos" (Spradley, 1979, p. 89)
  5. Prompts: are short questions to the interviewee so they refine the initial answer, and "sharpen their thoughts to provide what can be critical definitions or understandings" (Guest et al., 2012, p. 220). There are a number of sub-types:
    • Direct Prompts: these are where the "interviewer asks clearly, 'What do you mean when you say X?' or 'Can you give an example of Y?' Probes may also be statements: 'Tell me more about that,' or 'Explain that to me a little bit'" (Guest et al., 2012, p. 220).
    • Indirect prompts: these keep the interview moving by keeping "the interviewee talking and encourage further explanation without asking another question". These might be non-verbal, such as head nodding or smiling; or verbal, such as "mmm hmm", or "yes" (Guest et al., 2012, p. 219).
    • Silent prompts: "just remaining quiet and waiting for an [interviewee] to continue" (Bernard, 2011, p. 162). Although Guest et al., suggest this is an indirect prompt (2012), I think that silence is more powerful a tool than being only an indirect prompt: silence can convey camaraderie, empathy, reminiscence, unfinished business, waiting, and create a void that most will step forward to fill.
    • Echo prompts: there are "particularly useful when an informant is describing a process, or an event. 'I see. The goat’s throat is cut and the blood is drained into a pan for cooking with the meat. Then what happens?' This probe is neutral and doesn’t redirect the interview. It shows that you understand what’s been said so far" (Bernard, 2011, p. 162).
  6. Closed ended-questions: where the answer is dichotomous (yes, or no), or some form of 'fixed' choice answers via an option list or a Likert scale. These questions are most often used in surveys (Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2008), but can be useful to get people started on a topic, to end a topic, or to provide a particularly structured answer that enables the interviewer to transition into a new area. Closed-ended questions tend to "restrict the richness of alternative responses, but are easier to analyse." (Gray, 2004, p. 195)
Understanding question types will help us craft our interview script so that we collect the data we need to meet the needs of our interview: whether that is interviewing a client, or collecting data to answer a research question.


  • Bernard, H. R. (2011). Research Methods in Anthropology Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (5th ed.). AltaMira Press
  • Gray, D. E. (2004). Doing Research in the Real World. SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Guest, G., Namey, E. E., & Mitchell, M. L. (2012). Collecting Qualitative Data: A field manual for applied research. SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research and Evaluation Methods (4th ed.). SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Spradley, J. P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
  • Teddlie, C., & Tashakkori, A. (2008). Foundations of Mixed Methods Research: Integrating Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. SAGE Publications, Inc.

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