Qualitative Research

Choosing From Traditional Qualitative Research Methods

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Margaux Fisher

Senior Qualitative Analyst - Ethnography

Comparing the value of in-depth interviews and focus groups as qualitative research methods

As the application of technology improves, the number of available research methods continues to grow. At MDRG, we conduct surveys, interviews, focus groups, online metaphor elicitation, facial coding, mobile ethnography, online communities, and more.

Each of these qualitative research methods offer different forms of value – their potential for effectively drawing out insights depends on the specifics of a client’s objectives. As we think about how to apply new methods, it’s also worth looking at how traditional methods are best utilized. For instance, despite some overlapping benefits, in-depth interviews and focus groups offer differing kinds of value depending on the circumstance.

Focus groups might provide greater success:

  1. If research objectives can be achieved by exploring differences and similarities in perspectives, then focus groups can be a useful platform for stimulating debate and discussion.
  2. If respondents are there to provide expertise, focus groups can provide a useful forum for them to engage with and critique one another.
  3. If research aims include exploring and developing new ideas, focus groups can be used to allow respondents to build off one another. They can be encouraged to build constructive relationships that facilitate conversation.
  4. If respondents are geographically concentrated, focus groups might allow moderators to learn more about specific groups in less time.

However, there are circumstances that might make focus groups less effective. If respondents are geographically dispersed, bringing them together for a focus group might be too expensive or time-consuming to be worthwhile.* Gaining a respondent’s trust and developing a rapport can be more difficult to achieve in a focus group than in interviews because the moderator’s attention is divided between respondents.

Now let’s change gears and take a look at what makes an in-depth interview the right fit for gaining insights in qualitative research.

Overall, individual in-depth interviews are best in the following scenarios:

  1. If the research topic is sensitive, then participants might feel uncomfortable discussing that topic in a group setting. In general, respondents might share more about themselves or be more candid about their opinions in an interview than they would in a focus group.
  2. If the client is looking for more contextual and in-depth information. Interviews can provide a fuller understanding of a respondent’s point of view because moderators can spend more time getting to know the participants.
  3. If the respondents are geographically dispersed, interviews can easily be conducted over the phone.
  4. If respondents of questionable reliability must be recruited (perhaps consumers not strongly invested in the topic), interviews are easier to replace quickly. Due to the complications of coordination, focus groups are harder to reschedule.
  5. If there is something detailed or complicated about the research topic. Interviews are useful for ensuring that respondents fully understand the topic before discussing it.
  6. If respondents are providing feedback on creative material, then focus groups run the risk of allowing respondents to influence one another. Interviews avoid this risk.

Both focus groups and interviews have their strengths and weaknesses. One or the other can be more time and cost-effective depending on travel requirements, how geographically accessible respondents are, and the number of respondents recruited.

What’s more, the potential of qualitative research stretches beyond interviews and focus groups – with metaphor elicitation, mobile ethnography, online communities, and more.

* If group interaction is still important to conducting successful research, online communities can be used to generate discussion between geographically dispersed respondents.

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