Interviews are a frequently used research method in qualitative studies. You will see dozens of papers that state something like “We conducted n in-depth semi-structured interviews with key informants”. But what exactly does this mean? What exactly counts as in-depth? How structured are semi-structured interviews?
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The term “in-depth” is defined fairly vaguely in the literature: it generally means a one-to-one interview on one general topic, which is covered in detail. Usually these qualitative interviews last about an hour, although sometimes much longer. It sounds like two people having a discussion, but there are differences in the power dynamics, and end goal: for the classic sociologist Burgess (2002) these are “conversations with a purpose”.
Qualitative interviews generally differ from quantitative survey based questions in that they are looking for a more detailed and nuanced response. They also acknowledge there is no ‘one-size fits all’, especially when asking someone to recall a personal narrative about their experiences. Instead of a fixed “research protocol” that asks the same question to each respondent, most interviewees adopt a more flexible approach. However there is still a need “...to ensure that the same general areas of information are collected from each interviewee; this provides more focus than the conversational approach, but still allows a degree of freedom and adaptability in getting information from the interviewee” –MacNamara (2009).
Turner (2010) (who coincidentally shares the same name as me) describes three different types of qualitative interview; Informal Conversation, General Interview Guide, and Standardised Open-Ended. These can be seen as a scale from least to most structured, and we are going to focus on the ‘interview guide’ approach, which takes a middle ground.
An interview guide is like a cheat-sheet for the interviewer – it contains a list of questions and topic areas that should be covered in the interview. However, these are not to be read verbatim and in order, in fact they are more like an aide-mémoire. “Usually the interviewer will have a prepared set of questions but these are only used as a guide, and departures from the guidelines are not seen as a problem but are often encouraged” – Silverman (2013). That way, the interviewer can add extra questions about an unexpected but relevant area that emerges, and sections that don’t apply to the participant can be negated.
So what do these look like, and how does one go about writing a suitable semi-structured interview guide? Unfortunately, it is rare in journal articles for researchers to share the interview guide, and it’s difficult to find good examples on the internet. Basically they look like a list of short questions and follow-on prompts, grouped by topic. There will generally be about a dozen. I’ve written my fair share of interview guides for qualitative research projects over the years, either on my own or with the collaboration of colleagues, so I’m happy to share some tips.
Questions should answer your research questions
Your research project should have one or several main research questions, and these should be used to guide the topics covered in the interviews, and hopefully answer the research questions. However, you can’t just ask your respondents “Can the experience of male My Little Pony fans be described through the lens of Derridean deconstruction?”. You will need to break down your research into questions that have meaning for the participant and that they can engage with. The questions should be fairly informal and jargon free (unless that person is an expert in that field of jargon), open ended - so they can’t be easily answered with a yes or no, and non-leading so that respondents aren’t pushed down a certain interpretation.
Link to your proposed analytical approach
The questions on your guide should also be constructed in such a way that they will work well for your proposed method of analysis – which again you should already have decided. If you are doing narrative analysis, questions should be encouraging respondents to tell their story and history. In Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis you may want to ask more detail about people’s interpretations of their experiences. Think how you will want to analyse, compare and write up your research, and make sure that the questioning style fits your own approach.
Specific ‘Why’ and prompt questions
It is very rare in semi-structured interviews that you will ask one question, get a response, and then move on to the next topic. Firstly you will need to provide some structure for the participant, so they are not expected (or encouraged) to recite their whole life story. But on the other level, you will usually want to probe more about specific issues or conditions. That is where the flexible approach comes in. Someone might reveal something that you are interested in, and is relevant to the research project. So ask more! It’s often useful in the guide to list a series of prompt words that remind you of more areas of detail that might be covered. For example, the question “When did you first visit the doctor?” might be annotated with optional prompts such as “Why did you go then?”, “Were you afraid?” or “Did anyone go with you?”. Prompt words might reduce this to ‘Why THEN / afraid / with someone’.
