Unstructured Interviews: When and How to Use Them

What are unstructured interviews and how can you gain a rich understanding of your research participants' perspectives with them? Read more about unstructured interviews in this article.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. Structured and unstructured interviews
  3. The pros and cons of unstructured interviews
  4. When would you use unstructured interviews?
  5. The unstructured interview process


Of the three types of interviews in qualitative research, the unstructured interview is the most free-flowing. It provides the greatest flexibility in gathering participants' answers in a social interaction that resembles a natural conversation. While all interviews involve collecting data in the form of the respondents' own words as they answer the interviewer's questions, the unstructured interview offers researchers the most freedom to explore participants' responses as deeply as they need to meet their research objectives.

In this article, we will look at what researchers do to plan, conduct, and analyze unstructured interviews in qualitative studies.

Unstructured interviews allow the researcher to explore topics of interest as deeply as possible with their research participants.

Structured and unstructured interviews

An unstructured interview (sometimes known as a non-directive interview) stands in contrast to a structured interview. Structured interviews have a rigid protocol that includes a set of predetermined questions. The interviewer asks the same questions to all participants so they can have neatly organized and comparable data across participants.

Structured interviews are ideal when researchers have a clear notion of which questions should be asked and there is no need to stay open to exploring other potential directions which participants might bring up. Unstructured interviews, on the other hand, permit researchers to ask spontaneous probing questions to gain deeper understanding of unexpected things that could emerge during the interview.

Unstructured interview definition

An unstructured interview is a free-flowing conversation between a researcher and participant. The interviewer has a broad research question that guides their interest in conducting the interview, but the interview questions are not decided beforehand. Rather, the researcher poses questions to the participant in the moment, depending on the flow of the conversation.

Researchers who employ unstructured interviews acknowledge that each respondent will have different insights that can only be uncovered by asking questions tailored to each individual they interview. Unstructured interview questions are then determined over the course of the interview as researcher and respondent interact with each other. This allows the researcher to collect open-ended data and take advantage of opportunities that arise to probe further into respondents' perspectives or experiences about key topics or phenomena.

Keep in mind that a semi-structured interview can be a good compromise between structured and unstructured interviews. If you need the flexibility of a natural conversation setting and the structure provided by a set of predetermined questions, then semi-structured interviews might be the best option for your research.

The pros and cons of unstructured interviews

The strategy that you adopt for conducting interviews is going to depend on the research questions in your study as well as the particular circumstances of the research context and interview respondents. Let's look at some of the key advantages and disadvantages of unstructured interviews.

Advantages of unstructured interviews

In a nutshell, an unstructured interview is an open-ended interaction that can move in any direction that arises as the researcher and participant engage in the conversation. To be sure, the interviewer has a set research objective in mind when conducting the interview. However, unstructured interviews have a natural flow and give interview respondents agency over the interaction. In situations where respondents feel they can control the interaction, they may be more open to providing more in-depth answers to interview questions.

As a result, the data collected from an unstructured interview can allow the researcher to dig deeper into the perspectives of respondents. The depth of the knowledge gained from unstructured interviews can prove valuable in gaining an insider perspective of social customs and cultural practices, especially when there is limited current understanding or theory that could meaningfully inform what kinds of questions are worth asking.

Unstructured interviews allow the interviewer to collect personal experiences from respondents. Photo by Metin Ozer.

Disadvantages of unstructured interviews

Unstructured interviews flow in different and, oftentimes, unanticipated directions, which can pose challenges when it comes to analyzing all the data and making comparisons across participants. For example, each participant you interview may focus on different aspects of the phenomenon you are studying. While each of these aspects can contribute meaningful understanding to your phenomenon, integrating all these different perspectives into a coherent theory or story might be difficult.

On the other hand, since unstructured interviews can move in unexpected directions, there is also the risk that the interviewer loses the thread of an important research topic or the conversation explores unrelated tangents. Researchers should take care to balance the need for the interview to flow naturally and the objective of gathering valuable information from respondents.

When would you use unstructured interviews?

It is important to conduct interviews that are more suitable to your particular study and research objectives. This section looks at some of the considerations that you should keep in mind when deciding if an unstructured interview is best for your research.

Thick description through interviews

Unstructured interviews are best suited for exploratory research that adopts an inductive approach to developing theory. If the goal of your research is to establish a deep understanding of a culture or custom where there is insufficient theoretical development, then your study can engage in a concept known as thick description, which involves exploring the respondent's answers to grasp the nuances and interpretations of a particular social concept.

Matching research question to interview type

The influence of the interviewer plays a major role in using unstructured interviews. Think about an interview study that explores sensitive topics like hospice care or migrant work. A structured interview or even a semi-structured interview might not be the most appropriate form of interview when you are trying to gain the respondent's trust. After all, direct questions on controversial issues can make people hesitant to provide open, detailed answers.

If a prerequisite to collecting a respondent's answers is to establish rapport, then you could consider using interviews that don't rely on standardized questions to collect data. The flow of an unstructured interview has the potential to make the interview respondent comfortable with the interviewer, who can then judge in the moment of data collection when to ask probing questions or focus on building rapport.

