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Journal of Medical Imaging

and Radiation Sciences

Journal de l’imagerie médicale

et des sciences de la radiation
Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 43 (2012) 66-76
Directed Reading Article

Conducting a Research Interview

Amanda Bolderston, BSc, MSc, MRT(T), FCAMRTa*
British Columbia Cancer Agency, Surrey, British Columbia

and confidentiality. Finally, there is a discussion on the method of

analyzing qualitative interview data to prepare for its dissemination
By the end of this directed reading the learner will be able to: in the form of an article or presentation.
1. Describe the advantages and disadvantages of interviews as
a qualitative research tool
2. Understand how to optimally conduct an individual and 
group interview (focus group) Les entrevues de recherche constituent la pierre angulaire de la re-
3. Know how to analyze and interpret interview data cherche qualitative moderne. Les chercheurs d’experience tout
*This article is a Directed Reading and provides 2 hours of Cate- comme les novices peuvent les utiliser pour recueillir des donnees.
gory ‘‘A’’ RCEEM credits that may be applied to your professional Les entrevues individuelles consistent souvent en un continuum,
development credit program. To access the quiz questions, please ac- d’une forme structuree, semi-structuree ou non structuree. On utilise
tivate your online access to the journal at www.jmirs.org and select l’entrevue semi-structuree ou non structuree pour la recherche qual-
CME-Online Exams. You will receive an automatically generated itative, car elle permet de sonder et d’approfondir les questions
certificate if a minimum grade of 75% is achieved on the quiz. soulevees. Les interviewes peuvent exprimer leur point de vue en
prive, sans cadre impose par le chercheur. Les entrevues exigent par-
fois beaucoup de temps et requierent des habiletes de communica-
tion pour etablir une relation avec l’interviewe dans le but de
ABSTRACT favoriser son expression. Les entrevues de groupe, ou groupes
Interviews are a cornerstone of modern health care research and can echantillons, se composent habituellement de cinq a dix participants
be used by both experienced and novice researchers to gather data for qui echangent sur un sujet donne. Les entrevues de groupe fournis-
projects. For qualitative research, the semistructured or unstructured sent parfois moins de donnees que les entrevues individuelles. En
interview is often used and this can be carried out in various ways. outre, l’animation d’un groupe de discussion exige des competences
Methods discussed in this directed reading include the face-to-face particulieres et la capacite de s’assurer que tous les participants con-
interview, group interviews such as focus groups, and remote inter- tribuent a l’information a parts egales. On peut egalement utiliser les
view conducted by telephone or using the computer. These methods entrevues a distance, c’est-a-dire les entrevues telephoniques ou di-
are discussed in detail including advantages and disadvantages of verses methodes informatiques, dont Skype. Les entrevues a distance
each as well as accompanying practical considerations. Regardless sont parfois une methode facile et peu co^ uteuse de s’adresser aux gens
of the method used, there are several matters to be considered in disperses. Les donnees d’entrevue sont habituellement enregistrees
the process of planning, conducting, and analyzing interviews. These sur bande audio et retranscrites. La video et les notes servent a saisir
consist of initially selecting appropriate participants for the study, la communication non verbale et on ajoute les resultats aux notes
preparing a research protocol, and writing useful interview questions transcrites. L’analyse consiste parfois a categoriser les donnees en
designed to capture the information required. It is also important for themes (ce qu’on appelle parfois le codage). Cette etape peut se faire
the researcher to be able to develop and demonstrate rapport with the de differentes façons, mais les resultats sont une « carte routiere » des
participant and use attentive listening. Ethical issues relating to the conclusions qui ressortent de la recherche.
conduct of interviews are also considered, including consent, privacy,

This directed reading will provide medical radiation technol-
* Corresponding author: Amanda Bolderston, MRT, FCAMRT, MSc,
British Columbia Cancer Agency, Fraser Valley Centre, 13750 96th Avenue,
ogists (MRTs) with the knowledge needed to conduct a suc-
Surrey, BC, Canada V3V 1Z2. cessful research interview. This would be useful for
E-mail address: amanda.bolderston@bccancer.bc.ca (A. Bolderston). undergraduate or graduate students or any MRT who wishes
1939-8654/$ - see front matter Ó 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi: 10.1016/j.jmir.2011.12.002
to take the first steps in the field of qualitative research. Inter- The choice of approach depends on the question to be
views are a common method used to elicit qualitative data and answered and the purpose of the research. If the researcher is in-
provide insight into people’s behavior and the meaning they terested in what it is like for the participants to experience a cer-
ascribe to that behavior. In health care, interviews can be tain phenomena, and what the experience means to them,
used for examining people’s experiences of their illness and qualitative research is frequently the best available method
of the health services they receive or to look at health care [7]. Qualitative research can often be exploratory and inductive
practitioners’ needs and attitudes to their work [1]. There in nature, and is ideal when there is little known about a partic-
are several types of interviews, including newer approaches ular subject or issue. It can thus be used to build the foundation
such as focus groups and web-based interviewing. These will for further focused and deductive quantitative research [5].
be described, as will the fundamental steps involved in plan-
ning, conducting, and analyzing single or multiple interviews.
Qualitative Research Approaches

