Interviewing Techniques — Polling & In-Depth Interviewing White Paper

Interviewing techniques in use today range from polling and its variations to the In-Depth approach.  While it has become common to utilize polling and disparage the In-Depth approach, utilized with care, both can provide valid information.  Indeed, where appropriate, both techniques can be used in a given project to advantage.

Polling

In general, computer technology and its ability to quantify large samples quickly and accurately, have resulted in sampling techniques that rely almost exclusively on polling, that is, on the use of prepared questionnaires that do not deviate in format and provide the interviewee with a designated list of answers from which to choose.  Depending on the purpose of the poll, the sample may have well defined characteristics.  Polling is most commonly associated with mass sampling but it has also come to be accepted for smaller samples.

While polling has many advantages and is often presented as being an impartial way to obtain information, in fact, any poll contains built in biases.  This is not to say that the people who create polling questions do not make every effort to be objective.  However, because questions are prepared and do not change regardless of a respondent’s answers, they must necessarily reflect the knowledge and biases of the people who compose it even when considerable pre-testing of questions is done.

In-Depth Interviewing

Approaches that are less reliant on statistical methodology are often labeled anecdotal, a term that implies that the information obtained is somehow less than valid.  Nevertheless, these approaches, known as In-Depth or Strategic Interviewing, continue to be used extensively.  Depending on the nature of the project, In-Depth Interviewing: (1) may be directed at obtaining results which, although general, contain nuance; (2) may be focused in order to obtain extremely detailed results; or (3) may be somewhere in between.

Although In-Depth Interviewing makes use of a questionnaire which itself acts as a guideline to ensure that subject areas are not left out, the interviewer is expected to be flexible.  If the interviewee does not understand the question or, if the question is not relevant, it can be explained or revised.  If unusual or unexpected subjects arise in the course of the interview, they may be explored.  Respondents can be guaranteed the anonymity needed to elicit frank answers even if these are negative.  In fact, it is the ability to explore the unexpected or even the negative that makes the In-Depth Interview a vehicle through which it is possible to obtain the nuance and detail which provide not only quantifiable data but the sense of a given situation without which it is impossible to create meaningful strategies and programs.

Focus Groups

Focus Groups may be regarded as a sub-set of small group polling.  While they are conducted in live session, the format and questionnaire remains the same for all respondents; it may or may not be possible to obtain nuance.  Focus Groups do not allow for the anonymity needed to permit employees or others in sensitive situations to speak freely.

Polling and In-Depth Interviewing In A Single Project

The nature of the desired material may make it advantageous to use both polling and In-Depth Interviewing one or more times in a single project or study.  There is no required order; rather the circumstances will determine what is done.  In one instance, series of in-depth interviews with executives and key team members may be warranted before the entire staff is polled. In another, an employee survey may have been conducted before depth and nuance are sought from employees and/or management.  Both may be used to assess success of changes that have been implemented earlier.

The order and use of these techniques is dependent on the circumstances.  Employed well they can be critical to the creation of organizational change.