From Refugee Status Determination to User Research: My Journey as an Interviewer
Most people will at some point in their lives be interviewed. We could also probably tell a story a two about an interview that didn’t go the way we had hoped. These stories usually center around our own performance as the interviewee, but I’m here to tell you that it is just as important, if not more, to be a good interviewer. This is especially true in situations where the interview could be life-changing or reveal immensely valuable information.
There is ample information, online and elsewhere, regarding interview techniques centered around the interviewee, not the interviewer. This is a prime example of how we tend to forget that an interview is a conversation between people and that the responsibility of a good interview doesn’t solely lie in the hands of one person.
This is my story of how I became trained in refugee status determination (RSD) interviews based on interrogation techniques used throughout Europe, and how I have applied this to user research interviews in my work today.
Becoming an RSD Interviewer in Norway:
I was born in Norway but immigrated to the United States as a small child. Still connected to my Norwegian roots, I decided to return to Norway after finishing college in the US to complete a Masters program in Comparative Politics.
Masters degree in tow, I found work as a language teacher for refugees and also did volunteer work sponsored by the Norwegian Peace Corps. This eventually led me to a job opportunity at the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, where I was placed in the asylum division processing applications for unaccompanied minors. This is where I was trained in RSD techniques and where I would work for two years before returning to the United States for the next chapter of my life.
A Leap from RSD to Market Research:
Applying interrogation techniques to market research interviews might seem a bit extreme, you certainly don’t want a market research participant to feel interrogated when interviewed. First of all, let me remind you that these are techniques developed in Europe, and aren’t designed to coerce or trick anyone into a confession or giving up information by any means necessary. Secondly, I was trained to interview refugees, more specifically minors. Children. This means that interviews had to be very thorough but also gentle. We are talking about an extremely sensitive situation that needs to be handled professionally, thoroughly, correctly, and with kid gloves. Not an easy feat when the interview you are holding may determine whether or not they can stay in the country. You have no choice but to be tough yet understanding. In the end, the most important thing was that I had gotten as much correct information as possible so that I could process their application properly and fairly.
The Purpose of an Interview:
There are many theories and methods about interviewing. They are usually based on the type of interview being held, such as a job, admissions, research, investigative, interrogative, or immigration interview. While each type of interview may have its unique angle, they all have the same end goal. Information. Every type of interview is conducted because there is valuable information one person needs from another. That information should also be factual and in-depth.
Once someone has been trained in getting factual and in-depth information from a person, it becomes easy to transfer that knowledge and method to other situations as well. Little did I realize that the refugee status determination (RSD) interview techniques I was trained to use would come in handy when moderating and conducting market research interviews.
RDS Interview Techniques and The Peace Model:
A little bit about Norwegian RSD interview techniques.
The method that I was trained in is based on the PEACE model created in the UK by the police. PEACE stands for:
Preparation and Planning
Engage and Explain
Account, Clarify, and Challenge
In other words, you should come prepared with information and questions. Although you may not necessarily always end up asking all the prepared questions. It should be a strict guideline but not necessarily a script. Before you begin the interview it is important that you get to know the person you are interviewing and explain how the interview will be conducted. What you expect from the person and what they can expect from you. The point is to make them feel comfortable and prepared to tell their story and answer all of your questions. You should always let them speak, and not take up more time speaking than necessary. Do not interrupt them, unless absolutely necessary. When you have gotten an answer to a question, it is important to do a quick recount of what they have said, get any clarifications they may have to their statement, and afterwards challenge anything that you may find inaccurate or lacking. You should have some sort of closure where you recap the main points, and lastly, allow them to evaluate the interview. The evaluation can be both of their and your performance.
During questioning it also imperative that you ask open-ended questions. You will not get valuable information that you can verify if you are asking yes or no questions. The less you speak and the more the interviewee speaks that more information you will have to work with.
If you have ever conducted an interview you will find that many of these points seem intuitive and matter of fact. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many interviews chock-full of unnecessary interruptions, confusion from the participant due to a lack of information, and no follow-up questions.
Applying the Methodology to Market Research:
When I conducted my first moderated market research interview, I quickly discovered how my earlier training and experience could easily be transferred to these types of situations.
Preparation and Planning
Preparation and planning is done through thorough research of the product, and dialogue with the client. It is so important to show the client that you are familiar with their service or product. They certainly don’t want someone moderating an interview for them who won’t be able to understand what the interviewee is talking about. It is important that the client explains their goals and purpose of the market research with you. You are better prepared to make any necessary adjustments or follow up questions if you know what the client is looking for. Lastly, it is very important that you go through the interview script with them. This will give you a much better feel of their expectations, and give you the tools to better moderate an interview that may not be going as well as you had hoped.
Engage and Explain
Engage and explain is done by being warm, and welcoming with the participant. It was still important for the participant to know how the interview was going to be conducted. People tend to feel more comfortable if they know what to expect.
Account, Clarify, and Challenge
Account, clarify, and challenge is done by allowing the participant to answer each question fully. The client wants as much information as possible on their product, and it’s not always up to you to decide what is the right type of information. Although it is also important to know the goal of the research in advance and to give the client feedback on the script and interview experience. Some questions might look better on paper than in an actual interview, and the only way to improve the script is by testing it out in interview situations. It is still necessary to clarify or recap what the participant has said, this allows for any necessary clarifications and elaborations.
The closure will also give the participant a summary of what they have talked about and again will allow for any clarification and elaborations. It also rounds out the interview and allows for a smooth transition to evaluation.
Evaluation in market research interviews is important because it allows the participant to let you know about anything they feel could be improved on their end, and also give you feedback on what you could improve on. Personally, I have gotten great feedback on questions that worked and didn’t work, and tips on other questions to ask in the future. This allows you to see what mindset the participant had during the interview. Perhaps they were stressed, confused, or preoccupied. It also allows you to know how you did as interviewer and moderator.
Open Ended Questions
Asking open questions, such as "tell me about your experience with this product” allows you to get as much detailed information about a product as possible without leading the participant in any way. From the information you gather, it is then possible to elaborate certain points or views further. I have experienced that participants will often answer many of the questions I have prepared themselves before I need to ask them. This is often a time saver and feels more organic than following the script point by point.
My journey from interviewing refugee applicants in Norway to market research has reminded me how important it is to learn and apply knowledge across fields. I would also like to add that there are many great interview techniques and methods out there, many that I have not talked about today. You can spend years studying and learning about interviewing, and this is only one person’s experience. However, I do hope that my experiences will help you become a better interviewer in whatever situation you may find yourself in.