Mastering Semi-Structured Interviews

Semi-structured interviews are a useful tool for getting a more comprehensive picture of your research participants' perspectives. Learn more about semi-structured interviews in this article.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. What is the difference between structured and semi-structured interviews?
  3. When to use a semi-structured interview
  4. Best practices for conducting semi-structured interviews
  5. Semi-structured interviews in qualitative research


Interviews are an integral part of qualitative and social science research. While observational research explores what people do, interviews look at what people say and believe. The interview is an important research method to capture people's perspectives and experiences concerning relevant topics.

Three different types of interviews can be utilized in research. In this article, we will look at the semi-structured interview. This form of interview offers a balance between a rigid interaction that produces neatly organized data and a fluid conversation that can explore unexpected but relevant aspects of the phenomenon under study.

Semi-structured interviews are an essential component of many qualitative studies.

What is the difference between structured and semi-structured interviews?

Among research methods, interviewing focuses on the experiences and perspectives that people have about a particular topic. In contrast, other research methods such as experiments and observations focus on what people do or how things work. However, people may look at the same cultural or social practice and think different things about it, making interviews important to capture potential nuances in experiences and interpretations.

Conducting an interview is a more complex task than simply talking with people. Qualitative researchers can adopt three different approaches to talking with interview respondents. The most straightforward form of interview is the structured interview, which is a rigid form of interview that asks a specific set of questions. It is fully structured in that all questions are specified beforehand and the interviewer poses the same questions to all participants, without any variations or asking any follow-up questions on the spot. A strength of structured interviews is that asking only predetermined questions produces uniform data that makes comparisons across participants easier, as answers from structured interviews can be quickly sorted into a matrix or spreadsheet for simple comparison.

Another type of interview is the semi-structured interview, which also has predetermined questions but allows for follow-up questions for deeper exploration. In this case, the interview can be seen as a formal conversation, with the researcher having a predetermined set of topics and questions they want to ask, while at the same time remaining open to asking other questions as the conversation unfolds. As a result, a semi-structured interview offers the necessary flexibility for researchers to explore any relevant ideas that may emerge as the participant answers questions and shares new information.

Advantages of semi-structured interviews

Semi-structured interviews allow the researcher to probe deeply into the perspectives of interview respondents, while structured interviews have a rigid format that does not allow for the interviewer to elicit more detail if given the opportunity.

The semi-structured format also provides the necessary guidance for researchers to stay focused on the key topics at hand. While the interview may go through the questions in a different order or explore additional topics, the predetermined questions in a semi-structured interview ensures that the important topics are sufficiently explored.

Disadvantages of semi-structured interviews

Unlike in a formal interview, the open-ended nature of semi-structured interviews can allow for the interview respondent to take the conversation in unanticipated directions. While this is a useful feature of semi-structured interviews, it is also important for the interviewer to guide the conversation toward the topic of study to ensure that the collected data will be relevant to the research question.

A semi-structured interview also requires the interviewer to engage in active listening to be able to take advantage of opportunities to ask probing questions. In this respect, interviewers may require training to ensure that they can effectively conduct a semi-structured interview that explores respondents' perspectives deeply enough while collecting data relevant to the research inquiry.

Unstructured interviews

One more distinction to keep in mind is that of the unstructured interview. While structured and semi-structured interviews have predetermined questions tailored to address the research question, unstructured interviews have no framework set before conducting the interview.

These kinds of interviews are meant to be more informal or exploratory in nature; they allow respondents to answer as freely as possible and permits the interviewer to follow the dialogue wherever it goes. While both semi-structured and unstructured interviews can employ spontaneous follow-up questions, semi-structured interviews are designed to ensure that a set of key questions are asked to all respondents to ensure relevant data is collected.

While interviews can follow predetermined structures to different degrees, interviewing as a data collection method is a social act that involves developing rapport with the interview respondent so that they feel comfortable to answer freely. This is also important to collect rich data that shed light on the phenomenon under study.

Keep in mind that any qualitative interview, regardless of type, focuses on open-ended questions. Any study that is more suited to closed-ended questions may find survey research more conducive to addressing their research inquiry.

When to use a semi-structured interview

A semi-structured interview is ideal when you want to explore individuals' experiences and perspectives around a particular topic. It is also important to have a clearly defined research agenda with specific objectives that your interview respondents can address. Your research objectives can inform the core questions you can pose to respondents.

In addition, if you are still looking to inductively generate theory in areas that have little theoretical coherence or conceptualization, a semi-structured interview is ideal because it allows you to probe further into the ideas that emerge from your respondents. Semi-structured interviews are thus powerful data collection tools when you are looking to build a theory or explore individuals' experiences or perspectives.

Best practices for conducting semi-structured interviews

Interviewing in qualitative research is not merely an act of conversing with research participants. It is a research method aimed at exploring the perspectives and ideas of research participants as deeply as possible.

When you conduct semi-structured interviews, it is important to intentionally consider every major element of the study, from the selection of participants to the questions asked, even the setting in which the interviews take place.

Preparing for a semi-structured interview

Think about which participants can adequately address the objectives in your study. For example, if your research inquiry deals with a specific cultural practice from a particular perspective, then you will benefit from choosing respondents who can best speak to that perspective.

