David Morgan on the Two-Person Interview

I’m fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Dr. David Morgan a few years ago. Dr. Morgan is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Portland State University and an internationally known qualitative research expert. As a neophyte evaluator I read his books and devotedly followed his guidelines for conducting focus groups. Fifteen years later I still am. I was thrilled when David agreed to an interview about a methodology he is currently developing, the two-person interview.

Logistically, two-person interviews are easier to conduct than focus groups—recruitment is easier and one failed interview can easily be repeated. Two-person interviews provide depth and detail and may ultimately allow for more diversity among participants. Dr. Morgan discusses these advantages as well as specific application of the two-person interview in our conversation. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Eliot: So, why the two person interview? Where did the idea come from?

Morgan: You know all too well that with focus groups the big thing is logistics. You have to get five, six, eight, or ten people together in the same place at the same time. And for more specialized recruitment criteria it’s even harder, particularly when looking at relatively rare populations. Even in a big city, there’s still going to be the dispersion problem. I think that’s one of the things that first got me thinking about it. Recruitment is just a huge issue in focus groups. You’ve got to get the right people together. But also, as a researcher, I’ve had this curiosity about what’s a three-person or a two-person focus group. It’s probably a five-person focus group where a few people didn’t show up. If you plan it for five people to be talking about it, will three people work? If it’s something they’re interested in and have things to say about it then three is fine.

Eliot: What do you mean by “right people?”

Morgan: The “right people” are the ones who, number one, can talk about what you want to hear about; and,  two, they can talk to each about it in a decent discussion so you get some high quality data. It can be hard to make that happen.

Eliot: So the idea for the two-person interview developed from your curiosity about the three-person group?

Morgan: Yes. Basically, if we accept the low end of focus groups as being around four then what happens with three and two? We know what individual interviews are but there’s this kind of weird gap [between focus groups and individual interviews]. So, from my point of view, the question is, can you make the two-person interview work like a focus group if you can make sure it’s interactive? It’s going to be easier to get two people together especially if you have relatively specialized groups. And there’s much more potential for doing it on the phone as well because the two-person interview really mimics the pattern of a natural phone conversation where two people are talking to each other.

Eliot: So, where does the moderator fit into a two-person interview then?

Morgan: Most of the work I do as an academically motivated qualitative researcher is less structured and more exploratory. So I’m going to be asking fewer, broader questions and letting the participants carry more of the interview with me probing for things I want to hear more about. And that works just as well in two-person interviews as it does in regular focus groups. My dream is that they’re talking about whatever question I ask them and I’ve got the next question ready, but before I can even ask it they slide right into it. And I say, “Great let’s go,” because they’re talking about what I want to hear about. It works really well when they want to talk about what you want to hear about and they’re pretty open to what you have to say—what I call the listening and learning mode.

But if you’re up at the other end and you’re more structured rather than less structured, I have not done as much work there. If you have a real agenda oriented set of questions I think it’s going to be tricky to keep each of the two people from just answering you in rotation. It’s mostly a matter of thinking about how to work with the dynamics of the conversation. So, in the same way we use instructions, questions, and moderating style to get the conversation flowing in focus groups, we’re going to have to figure out how to make that work in two-person interviews. We know a lot about naturally occurring conversations but they tend to be more informal and free-flowing. So how do we think about a more structured researcher oriented format that still allows it to be a conversation? I haven’t moved in that direction yet.

Eliot: How well do the two individuals in the two-person interview have to know each other to be able to carry on this type of free-flowing conversation?

Morgan: They don’t. All the work I’ve done so far has been with strangers. Now there’s something called dyadic interviewing involving spouses and partners or parent and child, for example, where there’s some specified relationship that creates that dyadic relationship. Alternatively, you could pair up two people who either know each other or they don’t and have them literally talk about something they would talk to each about at lunch.

Another place dyadic interviews are used is with teenagers where the topic is pretty tough to do focus groups around. When you’re working with two friends, that’s called peer paired-interviews or “friendship pairs.” The moderator can also be a peer. Another thing that’s nice about both dyadic and peer interviews is the ability to follow-up with both participants, since they know each other.

Eliot: So it sounds like, in the two-person interview, the two people are related by topic instead of to each other.

Morgan: Generally speaking, yes. But there’s no reason you couldn’t do it the other way as well. One of my colleagues uses two-person interviews with people who know each other on a community basis or work together at the same place.