Background There are many traditions and methodologies that can be

classed as qualitative research [7]. Three main approaches are
Many medical radiation science (MRS) practitioners are grounded theory, phenomenology, and ethnography [8]. A
involved in research to some degree. MRS research is impor- detailed discussion of these is beyond the scope of this article;
tant in the promotion of evidence-based practice and can lead however, they are summarized briefly in Table 1.
to improvements in patient care and direct clinical practice Most qualitative research projects involve the collection of
[2]. Such research often adopts positivist approaches using participants’ views, which are transcribed and analyzed to
methods such as daily audit, survey research, or randomized reveal a story or conceptual framework that represents the
clinical trials [3]. Positivism assumes there is a single, unbi- meaning of the experience under investigation [5]. The
ased way to measure and view reality and was the dominant researcher is directly involved in gathering the data, and their
research paradigm during the early 20th century [4]. The background and assumptions will inform and shape the
uses of experimental and correlational studies (such as a clini- process. As such, qualitative research usually includes a consid-
cal trial to evaluate a new radiation therapy technique) are eration of reflectivity, as the researcher deliberates the ways that
examples of positivistic quantitative research methods that their involvement changes and acts on the data that they
test a theory, hypothesis, or assumption [5]. An alternative acquire. This may be written as a subsection of the final article.
approach is post-positivism that assumes human nature is
complex and multidimensional and seeks to ‘‘understand peo- Uses of Qualitative Research
ple and the social and cultural contexts within which they
Adams and Smith [3] have proposed a framework for the
live’’ [6]. Researchers working within a post-positivist para-
use of qualitative research in radiography. They suggest several
digm may use qualitative research to explore the meaning of
broad areas where the approach may be useful.
human experience, recognizing that there is rarely a single
cause and effect relationship behind human behavior [5]. 1. Intra-professional issues: There are many subgroups
An example of a qualitative research project might be an within the profession, such as educators, managers,
examination of the experiences of parents bringing their clinicians, rural practitioners, and users of different tech-
children for diagnostic imaging procedures. nology and broader disciplines. Qualitative approaches
Table 1
Brief overview of three qualitative traditions [7, 9, 21, 43]
Tradition Overview Applications Interview considerations
Grounded Based on the process of symbolic interactionism To study process issues in health care. Unstructured interviews with approximately
theory and originally developed by Glaser and For example, an examination of the 30 to 50 people. Enough that the
Strauss in the 1960s. Grounded theory process of quality management in researcher is able to saturate categories
studies the process of human interaction and imaging departments [40]. and detail a theory.
generates theories to explain human behavior.
Phenomenology Originating from the field of philosophy, To investigate the experiences of Long semistructured reflective interviews
phenomenology attempts to examine patients (or health care professionals) with up to 10 people.
(and understand) the lived experience undergoing imaging procedures
of individuals. The end result is to create or treatment.
a picture of the issue or phenomenon For example, how radiation therapists
for people other than the participants. view caring [41].
Ethnography Emerged from the field of anthropology Providing deep descriptions of health care Primary method of gathering data is
to explore, describe, and interpret the professionals, patients, students, etc. as observations supported by 30 to 50
culture of a group, including their cultural groups to facilitate understanding. interviews during an extended time
behavior and knowledge. For example, the needs of learning disabled in the field (eg, 6 months to a year).
Ethnography can be etic (from an patients undergoing a diagnostic imaging
outsider’s view) or emic (looking procedure [42].
at the insider’s perspective).