Be flexible with order
Generally, an interview guide will be grouped into several topics, each with a few questions. One of the most difficult skills is how to segue from one topic or question to the next, while still seeming like a normal conversation. The best way to manage this is to make sure that you are always listening to the interviewee, and thinking at the same time about how what they are saying links to other discussion topics. If someone starts talking about how they felt isolated visiting the doctor, and one of your topics is about their experience with their doctor, you can ask ‘Did you doctor make you feel less isolated?’. You might then be asking about topic 4, when you are only on topic 1, but you now have a logical link to ask the more general written question ‘Did you feel the doctor supported you?’. The ability to flow from topic to topic as the conversation evolves (while still covering everything on the interview guide) is tricky, and requires you to:
Know your guide backwards - literally
I almost never went into an interview without a printed copy of the interview guide in front of me, but it was kind of like Dumbo’s magic feather: it made me feel safe, but I didn’t really need it. You should know everything on your interview guide off by heart, and in any sequence. Since things will crop up in unpredictable ways, you should be comfortable asking questions in different orders to help the conversational flow. Still, it’s always good to have the interview guide in front of you; it lets you tick off questions as they are asked (so you can see what hasn’t been covered), is space to write notes, and also can be less intimidating for the interviewee, as you can look at your notes occasionally rather than staring them in the eye all the time.
Try for natural conversation
Legard, Keegan and Ward (2003) note that “Although a good in-depth interview will appear naturalistic, it will bear little resemblance to an everyday conversation”. You will usually find that the most honest and rich responses come from relaxed, non-combative discussions. Make the first question easy, to ease the participant into the interview, and get them used to the question-answer format. But don’t let it feel like a tennis match, where you are always asking the questions. If they ask something of you, reply! Don’t sit in silence: nod, say ‘Yes’, or ‘Of course’ every now and then, to show you are listening and empathising like a normal human being. Yet do be careful about sharing your own potentially leading opinions, and making the discussion about yourself.
Discuss with your research team / supervisors
You should take the time to get feedback and suggestions from peers, be they other people on your research project, or your PhD supervisors. This means preparing the interview guide well in advance of your first interview, leaving time for discussion and revisions. Seasoned interviewers will have tips about wording and structuring questions, and even the most experienced researcher can benefit from a second opinion. Getting it right at this stage is very important, it’s no good discovering after you’ve done all your interviews that you didn’t ask about something important.
Adapting the guide
While these are semi-structured interviews, in general you will usually want to cover the same general areas every time you do an interview, no least so that there is some point of comparison. It’s also common to do a first few interviews and realise that you are not asking about a critical area, or that some new potential insight is emerging (especially if you are taking a grounded theory approach). In qualitative research, this need not be a disaster (if this flexibility is methodologically appropriate), and it is possible to revise your interview guide. However, if you do end up making significant revisions, make sure you keep both versions, and a note of which respondents were interviewed with each version of the guide.
Test the timing
Inevitably, you will not have exactly the same amount of time for each interview, and respondents will differ in how fast they talk and how often they go off-topic! Make sure you have enough questions to get the detail you need, but also have ‘lower priority’ questions you can drop if things are taking too long. Test the timing of your interview guide with a few participants, or even friends before you settle on it, and revise as necessary. Try and get your interview guide down to one side of paper at the most: it is a prompt, not an encyclopaedia!
Hopefully these points will help demystify qualitative interview guides, and help you craft a useful tool to shape your semi-structured interviews. I’d also caution that semi-structured interviewing is a very difficult process, and benefits majorly from practice. I have been with many new researchers who tend to fall back on the interview guide too much, and read it verbatim. This generally leads to closed-off responses, and missed opportunities to further explore interesting revelations. Treat your interview guide as a guide, not a gospel, and be flexible. It’s extra hard, because you have to juggle asking questions, listening, choosing the next question, keeping the research topic in your head and making sure everything is covered – but when you do it right, you’ll get rich research data that you will actually be excited to go home and analyse.
Don’t forget to check out some of the references above, as well as the myriad of excellent articles and textbooks on qualitative interviews. There’s also Quirkos itself, software to help you make the research process engaging and visual, with a free trial to download of this innovative tool. We also have a rapidly growing series of blog post articles on qualitative interviews. These now include 10 tips for qualitative interviewing, transcribing qualitative interviews and focus groups, and how to make sure you get good recordings. Our blog is updated with articles like this every week, and you can hear about it first by following our Twitter feed @quirkossoftware.