Eliot: So, for the type of two-person interview you’re talking about and interested in doing, participant selection is much the same as it is for a focus group. Basically, the same rules apply?

Morgan: Right. It goes back to recruitment. We bring together two people who have things to say and are interested in what each other has to say. So they’ve got to have some connection to the topic.

The main thing my students and I have been doing, just to learn about two-person interviewing, is talking to first year graduate students who are at the end of their first year. They’re at the point where they’ve made a decision to go to graduate school and now they’re finding out how well it worked. In this study, we pair up students from two completely different programs and, just like in focus groups, we want to hear their different points of view.

Eliot: Do you find that they talk to each other rather than to you?

Morgan: Oh yeah. They’re interested in each other. But before we get started we say to them, “Why don’t you start by telling each other why you came to graduate school and why you chose this program?” As they toss that around a little bit they get to know about each other. The thing that’s interesting is that the two-person interview is much more personal so it can really help to start by having them get to know each other a little bit. So that discussion starter question can be a get acquainted question that asks: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” but with regard to this topic.

And, in the instructions I say: “I’ll be taking some notes and I want to hear what you have to say. Plus I’ll definitely have some questions for you but the whole idea is for you to talk to each other. So I’m not going to be calling on you or managing the conversation, but I think I have some questions that you’ll really be interested in talking to each other about.” After that, the next question for these graduate students is something like: “Over the past year I’m sure there have been some positive things and some not so positive things. Let’s hear how the year’s gone for you. Start with the good parts and then shift over into some of the problem areas.”

Eliot: What if they both get off-track? Say they both find out they really like rock-climbing.

Morgan: Well, either they just laugh and come back or you say, “Guys…” and they will say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” It’s what we call refocusing when we’re doing focus groups. If they’re not too far off you re-phrase the question or say: “It seems we’ve wandered a little bit away from…”

So, you don’t have to do as much work here because just a better level of awareness about what the topic is in two-person interviews and how interviewees each relate to it. It doesn’t diffuse as much as it does in a focus group.

Eliot: Even though the interviewees in your graduate student study come from a fairly homogeneous group, it seems you’ve incorporated more heterogeneity than you might in a traditional focus group.

Morgan: One of the things I’m ultimately really interested in is how different the people could be.  In focus groups we usually do segmentation so the groups are relatively homogeneous to talk to each other, and then we can compare the different points of view in each group. In a two-person conversation I think we could probably get more heterogeneous if we can get them both interested in the topic. Now that’s not the same as getting together a pro-life person and a pro-choice person. You don’t want people with standard opposing ideological positions…heck, you could make up the conversation for them!

I’m interested in the heterogeneity in which interviewees would approach the same topic from two different points of view.

Eliot: Have you run into any problem with dominance?

Morgan: No, interestingly not. But again, we’re bringing together people who are a on a similar level. I think you would have to think about dominance with your screening, and again it’s related to the topic. Let’s say you have two people talking about their illness and one person is recently diagnosed and the other has been dealing with it for most of a year—that’s going to have very different dynamics. That kind of stuff tends to even out in focus groups because you’ll have a mix of high ground, low ground, and middle ground. But I think if people are so-called peers on a topic but have different levels of engagement or intensity with the topic that would potentially create problems.

Eliot: Are there certain topics that uniquely lend themselves to this methodology?

Morgan: That’s what we don’t know yet. For logistics, two-person interviews almost automatically have lots of advantages. We’re just going to have to do more of them on different topics before we begin to figure out what it is.

If we look at focus group versus individual interview, we know that the interview is going to get you more depth and detail on that one particular person or situation and understanding the context in which they operate. The focus group is going to give a range of ideas of why some people are in one place and others are in another — they’re really interested in the ways that they’re similar and different, what I call “sharing and comparing.” That seems to work really well in two-person interviews, too. So the two-person interview could be a hybrid between, not only hearing about the similarity and difference, and why someone if over here and someone else is in a different place, like in focus groups. But in the two-person interview you would also get more of the detail. But then it’s a question of what’s the difference between one six-person focus group and three, two-person interviews. I have no idea. We’re just at the beginning of a learning curve on this.

Eliot: Is there anything else I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to mention?