A. Bolderston/Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 43 (2012) 66-76 67

are ideal to look at the perceptions and experiences of respondent’s train of thought and to explore tangential areas
these groups as decisions are made regarding future that may arise [10]. The interviewer may rephrase the questions
practice priorities, budgeting, strategic planning, educa- and how they are asked depending on the individual participants.
tional curriculum development, and many other areas.
2. Group interviews
2. Inter-professional issues: In the era of interprofessional
collaboration, qualitative research can explore topics of Often called focus groups, this method allows a number of
teamwork and territoriality between MRS practitioners participants to be interviewed at once. Group interviews
and other allied health professionals including nursing usually comprise five to 10 participants who have a facilitated
and medical colleagues. discussion on a given topic. The focus is on gathering narra-
3. Patient care: Qualitative research is ideal to examine tives, rather than being a discussion, problem-solving session,
the patient’s experience of their illness, diagnostic proce- or decision-making group [12]. Clarke [13] suggests focus
dures, and treatment as well as looking at the complex- groups work well because ‘‘group members influence each
ities of the provider–patient relationship. other with their comments, and participants may form opin-
ions after considering the views of others.tapping into this
Introduction to the Interview interpersonal dialogue can help identify common experience
and shared concerns’’ (p. 395).
The participants’ thoughts, ideas, and perceptions are the
primary data of qualitative research and can be gathered 3. Telephone interviews
in various ways. Methods include participant observation, The telephone interview is useful when collecting data from
document or text review, interviews, and reflections from par- geographically remote participants [14]. In addition, because
ticipants (such as diaries). One tool that is often accessible to there is no travel involved, they can be both cost- and time-
the MRS practitioner is the interview. Interviews are ways of effective compared to in-person interviews. Phone interviews
listening to and gaining an understanding of people’s stories. are increasingly used in opinion and social policy research, but
Stories have been the way people have made meaning of their generally with quantitative surveys as opposed to more open-
experiences throughout recorded history and they provide ended interviews [15]. However, their use in qualitative research
a context for their behavior [8]. Interviews are used primarily is increasing as evidence mounts to demonstrate that telephone
in phenomenology, in which the researcher is interested in the interviews can be as productive as more traditional methods [16].
individual participant’s lived experience [9] rather than
a group process (as in grounded theory) or examination of 4. E-mail or internet interview
the culture of a particular group (as in ethnography). Another form of remote interviewing, the online interview
Traditionally, qualitative interviews comprise a face-to-face in- taps into the potential of the computer as a methodological
terview–interviewee dyad (or pairing). However, in the past few tool for research. Semistructured online interviews and virtual
years, data have been gathered in increasingly diverse ways such focus groups can be conducted with e-mail, instant messaging
as focus groups, using the telephone, e-mail, and internet [7]. (IM), videoconferencing, chat rooms, discussion groups,
Advantages of the interview include that the interviewees can listservs, and more [17].
express their viewpoint, in private, without a framework imposed
by the researcher. Depending on the type of interview, the re- The Interview Process
searcher can adapt the line of questioning to explore emerging
topicsdan approach that is not usually possible in survey re- 1. Selecting participants
search, for example. However, the process requires a level of in- Who is interviewed depends on the intention of the research.
terpersonal skill to develop a rapport with the participant to In qualitative investigation, sampling is usually purposeful in
encourage conversation. Because ‘‘an interview is more than nature. Purposeful sampling involves the researcher selecting
just an interesting conversation’’ [10, p. 161], the process requires potential participants who represent the group to be studied
careful preplanning and, as such, can be very time consuming. with the aim of talking to a reasonable cross-section of people.
This may be augmented by ‘‘snowball sampling’’ in which the
Types of Interview
participants identify other possible candidates who fit the study
There are several kinds of interview. criteria [18]. For a typical phenomenological study, the total
number may be around 10 participants. This differs from
1. Face-to-face interviews
theory-testing quantitative research in which random or proba-
These are carried out one to one with an interviewer and bility sampling is often used. For quantitative studies, the sample
interviewee. Individual interviews are often described as a contin- size is determined by the optimum number needed to make valid
uum, from structured to semistructured to unstructured [11]. inferences about the total population to generalize the results
For qualitative research, the semistructured or unstructured [19]. The total number thus may be extremely large (as in a mul-
interview is used, which allows probing and clarification of issues ticenter randomized controlled trial). For qualitative research, in
that are raised. With a semistructured interview format, the which generalizability is not the aim, participants are selected that
agenda is relatively set, but the interviewer is free to follow the may have insight and understanding about the research topic.

