The funnel approach to in-depth interview (IDI) and focus group guide development is an effective and efficient method for gaining key insights among qualitative research participants within an allotted time frame. A 2015 article in Research Design Review offers a schematic of this approach and outlines the intended purpose associated with each of the four basic stages (see “Interview Guide Development: A 4-Stage ‘Funnel’ Approach”).
But what exactly does “effective and efficient” mean as it relates to guide development, and why should we care? The answers lie in the fact that a thoughtful funnel approach to guide development enables the researcher to derive quality data from their qualitative research while achieving research objectives and maximizing the ultimate usefulness of the outcomes. By having a clear understanding of what it means to develop an interview or discussion guide that is both effective and efficient, the researcher has added greatly to the integrity of the qualitative research data and design.
There are at least six ways that the funnel approach to guide development is important to the effectiveness and efficiency of IDI and focus group research. The funnel approach:
- Mitigates bias. Progressively moving to the primary topic of interest allows the interviewer/moderator to gather an understanding of perceptions and behavior unblemished by the researcher’s own agenda.
- Helps identify variations. The general-to-narrow approach inherently provides the researcher with the necessary fundamental information that is needed to compare and contrast earlier comments with participants’ later remarks. In this way, the interviewer/moderator is able to identify variations in what is being said and conduct the necessary follow-up.
- Fosters rapport through a friendly flow of conversation. By beginning the interview or discussion with questions that are general in nature, the interviewer/moderator is facilitating the researcher-participant relationship in a conversational and non-threatening way.
- Reduces repetition. The flow of conversation that is grounded in a general-to-narrow method logically circumvents the potential problem of inappropriately repeating the same or similar topic areas or asking redundant questions.
- Encourages engagement and cooperation. Just as the funnel approach facilitates rapport building through conversation, it also creates an atmosphere in which participants feel emboldened to engage with the researcher and, in focus groups, with the other participants. This heightened level of cooperation fuels otherwise hidden insights which in turn help to mitigate bias and bolster data quality.
- Aids in analysis. By mitigating bias, helping to identify variations in the data, fostering rapport, reducing repetition, and encouraging engagement and cooperation, the funnel approach to guide development ultimately advances data analysis. The analyst is able to discern categories and themes, as well as outliers, in the data in a straightforward way based on well-thought-out transitions in the conversations.
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There are lots of articles discussing question design, focusing on such things as how to mitigate various forms of bias, clearly communicate the intended meaning of the question, and facilitate response. Survey question wording is discussed in this “tip sheet” from Harvard University as well as in “Questionnaire Design” from Pew Research Center, and a recent article in Research Design Review discussed the not-so-simple “why” question in qualitative research (see “Re-considering the Question of ‘Why’ in Qualitative Research”).
Getting the question “right” is a concern of all researchers, but qualitative researchers have to be particularly mindful of the responses they get in return. It is not good enough to use an interview guide to ask a question, get an answer, and move on to the next question. And, it is often not good enough to ask a question, get an answer, interject one or two probing questions, and move on to the next question. Indeed, one of the toughest skills a qualitative interviewer has to learn is how to evaluate a participant’s answer to any given question. This goes way beyond evaluating whether the participant responded in line with the intention of the question or the potential sources of bias. Rather, this broader, much-needed evaluation of a response requires a reflexive, introspective consideration on the part of the interviewer.
Reflexivity is central to a qualitative approach in research methods. It is a topic that is discussed often in RDR – see “Interviewer Bias & Reflexivity in Qualitative Research,” “Reflections from the Field: Questions to Stimulate Reflexivity Among Qualitative Researchers,” and “Facilitating Reflexivity in Observational Research: The Observation Guide & Grid” – because of its role Read Full Text
Note taking is fundamental to the in-depth interviewing process and an essential interviewer skill. And yet note taking – e.g., why note taking is important, how to take notes, and how to use notes from a completed interview – does not get much attention. Note taking is important – actually, critical – to the in-depth interview method because it is about much more than jotting down a participant’s comments and responses to the interviewer’s questions.
In fact, an effective note taker is a more effective interviewer. This is because
- Taking notes during an interview helps to focus the interviewer’s attention on the participant’s point of view and lived experience relevant to the research question.
- Taking notes helps the interviewer internalize what is being said by the participant which in turn helps the interviewer identify seemingly contradictory statements and follow up on new, insightful topic areas that may not appear on the interview guide.
- The interviewer’s heightened focused attention and internalization helps to build rapport and enhances the participant-researcher relationship.
- The interviewer can add sidebar notations while taking notes that add context to what is being discussed or remind the interviewer to follow up on a particular comment.
- Taking notes allows the interviewer to identify and flag important quotes made by the participant in the moment when the contextual import of participant’s statements can be fully appreciated and noted.
An effective note taker is also better equipped to conduct meaningful analyses of the data, leading to useful outcomes. This is because Read Full Text