Qualitative Interviewing: 4 Reminders about Question Construction

The goal of the interview is to collect whole answers from the interviewee. Question formulation and delivery are critical in this process.

Interviewees respond not only to the kind of question that is context dependent but also to the way the question is asked. The wording, ordering, and kind of language used affect the context (e.g. perception of the interviewee) of the question. Even your tone, enunciation, gestures, and facial expressions as interviewer affect the direction of the interviewee’s answers.

A question could be closed-ended or open. A closed-ended question could be answered by a yes or no, or a list of choices is provided where the interviewee may choose his/her answer. Otherwise the question is open-ended when answers depend on the participant’s own categories and opinions.

It is said that closed-ended questions are hard to construct but easy to use in data gathering while open-ended is the opposite. Actually, both types are hard to formulate since both need rapport and both are prone to errors when not properly prepared.

So when preparing your questionnaire, there are important things to consider in question construction and delivery.

4 Reminders About Question Construction

1. Start with the easiest question.

An interview schedule (whether for structured or semi-structured setting) should always start with the easiest, most comfortable question to establish rapport for a one-shot setting or maintain the rapport for a multilevel setting. Depending on the culture, the interviewer should be cognizant on what subtopic or question would the interviewee consider as the easiest and most comfortable. Usually, questions about basic personal information seem the least threatening and thus, the most uncomplicated.

2. There is proper ordering of questions.

The ordering of the questions affects the entire interview process. Whether you choose the deductive (from general to specific) or the inductive (specific to broad) arrangement, questions are always in a network. That is, the subsequent question should be linked to the one it follows. This is to help the interviewee in organizing the information that she/he is going to share.

Unless inevitably necessary, questions should not be isolated from one another. When you ask questions randomly, as if they are just popping out of nowhere, you will definitely confuse the interviewee.

3. Remember that questions are connected.

Since questions are linked together, a preceding question may significantly affect the interviewee’s answer to the subsequent question. Bradburn, Sudman, and Wansink (2004) cited a study that illustrates how the ordering of questions about advertising affects the women’s answers. Women’s attitudes (answers) when asked about their opinions toward advertising were more positive when questions about dress advertising preceded the general questions about advertising than when it was the other way around.

Given this tendency, you may opt to carefully arrange the questions in such a way that the unnecessary effect of the preceding question will be minimized and will not be carried over to the next. That is why, a pilot interview is always recommended to evaluate your prepared schedule.

lots of questions

4. Learn how to probe.

However efficiently formulated your questions are, always expect that the interviewee’s answers may not always be complete. Reasons could be that the questions are not clear, the interviewee is reluctant to answer or there is problem with the retrieval of the information needed. If this is the case, probe.

If questions are misunderstood or unclear, just rephrase the question and immediately ask again or you may just ask again later. The interviewee may hesitate due to uncertainty of what more information is needed.

If this is the case, ask for more by paraphrasing his answers followed by prompts e.g. “What else?”, “Why?”, “What do you mean?, “In what way?, or “How?”

Prompts also are important to aid recall when interviewee has difficulty in remembering. You may give examples to serve as retrieval cues or to clarify the needed information (Dawson, 2007).


Bradburn, N.M., Sudman, S., & Wansink, B. (2004). Asking questions: The definitive guide to questionnaire designs – for market research, political polls, and social and health questionnaires. CA: Josey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint.

Dawson, C. (2007). A practical guide to qualitative research: A user friendly manual in mastering research techniques and projects. Oxford: How To Content.

©2015 February 10 J. G. Pizarro

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