The essential guide to developing a boomtastic semi-structured interview schedule for your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) research study

Aka: How do I come up with some awesome interview questions?

Updated February 2022

Semi-Structured Interviews are the prince (or princess) of data collection methods for your IPA

I am well aware that many of you will be conducting semi-structured interviews (SSIs) as your data collection method for your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) research study. After all, it is the exemplar and the most common data collection method for this type of study.

As I have already covered developing your IPA research question (RQ) in a previous article, I will now turn my attention to constructing an effective interview schedule for your data collection.

A high-quality interview schedule (or interview guide) will give you the best chance of gathering high-quality data for your IPA

Another no-brainer but the quality of your preparation for interviewing process will really help ensure that you do not get caught in a ‘garbage in, garbage out’ situation with your data.

Firstly, make sure you have mapped out your topic area sufficiently with the extant literature and have therefore done your background research, and are clear on the gaps that you are looking to fill.

The reason for this is that it will inform what you ask in the interview and will help you avoid going over the same ground that has already been covered before in previous research.

Spend time on developing your interview schedule!

It is well worth investing the time and energy in optimising your schedule as far as is humanly possible to avoid the ‘garbage in and garbage out’ dilemma.

Practical tips for constructing your IPA interview schedule

Identify the main themes relevant to your RQ and start to develop specific questions around each theme.

Start freewriting, attempting to construct as many open-ended questions as you can.

You will eventually whittle this down to a shorter set of approximately ten questions – remember you will have lots of space for prompts and probes (see my next article on interviewing) to extend the conversation further.

So, while only having ten questions might feel anxiety-provoking, I can assure you it is more than enough if you mine the interview as much as possible by skilfully employing your prompts and probes to keep the conversation going and achieve greater depth from your participant. See this article to help with this aspect of your interview technique.

Once you have constructed your short-list of questions, check them over and ask yourself:
  • Are they suitable for the topic area (e.g., are they relevant as per above)?
  • Will my interview questions will help me answer my RQ?
  • Is my first question broader and ‘scene setting’ to help settle my participant into the interview and develop rapport?
  • Are my questions suitable for my participant group (e.g., are they worded correctly for specific groups such as young people, children, vulnerable participants etc)?
  • Are they understandable (i.e., not confusing to the participant)? Do try them out on your geek-love study buddy to check comprehension and that you haven’t asked two questions in one (this is a common and very human habit)
  • Can I get some broader peer feedback and take my schedule to my local IPA regional group?
  • Can I organise a ‘reverse interview’ and try these questions on myself? This is where you get a buddy to interview you using your schedule so that you have some idea of how it might be to be the participant. NOTE: Doing a reverse interview can also help to reveal some of your fore conceptions as part of the hermeneutic circle and is sometimes referred to as a ‘bracketing interview’  

What if the areas I am interested in are not covered by the participant in the interview?

Don’t fret!

IPA SSIs are participant-led and we are looking for their take on the phenomenon, not our take on the phenomenon.

We therefore need to allow the participant to set the parameters of the topic area and describe their experience, not what you assume their experience is.

You never know, you might uncover something quite novel and exciting that you had not anticipated by giving them the space to lead the interview! 

You can, of course, introduce your topic of interest later in the interview if the participant does not raise it themselves. In this way, you will have let them set the parameters of that experience and yet can also probe into your area of concern once they have done this on their own terms.

What resources can I access to help me develop my IPA interview schedule?

Of course, the Smith, Flowers, and Larkin (2009) ‘bible’ pages 59 to 62 gives a great overview of types of questions with a bucketload of examples. I encourage you to access this helpful resource.

Smith, J.A., Larkin, M., & Flowers, P. (2009). Interpretative phenomenological analysis: Theory, method and research. London: Sage

In the 2022 Second Edition, Chapter 4, ‘Collecting data’ is where you want to immediately head for guidance.

Braun and Clarke also have an excellent chapter on interviewing, including constructing a guide (schedule) in their wonderful 2013 text. This is also highly recommended.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: a practical guide for beginners. London: Sage.

Other references that may be useful to you include:

Brinkmann, S., & Kvale, S. (2018). Doing interviews. (2nd ed.) London: Sage

Warren, C.A.B. (2011). Qualitative interviewing. In J.F. Gubrium & J.A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of Interview Research (pp.83-102). London: Sage

The need to systematically develop your interviewing skills

Finally, just to mention that I obviously go into this area in a great deal of detail on my Supercharge Your Semi-Structured Interviewing workshop. I lead you by the hand through the process of constructing a high-quality interview schedule and preparing extensively for the interview process. We also spend a significant amount of time practicing interview skills in a group exercise.

I encourage you to attend one of my workshops dedicated specifically to helping you achieve the required skillset to conduct high-quality IPA interviews and therefore optimise the data that you gather for your study. You cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear and good quality data that achieves sufficient experiential depth is essential to make your life easier at the point of conducting your analysis.

As Professor Smith repeats, time and time again: ‘Interviewing is a critical part of the process and it can require considerable time to develop expertise’ (Smith, 2011, p. 23)

Reference: Smith, J.A. (2011). Evaluating the contribution of interpretative phenomenological analysis. Health Psychology Review, 5, 9-27.

This is an area that students typically struggle with, just as I did! This is why I developed my Supercharge Your Semi-Structured Interviewing workshop – to help you develop your ability in this vital area. Developing these skills and grappling with this task in your research journey are all part of the process of becoming a qualitative researcher. I encourage you to see it as such rather than a monkey on your back that is whispering doom and gloom into your ear!

Until next time!

To your research success, Elena

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