Enhancing 1:1 research interviews: the secret power of the third thing

The one to one interview is a widely used means of generating data in qualitative research. It is a chance for a researcher to spend time exploring a participant’s experiences, practices, perceptions, stories, in detail.

I’d like you to imagine what this might look like. Perhaps you’ve done some interviewing yourself. Perhaps you are planning to do so. What will the set-up be? Here are some images I got from google that capture the sorts of practices I’m referring to.

The point here is the interview is constructed and conducted as a dialogue – a to and fro between two people. Generally one person (the researcher) is asking questions about the other (the participant). It is a dyadic interaction.

My argument is that interviews are better conceived and done as triadic interactions: between the researcher, the participant, and something else.



Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 9.37.01 AM

Before I go further I need to lay out two assumptions:

  1. Interviews give direct evidence of what someone says in response to questions they are asked in particular circumstances. Nothing else. They are not a magical process that gives direct evidence of what people think or feel. Whom is asking them, what they are being asked, where and when this is happening all contribute to the way in which responses (ie. Data) are constructed within the context of situated social interaction.
  2. Good interviews help people construct useful answers. Useful has lots of dimensions – an element of ‘truth’ or at least genuineness is important, but also detail, relevance, clarity etc. We are not in the business of discovering what is in people’s heads here (at least not in the way I’m thinking about research interviews).

So the X on the diagram above is there to show that data come from interaction between you, the interviewee and a third thing.

This third thing, when used in particular ways, has amazing magical powers.

What am I talking about? What is this third thing?

The third thing can be an object or idea (ie concrete or abstract), but to have these magical powers it has to change the structure and function of the interaction.

A list of questions that the researcher has in her hands does not count. A digital audio recorder does not count. A cup of tea for each of you does not count. These things are useful but they do nothing in themselves to shift from a dyadic to triadic way of conducting the interview.

The objects or ideas that work as magical third things do so by changing the scenario from one in which the researcher asks the interviewee about herself to one in which the researcher asks the interviewee about the third thing.

If we wanted to know what a teacher thinks about, say, teaching in schools, we could ask “What do you think about ensuring accessibility for all learners?”. The question is aimed at the person, directly.

Instead, we could show a photograph of a classroom, or a video, or have one of the teacher’s lesson plans or some examples of resources she has used in her lessons. Then we could ask the interviewee to comment on those things. The interviewee can look at them, perhaps even pick them up.

We have changed from a question that follows a path directly from the researcher to the interviewee and back, to one that goes via a third thing.

Other examples could be diaries, concept maps, small cards with different words or pictures on them, computers or tablet devices, other relevant documents, artefacts people have produced or used – the list is pretty much endless. The magic is not in the thing itself, but in how it is used.

As I mentioned, some of these third things might not be concrete, tangible objects. They could be ideas that are invoked through the way the question is put together. Let me explain with an example.

I’ve been interviewing a lot of parents recently, people who have been experiencing significant difficulties, often for reasons beyond their control. When I was piloting, I found that the question “What do you think your strengths are as a parent?” didn’t produce very good answers. Duh. Why would it? These were vulnerable people who were often self-judging as failing.

Instead I starting asking questions like these: “If I asked your partner what he thinks your strengths are as parent, what would he say?” or “If I asked someone who knows what you’ve been through and knows you really well, what would she say has enabled you to get through it all?”. These questions still take an indirect route (ie via the top of the triangle on the diagram above), but this time the third thing is invoked in an imaginary way.

Why is this indirect, triadic way so valuable?

  1. It helps participants pause before answering. Other things (like cups of tea, biscuits etc) do too, but the point is at least when the third thing is a physical object, people can comfortable entertain silence while they think for a moment. I’ve found even the intangible versions work similarly too: if you ask someone about themselves, there’s this expectation they should know the answer. If you ask them about someone else, it seems more permissible to take some time to think. And generally in interviews, silence is golden! (the other important silence is the one you, the researcher, leave after the answer, but that’s probably for another blog post!).
  2. It is less confronting. Not X asking about Y, but X asks Y about Z. A very useful shift, particularly when we are talking about sensitive issues.
  3. It helps construct responses that are closely tied to concrete examples, giving rich empirical detail not generalised, vague abstractions.
  4. It is based on Vygotsky’s theory of learning (the principle of mediation of activity through tools and signs). There’s shelves of books on this. I’m not going to explain it here, other than to note that the idea does have sound theoretical basis.
  5. It helps balance pre-determined structure and emergence in the interview: the third things can shape (suggest direction, boundaries) but not fix the way the interview goes.

