So, you’re a moderator. A professional researcher, a “talker-for-hire” with years of experience conducting one-on-one in-person interviews, moderating focus groups and conducting countless Web-assisted telephone interviews. And when you sit down in front of that one-way mirror at a focus group facility or begin dialing a participant’s phone number for a telephone interview, you are always prepared. You’ve invested a great deal of time preparing background detail on the topic at hand, and you’ve spent hours composing and revising thorough and compelling discussion guides that are sure to impress the clients behind the glass or eavesdropping on the call. But there is one thing that can catch you by surprise: the dreaded “dud” interviewee.
Duds come in many varieties, ranging from interviewees who are entirely disengaged, rushed or distracted, to those who are borderline unqualified to discuss the topic to any compelling degree. Although it may not be possible to eliminate all duds from your day of fielding, there are a number of different, and relatively easy-to-employ, strategies that we at Six Degrees use to increase the probability of getting a good interviewee while limiting the likelihood of that dreaded dud. Here are a few:
Recruit the right people (basic screening)
Let’s start with a no-brainer. Even though you always work closely with the recruiter and client to ensure that the screener is precisely targeting the interviewees that the client wants to hear from, don’t miss an opportunity to play a consultative role to avoid recruiting duds. For example, let’s say your client wants to recruit geriatric interviewees, but the research design is a Web-assisted telephone interface with lots of shared visual stimuli. One way to avoid this potential dud-making scenario is to nudge the client to add criteria to the screener beyond age requirements, such as a question or two to assess level of computer literacy.
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In order to avoid the “rushed” respondent type of dud, ask the recruiter to make an extra effort during scheduling to ensure that the interviewee will not be pressed for time. If they can get a verbal commitment that the interviewee will attend the interview and be present throughout, will not have pressing appointments immediately afterward, etc., you’ve increased the odds of avoiding this type of dud.
Really recruit the right people (psychological screening)
If you conduct research that entails plumbing for insightful, emotional responses, as is our specialty at Six Degrees, a particularly troubling type of dud is the interviewee who is perfectly qualified and undistracted but who simply cannot seem to provide or access a single emotional insight to further the research. Let’s say that your research objective requires extracting emotional insights from individuals who are not always known for going past their rational response set, like having a more evidence-based physician respond to psycho-sensory stimuli to capture her feelings about a new medication. This is a scenario bound to lead to multiple dud interviews. One way to avoid the misplacement of a nonpsychologically minded person into a psychologically complex research task is to design one or two screener questions that assess the respondent’s potential openness to novel stimuli. For example, ask them to imagine that they can go back in time and speak to any historical figure for a few minutes. Ask them to whom they would choose to speak, what they would ask and why. Assess level of elaboration, detail and creativity in each response to see if they’re actually a suitable, articulate fit for the research.
Another approach to consider would be to add a brief personality inventory to the screener, like Sam Gosling’s Ten Item Personality Inventory, which allows for relatively efficient and meaningful assessments of a respondent’s baseline openness, extraversion, agreeableness, etc. (see http://gosling.psy.utexas.edu/scales-weve-developed/ten-item-personality-measure-tipi/).
Make an effort to connect during the interview
Even the smallest investment in rapport-building with an interviewee can go a long way toward avoiding an eventual dud of an interview. At Six Degrees, our moderators always employ a couple of “icebreaker” strategies that help build connection, which in turn relaxes and builds engagement with the respondent. One simple approach is to always personally meet the interviewee in the waiting area prior to the interview. Not only is this a polite gesture, but it also allows you to have some extra time to speak casually “off-line” with the interviewee. You can gauge, away from the one-way mirror, how the person is doing psychologically (anxious, active, low energy, tired after a long day, etc.) and adjust your interviewing style accordingly. This approach isn’t restricted to in-person interviews either. Participants on telephone interviews will often arrive at the virtual lobby of a conference call a few minutes ahead of schedule. Hop on that call a bit early too and use that time to build rapport through casual conversation.
Another rapport-building step that we often use is to ask a novel or unexpected question near the outset of the interview. These types of questions don’t need to be directly or even tangentially related to the research. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. The interviewee is coming into the research with preset expectations about the topic at hand – which are also colored by any other past research experiences they’ve had – and expect content-heavy questions right from the start. In contrast, it’s actually nice to see how pleasantly surprised they are when asked to share something interesting about themselves or “what’s your favorite app?” Really listen and tie their responses back into the narrative during the conversation to further build rapport and deliver a great interview.
Ultimately, you owe it to yourself as a well-prepared moderator – not to mention owing a great product to your client – to limit the likelihood of a less-than-stellar interview. Put sufficient effort into creating a thoughtful yet targeted screener to filter out potentially ill-fitting interviewees, work to maximize engagement of those in front of you via rapport-building efforts, and dodge the dud.