Semi-structured interview

What is it?
A semi-structured interview is a qualitative research method that has the freewheeling quality of an unstructured interview, but it is guided by a written list of essential questions/topics. It is different from a questionnaire or a survey in that interviewers can improvise questions based on participants’ responses and context. Furthermore, semi-structure interview usually is conducted with some open-ended questions, where researchers do not yet know all the possible answers and thus cannot put them into categories.

What is needed?
Actors and logistics
1) Interviewers. Researchers can conduct semi-structured interviews with a set of pre-established key topics to discuss with the participants. A good semi-structure interview should feel more like a discussion than an interview. The experience and skill of interviewers can greatly influence the quality of a semi-structured interview and participants’ responses. Unlike a questionnaire or a survey, a semi-structured interview needs to be conducted by an interviewer.
2) Participants. These need to be recruited randomly or purposefully depending on the research design. See the How-to section for more details on participant recruitment.
3) Interview locations. Depending on the nature of research and participants, semi-structured interviews could be conducted at participants’ locations such as their houses or work sites, or at a coffee shop. The important thing is to conduct a semi-structured interview in a location that would make participants feel safe and comfortable.
In some research, semi-structured interviews may be conducted telephonically or via the internet because of logistically constraints; however, there are short-comings associated with such modification. For examples, much of the non-verbal communication would be lost and it is harder for researchers to establish a rapport with participants remotely than having a face-to-face contact. These short-comings influence the types of questions could be asked in a semi-structured interview.
4) Time. Semi-structured interviews usually require more time than questionnaires and surveys because the later do not require interviewers and can be administered remotely.

1) Notebooks. These are for interviewers to take notes during an interview, even if the interview may be recorded. Keeping hand-written notes during a semi-structured interview can help the interviewers to keep track of participants’ responses.
2) A voice-recording device. This would depend on whether the interviews need to be recorded.
3) A watch. Interviewers may want to wear watches so that they do not risk over extending the interview time.

Is an expert needed?
No, no expert needed No. If researchers do not have prior experience with semi-structured interviews, they can practice with colleagues or students to ask questions, particularly formulating impromptu questions based on participants’ responses, and to make participants feel at ease.

How to
Implementation steps
1) Determine whether semi-structured interview is an appropriate method for your research. Usually, semi-structured interviews require more time and resources (e.g. interviewers and logistic arrangement) than questionnaires and surveys, but it has a number of advantages over these methods. For examples, it is more effective for questions where researchers do not yet know all the possible answers and thus cannot put them into categories, and gives researchers the flexibility to formulate impromptu questions based on participants’ responses to delve deeper into certain aspect of their responses or to clarify their answers.

2) Apply to the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB is a committee that reviews and approves applications for research projects involving human subjects. The primary purpose of the IRB is to protect the rights and welfare of the human subjects. If your research institution has an IRB, then you would have to submit an application for conducting a research with human subjects. You can complete a training course for conducting a human subject research online at Researchers should carefully plan for procedures to protect the rights and welfare of the participants. Note that if your institution has an IRB, you cannot start participant recruitment until you have received an approval from the IRB.

3) Develop a list of essential questions/topics for interview. The research questions should help to determine a list of core questions or topics to ask participants during a semi-structured interview. It is recommended that researchers pilot the interview questions to ensure that they are easily understandable by the intended participants. Researchers need to pay attention to the choice of words (e.g. Are there any jargons in the questions? If it is necessary to use jargons, would participants understand them?), and whether the way a question is phrased would bias certain answers.

4) Recruit participants. The research design should include sampling method and approach for recruiting participants. Sampling can be random and purposively. An example of purposively sampling technique is snowball sampling, where researchers rely on the referrals of participants to identify new participants. During recruitment of participants, researchers should give a project briefing. It is also at the recruitment when the consenting process is conducted with participants to ensure that they understand the nature of their participation and that their participation is voluntary and confidential.

