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The Long Interview: Qualitative Research Methods


It’s easy to get wrapped up in big data, AI, and quantitative approaches to research and forget that there’s another dimension to research that is just as important as – if not more important than – the numbers that we seem to be driven by.  The Long Interview (part of the Qualitative Research Methods Series) is one approach to qualitative research that can provide a semi-structured approach leading to important answers.

Qualitative Methods

Quantitative methods use large numbers and provide calculations and statistical formula to produce results that can quantify what is happening – but they’re unable to explain why.  Qualitative research methods flank the quantitative methods, being used both before quantifying metrics to define what to capture and after quantitative results are seen when there’s a need to explain them.

In the pre-quantitative mode, qualitative methods like ethnographic interviews (see The Ethnographic Interview), participant observations, focus groups, or in-depth interviews – and to some extent The Long Interview – can create an understanding of a topic area, which can be used to structure questions and collection of data that should be meaningful.  In these cases, qualitative methods ensure that what is captured and analyzed is relevant – it matters – and is accurate – it’s free of unnecessary ambiguity.

Conversely, the same methods can be focused on a specific result or situation for the purposes of exposing why the results are what they are.  Can’t explain why you can’t convert leads?  Qualitative approaches can help you figure out why.  You’re seeing a spike in sales in one region and want to replicate it?  Qualitative approaches can help you identify why sales are spiking to see if it can be replicated.

Where quantitative methods involve rows and columns of numbers, qualitative approaches ultimately center around conversations, many of which may be one-on-one.  Ultimately, it’s a short-term relationship between an interviewer and a respondent.

Waterfall and Iterative

There has been an ongoing discussion in the software development profession for three decades now – not quite half the lifetime of the profession.  Should software be designed in one big pass, like bridges are built, or should they be built bit-by-bit over time, like a pearl?  The iterative, like-a-pearl approach is generally perceived to be slower and more expensive, but in real life, we find that it often works better – in some circumstances.

The critical difference between bridges and software was – and often still is – that the mechanical characteristics of the materials of a bridge are well known.  There are many previous bridge building plans that can be reused or at least adapted to the purpose of building a new bridge.  In short, the details don’t change, and they’re well known in advance.  Software rarely – but occasionally – fits this definition.  There are some projects that can be built in one fell swoop – and should be.

The alternate end of the spectrum are projects where the technology is unproven, and the user expectations aren’t set, so anything can happen.  In those cases, the degree of uncertainty justifies a slower, more iterative approach.  The point of the iterative approach is to create more learning about the situation so that the investments aren’t so large.

Qualitative research is the kind of iterative, we don’t know the territory, investigation.  It’s what we do when we don’t know how we’re going to get to the answers.  Driving down a well-known road with quantitative research and big data is certainly faster – but someone has to know where people need the road to go and build it.  It’s important to realize that research isn’t an “either-or” proposition but an “and” proposition where qualitative makes quantitative more effective.


In the context of social or anthropological research, there’s a challenge that respondents “lead hectic, deeply segmented, and privacy-centered lives.”  That makes it difficult for them to dedicate time to the qualitative interview process – and less likely to share when they’re in the interview.  It’s not easy to get people to reveal deep insights into their world because they don’t see them – and if they did, you’d need to build sufficient trust quickly to earn the right to hear their story.

Therefore, techniques like those shared in The Ethnographic Interview, lessons from Motivational Interviewing, and developing a deeper level of trust is essential for qualitative research success.  (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited for more on developing trust.)  While qualitative research doesn’t require as many people, it does require the rapid development of a deeper understanding of those people.

Qualitative research takes time and can be perceived to be expensive, but it’s an important component to ultimately understanding the overall picture.

Nine Issues

McCracken outlines nine issues that relate to qualitative research:

  1. The Social Scientific Research Community – How should qualitative research fit in with other methods?
  2. The Donor Social Science – How do we bring the various qualitative research into a coherent conversation?
  3. The Qualitative / Quantitative Difference – As we described above, qualitative and quantitative work together – they are not competitors.
  4. Investigator as Instrument – Quantitative research can be scaled because it doesn’t require a human. Qualitative research requires and is influenced by the investigators – for better or worse.
  5. The Obtrusive / Unobtrusive Balance – There’s a need to push the respondent – and there’s a need for the investigator to step-back and listen. Finding the balance isn’t always easy.
  6. Manufacturing Distance – McCracken uses distance as a term for detachment and actively minimizing assumptions. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment.)
  7. The Questionnaire – The point of the questionnaire in the long interview is to provide some structure to the conversations.
  8. The Investigator / Respondent Relationship – Here, McCracken is focused on the level of formality / informality in the relationship between the investigator and respondent.
  9. Multimethod Approaches – Here, McCracken is illuminating the need for multiple approaches.


The messy bit about qualitative research is that it draws from the investigator’s personality, experiences, beliefs, and skills.  There’s no one direct path to the answer.  Marcia Bates speaks about what we’ve learned by means of active-passive and direct-indirect.  She estimates we get 80% of our knowledge in a passive and indirect way.  In short, most of what we know we didn’t seek to know.  When we’re working with respondents, their experience of their lives isn’t directed, and therefore we shouldn’t expect it to be a single, straightforward set of questions that will lead to a clear understanding.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge management concerns itself with explicit – contextless – information and the kinds of implicit or tacit knowledge that are hard to describe.  What’s wonderful about qualitative approaches is that they are a process through which some implicit information becomes explicit.  The investigator is the process through which the information is converted.  The investigator uses the long interview and other qualitative techniques to sense make what they’re hearing from the respondent and to elicit those things that the respondent rarely thinks about directly.

Four Steps

The Long Interview is four steps:

  1. Review of Analytic Categories – This is the orientation phase where the investigator begins to understand the overall landscape and the way that things appear – on the outside – to relate.
  2. Review of Cultural Categories – This is preparation for how to ask the questions. It includes the development of a questionnaire and any materials that may be necessary to support the interview.
  3. Discovery of Cultural Categories – This is the interview.
  4. Discovery of Analytic Categories – This is the post-interview analysis.

The Analysis

The analysis is itself broken into stages:

  1. Transcript / Utterance
  2. Observation
  3. Expanded Observation
  4. [Connected] Observation
  5. Theme
  6. Interview Thesis

In Sum

The process laid out provides structure to what might normally be addressed as an ethnographic interview.  While it’s more efficient than a less structured process (or can be), McCracken still cautions that you should not use qualitative methods unless you cannot use quantitative ones.  I’d soften that a bit to say you should only use qualitative approaches to the extent that they’re required.  The irony is that the great benefit of The Long Interview is to avoid the longer interview.