Mr. Tagg gracefully submits to an interview, by Charles Dana Gibson, ca. 1903 (Library of Congress)

Protocols help prepare the interviewer not only on his/her subject material but also in reference to the person(s) being interviewed.  Crafting a protocol helps maintain consistency across interviews if multiple people are interviewed about one topic.  Protocols can also assist the interviewer in crafting or revising questions based upon interviewee needs.  For instance, one may use jargon and more complex word choices with a specialist on the subject—for example, an engineer working on city planning for extension of public transportation may be able to use a much more sophisticated and nuanced language than the teenager who will eventually use that transportation.

Interview protocols also ensure that the limited time available for the interview is fully utilized. Interviewees are more likely to give rich responses if they feel the interviewer is prepared and if their time is not being wasted.  Crafting a protocol and refining and revising it will facilitate both individual’s time wisely and promote a flow of topic that seems natural but remains productive.  Use this guide as you craft your interview protocols for your projects.  

Gaining Access:

Written requests for interviews, such as letters or emails, are typically preferred over more informal communications, like a phone call or texts.  Within this communication, briefly detail the following information:

  • Introduce yourself and relate how you selected the recipient as a potential interviewee—it is okay to state that someone else recommended them to you.
  • Describe your project and what you are hoping an interview with them will add—i.e. why they are being asked to participate
  • Include any other pertinent information about yourself or your project
  • Make sure they are aware of a venue and time frame for response—“please email me back at this address by 20 October.”

Remember to ASK them for the interview.  Too often students and other beginning researchers forget this important step.


You must secure permission from the person being interviewed if you intend to use portions of the interview on your site. Use the COPLACDigital form for a model.


Once you’ve secured a commitment for the interview, settle on a time and place that is at once private and quiet but also puts the interviewee at ease. Obviously, the interview date should be scheduled after you are thoroughly immersed in your literature—i.e. you’ve reviewed all your data thus far and are able to ask rich, complex questions.

Generally, the interview begins with thanking the person for agreeing to the interview and making sure s/he is comfortable and ready to begin.  Additionally, a review of the interview process you plan to use and any “announcements” are made, such as the interviewee may choose to skip any of the questions offered or terminate the interview at any time, an invitation to ask questions for clarification, etc.

The questions:

Generally, an interview proceeds from introductory questions to discovery to more explicit or involved questions. Introductory questions clarify details about the interviewee and his/her relation to the topic, the interviewee’s viewpoint that may influence his/her answers, and other mitigating factors.  Discovery questions then move the interviewee/interviewer relationship forward, making sure that a common understanding is reached.  For instance, discovery questions may elucidate definitions or conceptualizations or terminology so that the two people are “on the same page.”  The more explicit questions are those that are the “meat” of the interview, that directly, explicitly hit upon the topic and the interviewee’s knowledge.  They may uncover new information, ask for comparisons/contrasts, probe experiences, and so on.

To provoke rich, complex answers, questions should be:

  • Clearly stated—try to as simply state questions with clear objectives as possible.  The interviewee should immediately understand what is being asked and be able to answer.
  • Open-ended—not be able to be answered by one word or phrase: “No”, “Satisfied”, “Phoenix.”
  • Be un-predisposed or not biased—it shouldn’t be looking for a particular answer or include “loaded” language. For example, “What was your response to the event” is better than “how angry were you when they man-handled the boy?”
  • Usually start with “why” or “how” or “what”: “how do you feel about…” “What do you think of…” “Why do you surmise…”
  • Can follow up on previous answers for clarification or further explanation.  If an interviewee seems to be contradicting himself/herself, ask a clarification question like, “Earlier you stated…and now you just said…would you explain the difference here?”
  • Be organized but not rigid—you should plan for a set of logical questions building upon each other, but stay open to spontaneity, to the interviewee injecting something unplanned.  For instance, the interviewee may have an additional area of expertise that you are unaware of and may provide even richer understanding on your topic.  This sidebar may prove a worthwhile detour from your questions.  However, be able to bring the interview back on track if you find it headed into murky terrain.

One of your weekly blog posts should describe your preparations, selection of interview subject(s), and questions prepared. Why did you select the people you did?  What do you hope to gain from the interview? What questions did you prepare and how did you select them?  This post must be completed before March 14.


Once the interview is complete, thank the interviewee again.  This is a clear sign that the interview is drawing to a close. This may be a good time to discern if they have questions for you or to gain their reflection on the interview.  If you are audio-recording this interview, do NOT stop recording until you are sure all conversation is complete and you’re ready to walk out the door; many beginning researchers have prematurely stopped recording and then interviewees have said “THE” thing that would make the research superb.  You can still use the information, but you may lose the individual’s unique wording in the process.

A second of your weekly blog posts should report on how the interview(s) went. What kinds of information did you learn? How did it compare with your research to date? What new avenues for research did the interview prompt. This post must be completed by April 9.

For a longer, more nuanced explanation of qualitative interviewing, see: University of Michigan’s Center for Socially Engaged Design Interview Protocols