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Section 8. Conducting Interviews with Key Participants to Analyze Critical Events

Learn how to analyze important events within your group or community or within the world that have an effect on your group's mission and action plan.


This section is based on an article in the Work Group Evaluation Handbook: Evaluating and Supporting Community Initiatives for Health and Development by Stephen B. Fawcett, Adrienne Paine-Andrews, Vincent T. Francisco, Jerry Schultz, Kimber P. Richter, R.K. Lewis, E.L. Williams, K.J. Harris, Jannette Berkley, Jacqueline L. Fisher, and Christine M. Lopez of the Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.

  • What do we mean by conducting interviews with key participants?

  • Why should you interview key participants and identify critical events?

  • When should you conduct interviews with key participants?

  • How should you conduct interviews with key participants?

What do we mean by conducting interviews with key participants?

To better understand a subject, it is usually helpful to seek information from an expert in the field. The media often rely on experts to give facts, statistics, and opinions to support their news stories and articles. You can do the same. But while reporters must sometimes search far and wide to find people with the proper credentials, you only need look as far as the leadership and active members of your group. They are your experts.

Like other methods of evaluation, interviewing allows you to learn more about the effectiveness of your group's actions. With the information you gain from the interviewing process, you can continue to improve upon your work with the community.

For your purposes, interviews involve asking key participants to respond to a variety of questions about the initiative. Key participants can include both leaders of the group and members who play an especially active role in the group's work. You can use interviews to hear members' concerns and insights, and also to put a finger on critical events in the life cycle of the group. Additionally, interviews can allow participants to share their specific experiences with your group's work. That is, participants can explain what they learned, how they felt about the activities, what could be changed to improve the activities, and other, more personal thoughts. In this way, interviews can shed light on both the personal experiences of individuals and on the critical events of the group.

But, you might be asking yourself, what exactly are critical events? Well, we're glad you asked! Critical events are the important events that happen within your group, within your community, or within the world that have an effect on your group's mission and action plan.

Critical events might include:

  • Applying for grant funds
  • Brainstorming, writing, editing, and completing a draft of your action plan
  • Fulfilling any or all of your group's objectives
  • Facing a crisis in your community or within your group
  • Changing the direction of your mission
  • Any other major event

A great way to pinpoint these critical events is to interview those who organized and participated in them. You might still be wondering, however, why you need to identify the group's critical events. How will this be helpful?

Why should you interview key participants and analyze critical events?

The main purpose of interviewing is to gain a better understanding of the initiative. In an interview, you have the luxury of asking in-depth questions that can result in more detailed responses and remarks. You can also ask the respondent to clarify certain responses or to provide more details about his thoughts and ideas. Interviewing allows you the freedom and opportunity to thoroughly "pick the brain" of the key participant.

As we already mentioned, interviews also help you nail down the critical events in your group. But, why is this important?

Critical events provide qualitative information

In some ways, gathering quantitative information can be done very easily. Other sections in this chapter describe some of these methods in detail. By using monitoring system and event logs, for example, you can note exactly what activities happened, when they happened, and who they involved. These methods give you quantitative, or measurable, information about the events your group has completed.

Determining critical events through interviews, however, lets you understand more about the event than just when it happened and who helped. Gathering critical events in this manner supplies not only factual information, but also gives key participants the chance to tell you how they felt about the event. Qualitative, or quality-oriented, information can be obtained by asking value-oriented questions.

These might include:

  • Was the event important?
  • Was the event significant?
  • Was the event fair?
  • Was the event effective?
  • Did the event mesh with local values?

By attaching these kinds of adjectives to questions you might ask, will gain more of a qualitative, or quality-oriented, perspective of the critical events in your group.

Quantitative information is important. But the qualitative information described here is, too. When both methods are combined--generally speaking, a good practice-- the accuracy of the overall conclusions is strengthened.

Critical events can provide a history of the initiative

As with the monitoring system, tracking critical events helps you trace the development of your group's work and achievements. Keeping track of the history of the initiative gives you yet another way to see progress being made and hurdles being crossed.

Critical events help identify factors that affected the initiative's success or failure

By identifying the critical events for your group, you can then see which specific actions may have helped you fulfill your objectives and which actions may have hindered your progress. Then, you can try to repeat those actions that helped you achieve your goals, and learn from those actions that were not as effective.

Critical events can provide you with insights for planning and renewal efforts

You have examined the information you have gained through pinpointing critical events. Now you can begin to use what you have learned to continue making plans for the future and to reenergize your present efforts. Knowing you have fulfilled many of your objectives can only help you stay focused on continuing your hard work. Use what you've learned to help your group and the community improve!

When should you conduct interviews with key participants?

We recommend that you conduct interviews with key participants at least every few years, or perhaps at the end of a grant period. If you have both the time and the resources, conducting interviews more frequently could be extremely beneficial.

How should you conduct interviews with key participants?

