Well planned and conducted semi-structured interviews are the result of rigorous preparation. The development of the interview schedule, conducting the interview and analysing the interview data all require careful consideration and preparation.
(Mathers, Fox and Hunn 1998, p.3)

Semi-structured interviews are one of the most used methods in qualitative research. They are useful when your research is ‘exploratory’. This means you have a general topic in mind, but there is not enough existing research for you to develop a hypothesis prior to your own study. In this case, you are looking for answers that emerge as the research project grows, and you can use semi-structured interviews to let participants guide you towards their truths within the specific areas you are studying.

In a semi-structured interview, you have an ‘interview guide’ (or ‘topic guide’). This is a document which lists pre-determined questions that you ask, for the most part, in a consistent order. At the same time, you are supposed to encourage your study participants to freely express ideas and give information they find important. That is, semi-structured interviews combine pre-formulated interview questions with ‘free conversation’.

The ‘interview guide’ arranges the questions by topic and may include follow-up questions, probes and comments. A good interview guide will contain a range of general and specific questions which are open-ended. Open-ended questions do not give participants a pre-determined set of answer choices. Rather, they are designed so participants can respond in their own words. Open-ended questions start with question words such as ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’ or ‘how’.

Example questions for a research project exploring experiences of resilience could be:

  • What does the word ‘resilience’ mean to you?
  • When do you feel most resilient? Why do you think this is the case?
  • How do you access support in your community to strengthen your resilience?

Questions listed in an interview guide are not fixed. They can be adapted to your specific participants and their experiences and expertise.

Studies built around semi-structured interviews will often use the following steps:

  1. determine the purpose and scope of the study
  2. identify participants
  3. consider ethical issues
  4. plan logistical aspects
  5. develop the interview guide
  6. establish trust and rapport
  7. test the interview guide with a volunteer
  8. conduct the interview
  9. memo and reflect
  10. analyse the data
  11. demonstrate the trustworthiness of the research
  12. present findings in a paper or report

(Adapted from DeJonckheere & Vaughn 2019)

(Author: Jonathan (Jonny) Adams)

What is it?

Podcasts:

Linda Mulcahy on semi-structured interviews by Talking about Methods (2021)

In this podcast episode, Dr Mulcahy discusses her own work and use of semi-structured interviews, which is primarily focused on legal studies. She also reflects on the responsibilities of a researcher working with vulnerable groups and protecting participants’ well-being while conducting interviews.

(Academic reference: Mulcahy, L. (2022). Introduction to semi-structured interviewing. Talking about methods. https://frontiers.csls.ox.ac.uk/semi-structured-interviews/)

Articles:

Semistructured interviewing in primary care research: a balance of relationship and rigour by Melissa DeJonckheere and Lisa M Vaughn (2019)

This article, primarily aimed at primary care researchers, explores the skills you need to design and conduct semi-structured interviews, such as identifying participants, developing an interview guide, establishing rapport and conducting an interview. It also highlights the role of relationships in semi-structured interviews alongside the necessary skills.

(Academic reference: DeJonckheere, M. & Vaughn, L.M. (2019). Semistructured interviewing in primary care research: A balance of relationship and rigour. Family Medicine & Community Health, 7(2), pp 1-8. https://fmch.bmj.com/content/7/2/e000057)

Situating and constructing diversity in semi-structured interviews by Michele J. McIntosh and Janice M. Morse (2015)

This article explains the historical development of the semi-structured interview as a technique in qualitative research, its purposes when used as a stand-alone method, some principles to guide your use of semi-structured interviews and how it can be combined with other tools in mixed-methods research.

(Academic reference: McIntosh, M.J. & Morse, J.M. (2015). Situating and constructing diversity in semi-structured interviews. Global Qualitative Nursing Research, 2(1), pp.1–12. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2333393615597674)

How is it done?

Videos:

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How to develop an interview guide in qualitative research (step by step guide with examples by Research with Dr Kriukow (2021)

This video focuses on the interview guide, taking you through the skills you can use and steps you can follow to arrive at a guide that contains a range of different types of question. It also gives you a live tutorial on writing an example interview guide looking into the sources of stress among nurses.

