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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2009

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Teaching Interview Skills to Undergraduate Engineers: An Emerging Area of Library Instruction

Megan Sapp Nelson
Assistant Professor of Library Science
Siegesmund Engineering Library
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana

Copyright 2009, Megan Sapp Nelson. Used with permission.


Librarianship is one of a limited number of disciplines that deliberately learn and practice the art of the interview. For engineering librarians, this gives expertise and a role in teaching professional skills that are increasingly expected in the engineering profession. The reference interview and design interview have many similarities. Some areas in which students need instruction are preparation for interviews, body and spoken language awareness and choice, as well as the power dynamics of interviews. Service learning and design courses are likely venues for this type of instruction.


Engineering librarians have increasingly become innovative in their service to their universities. Part of this process is reimagining the use of traditional "library" skills in new situations. In recent years, librarians have been using their skills to consult on research projects, create data repositories and practice data curation, and to create digital archives of special collections. In addition, new target groups have emerged, including student organizations, research centers, and entrepreneurship courses.

In many ways, our versatility comes from the fact that the discipline of librarianship sits at the convergence of several other disciplines. Librarians share professional skills with information scientists, organizational leadership and development specialists, counselors, computer scientists, educators, management and customer service specialists, and journalists. In addition, as engineering librarians, we have learned to speak the lingua franca of our engineering patrons.

Our patrons, on the other hand, have traditionally been taught a very different set of professional skills. Engineering curricula mainly focused on math and science concepts, design process skills, and strong subject expertise within a specific engineering discipline. However, the Engineer of 2020 report issued by the National Academy of Engineering in 2004 emphasized the development of well rounded professionals that have professional skills such as team building, communication, and business and management skills (National Academy of Engineering of the National Academies 2004). In the wake of the Engineer of 2020, a new emphasis on professional skills has opened opportunities for engineering librarians to take advantage of our breadth and expertise to provide instruction that engineering faculty are not necessarily comfortable providing themselves. Teaching interviewing skills is one example that has been practiced at Purdue University.


As an advisor for the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) service learning course at Purdue University (, the opportunity to observe a number of different student groups participating in a "project partner interview" has been part of the author's responsibilities. This interview is the time when students meet with the project partner to gather the design constraints for the projects that they are to work on for the entire semester (Oakes and Lima 2006). On many occasions, the students come unprepared, uneducated about the prior semesters of the ongoing project and about the project partner, and are uncomfortable leading the discussion and probing for more specific answers from the project partner. This means that the students frequently do not get the information that they need to create a project. It also means that the project partner ends up waiting longer for the completed product, because redesigns must be made to conform with the project partners' wishes as they are discovered by teams in later semesters.

An example of this was a project to create a remotely updatable, electronic calendar to hang at the entrance to a conference room. The frame of the device was designed so that the device, including the power cord and power button, was entirely encased. In multiple interviews, the project partner told the student team that the device should be well protected and updatable by wireless internet access. The student team did an excellent job meeting those criteria. However, the teams failed to ask the project partner what interaction was anticipated with the device itself. Therefore, the team failed to realize that the computer would occasionally lose power or malfunction. This required the machine to be restarted, which could only be done by removing the case from where it was hanging, opening the case, removing the machine, turning it back on, and closing the case, and hanging it again. Within a matter of weeks the project partner required a design retrofit that moved the power button outside the protective casing.

Literature Review

There are any number of resources to learn about interviewing as a tool of communication. Texts that give the basic considerations of interviewing include Stewart and Cash (2008), Evans et al. (1989), Donaghy (1984), and Benjamin (1987). These texts cover basic techniques, the different types of interviews, creating questions, choosing language, and structuring interviews.

The importance of interviewing as a tool for identification of customer needs is acknowledged most frequently in the literature of product development (Muci-Kuchler and Weaver 2004). Interviewing is considered one of the best ways to elicit from customers their desires, expectations, and needs. Professional designers and engineers have published many analyses on the problems of design interviews. Tzortzopoulos et al. (2006, 666-667, 674) analyzed the activities of the clients at the beginning of the design process, including communication of design criteria between clients and designers. Others have looked at the process of design using the interview as a tool for reflection and learning (Sonnenwald 1996).

Interviewing is frequently mentioned in engineering education articles, but nearly always in the context of coaching students to successfully complete job search interviews (see for example Otter, et al. 2002; Leiserson, et al. 2004; Sharp 2006). Peck et al.(1999) and Kennedy (1988) taught interview skills in a technical communication course for the purpose of interviewing alumni about "real world" experience.

There are few articles by engineering educators about the pedagogy of teaching engineering students to practice a design interview. At Northwestern University, a freshman user-centered design course implemented training to teach the design interview (Hirsch, et al. 2002). Sigwart and Van Neer (1986) taught software engineering specification design through the use of volunteer, uncooperative users.

