One-on-One Interviews: The Rodney Dangerfield of Research

One-on-one interviews can produce uniquely informative and insightful findings.

One-on-one interviews can produce uniquely informative and insightful findings.

One-on-one interviews are the Rodney Dangerfield of research. They don’t get the respect they deserve, even though they can produce uniquely informative and insightful findings.

As a form of qualitative research, one-on-one interviews can penetrate issues more effectively than focus groups. One-on-one interviews are more conversational and flexible; potential participants are selected precisely, and the one-on-one environment yields candid insights.

The advantage of one-on-one interviews lies in who is interviewed. One-on-one interviews typically are scheduled from lists of customers, key stakeholders, managers or elected officials. In most cases, potential participants are recognized as “influentials” who impact opinions of others.

Participation rates are high even though you are targeting a very specific group of busy people. Why? The interviews are scheduled to meet their schedule, not at a specific day, time and place to accommodate client schedules. Also, key stakeholders like sharing their opinions, especially when assured comments are not for attribution.

Focus groups and one-on-one interviews both rely on discussion guides to propel discussion. Focus groups allow researchers – and clients – to observe a group reaction to a discussion guide consisting of questions, value propositions, logos or advertising messages. One-on-one interviews are more like confessionals when subjects feel comfortable to share their personal beliefs and attitudes. You can get unfiltered viewpoints directly from people that you interview.

With these virtues, why do clients purse their lips when asked about one-on-one interviews? Maybe they doubt how 20 well-conceived one-on-one interviews with a representative sample can outdo 500 randomly selected telephone surveys or a series of well-facilitated focus groups. They should erase their doubts and have faith. One-on-one interviews can deliver the goods.

Here are some excellent uses of one-on-one interviews:

Confirming alignment on objectives: One-on-one interviews are a discrete way to see if your managers or board members are in sync with a new overarching policy or strategic plan and, if not, to learn why not. Using a skilled third-party interviewer who will treat the interviews confidentially can generate a wealth of candid observations. Employing one-on-one interviews before full implementation can save a lot of frustration and embarrassment. 

Floating trial balloons: If you have a radical idea, one-on-one interviews can give you an advance read on how a defined audience will regard your out-of-the-box concept. The interviews will expose the most salient arguments opposing your idea and reveal strongest arguments supporting it. Findings can provide clues as to whether your trial balloon will soar or crash. More important, findings offer bread crumbs of how to proceed to avoid a crash.

Evaluating New Branding: Creating a new name, logo and visual identity is at its core subjective. One-on-one interviews can triangulate some perspective from stakeholders, customers or competing brand managers. Findings won’t magically produce a name, logo or visual identity, but can point to a productive direction and identify some key concepts. Findings also can warn of dead ends or bad ideas, which can save a lot of wasted time, energy and money.

Auditing media attitudes: Media audits can be valuable ways to assess relationships with reporters and editors who cover your business, products and services. The most effective way to conduct media audits is through one-on-one interviews. A third party, preferably someone with his or her own rapport with reporters and editors, can fetch the most candid observations and useful suggestions for improving media relationships.

Tapping Influencer insights: People who influence the behavior, preferences and consumer choices of others can be a valuable source of insight. One-on-one interviews may be the only viable way to capture that insight. Coincidentally, the outreach can establish or enhance relationships with key influencers.

Sampling diverse perspectives: Diversity and inclusion are increasingly important in organizations, but that priority doesn’t always scale down to understanding diverse perspectives within a group or team. One-on-one interviews with a diverse range of employees can suss out subtle and not-so-subtle differences in perspective. That knowledge can lead to greater cohesion in a unit and broader understanding of the range of viewpoints and cultural lenses in an organization.


Big Data, Critical Thinking and Lying

Big data is here to stay. Critical thinking never goes out of style. Lying is a fact of life. The key to effective decision-making is analyzing big data, applying critical thought and taking into account human facility.

Big data is here to stay. Critical thinking never goes out of style. Lying is a fact of life. The key to effective decision-making is analyzing big data, applying critical thought and taking into account human facility.

Growth of computing power enables mankind to analyze everything from the stars to our chromosomes, but big data can’t replace critical thinking or totally account for people who lie.

NPR’s TED Radio Hour has probed the big data revolution and how it may reshape our lives, literally. Calling big data the “steam engine of our time,” number-crunching optimists say big data can generate answers to big questions such as whether the universe is expanding, how to combat climate change and ways to predict and alter life itself. One big data enthusiast believes it isn’t out of the question to defeat death by chronicling the gazillions of molecules of a human being and reconstructing them when a life as we know it “ends.”

Big data serves more pedestrian purposes, too, such as identifying the latest fashion trends or the growth of the federal budget deficit.

But the question remains whether all that data always produces the best answers or the correct ones. In a totally rational world, people would save for their eventual retirement as soon as possible. In reality, many people don’t start thinking about retirement savings until they are on retirement’s doorstep. That has led to the burgeoning field of behavioral economics, which goes beyond the numbers to actual behavior.

Critical thinking in problem-solving can uncover solutions obscured or omitted from big data. An example from the TED Radio Show is a family with a physically challenged child who had under-developed spoken language skills resulting from hearing loss. While therapists, educators and the parents puzzled over how to teach the child, he was discovered one day Googling questions and absorbing the answers. He was in effect teaching himself, showing that human capacity and creativity are key problem-solving factors.

Ethics is just one of the nuances critical thinking can add to big data. Data may show we could use a series of subterranean nuclear explosions to create a new canal cost-effectively. However, the risks associated with such a plan may be judged too great to consider it. We may have the tools, thanks to big data, to tweak genes to resist congenital diseases. The same tools could be used to select gender and physical characteristics – and deselect other characteristics. Only humans can contemplate the implications of such choices.

Relying too much on what humans say can be a problem. There is too much proof that people fib. One study found that 1.6 million American men said they engaged in heterosexual sex using a condom, but only 1.1 million American women said they engaged in heterosexual sex using a condom. The US condom industry said it only sold 600 million condoms for the same year. The data doesn’t square. It is possible males are more likely to overstate their sexual activity and females may understate their sexual activity. It’s very unlikely the condom industry would understate their annual sales.

Big data is here to stay. Critical thinking never goes out of style. Lying is a fact of life. The trick is to blend all three to get the most accurate, useful picture possible on which to base serious decisions.

Some futurists envision humans and computers working cooperatively in a more organic form than turning on a laptop or robot. For most of us, we will have secondary access to big data, which will increase the need to apply critical thinking skills and good, old-fashioned common sense to determine what the data says and means.

Big data has opened up vistas for human knowledge and verification. But as big data has shown, one of the single biggest pieces of big data on earth are human beings. Each of us have complex systems, giving us the ability to think and to feel. Even when computers and robots achieve human-level complexity and intelligence, they still may not be able to outthink us.