Semi-structured Interviews

Semi-structured interviews allow you to explore topics in more detail than is possible with other techniques such as surveys. They allow you to delve below the surface of the topic being discussed and explore people’s views in as much detail as possible. They aid your understanding of respondents’ thoughts, opinions, beliefs, experiences, values, barriers and influences etc. With qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups, the idea is to go ‘deep rather than broad’, so you do not need to look for a statistically representative sample of individuals to interview. It is sometimes appropriate to compensate people for giving their time to take part in qualitative sessions (vouchers, money), to recognise and thank people for their time/contribution. It is important to ensure that any incentive is not so large as to make it hard to say no to taking part. Any incentive offers should be carefully considered and dependent on the project and resource as you develop your approach.

They are an important tool for listening to communities and can help to illuminate wider determinants, root causes of behaviour and issues, add voices to quantitative data and listen to the ‘quieter’ voices in communities.  Conducting individual interviews in addition to or instead of focus groups accommodates people who prefer individual rather than group situations and allows people to share their experiences in a safe setting.

You should identify the purpose of the session and the research question/s you would like to answer and then consider who you would like to take part – does each interviewee need to have something in common? E.g., drive a car, live in Cleethorpes, have a child under 5. Or would you like to interview people across categories e.g, people who go to the gym four times a week, and then people who are never physically active. Respondents should be aware that anonymous qualitative quotes may be used in reporting, and they should be comfortable with that. People’s consent to take part should be based on adequate information. You should make it clear that they are free to withdraw or modify their consent and ask for the destruction of all or part of their data until the end of the project or final report. 

You then need to consider how and where you will hold the interviews (community venue, online, your offices). You should invite participants formally- give a brief outline of what will be discussed and approximately how long the interview will take. Decide how you will record the session and then develop your discussion/topic guide with open questions about a topic. You should have a core list of questions or interview guide, but unlike structured questionnaires, the order in which you ask them will vary. You can deviate from the guide to pursue an idea in more detail or to probe an interviewee’s meanings. Interviews can be conducted face-to-face or at a distance (e.g., telephone or online). You can take notes during the interview, take notes afterwards, or audio record (if your interviewee is comfortable with this and you have their consent). Writing notes during an interview can interfere with the process of interviewing, however, notes written afterwards may miss out important details. Having two individuals present during the interview, so that one individual can take notes whilst the other asks questions can be helpful. If you are audio recording an interview, the audio recording should be deleted once the interview has been transcribed.                                                                                                                                         

Where and how (e.g., virtually or face to face) you conduct an interview will be determined by who you are interviewing, when, what about, and the need to make your interviewee(s) feel at ease. Wherever you conduct an interview, you should strive to choose an environment or location:
• in which your interviewee will feel comfortable
• which is accessible and convenient (consider, for example, factors such as the location’s proximity to public transport routes)
• which ensures privacy (e.g., choose an interview location where the interview will not be overheard)
• with minimal distractions

Before you begin, recap/explain what the research is about and what the interview will involve. Introduce yourself and any other colleagues who are with you. You may be able to estimate how long the interview will take and you should mention this before the interview starts. For example, “Today’s interview should last between 30-45 minutes”. All of this will help to put the interviewee at ease. You should then confirm that the interviewee is happy to proceed with the interview (you need to make sure that you have the interviewee’s informed consent).

Usually you will start an interview with introductory/opening questions, such as ‘Can you tell me about your involvement in…’ or ‘Please tell me about when your interest in X began?’ These can provide useful contextual information.

You will then move on to your core questions – these are your key research questions. Throughout the interview, you should try as much as possible to ask open questions, such as ‘What are your views on X?’ as opposed to ‘Do you like X?’. You can also ask supplementary questions to help you gain more information about or clarify what an interviewee has just told you, or to explore an interviewee’s ideas and meanings in more depth. For example, you could use follow-up questions, such as ‘Could you say more about that?’.

At the end of the interview, you can ask closing questions to give your interviewee a chance to reflect, share additional information, and mention any relevant issues that they feel haven’t been discussed. A good closing question can be ‘Is there anything else that you have been thinking about which you would like to mention?’ Thank your interviewee for their participation. You should also answer any questions that your interviewee has.