Library scientists have been investigating the most efficient and effective ways to teach the reference interview for most of the twentieth century. Future reference librarians are taught the reference interview through textbooks, including Smith and Bopp (Bopp 2000). Entire books have been written to assist librarians to improve these skills, including Ross, Nilsen and Dewdney (2002) and Jennerich and Jennerich (1997). Fine (1997) explored the similarities between the interview practiced in the library profession and the interview practiced in the counseling and helping professions. Both put much emphasis on body language and attention, and use similar best practices to discover the patron's needs.

Similarities and Differences Between Interviews

The reference interview is very similar to the design interview in process and audience. The interview is initiated by a patron or client with an as-yet unspecified need. It is the task of the librarian and designer to determine the most useful tool or process to meet the client's need. During the interview, the designer and librarian both are called on to use a broad array of learned tools to meet the need. Both are conducted by "experts" who are frequently interacting with "novices." In the case of the design interview, a designer communicates with a non-engineer and, in the case of the reference interview, the librarian communicates with a user who is unfamiliar with library resources. Both disciplines have extensive "jargon," vocabularies that are unfamiliar and unclear to the interviewee that must be overcome to succeed in the interview. Both frequently encounter users who are unable to articulate their needs, and are therefore likely to become frustrated with the interviewer or likely to agree with anything suggested (Sigwart and Van Neer 1986). The interviews, in order to be effective, rely on the same verbal techniques to elicit information from the interviewee (i.e. open ended questions, perception checking, clarifying understanding, eliciting more detail through the four W's (who, what, when, where) and why not to use "why" questions (Ross, Nilsen and Dewdney 2002, 83-104).)

On the other hand, the reference interview is frequently a one-time interaction. The design interview is creating the foundation for ongoing interactions that will ultimately produce a product or service for the client. The reference interview is usually shorter in duration than the design interview, and gives less time for preparation for the interaction. The design client and designer generally have resources at stake in the interview in the form of money, time, or a combination of both, which provides an added level of stress for all parties involved.

Implications of lack of interview skills

A major disruption to the success of the project partner interviews was a lack of listening skills on the part of the student engineers. Admittedly, the students presumed that they knew how to listen, but frequently their word choice, body language, and speaking habits (interrupting, staring at the table or their hands while talking, skipping between topics without regard to context) spoke otherwise.

Many of the listening problems began with a misunderstanding of the balance of power during a conversation. In a situation where students assumed that they did not have much authority in the interview and the project partner assumed they did not have much authority in the process, there was a disincentive to take the lead in discussions about the emerging projects. Students needed to be aware of how authority was transferred in a conversation, and that they were considered de facto authorities by virtue of their status as students at a major engineering program.

Students have been in the educational system for so long that they have difficulty conceptualizing themselves and their peers as authorities. Along with the assumption that the students made that the advisors already knew all of the design constraints and would correct them in they ventured off course or missed something (an assumption that is false; the advisors learn about the project at the same time as the students), they also assumed that their input was not necessary, because someone else (who was older, had more seniority, or was more assertive, etc.) would be asking the questions. These assumptions resulted in deferral to the advisors and 1-2 senior leaders, which in turn lead to a higher probability of design flaws due to lack of diverse design ideas and viewpoints.

The students also created obstacles for themselves through their word choice. Frequently individuals did not stop to think about language during any given interaction. In an interview setting, word choice can portray a whole host of unintended meanings, including shutting down creativity, and placing the interviewee on the defensive. This had consequences not only in the interaction with the project partners or clients, but it also had major consequences for team interactions, including brainstorming session and team meetings. As students learned to monitor the tone and content of their words, they also learned to listen to the tone and content of other team participants' or project partners' words, which increased the quality of team and client interactions.

An additional complication came from the educational environment in which the students were participating. After a few years at an engineering program, where they were constantly being taught to speak, think, and write like an engineer, the students needed a caution about using jargon. After working hard to assimilate the professional vocabulary of an engineer, that vocabulary was generally a hindrance in the design interview.

In the case of one project partner interview regarding a blue screen technology, this was evident. A student who designed software that filtered out the blue screen and replaced that area with another image, similar to a television weatherman's map system, was explaining the design decisions he made to the project partner. The student used a string of acronyms, programming terms and engineering terms to explain his work. The project partner then requested that the student explain his work so that the project partner could understand. The partner could not provide feedback as to the propriety of the design solutions, because he could not understand the solution.

Lack of preparedness was the most common reason that students did not actively participate during a project partner interview. If they had questions about something they did not understand, they would assume that it was because they had not prepared before the meeting, and so did not ask the question to preserve appearances. In this way, many students that may have recognized a potential design problem did not have the confidence in their assessment to bring the issue up and it went unresolved.