In preparation for your role as the next Dan Rather or Oprah, you can practice your interviewing skills with key participants. Not only will you sharpen your interviewing instincts, you'll also help with the evaluation process.

There are four main steps to conducting key participant interviews.

Determining who will be interviewed

One of the best ways to go about finding participants for your interviews is to ask members of the group who they feel has made notable contributions of time and energy to the group.

During a meeting of the coalition, you might ask members to reflect upon who they want interviewed, then write three of these names on a piece of paper. The evaluation team can then make note of the names of those who were most often mentioned. After narrowing it down to four or five individuals, let the interviews begin!

Conducting the interviews

Now you're ready to "rock and roll!" But first, you need questions. There are some key questions that should be asked in order to determine the critical events and gain some personal insight into the initiative.

These questions might include:

  • What are the critical events in the history of the initiative? (You might need to explain what you mean by a "critical event.")
  • Why was the event important?
  • What was the context for the event?
  • What key actions, actors, and other resources were required?
  • What barriers and resistance were encountered?
  • What were the consequences of the event for the initiative and the community?
  • What are some overall lessons for the initiative?
  • What future directions should be taken by the initiative?

Sharing these questions with the participant before the interview will give her time to reflect on her answers. That way, no one will be too surprised on the day of the interview. Additionally, the participant's answers are likely to be clear, thoughtful, and better focused.

Once you have decided on questions, you are ready to conduct the interviews. Interviewers, who might be members of the evaluation team or other members of the initiative, will conduct face-to-face or phone interviews with the key participants. In general, meeting with the person face-to-face works best. Those conducting the interview might want to bring along a recorder to document the conversation. Or, he or she can simply jot down notes while the person talks. Again, using an audio recorder will ensure that you get the most accurate responses. Plus, the interviewer will have the freedom to pay attention to the participant instead of having to focus on taking good notes.

Remember, the more comfortable the interviewed person feels, the more likely he or she will provide honest, heartfelt responses. You can help create this comfortable environment by being exceptionally friendly, supportive, and open to hearing the other person's ideas and comments.

Putting the data together

After the final words have been spoken and the last notes written down, members of the evaluation team should generally make a report of the interviews. This report should include summaries of the comments made by the participants who reported on a particular event. Also, the report might include a list of the critical events as an easy way to review the initiative's history.

Using the data to better understand the initiative, to provide a history, and to aid in renewal efforts

As you've probably inferred, the data from these interviews should be used to continually improve and strengthen your group's work. As you will have data that gives you a better sense of how people really feel about the initiative, you can use this knowledge to make still more improvements to your action plan and objectives.

In Summary

Interviewing key participants provides yet another valuable way for your initiative to measure its progress as you work towards change in the community. Interviews offer more qualitative, or quality-oriented, measurements because they ask individuals about their own personal experiences while seeking suggestions concerning the work of the initiative. As one method of evaluation, interviews can provide valuable insights into the performance of the initiative. Using this method can help your group improve its work and the work that is done with the community.

Aimee Whitman

Online Resource

Collecting Ethnographic Data is an article written by Tao Kwan-Gett, M.D. about performing ethnographic interviews. It is provided by the EthnoMed website.  

Compiled for the Adolescent and School Health sector of the CDC, Data Collection Methods is an extensive list of articles pertaining to the collection of various forms of data including questionnaires, focus groups, observation, document analysis, and interviews.

Francisco, V. & Wolff, T. (1994). Evaluating coalition efforts. Amherst, MA: AHEC/Community Partners.

Interview as a Method for Qualitative Research is a presentation provided from Arizona State University with ample information about conducting strong research interviews.

Data Center provides an Interview Toolkit for conducting effective participatory research.

Asking the Right Questions in the Right Ways: Strategies for Ethnographic Interviewing is a featured article from ASHA’s 2003 issue of The ASHA Leader.  In addition to offering information on maximizing information attained through ethnographic interviewing, the article also provides examples of descriptive and structural questions.

Written by Stacy Jacob and S. Paige Furgerson, Writing Interview Protocols and Conducting Methods is an article in the Qualitative Report in 2012. The article provides basic information for individuals who are new to interviewing.

Print Resources

Berkowitz, W. (1982). Community impact: Creating grassroots change in hard times. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

Cox, F. (1984). Tactics and techniques of community practice. Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Fawcett, S., Paine, A., Francisco, V., Schultz, J., Richter, K., Lewis, R., Williams, E., Harris, K., Berkley, J., Fisher, J., & Lopez, C. (1994). Work Group evaluation handbook: Evaluating and supporting community initiatives for health and development. Lawrence, KS: Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development, University of Kansas.

Fetterman, D. (1996). Empowerment evaluation: knowledge and tools for self-assessment and accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Pietrzak, J., Ramler, M., Renner, T., Ford, L., & Gilbert, N. (1990). Practical program evaluation: Examples from child abuse prevention. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Rutman, L. (Ed.) (1984). Evaluation research methods: A basic guide. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.