Morgan: One thing we haven’t talked about is on-line groups. I like to say that the video conference focus group is the future of focus groups and probably will be for the next 25 years. But one place online already is out there. If you’re working with a lot of young people it can make sense to try Instant Messaging.

But if you have more than three people in an IM session it just breaks down. They can’t maintain a decent conversation because turn-taking is a moderately complicated activity to accomplish. But two people can adapt really well in IM, and three people can pretty much make it; four is hopeless. The moderator role has to be highly adapted. You can pop in periodically but mostly you’re just watching the stuff go by making sure they’re reasonably on target.

Eliot: So where do you want to take the two-person interview next? What questions are you still wanting to answer?

Morgan: I have so many I’m not sure where to go. That’s my biggest problem. When I did the project with the graduate students we did focus groups and two-person interviews so we’ll be able to compare the two. We did ten, two-person interviews and four, five-person focus groups—so, basically, the same number of participants. One thing it will tell us is about the relative productivity of each and it will tell us if we’re hearing the same kinds of things. That’s one of the things we’d really like to know. Obviously the different formats produce different conversations but we want to see if those conversations tend to go in different directions. If so it isn’t just the amount of data that may be different but also the content.

Another direction is to look at the one-on-one interview versus the two-person interview. It’s been known for years that if you want to do idea-generation then individuals are far better than small groups, because the groups have to coordinate their discussion. I’m curious what happens if you have two people. They might spark ideas off each other and generate more ideas than they would alone.

I’d also like to explore how different the people could be and the interview would still work. In my first little blue book on focus groups I say the group may be so similar that participants wouldn’t find much to talk about. I took that out of my second book. I don’t think you could put together people so similar that they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. But going the other way I don’t know when we get to the point where people are so different that they are uncomfortable. You always know in focus groups there will be people who are less comfortable and are kind of going to sit it out and you don’t push them…at least that’s my philosophy. Some people will always talk a little more; some a little less. But I don’t know where that threshold would be in two-person interviews.

My other ambition is to write a book about how and why to do two-person interviews. What I’m going to have to think about are the available options and unanswered opportunities. So far all I know is what some of the headings are and what some of the bullet points are for a book. If anyone is considering doing two-person interviews, I’d be happy to talk to them about it. I want to get to a reasonable level of security before I start writing and telling other people about it. I need to build a strong enough platform before I can talk other people into climbing on board and extending it.

Books by David Morgan that may be of interest:

The Focus Group Kit, Volumes 1-6, 1997 (with Richard Krueger); The Focus Group Guidebook, 1997; Planning Focus Groups, 1997; Focus Groups as Qualitative Research, 1996 (second edition); Successful Focus Groups: Advancing the State of the Art, 1993.


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  1. Maria Pfeifer
    Maria PfeiferSeptember 2,10

    Thank you for sharing this interview! Perfect timing for me and what I’m up to regarding health/illness self-management strategies.

    I have had the pleasure of being a student of Dr. Morgan’s during my master’s work at PSU’s Urbans Studies and Planning program. His direction about comparing the one-on-one interview vs. the two-person interview is of particular interest to me. I was encouraged to seek publication for my thesis research, but I held off primarily because I felt too embedded into the interviewing process. I would love to replicate my study using this approach to see how the data/conversations differ.

    I look forward to hearing more from him about where he goes with this and, again, thanks for offering up the discussion.

  2. Brenda Pridgen
    Brenda PridgenSeptember 2,10

    Actually, sometimes I am reduced to the two-person methodology by default more so than design but the ultimate goal is to secure rich, thick data necessary to answer the research question. I think what I derived from the interview was the need sometimes for evaluators to veer from the rigidity of theoretical practice so that we can attain the practical. In other words, not allowing the aspiration for the perfect to interfere with the practical.

  3. Mary Edler
    Mary EdlerSeptember 6,10

    Not having the advantage of observing a two-person interview, I’m limited in my knowledge to even comment. However, having observed the focus group concept many times, I wonder if a two-person interview would tend to either the positive or the negative exclusively not a range of comments. What I observed in the focus group was that the comfort level allowed for the openness of the individuals to be able to say what they really felt. They didn’t feel the necessity to comment unless that wanted to comment, and often they did after hearing something that pertained to them. Mainly though I noticed that often others comments brought thoughts to mind that may not have come out in a two-person interview. I definitely see the advantage of ease in organizing with two-person interview.

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