In a fitting example, a debriefing session was held following a semester's project partner interview. A student who was new to the team made two astute observations about the existing design, which was coded in a language with which he was unfamiliar. He anticipated a problem interfacing with existing software that was important to the project partner's daily workflow. When asked why he did not bring this up during the project partner meeting, he said that he assumed that someone had already realized the problem, and that he did not know the existing project or project language well enough to formulate his suspicions into questions. As a result of this situation, the project partner liaison for the team scheduled a second meeting, this time to pinpoint the ways that the two programs would need to communicate. This cost the project partner and the team time, while the redesign that was put into place cost approximately ½ semester's delay in delivery.

Instruction session

The consistency of the issues that were emerging during project partner interviews suggested that formal instruction was needed. A skill session for the EPICS program on preparation for a design interview seemed to be the most appropriate venue of instruction. Skill sessions are recommended (and in some cases, required) instruction sessions that provide EPICS students with additional skill sets that will be useful during the design process. The instruction session created incorporated these four concepts through active learning. At the beginning of the session, the philosophy of interview interactions was briefly covered, focusing on power dynamics between the students and the project partner. In this portion of the instruction session, short case studies helped the students "walk in the project partner's shoes" as well as to think about their own reactions in the interview meeting. This portion helped the students to think about the interview as a process over the course of the entire interview, with multiple viewpoints, strengths, and weaknesses, rather than focusing exclusively about the question at hand in the immediate moment during the interview.

Body language and non-verbal communication were presented in such as way as to engage students in interaction during the instruction session. Role playing body language and asking the students to identify the emotions and thoughts that may accompany the body language gave the students practice evaluating what the project partner may be projecting, as well as making the students aware of what their own body language may be saying. Additionally, the instruction session briefly covered the fact that different cultures use different body language to express meaning. This was particularly relevant in EPICS, which has a large population of foreign-born undergraduate students.

Spoken communication in the form of word choice, question development, question follow up, and the aforementioned jargon warning came next. Students practiced strategically planning questions using "who", "what", "when" and "where", and perception checking. The students created groups and spent time discussing something they found very interesting and something that they found boring. This allowed them to integrate the body language practice with word choice. It also brought the students to the realization that it can be very difficult to create questions on the spur of the moment. This provided the transition to the final discussion, preparation for a successful interview with a project partner.

The students were given an interview planning worksheet that allowed them to create questions that were open-ended, probing, and pre-planned. Students were encouraged to take time in the instruction session to begin planning questions as well as discussing potential questions and discussing their knowledge of the project partner in their EPICS teams.


This instruction session has been given for two semesters. In both semesters, feedback has been solicited from the students who participated. Generally, it has been well received.

Students appreciated the coverage of the four topics. One student wrote

"The information was very useful. Although what was discussed is fairly simple, this information is rare and we needed this call to our common sense. I like how simple and actually useful this class is."

Another student commented on the information about transfer of power in the project partner interview.

"It was practical and provided me with a since [sic] of importance and equal accountability, ownership, an [sic] control."

Other students appreciated the informal nature of the instruction.

"Even though the discussions in the class were more or less informal, it still managed to drive in the important facts, about communication skills, that are central to effective project partner interaction."

Opportunities for instruction

For librarians interested in expanding their instruction service in this area, there are several types of classes that lend themselves especially well to this. In general, classes or curricula that seek to mimic "real world" experience are particularly good venues. The students are open to any skills that are immediately applicable to their projects, and professors are often uncomfortable with presenting this type of instruction. Service learning classes are a good example. Students are working with partners in the community and therefore will be frequently practicing the skills that are offered. Seniors participating in capstone or senior design courses are also likely to be receptive to this instruction. In any situation that the students must use user-centered design techniques, the interview is an invaluable tool for gathering initial input on the idea and feedback throughout the process.

An emerging area that may be a likely venue for this type of instruction is entrepreneurship classes. These classes are frequently a mix of business, management, and engineering and technology students, some of whom may have prior training in interview skills, and others who will not. When these teams are working on existing projects or are trying to create a project from scratch, the interviewing skills can have wide application in data collection, marketing, and management.


For the engineering librarian, interview instruction may prove to be a valuable tool for providing relevant, timely in-class instruction. Using skills that are part of the discipline of librarianship, librarians can offer expertise that is valuable and in demand in engineering curricula and classrooms. By focusing on teaching best practices to engineering undergraduates, we can supplement the professional skills taught in the engineering core curriculum and provide added value for graduates and their future employers.


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Evans, D.R., Hearn, M.T., Uhlemann, M.R. and Ivey, A.E. 1989. Essential Interviewing: A Programmed Approach to Effective Communication. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

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