68 A. Bolderston/Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 43 (2012) 66-76

In general, participant numbers are less than those in quantitative listener [8]. When looking at the final transcript, for example,
research. Even very large qualitative studies do not usually in- the ideal example would be mostly unbroken blocks of text
volve more than 50 or 60 interviews [20]. indicating the participant had spoken most of the time
An initial contact (in person, by phone, or by e-mail) serves [21]. There are several pitfalls for interviewers during an inter-
to discover if the participant is willing to be interviewed, would view, which include:
be available at suitable times, and has the necessary experience
 Correcting/educating the participant: MRTs play an
to be involved in the study. The interview date, time, and topic
important role in patient education. However, during
can be arranged beforehand with a letter or e-mail of introduc-
an interview we are not there to teach the participant
tion that can contain the consent form and research preamble.
or point out errors in their narrative. If there are major
Bell [10] reminds us that ‘‘you’re not in charge: the respondents
misunderstandings that the MRT feels may be detrimen-
are and you need them more than they need you’’ (p. 168).
tal to the participant’s health, these can be gently cor-
Thus the researcher needs to be clear how long the interview
rected after the interview is over.
will take, and provide contact information in case the
 Not paying attention: a good interviewer can pick up
interviewee wants to withdraw or change the time. If at all
a conversation after the participant has become side-
possible, the interview should be conducted in a location
tracked because they are listening attentively and follow
convenient (and comfortable) for the participant.
the participant’s train of thought. If asked ‘‘now, where
There is an inherent power dynamic between the inter-
was I?’’ the interviewer should be able to come back
viewer and the interviewee that needs to be managed carefully.
with the salient points and help the participant get back
An existing hierarchical relationship (for example, an MRT(T)
on track.
interviewing a patient they have known over a lengthy course
 Turning the interview into a counseling session: MRTs
of treatment) can make an unbiased and honest interview
are often trained in ‘‘reflective conversation’’ or
difficult, so choosing another interviewer may be the best
‘‘empathic listening’’ and use tools such as summarizing
solution. In each case, however, the interviewer should make
comments made by the patient, or reflecting back how
every effort to remain nonjudgmental.
the patients may be feeling (for example, saying ‘‘that
2. Preparing the protocol sounds like it upset you’’ when a patient exhibits a strong
emotion). Although this is useful for practice to reassure
An interview protocol outlines the purpose of the study
patients that they have been heard and understood, it
and the steps to be followed and may be sometimes requested
is not appropriate for interviewing as it can stop a free-
by the research ethics board (REB) when applying for a review.
flowing narrative in its tracks [21].
Writing a detailed protocol ahead of time will allow the
 Being afraid of silence: often people need time to marshal
researcher to thoroughly think through the project, the
their thoughts, they may even be reflecting on the topic at
main interview questions and possible follow-up questions
hand for the first time. The researcher should allow some
to tease out the information required.
time for the participant to think and answer the question
A protocol often includes:
before jumping in with the next one. A good rule of
 A description of the primary and secondary research thumb is to wait 7 seconds before saying anything else
questions [22]. Used with effective follow-up questions when neces-
 The personnel involved in the study sary, such a pause can prompt additional information
 The process to be followed by the interviewer from most participants.
 Cues for a preamble discussing confidentiality issues and  Demonstrating bias: although researchers should feel close
consent with the participant. This would note that the to their topic and feel excited and engaged, they also need
participant can withdraw their consent at any time to be unbiased and open to the process of listening and
without prejudice or bias from the interviewer understanding their participants’ viewpoints. Personal
 The questions to be asked (usually four to five primary biases can sometimes affect both the direction of the
questions) interview and the participant’s responses [7]. Positive or
 Follow-up probes to help the participants expand on their negative responses to comments made by the participant
answers (see the following section) can convey approval or disapproval and will influence the
 A final thank you statement [7]. data gathered. Short neutral verbal responses (such as
‘‘that’s interesting’’) can be used, but comments such as
More detailed protocols can also include a literature review
‘‘good,’’ ‘‘excellent,’’ or ‘‘that’s correct’’ should be avoided.
to set the research question into context and provide evidence
This also applies to non verbal communication (such as
of the need for the study. A REB may also require a summary
nodding or frowning) and body language.
of how the data will be analyzed.
3. The role of the interviewer 4. Interview questions
Although much emphasis is placed in writing appropriate It is hard to overstate the importance of designing good
questions, the main skill the interviewer needs is to be a good questions and it is well worth taking the time to get them

A. Bolderston/Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 43 (2012) 66-76 69

right. Interview questions should be clear, fairly short, and
conversational in tone. Try to use words that the participants • Please say more about that.
• Can you give me more details?
would use when discussing the issue as opposed to technical • What is it about ...?
language or jargon. Open-ended questions are those that • Tell me more about ...
• What is your experience with ...?
won’t elicit a ‘‘yes’’ or ‘‘no’’ answer, and are used to allow • Describe ...
people to tell their story in their own words. • Imagine ...
• What caused you to ...?
The questions will be developed over a period and should • What features of (the topic) do you particularly like/dislike ...?
be informed by the preliminary literature review that may re- • How…When….Where….How often do you…?
veal similar previous studies and questions used. A group of In general, try to avoid “why” questions because they can sometimes
researchers will also improve face validity of the questions as make people defensive.
there will be a number of (hopefully) expert viewpoints. It
is also helpful to request the opinion of other health care pro-
Figure 1. Examples of spontaneous follow up questions [19].
fessionals and key stakeholders where appropriate. For exam-
ple, radiologist or radiation oncology colleagues will often
5. Timing
provide valuable feedback about the form and appropriateness
of draft questions. Useful things to ask about the questions How long the interview lasts can depend on a number of
include: factors, including the type of interview used. A phone inter-
view, for example, can be conducted fairly quickly because
 Will these questions get us the information that we need? there may be less rapport building or group process to
 Are they easy to understand? Are any of them confusing? manage. A focus group, on the other hand, can feasibly be
 Do they flow well from one topic to another? up to 2 hours long. In judging how long to assign for an
 Does the language we have used reflect that of the group interview, consider the following:
to be studied?
 Have we missed anything? [22]  How complex the questions are
 How many key questions you have
A pilot test should always be conducted with a small num-  The participant’s previous experience with interviews
ber of people before the study. This will allow modification of  The size of the group
any badly worded or confusing questions and improve the  The level of discussion you want
validity of the process [8].  The participant’s (and researcher’s) availability
There are generally three types of questions that are asked
in an interview [22]. For in-depth face-to-face phenomenological interviewing, it
is important to try to understand the participant’s life
experience and how it relates to the phenomenon being
1. Main interview questions: These focus on the primary
studied. A single interview is often not sufficient. Multiple
objectives of the study and there are usually four or
interviews (with the same interviewer) can allow for increased
five of them. After the preamble, the interview questions
methodological rigor, as the researcher engages and connects
will be asked directly, before doing anything else to
with the participant for a longer time allowing a deeper
encourage a response.
relationship to develop. More than one interview will also pro-
2. Planned follow-up questions or probes: These are the
vide opportunities for the interviewer to confirm, clarify, and
questions that make an interview question more specific
build on information given in previous interviews [23]. Seid-
and help direct the participant to the central issues of
man recommends a series of three interviews as optimal [8].
the study.
3. Spontaneous follow-up questions: These are the ques- 6. The preamble
tions that the interviewer will ask after listening to the
It is usual to begin an interview with a brief introduction and
first responses to a question to help encourage the par-
an explanation of the research study as part of the informed
ticipant to say more. Frequent and thoughtful spontane-
consent process. The researcher should touch on the research
ous follow-up questions add richness and validity to the
procedure and explain how the results will eventually be dis-
data because they help clarify the meaning of the issue
seminated and how the research may be used to influence prac-
or question for the participant (Figure 1).
tice (if known). It is important to let the participants know how
A useful final question could be ‘‘is there anything else you their comments will be used, especially if it is anticipated that
would like me to know?’’ In some cases, this question can be large sections of text will be incorporated into the published
the starting point for the real interview as the answers can work. The participants should be reminded of their right to
be very revealing [21]. For e-mail or phone interviews, the withdraw from the study/interview at any time, and told
questions can often be sent ahead of time. In this case, there what measures will be taken to protect their anonymity at all
may be the likelihood of misunderstanding without face-to- stages in the process. For example, they will be identified in
face contact so the questions need to be clear and self- the transcripts and final publication by a pseudonym and
explanatory [17]. identifying remarks will be changed (such as names or job titles)

