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How to Avoid Biases in Expert Interviews

Stream | April 06, 2022

Expert interview bias occurs when either the interviewer or the expert insert their own bias into questions and answers. Mostly, this bias is unconscious and can occur without notice if we don’t know what to look for.

Here are some common types of unconscious bias:

Analysts can take specific steps in preparing, conducting, and wrapping up expert interviews to avoid bias and ensure their interviews capture focused, accurate, valuable insights. In this post, we’ll cover proven steps for every phase of the process.

Quick Takeaways

  • Preparing for an expert interview by defining the need behind it and structuring it in advance can provide a framework for minimizing biases.
  • Analysts must avoid asking leading questions that encourage (intentionally or not) experts to answer a certain way.
  • Interviews should always be conducted with a flexible but focused format that allows the analyst to capitalize on unique expert insights while remaining on topic.
  • Taking notes and recording interviews are good tactics to minimize the risk of bias that comes with relying on memory alone.

When you’re preparing

Clearly define your needs

A clear definition of the need behind your expert interview is critical to sourcing experts who have the right experience and knowledge. Whether you’re working with a third-party expert network or sourcing experts yourself, providing the right details about your project mitigates the risk of interviewing an expert who isn’t qualified for the job.

How can you clearly scope your project for potential experts? Here are a few tips:

  • Be specific about the type of role and/or level of expertise you’re seeking
  • Provide an industry description
  • Share examples of related companies and position titles
  • Indicate if experts must come from specific companies and industries you list, or if it’s okay to look for ones similar

Prepare and share an agenda

Once you select the expert(s) you plan to interview and schedule your calls, it’s time to create an agenda. Preparing and sharing an agenda prior to the call can ensure your objectives are clear and gives the expert a chance to confirm their background is the right fit for your needs. 

Generally, expert interviews do not follow a rigid structure (more on that next), so you don’t need to provide a full list of questions beforehand. But an agenda that offers an overview of the topics you want to cover can help your expert be prepared and reduce the likelihood of getting overly subjective or off-the-cuff answers.

Structure your interview

Expert interview bias can be reduced with a well-structured interview. The semi-structured interview format, used in a wide range of qualitative research, works well for expert interviews because it allows for flexibility while maintaining necessary focus.

Semi-structured interviews fall in the middle between totally unstructured (casual conversation) and rigidly structured (like surveys).

Some ways you can plan a semi-structured interview include:

  • Prepare questions, but leave them open-ended to get descriptive answers
  • Only ask one question at a time
  • Leave time to dive deeper into unexpected insights from the expert
  • Remain flexible about the order of your questions

Semi-structured interviews allow you to maintain consistency in topic and question focus while also customizing the details of your execution (like introductory conversation and question timing) to each specific interview.

When you’re interviewing

Be intentional with your questions

The way you ask a question directly impacts the answer you’ll receive. Asking questions the right way is essential in order to avoid expert interview bias. Leading questions, for example, are a common culprit for the entrance of bias into a conversation.

Leading questions are asked in a way that encourages the respondent to answer a certain way. For example:

Leading question: “Do you think the X industry is likely to see significant growth due to X occurrence?”

Better option: “How do you think X occurrence will impact X industry, if at all?”

Always ask questions with a neutral tone, and remain as open ended as possible in the way you frame them to avoid biases from entering the equation.

Here are some tips for asking great questions in semi-structured interviews:

Questions for Semi-Structured Interviews // three principles for asking good questions (video)

Keep things focused

Every expert has their own background, experience, and perspectives — but they should never drive the bus when it comes to the direction of an expert interview. When they do, you risk the entrance of that expert’s personal biases entering the conversation because you’re focusing on topics and subjects they care about most rather than those most relevant to your goals.

This is one of the reasons the semi-structured format works so well for expert interviews. It allows you to be flexible, capitalizing on unexpected insights that come up or spending more (or less) time on a topic depending on the expert’s response, but it sets enough of a framework for you to stay on track.

Remember: keep the conversation focused on its original goals. When it begins to go too far astray, politely lead your expert back to the area of focus with a new question or a gentle but firm redirect (example: “Thanks so much for these insights. I’d really like to shift now toward XYZ  topic . . .”).

Take detailed notes and record when possible

Relying on your memory alone to summarize expert interviews is a sure way to invite bias into the mix. Be sure your post-interview recollections are accurate and insights neutral by taking detailed notes during interviews and recording them whenever possible. It’s pretty standard practice now to record interviews (especially given that most of them happen by video call) as long as you make your expert aware that you’re doing so.

After the interview

Review your recording

Reviewing your interview recording is a good practice because you’ve likely missed some insights or key takeaways the first time around. After all, you were focusing on conducting the interview itself, not analyzing every response from your expert in real time.

When you review your recording, you have plenty of time for analysis and can relisten to important parts of the conversation as many times as you need. This helps to combat bias in your own assessment because it gives you the chance to take a second look at your own perceptions of the expert’s responses and consider them fully, rather than relying on your first impression as your final one.

Summarize key takeaways

Your interview notes are not the same as your takeaways! Once you’ve completed your interview and reviewed your recording and notes, it’s time to summarize your takeaways. Doing this immediately after your interview helps to eliminate biases by avoiding the skewing of your memory over time. Your memory of the interview and connection to the insights you gathered are freshest right after the interview is complete, so it’s best to summarize takeaways as soon as you can.

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