I’m not claiming these ideas are particularly new. People use them all the time. But I haven’t read much about them in the textbooks, at least not explicitly framed this way.

Finally, here are some brief comments from Sally Irvine-Smith, a wonderful doctoral student here at UTS. She has been working with interviews on these principles and kindly offered to share some of her experiences. Thanks Sally!

I am adopting a practice approach which focuses very strongly on what people ‘do’. My study which is about decision makers in the local sphere. One group of participants were involved in a community panel to decide how to spend a certain amount of money for a local council. They were given a large folder of documentation and I asked them to bring that along to the interview where we jointly examined it. Interestingly, although they all (but one) had quite an affection for the folder as a memento of their time on the panel, it was not particularly important to them as a source of information. The remainder of my participants were elected members  or council officers. I did something a little different in their case: I asked them to think of a decision they were making and I treated that decision as the object in the interview. I encouraged the participants to examine their decision as if it had material form, to discuss its genesis and outcome, to describe who helped to shape it, and how it transformed and developed over time. I haven’t written up any of my results yet, but my data analysis indicates that the results from this technique are rich and provide an authentic picture of what my participants actually do when getting information for their decisions. 



9 thoughts on “Enhancing 1:1 research interviews: the secret power of the third thing

  1. Sarah Stewart

    Thanks for this Nick – will share with our project team for discussion before we head off into schools for fieldwork!

  2. Alison

    Thanks for this Nick!
    I’ve used this approach quite a bit – my research involved memorials and often I was interviewing people involved in creating the memorials, so they would bring their own archive to show me during the interview. Other times we met at the site, and walked around while talking (that can be a bit tricky in terms of recording). It definitely does make a difference to the quality of the interview.
    The literature I drew from was writing by Pink and by Prosser about ‘photo elicitation’.
    Pink, S. 2007, Doing visual ethnography, 2nd edn, SAGE Publications, London.
    Prosser, J. 1996, ‘What constitutes an image‐based qualitative methodology?’ Visual sociology, vol. 11, no. 2,pp.25-34.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, photo elicitation is a great example of a technique using a third thing. As far as I’m aware it goes back at least as far as the late 1950s and Collier & Collier’s work in anthropology.

  3. Ellen

    I’m guessing someone has applied this in clinical interviews also (eg formulating treatment goals and priorities or assessing family perspectives of outcomes). Is there some published work on this? Early childhood and disability is my particular field. It makes lots of sense. Thanks Nick.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      There will be lots of examples of ‘stimulus-based’ interviews in research and quite a bit written about this I expect, both in methods books but also in studies that use these approaches.

      I think I’m making a related, complementary, but hopefully distinct point. Stimuli can serve many functions, including promoting recall. They tend to be physical things. I’m pointing to a perhaps deeper principle that will often be upheld in stimulus-based interviews, but which doesn’t depend on a physical object either.

      It would be interesting to know whether the same principles are in use in clinical practice. While I’ve observed lots of admission interviews using tools like depression scales, or in which the practitioner refers to answers written by a client or referring agent, I haven’t seen much where the third thing is actually in the ‘hands’ (or mind!) of the client. I’ve never seen an EDS/EPDS score sheet given back to the parent for them to talk about, for example, though I wouldn’t be surprised if this happens.

  4. harryfiddler

    Hi Nick,

    Really interesting. A colleague of mine, James Wilson, uses this method for corporate training. He’s based at the Victoria and Albert Museum and he does ‘Walk and Talk’ sessions, walking without an agenda through various galleries and using an artwork which catches the subject’s attention to stimulate conversation, arising from, but not about, the artwork. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dragons-zoes-story-james-wilson

  5. janelouisehunter

    Hi Nick – I like to use postcards as my ‘3rd thing’. Especially in interviews and focus groups with young people. The postcard serves as an ice-breaker – I have a pile of quirky, colourful ones which I add to regularly – I usually lay them out on the table we are gathered around and then I ask the interviewee/participant to choose one that reminds them of …. (linked to the topic they know we are there to discuss). I choose a postcard too – ie join in … “saying this reminds me of ….” …. it might be …. “a favourite lesson I remember” … works a treat.


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