5) Conduct interview. For some research, the interview may follow directly after the recruitment and consenting processes. Typically, researchers would start a semi-structured interview with simpler questions – e.g. ask participants for their names and other biographical information – as a warm-up. Following these “warm-up” questions, the list of core questions/topics should guide the remaining interview. Because semi-structured interviews have a freewheeling feel to them, they are meant to be quite dynamic. Interviewers need to actively listen to participants’ responses to judge whether they understood the questions as intended and whether it is necessary to ask the same question in a different way. At the same time, interviewers need to think on their feet to develop impromptu questions if participants’ responses warrant further probing, or refocusing on a topic if participants have digressed. Interviewers should have the list of guiding questions/topics handy during the interview to help them and the participants to stay on track.

6) Record participants’ responses and observations. Interviewers should keep hand-written notes during a semi-structured interview. These notes are to record both participants’ responses and interviewers’ observations, which could include non-verbal communication and contextual information that may be relevant for the research questions. It is advisable for an interviewer to go over his/her hand-written notes as soon as possible after an interview to clarify any unclear notes while the interview is still clear in his/her memory. In some research, interviews may be recorded, and in those cases, interviewers need ask participants for their permission before recording. Researchers use these hand-written notes and audio-recording to prepare notes in a word processor, which are used as data for qualitative analysis.

Data analysis
One can use common qualitative analysis techniques such as coding and content analysis to analyze interview notes. The research questions would influence the selection of qualitative data analysis.

Data management
Researchers have a responsibility to protect the confidentiality of participants as a part of data management. This entails using procedures to disassociate participant identities from their interview responses during data analysis. Researchers can use numeric or alphabetic codes in place of participants’ identification in notes and data analysis files. Upon conclusion of the research project, any documents that contain identify information about the participants need to be destroyed according to guidance by Institutional Review Board on research involving human subjects (See item 2 under Implementation steps).

Good practice tips
For researchers who do not have prior experience with semi-structured interviews, they should practice conducting interviews. Colleagues, students and friends can be potential practice interviewees. A good interviewer needs to be able to listen actively, think on his/her feet to improvise questions, observe non-verbal communication, and make participants feel at ease simultaneously. These skills are not innate for most people, but can be honed with practices.

One trick for documenting interviewers’ observations and their own thoughts during an interview is to fold the note pages into two columns, or halves. One column is for recording participants’ responses, and the other column for observations and any other information.

Because a good semi-structured interview can feel like a conversation, one may lose track of time. It is important for researchers to be mindful of “stakeholder fatigue”. There is no hard rule that a semi-structured interview needs to be under certain amount of time, but researchers should be cautious when an interview is over an hour long. It is helpful for researchers to have a tool that can tell time and be observant of participants’ body language for signs of discomfort or desire to leave.

Success stories
Semi-structured interview is a very flexible qualitative research method that has been applied in a wide range of context to answer a variety of research questions. For examples, it has been used in research on health, gender issues, landscape, environmental justice, land management. Because of its ease of implementation, it is also a popular research method that is featured in various online “toolboxes” for practitioners in international development and aid, and sustainability. On these websites (see below for three example links), you can find various resources including step-by-step guides, templates for certain steps and tips.

Food and Agriculture Organization has a webpage for community’s toolbox:

tools4dev provides templates, reviews and how-to guides for international development and aid professionals:

Evaluation Toolbox for Community Sustainability Engagement:

To learn more
Drever, Eric. 1995. Using Semi-Structured Interviews in Small-Scale Research. A Teacher’s Guide. Scottish Council for Research in Education, Edinburgh. Available at

Miles, Jeremy, and Paul Gilbert. 2005. “A Handbook of Research Methods for Clinical and Health Psychology.” Oxford University Press.


Created on 19 Oct 2016 20:52 by Taryn Kong
Updated on 28 Nov 2016 13:39 by Barron Orr

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