70 A. Bolderston/Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 43 (2012) 66-76

and that data (including the original tapes) will be kept in a se- with culturally diverse populations because they can tap into
cure location and destroyed after use. They should know that implicit shared and common group knowledge [1].
they are free to make comments without judgment, and that One of the strengths of this type of interview is the tendency
the researcher is interested in their honest opinion. This discus- for humans to socialize and interact in groups. Members of the
sion will serve to clarify that the participant knows what the focus group will influence each other by responding to the ideas
focus of the study is, and ensure they know their rights as and themes raised in the group and conflicting opinions may be
a research subject. Written consent should also be obtained illuminated [5]. This can sometimes add richer information
before the interview begins. than conducting individual interviews with the same number
of participants. Kitzinger [1] also suggests that they can encour-
7. Managing the interview
age participation from people who may not wish to be inter-
Depending on the type of interview, the location should be viewed on their own or who feel they have ‘nothing to say’
private, quiet, and allow for an uninterrupted experience [23]. but may become engaged in the group discussion. In addition,
Turn off electronic devices such as phones or televisions and time is saved by interviewing people together (although
minimize other competing distractions as much as possible transcribing the audiotapes can be more difficult with a number
[21]. Usually interviews are audiotaped or videotaped and of different voices).
the subsequent transcripts supplemented with notes taken Group interviews may be less useful when dealing with
during the experience. All recording equipment should be a sensitive issue. People may be reluctant to voice their
checked beforehand and spare tapes and/or batteries should experiences in a group setting (unless they are very familiar
be available if needed. and comfortable with their fellow group members). Also there
The participants are volunteering their own time; there- may not be sufficient time to plumb the depths of the topic
fore, the researcher should ensure that the interview begins with each individual participant. However, sometimes
and ends at the agreed time. Providing water, coffee, or tea discussion of taboo topics can be opened up and normalized
is a way to build rapport and allow for some small talk before using a group interview because the more open members of
the interview begins. It is polite to send a note or e-mail the group can voice issues that others may be reluctant to
thanking the participant for their involvement. If agreed bring up.
beforehand, a copy of the final paper could be made available There are some concerns with the use of focus groups
as a courtesy. within qualitative research because there is a possibility that
individual voices may be lost within the group [25]. However,
Specialized Interviews many authors suggest that, with careful facilitation, they can
be a valuable data-gathering tool [26] and also allow the
Apart from talking to research participants face-to-face,
participants to co-create the research data [1]. Conducting
there are several other ways to gather data using the interview
a focus group requires the ability to ensure all participants
format. Group and remote interviews (using the internet or
are contributing equally and group facilitation requires
phone) can often be convenient and economical in terms of
a particular skill set.
time and budget. However, the choice of interview also
Logistically, the same issues with developing questions
depends on the study and its ‘‘topics, characteristics of the
and managing the environment apply. Other issues to be
sample you are interested in, its philosophical assumptions
considered include the following.
and so on’’ [24, p. 102].
 The use of a co-facilitator: it is helpful to have an extra
1. Group Interviews
person involved as well as the primary facilitator. The
Focus groups were first used in the 1930s in the social co-facilitator can make notes to supplement the audio-
sciences and psychology, and then increasingly in market re- tape. Writing down who is talking (even using initials)
search. Today they are used in qualitative research to gain can help with the transcription later, and noting any non-
an understanding about how people feel about a particular verbal communication can also be useful. Overseeing the
issue. The interviewer is usually referred to as a facilitator or audio equipment is also a key role for the co-facilitator; for
moderator to reflect the increased importance of managing example, making sure the microphones are placed appro-
group dynamics and processes. priately and turning the tape over (if not using a digital
There are usually six to eight participants in the group. recorder). The co-facilitator can also ask questions toward
Because the interaction of the group will influence the quality the end of the session, if he or she feels that something has
of data (the transcript of the group discussion), the group been missed. Finally, it is valuable to have an extra person
should be relatively homogeneous. This means that ideally for post-session analysis and debriefing.
people in the group have fairly similar backgrounds. As an  Managing the group process: sometimes people are reluc-
example, in a group where there is a power differential (per- tant to speak in a group, or speak too much! It is impor-
haps MRTs and physicians, or MRTs and patients) discussion tant that all voices are heard, and there are a number of
may be affected by one group’s reluctance to disclose or talk tips to ensure all participants contribute to the discussion
about certain issues. Focus groups can be especially effective (Figure 2). Setting some ground rules at the start of the

