Interviews and focus groups

Interviews and focus groups are common techniques for collecting qualitative data, particularly about people’s experiences, opinions, attitudes and motivations.

Interviews and focus groups are common techniques for collecting qualitative data, particularly about people’s experiences, opinions, attitudes and motivations.

  • Interviewing involves asking individuals or small groups questions about a topic.
  • Focus groups are a specific form of group interview, where interaction between participants is encouraged. The person conducting a focus group plays the role of a facilitator encouraging the discussion, rather than an interviewer asking questions.

These notes should be read in association with the general notes on qualitative data in the School Excellence Framework evidence guide (follow the links below).

Advantages

Qualitative data collection methods are more personal and ‘hands on’ than quantitative methods. They also allow consideration of non-verbal communication and cues, not just what people say.

Interviews and focus groups are a good option for evaluations where you need to:

  • understand lived experiences and personal perspectives
  • take a personal approach so participants can speak freely in their own words
  • explore complex situations
  • provide participants with additional information during the conversation
  • ask follow-up questions and pursue new lines of inquiry, depending on the issues that emerge
  • include the voices of people who are unlikely or unable to respond to a survey request.

Relationship to other methods

Interviews and focus groups can be used as stand-alone data collection tools. However, they are often integrated in an evaluation design to complement other approaches. Their purpose might be:

  • Exploration – identifying issues that are important to participants and the evaluation, which can then be addressed in a survey or quantitative data analysis to look for patterns or trends.
  • Explanation – interpreting patterns or trends that have emerged from earlier analysis of quantitative data or a survey.
  • Clarification – following up selected survey respondents whose comments were unusual, unclear or particularly insightful. This is only possible with surveys that are not anonymous.
  • Illustration – fleshing out the detail of a specific set of circumstances, in order to provide adequate description of context in the report.

Limitations, and how to manage them

Interviews and focus groups rely on people expressing their opinions or describing their own experiences, attitudes or behaviours. This relies on people’s memory, as well as their willingness to disclose information or discuss a given situation. It also runs the risk of social desirability bias, which is the natural human desire not to ‘say the wrong thing’. (Follow the link below to cognitive bias for more.)

As with any self-report data, you may need to verify or clarify things people say in interviews or focus groups, either at the time or by following up afterwards. You also need to be careful when drawing general conclusions based on the views of a small number of people.

Conducting interviews and focus groups requires strong interpersonal skills, particularly in making people feel comfortable and listening for meaning. The interviewer or facilitator must also work hard to maintain neutrality and avoid accidentally leading the participants or influencing their responses. This is known as researcher bias.

Doing interviews and focus groups on a large scale can be time consuming and costly. These techniques produce large quantities of data for analysis, and this analysis takes time and skill. Careful planning is necessary, both in the way you collect our data and the way you analyse it.

If more than one person is collecting qualitative data, the team will need a way of ensuring consistency regarding how questions are asked, how conversations are recorded and how responses are analysed.

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