4.5 Data Collection Methods

Choosing the most appropriate and practical data collection method is an important decision that must be made carefully. It is important to recognise that the quality of data collected in a qualitative manner is a direct reflection of the skill and competence of the researcher. Advanced interpersonal skills are required, especially the ability to accurately interpret and respond to subtle participant behavior in a variety of situations. Interviews, focus groups and observations are the primary methods of data collection used in qualitative healthcare research (Figure 4.7).62

Figure 4.7 Data collection methods by Bunmi Malau-Aduli and Faith Alele, used under a CC BY NC 4.0 licence


Interviews can be used to explore individual participants’ views, experiences, beliefs and motivations. There are three fundamental types of research interviews: structured, semi-structured and unstructured.

Structured interviews, also known as standardised open-ended interviews, are carefully prepared ahead of time, and each participant is asked the same question in a certain sequence.63 A structured interview is essentially an oral questionnaire in which a pre-determined list of questions is asked, with little or no variation and no room for follow-up questions to answers that require further clarification.63 Structured interviews are relatively quick and easy to develop and use and are especially useful when you need clarification on a specific question.63 However, by its very nature, it allows only a limited number of participant responses, so it is of little use if “depth” is desired. This approach resists improvisation and the pursuit of intuition but can promote consistency among participants.63

Semi-structured interviews, also known as the general interview guide approach, include an outline of questions to ensure that all pertinent topics are covered.63 A semi-structured interview consists of a few key questions that help define the area to be explored but also allow the interviewer or respondent to diverge and explore ideas or responses in more detail.64 This interview format is used most frequently in healthcare, as it provides participants with some guidance about what to talk about. The flexibility of this approach, especially when compared to structured interviews, is that it allows participants to discover or refine important information that may not have been previously considered relevant by the research team.63

Unstructured interviews, also known as informal conversational interviews, consist of questions that are spontaneously generated in the natural flow of conversation, reflect no preconceptions or ideas, and have little or no organisation.65 Such conversations can easily start with an opening question such as, “Can you tell me about your experience at the clinic?” It then proceeds primarily based on the initial response. Unstructured interviews tend to be very lengthy (often hours), lack pre-set interview questions, and provide little guidance on what to talk about, which can be difficult for participants.63

As a result, they are often considered only when great “depth” is required, little is known about the subject, or another viewpoint on a known issue is requested.63 Significant freedom in unstructured interviews allows for more intuitive and spontaneous exchanges between the researcher and the participants.63..

Advantages and Disadvantages

Interviews can be conducted via Phone, Face-to-Face or Online, depending on participants’ preferences and availability. Often participants are flattered to be asked and they make the time to speak with you and they reward you with candour.66 Usually, interviews provide flexibility to schedule sessions at the convenience of the interviewees.66 It also provides less observer or participant bias as other participants’ experiences or opinions do not influence the interviewee. Interviews also provide enough talk time for interviewees and spare them from spending time listening to others. Additionally, the interviewer can observe the non-verbal behaviour of the interviewee and potentially record it as data.66

Interviews also have inherent weaknesses. Conducting interviews can be very costly and time-consuming. 66 Interviews also provide less anonymity, which is usually a major concern for many respondents.66 Nonetheless, qualitative interviews can be a valuable tool to help uncover meaning and understanding of phenomena.66

With your understanding of interviews, watch this video clip and identify what you would do differently and provide your thoughts in the Padlet below.


Now watch the video clip below to see how a good interview should be conducted


After watching the video, reflect on the responses you provided in the Padlet and consider if there is anything you may have missed out or need to revise.

Focus group

Focus groups are group interviews that explore participants’ knowledge and experiences and how and why individuals act in various ways.67  This method involves bringing a small group together to discuss a specific topic or issue. The groups typically include 6-8 participants and are conducted by an experienced moderator who follows a topic guide or interview guide.67 The conversations can be audio or videotaped and then transcribed, depending on the researchers’ and participants’ preferences. In addition, focus groups can include an observer who records nonverbal parts of the encounter, potentially with the help of an observation guide.67

Advantages and disadvantages

Focus groups effectively bring together homogenous groups of people with relevant expertise and experience on a specific issue and can offer comprehensive information.67 They are often used to gather information about group dynamics, attitudes, and perceptions and can provide a rich source of data.67

Disadvantages include less control over the process and a lower level of participation by each individual.67 Also, focus group moderators, as well as those responsible for data processing, require prior experience. Focus groups are less suitable for discussing sensitive themes as some participants may be reluctant to express their opinions in a group environment.67 Furthermore, it is important to watch for the creation of “groupthink” or dominance of certain group members, as group dynamics and social dynamics can influence focus groups.67


Observations involve the researcher observing and recording the behaviour and interactions of individuals or groups in a natural setting.67 Observations are especially valuable for gaining insights about a specific situation and real behaviour. They can be participant (the researcher participates in the activity) or non-participant (the researcher observes from a distance) in nature.67 The observer in participant observations is a member of the observed context, such as a nurse working in an intensive care unit. The observer is “on the outside looking in” in non-participant observations, i.e. present but not a part of the scenario, attempting not to impact the environment by their presence.67 During the observation, the observer notes everything or specific elements of what is happening around them, such as physician-patient interactions or communication between different professional groups.67

Advantages and disadvantages

The advantage of performing observations includes reducing the gap between the researcher and the study. Issues may be found that the researcher was unaware of and are relevant in gaining a greater understanding of the research.67 However, observation can be time-consuming, as the researcher may need to observe the behaviour or interactions for an extended period to collect enough data. In addition, they can be influenced by the researcher’s biases, which can affect the accuracy and validity of the data collected.68


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An Introduction to Research Methods for Undergraduate Health Profession Students Copyright © 2023 by Faith Alele and Bunmi Malau-Aduli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.