Qualitative Interviews

In connection with qualitative studies there are three main methods that we use: Group interviews, in-depth interview and imagination exercises.

Understanding everyday life

The qualitative interview is, both in the form of in-depth interviews and group interviews, a good way of getting the interviewed person’s experiences of their everyday life and its significance. The object of the qualitative interview is the interviewed person’s lifeworld.

The interview is focused on certain themes but is also open to ambiguity and complexity as opposed to the completely structured interview, which is basically a questionnaire that can’t be adapted to the specific situation, but which is instead better able to make reproducible data.

The purpose is to describe and understand central themes in the world that the interviewed person experiences.

In this way, the qualitative interview becomes case oriented instead of person oriented. The qualitative interview seeks to describe and understand the purpose of central themes in the interviewee’s lifeworld, i.e. the interviewer tries to understand the interviewee on both a factual and meaning based level.

The symbolic significance

Qualitative interviews are largely used in today’s market research to predict and control consumer behavior; this is also called in-depth interviews or focus group interviews. (Dichter and Morgan)

In consumer research it is important to penetrate the outer layers of a product’s significance in order to touch upon the more hidden symbolic meanings that it has for the potential user.

Interviews from 1961 by Dichter, shows for example, that cars are more than means of transportation and that they have a symbolic value, which the car manufacturers can use in their branding. The same is true for many other consumer items and there’s a symbolic importance behind choices related to the shape of a house, the way it is built and the interior design.

In much the same way, we have to penetrate to a deeper layer for clients to find what is important to them.

The Strength of the interview

An interview guide is made before the interview. It helps structure the interview into themes, what their order is and ideas for questions. The interview guide is a way to ensure that similar information is retrieved from all the interviews. At the same time the interview guide is open-ended so the interviewer has the option of asking further questions based on the interviewee’s answers.

This is exactly the strength of the qualitative research interview, as it gives a broader and more nuanced view of the themes of the interview.

Interview Criteria

Methodologically there aren’t the same requirements made to the qualitative interview, when it’s used for market research. The legitimacy of the method is determined by its ability to predict and control consumer behavior as opposed to the criteria of generalization, reliability and validity that are required of the qualitative research interview.

Generalization concerns the information in the interview and whether this can be generalized in an entire population and can the data in this case be used to predict a general consumer behavior.

Reliability concerns the consistency of the information and its reliability in interviews, while validity refers to the way the interviews are handled and if the themes are handled in a believable manner. Even though market research that use qualitative interviews don’t have to have the same scientific standards as research interviews, the success of the interview in predicting and controlling consumer behavior will be contingent on fulfilling the qualitative interview’s methodical criteria.

1. Group interviews

The advantages of group interviews, other than being a timer saver, is that the interaction between the interviewees often lead to spontaneous and emotional outbursts about the topic being discussed. The interviewees’ interaction means that they have to relate to both their own perspective and that of others. This leads to the interviewer getting more input from each of the interviewees and it means that the interview might generate more information.

Group interviews also make the interview situation more chaotic and harder for the interviewer to control, since the group interactions take a life of their own. There is the risk that one or two people dominate the interview situation, both in regards to the interviewer, but also to the other interviewed people in the group.

Sometimes it’s necessary to keep the interviewees on a short leash, for example by asking the others in the group directly about something the dominating person has already given their opinion about. The problem can also be solved by the interviewer limiting the amount of time the dominating person has to speak in. Other times the people being interviewed might be holding back and might need help in the interview situation by being asked directly for an answer.

The optimal size of a group interview is usually around 7 to 8 people, which maintain the advantages of the group interview while also being controllable.

2. In-depth interviews

The in-depth interview offers some other opportunities, which the group interview doesn’t, in regards to getting closer to the individual person getting interviewed and in uncovering the person’s relationship to the themes being asked about.

The in-depth interview can be likened to a conversation between two people, where the interviewer and the interviewee’s goal is to reach a mutual and shared understanding. This can be related to what K. E. Løgstrup refers to as the unfounded and unreflected openness and trust of speech. The interviewee needs reasons to withhold information or meet the interviewer with distrust.

The openness of a conversation is used in the interview as a tool and a means of getting close to the person being interviewed and gaining access to and knowledge of that person’s life.

An actual conversation and the interview conversation are different because the actual conversation is mutual and open, while the interview conversation is one-sided and open. This one-sidedness in the interview situation means that the method is especially suited to, and effective in, entering the person’s lifeworld and to see the world from their perspective.

That this one-sidedness in the interview conversation is effectual is due to the interview situation being an offer to the interviewee, to be able to talk about themselves and their opinions, to a person who is ideally just listening, asking and showing interest in the person’s life.

The interviewer is of course never interested in the person being interviewed just for their sake, neither in market surveys nor in research, but the interview is staging the experience of that feeling for the interviewee.

In an interview situation, the interviewer has other commitments that lie outside of the conversation itself. The interview conversation is needed for a specific purpose. That means that the symmetrical power relation in the traditional conversation changes into an asymmetrical one in the capacity that it is the interviewer that controls the interview conversation. This also demands more from the interviewer’s ability to control the interview in the desired direction by using techniques such as asking about the answers given in the interviews.

Conversely, it is this control over the interview situation that secures the interviewer an information rich interview. It takes deeply professional interviewers with sociological or psychological backgrounds to do this to its fullest extent.

3. Imagination exercises

Some of the interviews will include an exercise in imagination/fantasy where the interviewee’s will be asked to close their eyes and imagine their leisure activities in the future while the interviewer is guiding them through days and seasons.

The purpose of this activity will be to gather information about the interviewee’s relationship to public service offers. By letting the interviewed person close their eyes and imagine their own life in the future, the interviewer is trying to get closer to the person’s more spontaneous and emotional reactions and ideas.

This information is important based on the assumption that the client isn’t just rational in their choices, but also emotional. In the actual interview situation, the interviewed person will often limit their answers based on their knowledge of rational limitations on time, economy etc. In their wants and ideas one can find a lot of information on consumer behavior.

In relation to it, it gives the interviewer the opportunity to ask about many different issues that aren’t normally associated with leisure activities. The problem with imagination exercises is that they require a high degree of cooperation from the person being interviewed or they might have a hard time giving themselves entirely to the imagined scenario.


Indicative of the qualitative methods is that they all try to accumulate knowledge about the interviewee’s world and its significance, based on the assumption that it’s only through this knowledge that you can predict consumer behavior. Both the interview and the imagination exercise uses the openness of conversations to gather this knowledge because consumer behavior is about a products symbolic value, i.e. A car is more than a means of transportation and a public service offer is more than the specific content in a teaching plan.

In Fremforsk, we’ve used these methods over the past 5 years in many of our surveys. We have used all three methods when analyzing the housing area, consumer behavior, in the mapping of structures of interest, in analyses of youth behavior and preferences as well as innovation in businesses and they have all been a significant part of the data we have used for reports and analyses.

Experience is important in this area, and we can’t express enough how many results and reports we’ve seen, that haven’t handled these methods convincingly.

M.Sc. Political Science, futurist

Head of Research

+45 20674501

Marianne Levinsen is Head of Research at Fremforsk and manages, among other things, the many studies we conduct to become wiser about the present and the future.

In the past years, she has been responsible for conducting studies on shopping behaviour, innovation, the youth and knowledge sharing.

See Marianne's profile here
Ph.d., Futurist


+45 20674500

Jesper Bo Jensen has worked with futures studies for numerous years and has since the beginning of the 1990s worked with analysing the future.

He applies the scientific methods in his work and has previously worked as a researcher at several universities.

See Jesper's profile here

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