Getting Ready for Exploratory Interviews: Balancing Preparedness with Open Ears

In a recent client project for a university that was getting ready to introduce SharePoint 2013, I interviewed 20 academics to build an understanding of their work, so that I could draw some initial inferences about where and how SharePoint 2013 could be used to enhance and improve the work they were doing. It is always a privilege to interview people to learn about their work, but I am constantly reminded when doing such interviews of the need to balance prior knowledge with open ears. Perfection, in my view, is the ability to turn up with a sufficient knowledge of their work so you know what they do (prior knowledge), offset against a willingness to completely tune out what you already know and be totally tuned into what they are saying (open ears). It is a balancing act to be prepared, while not over-relying on that preparation so you can’t actually hear what the interviewee is actually saying.

In preparation for meeting with these academics over three days—and yes, it was a brutal and exhausting interview schedule—I made some notes for myself. These included a series of prompts, a briefing pack on what academics do in general, and a simple diagram to keep me on track. The prompts included:

“I am seeking to understand what this person does currently, and what work looks like for him or her.”
“I am turning up to learn, but also turning up well prepared.”
“The questions I ask will demonstrate that I know something of their work, but I will never give the appearance of knowing better than them what their work looks like.”

The briefing pack was a list of common activities carried out frequently by academics. I developed this over half a day or so, searching the Internet for articles on what academics did each day. I read these, integrated the ideas, and developed a master list of activities. The master list was 11 items in length:

– Undertaking research
– Writing a journal article, book chapter, monograph
– Refereeing a journal article
– Developing new courses
– Preparing for teaching
– Teaching in the classroom
– Supervising graduate students
– Assessing students
– Working on a committee
– Keeping up with email
– Reflecting on what is / isn’t working well

For each of the activities, as time and intent allowed during the interview, I probed for how frequently the given interviewee engaged with this activity, whether they had an overall positive or negative experience with the activity, and their their current approach or approaches when working within each activity. I also asked about current tools being used when working on the activity, and their assessment of effectiveness and efficiency. I took lots of notes during the interviews, and once all of the interviews were completed, integrated my findings and discoveries into that list of inferences.

And the diagram … that was a reminder for me about staying in the middle zone to balance preparation with open ears. It looked like this:

How do you get ready for exploratory interviews with people?

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