Also reflect on how you will interact with your respondents. What is the best way to reach them and elicit their ideas? To engage in a meaningful conversation with your participants, it is important to pose questions in a way that is easy for others to understand, avoiding any jargon and preparing alternative ways to ask each question. Moreover, interview questions should be adjusted to each participant. Interviewing children is a different matter from interviewing adults. If the respondents' first language is different from yours, you may also want to consider adjusting your language to make yourself understood. The respondent's individual circumstances will play an important role in how you conduct your interview.

In addition, consider what equipment you will use to collect qualitative data in the form of audio or video recordings, and aim to record in as high a quality as possible. While the audio recorder on most smartphones is adequate enough to capture most conversations, you may want to think about using professional equipment if you are conducting interviews in public environments like cafés or parks. A camera may also be appropriate if you want to record facial expressions, gestures, and other body language for later analysis.

Semi-structured interview questions

A researcher should prepare an interview guide that lists all the necessary questions to be asked and topics to be explored. The guide can be flexible and researchers can ask the questions in whichever order naturally unfolds during the conversation. Nonetheless, having a guide helps ensure that the researcher is collecting data relevant to the research question.

When designing interview guides, consider how your questions are framed and how they might be received by the interview respondent. Avoid leading questions that may elicit socially desirable responses, and prepare alternative ways to word your questions in case participants don't understand a question.

Preparing follow-up questions

Probing questions make for effective follow-ups that encourage respondents to provide in-depth information about the topic at hand. A common challenge of interviews is that participants may provide very brief responses or not deeply engage with the conversation. Preparing prompts and probes can help researchers encourage participants to open up or provide more details if needed.

In general, an interviewer should invite the respondent to elaborate on answers when additional details can benefit the research. Taking advantage of such opportunities in a semi-structured interview can greatly contribute to the theoretical development arising from the interview study. These prompts and probes can be as simple as asking for more details, nodding along, or practicing silence. Another helpful tactic is to ask participants to provide an example or walk you through the story they are sharing.

Semi-structured interviews in qualitative research

The interview itself is just one of the components of the interview study. During and after the semi-structured interview, take the following into consideration to ensure rigorous data collection.

Collecting qualitative data in the form of interviews

In most cases, interview data takes the form of transcriptions of raw audio or video recordings of the interview conversations. It's important to ensure that you have the necessary equipment to record and transcribe the interview. Being able to count on high quality recordings is crucial to make transcription easier and more accurate.

While you can certainly analyze the actual recordings, textual data can make the analysis process easier and more manageable. You can use qualitative data analysis software such as ATLAS.ti to analyze multimedia or text data; another benefit of text data is that many additional analysis tools can be used to analyze the structure or contents of the data.

An interview researcher should also consider how the interview is conducted. After all, the two-way communication in a face-to-face interview has different effects on the interview respondent from an interview that is conducted online or by email. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the environment in which you will conduct the interview so that you can anticipate any issues that arise regarding clarity between you and your respondents.

During the course of any interview, it may benefit your analysis to capture detailed notes about the interactions you have with your respondents. A good practice is to note down any observations or impressions immediately after concluding each interview while the interaction is fresh in your mind. Many interviewers use these notes to remind them of potentially significant theoretical developments that can be used when coding the data.

Interviews with vulnerable populations

For interview projects that involve sensitive issues, the researcher should be mindful of how questions are posed and what is asked to avoid interview respondents becoming uncomfortable or anxious.

This is especially true in studies that involve children, people in conflict zones, and other vulnerable populations. The interviewer should take great care to balance data collection with the responsibility of protecting the well-being of their research participants.

Informed consent with interview respondents

In terms of addressing ethical considerations, the researcher should also ensure that they receive participants' consent before collecting any data. Informed consent is a crucial standard in research involving human participants, and it involves both the interviewer and interview respondent being cognizant of the purpose of the study, the procedures taken during the interview, and the measures in place to preserve the respondent's privacy and personal data.

Especially with respect to interviews that collect open-ended data from participants, researchers should ensure that respondents have an in-depth understanding of the interview study in which they are participating.

Preparing semi-structured interviews for analysis

Unlike interviews for news outlets or entertainment programs, the interview research process doesn't end at the conclusion of the conversation with the participant. A research paper is not simply a reporting of what was said in an interview or set of interviews. Instead, the respondents' utterances should be carefully and rigorously analyzed to determine what themes and patterns arise from the data and how these relate to the research question guiding the study.

Transcription of interview recordings is a standard practice for analyzing interviews. You can either manually transcribe interviews, outsource transcription to a professional service, or use software that automates the process. Whatever you choose, make sure that the transcription is accurate and has the level of detail (e.g., thinking sounds, pauses) that you are looking for in your analysis.

Coding and analyzing semi-structured interviews

Qualitative data typically undergoes a coding process in which data segments are labeled with descriptive codes. These codes help to identify patterns in the data. Ultimately, the goal of coding is to help the researcher condense and organize the data to address their research objectives.

For semi-structured interviews, consider first coding every answer based on the questions in the interview guide. This will allow you to compare respondents' answers to the same interview questions when viewing and analyzing each question code later on. You can supplement these codes with interpretive codes based on emerging themes to further explore patterns across participants' experiences or perspectives.

ATLAS.ti provides a space to organize all your interview data for analysis.