In the Mind of the Interviewer

In my self-assigned work and projects, I have created semi-structured interviews to explore issues that interest me, because why not? For instance, as I was designing the community experience and program for San Diego’s UX and design talent in a small team, I grew more curious about gender issues in the design profession. However, since this area was not explicitly part of the contract, I created my own project. I wrote a research project plan, formulated the ten questions that interested me most and began recruiting volunteers to test my bold and budding idea.

A learning curve or just my love for neon and wobbly European stone work?

Agile Interviewing — Adjusting my Ask

Within one or two interviews, I adjusted the title of the interview series to issues of diversity in design expanding it from gender issues in design. Both the crux and beauty of being on such an explorative journey is that you cannot be sure of what you will encounter. For example, someone shared with me Microsoft’s manifesto of Inclusive Design, and the magnitude of the topic filled me with awe: “Everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities.” plys temporary disabilities can inform our design activities, too.

Good thing then that I did not have to explain this shift to someone that hired me, since my learning was self-directed. You can read the first and the last interview from my series here, if you are curious about my growth.

Personally, I like to start with complex issues and then chisel down. I asked ten instead of three questions and took a deep dive, with a semi-structured interview instead of an emailed questionnaire with short open or multiple choice questions. Did I bite off more than I could chew? Not really. Each interview lasted up to 50 minutes. I was truly interested in the topic. It often took three questions or 15 minutes to warm up, then the trust had been built and critical pieces of information, anecdotes, viewpoints were shared. This brings back memories of my art teacher in school: he cautioned us to pay attention since “golden words of wisdom were coming from his mouth.” — an engaging metaphor.

Within each interview were so many crossroads. The semi-freedom of semi-structured interviews allows you to dig deeper and say “Tell me more about that incidence, please”. It takes concentration, focus, and connection to navigate the influx of information on the spot. This shows also why recruiting interviewers for pay and with little stake in the project can yield a different quality of information. Does the interviewer care to know?

Roles during an Interview

Often during interviewing, I wish to return the favor of openness, vulnerability by perhaps sharing a similar story, and to show thereby empathy. However, as an interviewer, it is a tipped talk with predefined roles — one person is the interviewee, the other is the interviewer. It is a constraint for good reasons. Just like your mom or therapist is not meant to be your best friend. Imagine what information you are spared.

I very much appreciate STBY’s professional methodology on how to be a human, empathetic design researcher. The London and Amsterdam-based design research agency made clear that researchers are not flies on the wall in a research participant’s home, and that each encounter can be seen as a step in continual engagement, always respecting the personhood of the source of information.

Thyself as the Tool

During conversations, my most important apparatus is my whole being —plus the voice recorder, and maybe a pen and paper to jot down names and thoughts briefly. How do I then prepare before, handle myself during, and restore myself after the interview?

While my academic education, both as a psychologist and then marriage and family therapist, provided me with language, knowledge and methods to create work around human emotions, cognition, and behavior, it is just a fraction of what it takes. Surely, this “kennis”, I repeatedly applied and tweaked in intern and later real work experiences, yet I also tested the concepts in personal life. What does academia teach you and what not? How long can you believe in misogynist Freudian concepts? And can you truly understand enmeshment between people without having felt it? If you are curious, invite a psychology student or therapy trainee for a cup of tea. Some will splay open to you with enthusiastic questioning and soul searching.

I realized that self-knowledge is crucial to being my bettering (not best) self on this path. This meant integrity plus an agreeable amount of conscious disintegrity for me. As a bright psychology graduate, I needed to explore body work to grasp the extent of the embodied mind. Then mindfulness and spirituality can top off the a) cognitive components, b) experiential components with the c) mystic rest.

In the role of an interviewer, I realized more and more that I am not merely a machine executing a task. Rather, I was a fellow being with growing self-knowledge taking on this delicate task on prodding in someone else’s life. I arrived rested, fed, charged, ready to connect. Then there were these moments when the interviewee spoke, and responded to me in a wider sense, the interviewee warmed up, explored his or her own past, self, and raison d’être, mind, and heart, and I found myself drifting off, then shocked.

Is it acceptable to wander off with your mind during a 45-minute interview?

Street scene and view from Alex tower in Berlin

Do I need to invest more in meditation and mindfulness? What did she just say? Then again, harsh judgment and a fixed mindset approach has never benefitted me. I halted. I trusted the process, leaned back and weaved my attention back to the conversation, and relaxed. I am enough, this is okay, and valuable. Of course, when a working mother shares about her tribulations while juggling many roles, my being responds and my attention spans more than the current moment.

Perhaps, listening to someone’s wholesome story, is like being a glockenspiel, where each word, or mini story strikes a chime in yourself. The input has the power to sound, vibrate and reach into the depths of your own complex self.

Yes, as an interviewer your mind can or ought to wander. Become the observer and role model trust. Later also reflect and work on what serves you and the purpose of your project best. If the answers and stories repeatedly bring you to undesired memories, go there later and be full of care for them. For instance, if you interview a wealthy person, and you keep thinking of your pile of bills, take note. Or if you interview a person with questionable hygiene and you keep thinking stringent things, take note. Or if you find yourself smitten and hiding your wedding band, take note.

Personally, I enjoy interviewing when I am in a flow state — engaged yet also needing to work it, and be “on”.

To Loose is to Gain

Until recently, I thought that interviewing makes a great opportunity to sharpen my listening skills. Then I transcribed my audio files and paid attention to when I pushed to quickly to the next item of the list, or could have validated more. One can be a great task monkey and rattle down a list, yet not be a good listener, I had to admit.

It was a big eye-opening experience when I started to learn yet another language. It is humbling. It is work. Yet it is also fine. I was the immigrant. I was the one with the deficient skill. I was less. At the same time, I wanted to integrate, thrive, and reap the most of my life in the Netherlands. I found a mature mentor in my field, dove into new creative systemic projects and supplemented this with home study. I sat in many meetings listening to the business proceedings, taking notes, just like an interviewer would. I became the true listener, I lost one thing — my ability to speak, to jump in, to interrupt — and immediately gained another thing.

After all, interviewing is an act of discovery of what there is and can be. Since not all that wander are lost, it is a worthy, purposeful activity, if you ask me. Also, loosing yourself is not as bad as its reputation. Give it a try!

Touchscreen at movie theatre that I found wonderfully ambiguous or universal in its advice