A. Bolderston/Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 43 (2012) 66-76 71

participant) cannot be used over the phone [15]. There also
For dominant talkers: tends to be more of a ‘‘task focus’’ because of social
• Withdraw eye contact expectations of the nature of the medium itself. However,
• Shift attention, "Thanks, Chris. Now I would like to hear how this potential drawback may be diminishing as cell phones
the rest of you feel about…”
become the norm and conversations are often now primarily
For shy people: social and/or trivial in nature [24]. There is some discussion
• Try for appropriate eye contact
in the literature that interviewing older people may be more
• Ask that everyone (or a whole section of the table) respond to challenging because this demographic can still be quite task-
a question oriented when it comes to using the phone. In addition, hearing
• Call the person by name for a response. Use this approach
sparingly and only when it seems appropriate. loss is more common in older people, which can affect tele-
phone interaction. It is also acknowledged that these are some-
For rambling types:
what sweeping generalizations, not hard and fast rules [24].
• Withdraw eye contact after the talk gets repetitive It has been claimed that relying solely on phone interviews
• Turn slightly away from the speaker
may ‘‘exclude and disenfranchise those without a telephone’’
• Do not take notes or reinforce the talk in any way
• At a pause, say, "Thank you. Now I want to get some other [29, p. 317]. However, a Statistics Canada report [30] from
people to jump in here." Repeat the question, if necessary, to 2008 reported that the proportion of households without
pull the focus back.
• (Rarely) Interrupt. "Excuse me, Susan. I'm sorry to have to any phone service was only 0.9%, indicating that this now
interrupt you, but I see other people would also like to answer seems to be a moot point.
this question and I want to make sure they have time." Then
repeat the question.
Particular issues related to conducting a successful phone
interview include the following.

Figure 2. Managing focus groups [19].  There may be lower response rates for phone interviews
if the phone call was unsolicited and unexpected. With
established procedures for recruiting willing participants,
session can help; for example, to ask participants not to response rates are usually similar to (or higher than) other
interrupt when someone else is speaking, to respect all forms of interview [14].
opinions as valid and to keep discussions confidential  As with a face-to-face interview, a private space with
when the group is over. minimal background noise and distraction is important,
especially if a speakerphone is used. If the interview is
2. Telephone Interviews to be taped, permission must be first sought from the par-
ticipant. If the researcher is taking notes, the participant
Remote interviews (such as phone, e-mail, or internet) allow
should be aware of this so that they are prepared for
participants to be interviewed in a familiar environment, which
possible pauses in the conversation [15].
may allow them to be more comfortable expressing their
 Because there is no visual contact with the participant, the
opinions [17]. Phone interviews have a number of advantages
researcher should confirm that he or she is talking to the
compared to face-to-face interviews and have been found to
right person before the interview begins.
be an efficient and reliable form of collecting data [14, 15].
 As a rule, phone interviews should be fairly short: after
They can also be a convenient and cost-effective way of talking
30 minutes or so fatigue or inattention may impact the
to people who are geographically dispersed. Indeed, it has been
quality of the data. Longer interviews may be better
estimated that using the phone can reduce research costs by
suited to the face-to-face format [28].
50% to 75% [27].
 When conducting phone interviews, the interviewer
De Vaus [28] recommends the use of phone interviews
needs to have good verbal communication skills to estab-
because they are less subject to the issue of reactivity, because
lish rapport, encourage responses with strong probes, and
interviewees express opinions that they deem socially accept-
keep the interview on track. In particular, Wilson [29]
able rather than their actual beliefs. In fact, some authors
suggests that interviewers make use of publications
have suggested that anonymous telephone interviews may en-
developed for nurses undertaking telephone work with
able participants to be more honest [17] or allow a richer dis-
patients. To minimize the tendency to keep the conversa-
cussion or discuss potentially embarrassing topics [16]. Phone
tion short and task focused, the interviewer should be
interviews also minimize the impact of the interviewer’s gen-
explicit about the expectations from the beginning. Also
der, race, and classdall characteristics that have been shown
checking that it is a good time to talk and letting the
to alter the interviewee’s responses [14, 29]. This distancing
participant know approximately how long the process
affect afforded by the phone has been dubbed ‘‘pseudanonym-
will take often encourages more interaction [14].
ity’’ and may also affect internet or e-mail interviewing [29].
There are some inherent challenges in using phone inter-
3. E-mail or Internet Interviews
views. Conversations can sometimes be less smooth-flowing
than face-to-face interviews; one reason is that nonverbal cues The internet is an increasingly popular method of gather-
or prompts (such as nodding or smiling to encourage the ing qualitative data, using tools such as semistructured online

