Learning from strangers

I got a copy of Learning from Strangers,” by Robert S. Weiss, after reading about it in Jeremy Handcock’s blog. It’s such a good book that I wanted to bang my head against a wall for not reading it before. It’s what all methods books should aspire to be: concise, non-dogmatic, full of experience and practical advice. I particularly liked the play-by-play analysis of interview transcripts.

While you can’t really learn to interview by reading a book, I think a well-written book can help you correct your mistakes and put you back on the right track. After reading Weiss’ book I feel more confident about some of my strategies, but more importantly I can also identify a lot of things I’d been doing wrong:

  • Short interviews. I’ve been too mindful of other people’s time, and tried to rush through interviews to accommodate their busy schedules. Therefore, many of my interviews have only been half an hour long. Weiss thinks this is the bare minimum you need for good material to emerge, and suggests that between one and two hours per session (with several sessions if there are many topics to cover) is a much better timeframe to get a productive interview.
  • “Flustering” interviewees too much. Perhaps as a result of the time pressures above, sometimes I rush from one topic to another, to try to cover a lot of ground. This may result in interviewees believing that I’m not interested in in-depth stories or analyses that take a long time to develop, and in annoying them by constantly stopping their flow of thought.
  • Filling in the blanks. There are times, during interviews, when you ask a question and you get a relatively long silence. At these times I tend to offer a way out of the silence, by providing a rephrasing of the question or a set of possible answers. But these silences are potential indications of some intense effort on the part of the interviewee, which is a signal that some really good material may be about to come. If I fill in the blanks I short circuit the process and waste that potential.
  • Too much rephrasing. I tend to rephrase what my respondent tells me, to see if I understood it properly and to build trust (in the sense that the respondent gets some confirmation that I’m listening attentively and can be confident of my judgment). Sometimes this is useful. But if I overdo it I may be reinforcing a behaviour that I don’t want to reinforce, in effect asking the respondent for “more of the same” material. Looking back on some of my interviews, I think I’ve been overdoing it somewhat.
  • Putting words in respondents’ mouths. This is the most serious of my errors, even though I’d thought I was not at fault. It’s very easy to put words in respondents’ mouths: for instance, in my field, just asking them about their “requirements process” asks them to think in terms of requirements and processes, words and constructs that do not necessarily match their daily practice. I’ve avoided that for a long time; what I now realize I hadn’t avoided is that, in an effort to be empathic, sometimes I have finished a respondent’s phrase myself. Under some circumstances this can be a big deal, so I should learn to keep quiet and see what the interviewees come up with on their own.
  • Not recording the interviews. Sometimes I record them, sometimes I don’t (especially when I think the recorder will get in the way of building trust). I think I’ve gotten pretty good at taking exhaustive notes after an interview, but I’m not sure to what extent my self-perception is justified and to what extent is it hubris. So I should grow more comfortable with requesting for the interviews to be recorded (unless of course the interviewee isn’t OK with it).

In short, this was an eye-opening book. If you do interviews as part of your research, I hope you’ll check it out.

About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
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