Asking questions person to person is an important feature of social life – it is something we all do all the time. Interviews in evaluation and research are a focused and systematic way of asking more or less structured questions of people who can provide the information needed. The focused and systematic approach is assisted by the use of an interview schedule, which is frequently used to guide an interview towards the data of interest. Interview schedules can range from a series of very precise, fixed answer questions to very broad general questions where an interview is conducted much as an ordinary conversation, but with the difference that one participant to the dialogue (the interviewer) is trying to obtain information and understanding from the other about some very specific issues.
The former type of interview, with closed fixed questions, is essentially a spoken questionnaire, and is used where a written questionnaire would not be feasible. These are generally when the respondents are difficult-to-reach groups (unlikely in probation, market research is the classic example), groups which have difficulty reading written English (more common in probation evaluation), and as a means of improving response rates. Interviews are much more expensive than questionnaires because of the time required of the interviewer, but response rates are generally very much higher with an interview than with a postal questionnaire. A useful alternative to the face-to-face interview is the telephone interview, which also has generally high response rates but takes less interviewer time.
The qualitative, open interview is guided by a ‘focused interview schedule’, which is a list of the broad questions to be asked and lists of points which the evaluator wants to be covered in the response. Qualitative interviewing is a skilled task requiring an interviewer who understands the purpose of the interviews and the sorts of issues that are of interest to the evaluator. This knowledge will enable the interviewer to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the respondent, following and probing relevant issues raised in the response but not identified on the interview schedule.
Interviews are time consuming in both collection and analysis, so it is important to devise a schedule which obtains the required information as quickly and as reliably as possible. It is critical that sufficient time and attention is given to preparing and piloting interview schedules.