(Academic reference: Research with Dr Kriukow (2021, February 20 ). How to develop an interview guide in qualitative research (step by step guide with examples) [Video]. YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvzfpFDOYyQ)

Manuals & Guides:

Conducting semi-structured interviews by Oxfam (2019)

This guide explains the use of semi-structured interviews from the perspective of international development research, suggesting how you can identify the best people to interview, make the right logistical decisions, develop your interviewing skills and select themes for discussion.  It also identifies some potential problems that could occur on the day and how to fix them.

(Academic reference: Oxfam GB (2019). Conducting semi-structured interviews. Oxfam GB. https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/conducting-semi-structured-interviews-252993/)

Websites:

General guidelines for conducting interviews by Carter McNamara (2022)

This guide gives you an introduction to semi-structured interviews and focuses on preparation for interviews, types of interviews, types of topics in questions, sequence of questions, wording of questions, carrying out interviews, and reflections after the interview.

(Academic reference: McNamara, C. (2022, April 20). General guidelines for conducting interviews. Management Library. https://managementhelp.org/businessresearch/interviews.htm)

Articles:

Ethical data collection and recognizing the impact of semi-structured interviews on research respondents by Gary Husband (2020)

This article emphasises the complex relationship between researcher and participant at the heart of the semi-structured interview and explores ethical issues related to related power dynamics by reflecting on the author’s research with adult education professionals.

(Academic reference: Husband, G. (2020). Ethical data collection and recognizing the impact of semi-structured interviews on research respondents. Education Sciences, 10(8), pp 1-12.)

Books:

Conducting semi-structured interviews by William Adams (2015)

This book chapter gives an introduction into semi-structured interviews and discusses their pros and cons. It also includes tips of how to develop and conduct them.

(Academic reference: Adams, W. (2015). Conducting semi-structured interviews. In K.E. Newcomer; H.P. Hatry & J.S. Wholey (Eds.), Handbook of practical programme evaluation (pp 365-377). USA: John Wiley & Sons.)

Qualitative research methods for the social sciences by Bruce Berg (2007)

Chapters in this book show novice researchers how to design, collect, and analyse semi-structured interviews.

(Academic reference: Berg, B. (2007). Qualitative research methods for the social sciences (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.)

Interviews: Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing by Svend Brinkmann and Steinar Kvle (2009)

This book gives an introduction into the design and practice of interviewing in qualitative research. It also touches on important ethical issues that you need to think about when conducting interviews.

(Academic reference: Kvale, S., & Brinkmann, S. (2009). Interviews: Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing. Sage.)

Method in action

Videos:

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Semi-structured interviewing as a participatory action research method by Madelon Eelderink, SevenSenses (2016)

This video shows a semi-structured interview in Kampala, Uganda, that is used as a pretend example, with the interviewer’s onscreen tips explaining how you can achieve the structure, flow and rapport that you can see in the video.

(Academic reference: Madelon Eelderink, SevenSenses (2016). Semi-structured interviewing as a Participatory Action Research method [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGQz8hZQ8fU)

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Semi structured interview by Lodrick Mika (2014)

This video shows you a semi-structured interview guide and how it was used in Tanzania to ask questions about life in a specific village. It also demonstrates how you can introduce yourself and ask general and more specific questions as well as probing for more information.

(Academic reference: Lodrick Mika (2014). Semi structured interview [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S4FKt4jqHM&)

Articles:

How I learned to design and conduct semi-structured interviews: An ongoing and continuous journey by Silvia E. Rabionet (2011)

This article explains the stages involved in designing and conducting a semi-structured interview as well as describing how the author arrived at the method in order to learn from HIV researchers.

(Academic reference: Rabionet, S. E. (2011). How I learned to design and conduct semi-structured interviews: An ongoing and continuous journey. The Qualitative Report, 16(2), pp 563-566. https://doi.org/10.46743/2160-3715/2011.1070.)