There are a range of methods which can be used to collect qualitative data.
4.2.1 InterviewsInterviews may be structured (with a standard set of questions) or semi-structured (with broad questions or topic headings to prompt discussion) or unstructured (with a single overarching question or topic to start a conversation, but no particular formal questions). Structured interviews don’t allow the interviewer to veer from the set questions, so the responses they get are more standardised. Most interviews, however, are semi-structured, with clear questions identified but with room to probe for more detail or to ask supplementary questions if something interesting is said.
In qualitative interviews, questions can be open-ended, meaning that they are structured to invite people to talk freely. Open-ended questions usually start with words like ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘how, ‘where’, and encourage people to talk about their views or experiences. Closed-ended questions, on the other hand, are structured so that people can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or answer from a limited choice of responses. Closed-ended questions usually start with verbs, for instance: ‘did you think the service was satisfactory?’, or ‘could you remember what the nurse told you?’ Closed-ended questions lend themselves more to quantitative research because you can usually count, for instance, how many people said ‘yes’, or ‘no’. For qualitative research, where your interest is in people’s perceptions or experiences, open-ended questions generally work best.
Interviews sound simple but they do require strong listening skills, empathy, critical thinking (to query or probe some answers), and a warm and friendly persona to build trust.
4.2.2 Focus groupsFocus groups are essentially group interviews, which typically last for about 60-90 minutes and which are led by a facilitator or researcher. A focus group should be no bigger than 8 or 9 people because if it is too big, participants sometimes feel inhibited about speaking out. A focus group is a good way of learning about a group of people and their experiences (for instance, young breastfeeding mothers, Arabic-speaking mothers, grandparents who are assisting new mothers with breastfeeding). It is important that a focus group takes place in a welcoming environment and where people feel safe and secure to discuss the topic freely.
Participants in the focus group may be selected according to identified criteria by an external recruiter (generally if there is a large population involved) or through an in-house process. Focus groups are not intended to be ‘representative’, but are designed as a means of exploring specific topics. The role of the facilitator is to maintain a flow of discussion and cover the desired range of topics through a semi-structured process and to ensure that all participants have the chance to speak up.