Interview: Asking good questions

Interviews helps to get insights from clients.
Interviews helps to get insights from clients. - Foto: Jörg Stroisch/

The interview is a central method of all agile methods. And not only there. After all, good interviewing brings real insights into the problem and solution space of products and services.

In science there is the concept of “qualitative unstructured interviews”, which tries to gain insight. (Punch, Keith F (2013). Introduction to social research: quantitative and qualitative approaches) for example wrote that “qualitative data can be defined as practical information about the world, but not in terms of numbers”.

Oates (Oates, Briony J (2005). Researching information systems and computing) recommends when conducting interviews:

  • precise questions,
  • one question at a time,
  • start with a description of why the interview is being conducted,
  • to assure anonymity
  • to remain as neutral as possible, not to judge,
  • and to ask for a summary.

These are tips that, unfortunately, still do not guarantee interview success. I would say from my own experience, for example, that the warm-up is elementary to overcome the rather asymmetrical interview situation – there is a power imbalance between interviewer and interviewee. However, this does not work if you remain completely neutral as an interviewer.

Difference between open and closed questions

Essentially, interview questions are distinguished between open and closed interview questions.

  • Open question: the interviewee can answer this with a detailed description. Example: What specifically are your problems?
  • Closed question: This can only be answered with a concrete answer. Example: Do you like the color yellow?

This is the principle. But the practice is often different. There are people who answer in great detail and people who hardly want to say anything. And there even the use of open and closed questions does not help.

Nevertheless, it is not pure intuition that makes an interview successful. It is also a question of mutual trust whether you will actually get good answers to your questions.

Warm-up is central to a good interview

Trust does not come automatically. It is important to create a good atmosphere. And I am firmly of the opinion that this cannot be achieved ad hoc, but requires time above all. That’s why a good warm-up phase is so important. Good interviewers ensure that people become more likeable. And that is central. But how do you do that? In principle, it can’t be trained; it has to do with attitude: You have to like people! In other words, you have to be genuinely interested in them. How do you do that? By asking questions and by revealing something about yourself.
Interview: how to conduct it

Sometimes guiding questions are helpful for the interview, with which the general goal is marked out. You can use it as an orientation. On the other hand, if you simply orient yourself to the wants, needs and fears with your questions and also ask – why, why, why – then an interview will be as successful. It’s a matter of practice.

A procedure can be:

  • Preparation: prepare few leading questions, oriented to the needs and fears of the users, NOT to the finished product.
  • Warm-Up: Warm-up to build a good interview atmosphere.
  • Interview: Get into depth with follow-up questions (why, why, why).
  • Classification: Not absolutely necessary, but sometimes quite helpful, is to summarize again what was heard and ask if everything was understood correctly.
  • Summary: Summarize the results, oriented to good quotes, classifications, surprising/surprising things, fears and wishes.

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