Seventeen types of interviewing questions
By Steve Portigal at 9:28 am, Tuesday February 14 2012

I’m cited in Developing Your Interviewing Skills, Part I: Preparing for an Interview, with a set of question types. The article suggests those question types are helpful in preparing an interview guide. I think they are also very helpful in the interview itself, as you will often have to probe a number of different ways to get at what you are think is interesting.

Anyway, I’m not sure where the author found that set of questions, but I’ve recently rewritten and restructured them for the book. This seemed like a great opportunity to share them with everyone. I’d love your feedback: What am I missing? Do you disagree? What else would be more helpful for readers?

Questions to gather context and collect details

  • Ask about sequence “Describe a typical workday. What do you do when you first sit down at your station?-Then what do you do next?”
  • Ask about quantity “How many files would you delete when that happens?”
  • Ask for specific examples “What is the last movie that you streamed?” – Compare this to “What movies do you stream?” The specific is easier to answer than the general and becomes a platform for follow up questions.
  • Ask for the complete list “What are all the different apps you have installed on your smartphone?” – This will require a series of follow up questions, e.g., “What else?” because few people will be able to generate an entire list of something with some prompting.
  • Ask about relationships “How do you work with new vendors?” – This general question is especially appropriate when you don’t even know enough to ask a specific question (e.g. in comparison to the earlier example about streaming movies). Better to start general than to be presumptive with a too-specific question.
  • Ask about organizational structure “Who does that department report to?”

Questions to probe on what’s unsaid

  • Ask for clarification “When you refer to “that” you are talking about the newest server, right?”
  • Ask about code words/native language “Why do you call it the ‘Batcave?’”
  • Ask about emotional cues “Why do you laugh when you mention ‘Best Buy?’”
  • Ask why “I’ve tried to get my boss to adopt this format, but she just won’t do it-” “Why do you think she hasn’t?”
  • Probe delicately “You mentioned a difficult situation that changed your usage. Can you tell us what that situation was?”
  • Probe without presuming “Some people have very negative feelings about Twitter, while others don’t. What is your take?” – Rather than the direct “What do you think about Twitter?” or “Do you like Twitter?” this question introduces options that aren’t tied to the interviewer or the interviewee.
  • Explain to an outsider “Let’s say that I’ve just arrived here from another decade, how would you explain to me the difference between smartphones and tablets?”
  • Teach another “If you had to ask your daughter to operate your system, how would you explain it to her?”


Questions that create contrasts in order uncover frameworks and mental models

  • Compare processes “What’s the difference between sending your response by fax, mail or email?”
  • Compare to others “Do the other coaches also do it that way?”
  • Compare across time “How have your family photo activities changed in the past five years? How do you think they will be different give years from now?” – The second question is not intended to capture an accurate prediction. Rather, the question serves to break free from what exists now and envision possibilities that may emerge down the road. Identify the appropriately large time horizon (a year? Five years? Ten years?) that will help people to think beyond incremental change.
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3 Responses to “Seventeen types of interviewing questions”

    This was great to review as we headed into the field this morning. Today I frequently found myself asking about emotional language (maybe a hybrid of “Ask about code words/native language” and “Ask about emotional cues”). “What do you mean when you say ‘I feel guilty?” The words weren’t necessarily coded or veiled, but very emotionally charged considering how casually they were tossed into conversation.
    Probing a bit on why specific words were chosen revealed a lot of assumptions that weren’t necessarily available in the more explicit conversation.

    Comment by tamara 02.15.12 @ 11:44 am


      This reminds me of a discussion we had the other day about reviewing transcripts of interviews. When I read the transcript for an interview I wasn’t at, those dramatic and emotional words really leap off the page. When you are running the interview, you have all that extra context; you know the person is being wry, or silly, or ironic. Your takeaway from those emotional words may be appropriately downplayed. That tension in the analysis phase – when I see extreme and you (“you”) remember relative calm leads to a great conversation about what was meant versus how it was chosen to be expressed.

      Comment by Steve Portigal 02.15.12 @ 11:52 am


    Kramer auto Pingback[...] Steve will be presenting the first Dundee Masters of Design Ethnography web seminar about Qualitative Data Analysis on February 21 – that’s this evening at 6pm – and here’s the interesting stuff he’s written recently on interview questions [...]

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