72 A. Bolderston/Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 43 (2012) 66-76

interviews and virtual focus groups [17]. Advantages are popularity of IM, its users are not representative of people
similar to that of phone interviews, namely the ability to reach who use e-mail or the internet in general [32]. However,
remote participants, potential reduction in reactive bias as the use of e-mail and IM is growing rapidly as people adopt
well as efficiencies in time and cost. The majority of these new technology such as smart phones and tablet PCs. There
interview methods are text-based, which make them different may also be issues with both sound and video quality for
from more traditional methods of interviewing [24]. Several synchronous interviews [24], although this is improving as
studies indicate that the quality of data gathered electronically hardware and bandwidth progress.
is comparable to responses gained from more traditional
methods [17]. One potential drawback of using a text-based
Ethical Issues
medium is that nonverbal nuances indicating emotion are
not captured (such as discomfort, anger, or amusement that Informed consent and issues of privacy and confidentiality
can be seen and noted during a face-to-face or group inter- are basic principles of ethical research conduct [35]. Some of
view). However, Kenny noted in her discussion of an online the ways these issues relate to the conduct of interviews are as
focus group that keyboards can convey ‘‘strong opinion’’ to follows.
some degree with the use of capitals and various punctuation
1. Informed consent
marks [31]. Text can also incorporate emoticons (such as
smiley faces) and internet shorthand such as LOL (laughing As in all research, the risks and benefits need to be explained
out loud). A significant advantage of text is the reduction to the respondent so they are able to make an informed decision
of the need for transcription, because data can be saved or to participate (or not). They should be aware of the research topic
downloaded directly from the interview [17]. and the sorts of questions they may be asked as well as how the
The main distinction in this method is between synchro- data will be stored and used. Potential harm is limited when in-
nous and asynchronous interviews, and both types allow terviews are used to collect data; however, there is always the pos-
individual or group interviews. sibility of mental or psychological harm from sensitive questions.
In qualitative research, especially projects that may be lengthy,
1. Synchronous interviews: This method most closely
consent can be verified in an ongoing fashion (‘‘process con-
resembles a traditional research interview in that it takes
sent’’). For example, in e-mail interviewing that takes place
place in real time using online venues such as video-
over several months of exchanges, it would be prudent to ask
conferencing (eg, Skype), IM, or internet chat rooms.
the participant as you go along whether they still understand
The most commonly discussed method is IM, which is
the research purpose and are still happy to be involved [24].
generally held to allow a less formal and more spontane-
When using the internet or e-mail for research purposes,
ous method of interaction than e-mail interviews [32].
issues of privacy and consent are equally important. In chat
Ensuring that the participant is not multitasking during
rooms, forums, and other online venues, the lines between
the interview process (and not checking e-mail, Face-
what is public and private are sometimes blurred [35], but
book, and so on) can be a challenge but the preamble
researchers in this domain need to be sensitive to this ambiguity
should include a request to focus on the conversation
and follow the usual stipulations for informed consent. It has
only while the interview takes place [24]. IM can also
also been noted that establishing participants’ authentic identi-
be used for group interviews. Similar to a focus group,
ties can sometimes be problematic online [32]. The degree to
the interaction of the participants can spark interesting
which this is important will depend on the study, and proof
discussion and debate.
of identity could be obtained in other ways if needed [24].
2. Asynchronous interviews: These interviews are usually
conducted by e-mail over an extended period, and 2. Privacy and confidentiality
involve multiple e-mail exchanges between participant
However the data are acquired, all personal information
and interviewer. They can also be conducted using
should be made as anonymous as possible (for example, using
bulletin boards, discussion groups, web/internet forums,
a code number for each respondent). Potential participants
mailing lists, or listservs. E-mail interviews are well
should be made aware of how data will be kept confidential
suited as participants who need extra time to reflect
[23]. Increasingly, REB requires information regarding the
and frame responses to questions or who are nonverbal.
security, accessibility, and length of data storage.
For example, a study of traumatic brain injury survivors
In various forms of online interviewing, it is hard to promise
with cognitive-linguistic impairments used e-mail inter-
confidentiality and/or anonymity because the data may be
viewing very successfully [33]. In addition, because of
archived and accessible to service providers or systems
the nature of the exchange, a relationship often develops
administrators or even search engines (such as IM data) [24]. Ad-
between researcher and participant that is seen by many
ditionally, participants should be made aware that even though
authors as a positive benefit to this method [34].
identifiers are removed, if they are quoted verbatim in a publica-
Obviously, for e-mail or internet interviewing, the use of tion there is a possibility they can be identified in this way [35].
technology is restricted to those who own (and can use) the Occasionally during an interview participants may reveal
necessary hardware and software. For example, despite the more information than they had intended or make a comment