An important aspect of unstructured interviews is that they allow the researcher to establish rapport with respondents. Photo by Anna Vander Stel.

When to consider other interview types

Structured interviews and semi-structured interviews offer more rigidity in terms of asking a set of predetermined questions. In cases where you have a collection of questions you want to ask, semi-structured interviews can be used to ask these same questions to all participants while remaining open to asking additional questions if the need arises. If you already know exactly which questions you want to ask and it is important to gather consistent data from all participants to aid subsequent comparisons, structured interviews can be the most appropriate approach.

The unstructured interview process

Although unstructured interviews do not follow a predetermined flow, they also do not consist of simply talking with a respondent. In other words, unstructured interviews also depend on a clear research methodology. Indeed, as unrehearsed as they may seem, unstructured interviews are still an intentional research tool designed to collect data in a deliberate and rigorous manner. In this section, we'll look at the various stages of an unstructured interview study from design to research reporting.

Interview study design

As mentioned previously, the manner in which you conduct unstructured interviews depends on your research questions and interview respondents. If you are looking to explore a particular topic, it's important to define the object of inquiry as clearly as possible. What does existing scholarship say about the cultural practice you are looking to study? What is it about your given social phenomenon that you are trying to understand? Should your study look at the decisions people make about that phenomenon, the thinking behind it, or something else?

While an unstructured interview does not necessarily have a standardized set of questions to ask respondents, an interviewer should always have a set of topics in mind that are worth exploring. While there shouldn't be a set order to interview questions in an unstructured format, it benefits the interviewer to have a defined set of objectives to meet over the course of an interview.

The affective dimensions of an unstructured interview study are also important when considering how to conduct interviews. The unstructured format allows the researcher to decide when to be more direct or conservative in their questioning, depending on how open they think the respondent is in answering questions. When establishing who your respondents are and how they are likely to interact with you, you can make intentional and informed decisions about how to make the best of the conversational nature of unstructured interviews.

Conducting unstructured interviews

The data collection stage of an unstructured interview study can be the most fraught (and most interesting!) part of the research process. Without set questions in mind, the interview can explore any part of the respondent's experience or perspective that emerges. In an interaction that resembles an everyday conversation, it is up to the interviewer to successfully navigate a dynamic and fluid social situation to elicit valuable information from the respondent.

The general goal when conducting unstructured interviews is to encourage the respondent to craft as detailed a narrative as possible on the topic of interest. The interviewer's rapport with the respondent and the comfort level respondents have when the interviewer asks questions are crucial to eliciting relevant information in comprehensive detail. Direct questions have the potential to gather the more pertinent details, but it is also important to avoid leading questions that encourage socially desirable responses (e.g., "You've never shoplifted before, right?"). It is also helpful to begin with simpler questions to build rapport before moving on to potentially more sensitive questions. The interviewer should take care to balance the questions they ask to respondents depending on their relationship with them.

Reflecting on unstructured interviews

Because of the unrestricted nature of unstructured interviews, you have a lot of space to reflect on and make changes to your interview strategy as you interview further respondents. Perhaps you discovered there is a particular form of questioning that is more conducive to collecting rich answers from your respondents. Or maybe there is a certain topic that turned out to be more controversial or taboo than you first thought.

Because you are not bound to ask a predetermined set of questions in an unstructured interview format, you can benefit from reflecting on past data collection to inform future data collection as your study progresses. Utilize this opportunity to maximize the interview strategies that worked best and reconsider those that didn't work out. Ultimately, the goal of this reflection is to capture the richest data possible to generate a meaningful analysis.

How to analyze unstructured interviews

As you conduct interviews, you can simultaneously engage in data analysis. Your reflections of ongoing data collection will bring to mind key themes and preliminary insights that can inform subsequent data collection and analysis. Your notes during and after interviews can form the basis of a set of themes and topics that you can use to code your interview data. You can thus create a list of preliminary codes to guide your initial analysis, but you can still remain open to creating additional codes as you delve deeper into your analysis process.

Typically, interview data is transcribed so the researcher can comfortably search and segment the text for important phrases and meaningful insights. Working with interview transcriptions also makes it easier to manage all your data and draw connections across your different participants. That being said, with qualitative data analysis software such as ATLAS.ti, you can analyze both multimedia recordings and transcripts, and you can even sync the two together so you can fluidly move between the raw recording and the transcribed text.

The objective of data analysis is usually to explore and understand patterns across interview respondents. You might identify an interesting anecdote from one respondent or observe commonalities that are shared across multiple respondents.

You can choose the coding strategy that best suits your research question as you look at your interviews. For example, a thematic analysis can be followed to explore shared perspectives or experiences across respondents. Or, if you want to understand and compare how participants talk about the phenomenon you are studying, you can employ discursive coding to analyze how participants build their stories.

There are many coding approaches you can choose from, but it is always important to be systematic and transparent to persuade your research audience of the key insights in your interview data. As the name suggests, unstructured interviews are among the least predictable and most dynamic methods of qualitative research, so it is up to the researcher to develop a carefully crafted research study to identify key insights in an empirical manner.