Research Methods: Structured interview techniques

Nancy Hughes

Alina Grubnyak Ziqkhi7417a Unsplash

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Interviews are a great method for gathering first hand accounts of people’s experiences, perceptions and attitudes. They can vary in structure from more of a guided discussion based on a framework of topics through to a fixed list of scripted questions. The flexibility that they offer can lure researchers into a false sense of security, with interviews often being seen as the easy option. However, carrying out an effective interview takes planning and skill. 

One of the most commonly used techniques is the semi-structured interview, where the researcher plans out a range of questions and follow-up prompts to guide participants through a series of topics. However, there are alternatives which provide more structure and support the researcher's focus on gathering specific insights. 

This blog gives an overview of three of these alternative techniques for conducting an interview.

Critical Incident Technique

This technique was the focus of the first in our Research Methods series. To summarise, Critical Incident Technique (CIT) is a great technique for getting  participants to explore their experiences of different situations or events. It involves asking the participant to identify and describe up to three positive and three negative first hand experiences.

Vignettes 

Vignettes are essentially stories about individuals and situations, which participants are asked to consider and reflect upon. Usually they are hypothetical and enable researchers to explore what a participant might do, feel or think in a given situation.  Depending on topics being explored, the vignette itself can be presented as plain text, comic strips, story boards or videos.  Being hypothetical in nature, vignettes allow participants to respond in very open and unreserved ways, detailing their genuine thoughts and opinions.

Vignettes offer a great way to explore more sensitive or challenging situations.

One drawback of vignettes is that, because they don't refer to real events, participants sometimes feel unable to make a decision or offer an explanation and can resort to unhelpful ‘it depends’ responses. It is also important to recognise that what participants say they would do and what they would actually do if faced with a situation can be very different. 

Advantages:

  • Allows you to explore situations that participants don't have direct experience of
  • Carefully targeting the content in the vignette helps participants focus on the specifics aspects of the situation you are interested in

Disadvantages:

  • Participants can struggle to accurately respond to hypothetical situations
  • Poorly written vignettes can be leading and fail to elicit meaningful responses
  • Lots of effort required upfront to research, design and create the vignette itself

Repertory Grid Technique

The technique, also referred to as ‘triading’, is based on George Kelly’s personal construct theory which suggests people make sense of the world through their own subjective classifications or ‘personal constructs’. Essentially it works by either the researcher or participant selecting between five to ten products or services from a particular domain, which the participant is familiar with. These may be written down or perhaps offered as picture cards. The researcher then asks the participant to select three at a time (a ‘triad’) and explain in what ways two are similar and yet different from the third, with this process being repeated with a different three entities until the researcher feels all new insights have been expressed. 

This technique is versatile as it allows researchers to elicit participants' inner motivations and beliefs on a diversity of discrete entities e.g. people, objects and events, whilst minimising researcher bias or influence.

Repertory Grid is particularly effective for comparing related products and services such as a range of mobile phones or online fashion brands.

Participants often become very engaged in this technique as they are discussing topics they know, yet the process often reveals insights even they weren’t aware of. Researchers can also gain deeper insights by prompting the participants throughout the process to give some more detail, explanation or clarification on the descriptions they give. 

Advantages

  • Gives a solid structure to interviews that can make it easier for less experienced researchers to run
  • Good at uncovering biases and opinions that participants didn't necessarily know they have
  • Some flexibility to delve deeper into interesting topics that come up as the interview progresses

Disadvantages

  • Only useful for exploring specific types of research question, where you are focused on differences and similarities
  • Needs participants to be familiar with a wide variety of 'entities' so that you can explore lots of different 'triads' and get at underlying opinions and experiences

Find out more:

Barter, C. and Renold, E. (1999) The use of vignettes in qualitative research

The Repertory Grid: Eliciting User Experience Comparisons in the Customer’s Voice

Fransella, F., Bell, R. and Bannister, D. (2004) A manual for repertory grid technique

The Critical Incident Technique in UX