A. Bolderston/Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 43 (2012) 66-76 73

such as ‘‘don’t put this in the report’’. A participant has the  During analysis: make sure the themes (or codes), as they
right to retract any information he or she does not want emerge, are consistent across all data. This entails cross-
used. Not complying with the participant’s wishes may have checking and making notes about what the definitions
serious implications for the participant personally and result of the themes are. If there is a team of researchers,
in loss of trust for the researcher [21]. communicate regularly and share notes and discussions
It should also be noted that researchers are obligated to about the analysis as it occurs [7].
provide confidentiality only to the extent allowed by law
[21]. Suicide threats and crimes such as child abuse should
Analyzing Interview Data
always be reported in the very rare event that they are revealed
during the interview. Data from interviews consist of the transcripts of the
proceedings, which can be augmented by field notes to cap-
ture nonverbal communication. Analysis can be an ongoing
Issues of Validity and Reliability process that is conducted concurrently with gathering the
data [7]. Transcription is an arduous and time-consuming
In qualitative research, Creswell [7] describes validity as
process; it can take on average 4 hours to type up 1 hour of
the researcher ensuring that their findings are accurate from
a taped interview [10]. However, it is an excellent way to
the perspective of the participant(s), the researcher and/or
become very familiar with the data. Hiring a transcriptionist
the readers of the final account. A few ways to ensure accuracy
can be costly, but does expedite the process considerably.
that can be used are as follows.
Analysis usually involves categorizing the data into themes
 Questions: ensure the questions are relevant to the or categories (sometimes referred to as coding). This can be
research question and enough time has been dedicated done in a variety of ways according to the type of research
to thinking about and preparing the questions before being conducted (eg, grounded theory). The basis of most
the interviews occur. approaches, however, is fairly similar. The overall data are
 Timing: remember that timing is important both in examined as a whole, and the researcher attempts to become
terms of allowing enough of it for the interview to unfold very familiar with the ‘‘voices’’ of the participants. It is impor-
and making sure the timing of the interview is appropri- tant that this stage is not rushed, as important information
ate (eg, not too long after a particular event that the can be missed.
participant may have trouble recollecting it).
‘‘We have moments of illumination. Things ‘come together.’
 Triangulation: use different sources of data in conjunc- The problem is that we could be wrong . we do this by dif-
tion with the interview such as a chart audit, survey, or ferentially weighting information, and by looking at part of
observation study. the data, not all of them’’ [39, p. 253–254].
 Member checking: share the themes with the participants
and allow them to comment on their accuracy.
 Use of rich description: ensure the write up of the
research contains a strong sense of the participants’ voices Articles:
and a detailed description of the situation (including any Britten N. Qualitative interviews in medical research. BMJ. 1995; 311: (6999):
251 – 253
nonverbal communication). This allows readers to gain Byrne M. Interviewing as a data collection method. AORN J. 2001; 74:(2):
a realistic impression of the data. 233-235

 Bias (reflectivity): remember that researchers can share Kitzinger J. Qualitative research: Introducing focus groups. BMJ. 1995; 311
:(7000): 299 - 302
their own bias or perspectives and how they feel this Books:
may have shaped their interpretation of the data. King N, Horrocks C. Interviews in Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage publications; 2010.
 Negative case analysis: consider that the researcher will Patton M Q. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, 3rd ed. Thousand
deliberately look for contrasting experiences/examples to Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; 2001.
disprove emerging theories. Seidman I. Interviewing As Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in
Education and the Social Sciences. New York, Teacher’s College Press;
 External auditing: consider including an independent 2006.
review of the themes by research team members or a re- Miles MB, Huberman AM. Qualitative data analysis. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks,
California. Sage. 1994
view of themes by peer(s) not involved in the research
to provide a more objective assessment of the process International Training and Education Centre for Health (2009). Technical
and results [7, 36–38]. Implementation Guide. Qualitative Interviews and Organizing and Conducting
Focus Groups
Available at
Reliability indicates that the research approach is consistent http://www.go2itech.org/resources/technical-implementation-guides
and well documented; for example, would another researcher United States Agency for International Development’s Center for
following the same approach come up with similar results Development Information and Evaluation. (1996). Conducting Key Informant
Interviews. (Performance Monitoring and Evaluation TIPS) Available at
[38]? Procedures to ensure reliability can include the following. http://www.usaid.gov/pubs/usaid_eval/pdf_docs/pnabs541.pdf

 Before analysis: ensure that the transcripts do not contain

any obvious errors. Figure 3. Selected resources.

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