Types of Interviews in Research | Guide & Examples

An interview is a qualitative research method that relies on asking questions in order to collect data. Interviews involve two or more people, one of whom is the interviewer asking the questions.

There are several types of interviews, often differentiated by their level of structure. Structured interviews have predetermined questions asked in a predetermined order. Unstructured interviews are more free-flowing, and semi-structured interviews fall in between.

Interviews are commonly used in market research, social science, and ethnographic research.

What is a structured interview?

Structured interviews have predetermined questions in a set order. They are often closed-ended, featuring dichotomous (yes/no) or multiple-choice questions. While open-ended structured interviews exist, they are much less common. The types of questions asked make structured interviews a predominantly quantitative tool.

Asking set questions in a set order can help you see patterns among responses, and it allows you to easily compare responses between participants while keeping other factors constant. This can mitigate biases and lead to higher reliability and validity. However, structured interviews can be overly formal, as well as limited in scope and flexibility.

Structured interviews may be a good fit for your research if:

  • You feel very comfortable with your topic. This will help you formulate your questions most effectively.
  • You have limited time or resources. Structured interviews are a bit more straightforward to analyse because of their closed-ended nature, and can be a doable undertaking for an individual.
  • Your research question depends on holding environmental conditions between participants constant

What is a semi-structured interview?

Semi-structured interviews are a blend of structured and unstructured interviews. While the interviewer has a general plan for what they want to ask, the questions do not have to follow a particular phrasing or order.

Semi-structured interviews are often open-ended, allowing for flexibility, but follow a predetermined thematic framework, giving a sense of order. For this reason, they are often considered ‘the best of both worlds’.

However, if the questions differ substantially between participants, it can be challenging to look for patterns, lessening the generalisability and validity of your results.

Semi-structured interviews may be a good fit for your research if:

  • You have prior interview experience. It’s easier than you think to accidentally ask a leading question when coming up with questions on the fly. Overall, spontaneous questions are much more difficult than they may seem.
  • Your research question is exploratory in nature. The answers you receive can help guide your future research.

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What is an unstructured interview?

An unstructured interview is the most flexible type of interview. The questions and the order in which they are asked are not set. Instead, the interview can proceed more spontaneously, based on the participant’s previous answers.

Unstructured interviews are by definition open-ended. This flexibility can help you gather detailed information on your topic, while still allowing you to observe patterns between participants.

However, so much flexibility means that they can be very challenging to conduct properly. You must be very careful not to ask leading questions, as biased responses can lead to lower reliability or even invalidate your research.

Unstructured interviews may be a good fit for your research if:

  • You have a solid background in your research topic and have conducted interviews before
  • Your research question is exploratory in nature, and you are seeking descriptive data that will deepen and contextualise your initial hypotheses
  • Your research necessitates forming a deeper connection with your participants, encouraging them to feel comfortable revealing their true opinions and emotions

What is a focus group?

A focus group brings together a group of participants to answer questions on a topic of interest in a moderated setting. Focus groups are qualitative in nature and often study the group’s dynamic and body language in addition to their answers. Responses can guide future research on consumer products and services, human behaviour, or controversial topics.

Focus groups can provide more nuanced and unfiltered feedback than individual interviews and are easier to organise than experiments or large surveys. However, their small size leads to low external validity and the temptation as a researcher to ‘cherry-pick’ responses that fit your hypotheses.

A focus group may be a good fit for your research if:

  • Your research focuses on the dynamics of group discussion or real-time responses to your topic
  • Your questions are complex and rooted in feelings, opinions, and perceptions that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’
  • Your topic is exploratory in nature, and you are seeking information that will help you uncover new questions or future research ideas

Examples of interview questions

Depending on the type of interview you are conducting, your questions will differ in style, phrasing, and intention. Structured interview questions are set and precise, while the other types of interviews allow for more open-endedness and flexibility.

Here are some examples.

  • Do you like dogs? Yes/No
  • Do you associate dogs with feeling: happy; somewhat happy; neutral; somewhat unhappy; unhappy
  • Do you like dogs? Yes/No
  • If yes, name one attribute of dogs that you like.
  • If no, name one attribute of dogs that you don’t like.
  • What feelings do dogs bring out in you?
  • When you think more deeply about this, what experiences would you say your feelings are rooted in?
Think back to your childhood, and tell me about a dog that is very vivid in your memories, positive or negative. It doesn’t have to be your dog, but the first one that comes to mind.

Advantages and disadvantages of interviews

Interviews are a great research tool. They allow you to gather rich information and draw more detailed conclusions than other research methods, taking into consideration nonverbal cues, off-the-cuff reactions, and emotional responses.

However, they can also be time-consuming and deceptively challenging to conduct properly. Smaller sample sizes can cause their validity and reliability to suffer, and there is an inherent risk of interviewer effect arising from accidentally leading questions.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of each type of interview that can help you decide if you’d like to utilise this research method.

Advantages and disadvantages of interviews
Type of interview Advantages Disadvantages
Structured interview
  • Can be used for quantitative research
  • Data can be compared
  • High reliability and validity
  • Time-effective for the interviewer and the respondent
  • Researcher can’t ask additional questions for more clarification or nuance
  • Limited scope: you might miss out on interesting data
  • Due to the restricted answer options, people might have to choose the ‘best fit’
Semi-structured interview
  • Can be used in quantitative research
  • Relatively high validity
  • You can ask additional questions if needed
  • Lower validity than the structured interview
  • You need to have good conversational skills to get the most out of the interview
  • Preparation is time-consuming
Unstructured interview
  • You can ask additional questions if needed
  • Respondents might feel more at ease
  • You can collect rich, qualitative data
  • Can be used if little is known about the topic
  • Low reliability and validity
  • You need to have excellent conversational skills to keep the interview going
  • Easy to get sidetracked
  • Hard to compare data
  • Preparation is very time-consuming
Focus group
  • Efficient method, since you interview multiple people at once
  • Respondents are often more at ease
  • Relatively cost-efficient
  • Easier to discuss difficult topics
  • You can ask a limited number of questions due to time constraints
  • You need good conversational and leadership skills
  • There is a higher risk of social desirability bias
  • You can’t guarantee confidentiality, since there are multiple people present

Frequently asked questions about types of interviews

What are the four main types of interviews?

The four most common types of interviews are:

When should you use a structured interview?

A structured interview is a data collection method that relies on asking questions in a set order to collect data on a topic. They are often quantitative in nature. Structured interviews are best used when:

  • You already have a very clear understanding of your topic. Perhaps significant research has already been conducted, or you have done some prior research yourself, but you already possess a baseline for designing strong structured questions.
  • You are constrained in terms of time or resources and need to analyse your data quickly and efficiently
  • Your research question depends on strong parity between participants, with environmental conditions held constant

More flexible interview options include semi-structured interviews, unstructured interviews, and focus groups.

When should you use a semi-structured interview?

A semi-structured interview is a blend of structured and unstructured types of interviews. Semi-structured interviews are best used when:

  • You have prior interview experience. Spontaneous questions are deceptively challenging, and it’s easy to accidentally ask a leading question or make a participant uncomfortable.
  • Your research question is exploratory in nature. Participant answers can guide future research questions and help you develop a more robust knowledge base for future research.
When should you use an unstructured interview?

An unstructured interview is the most flexible type of interview, but it is not always the best fit for your research topic.

Unstructured interviews are best used when:

  • You are an experienced interviewer and have a very strong background in your research topic, since it is challenging to ask spontaneous, colloquial questions
  • Your research question is exploratory in nature. While you may have developed hypotheses, you are open to discovering new or shifting viewpoints through the interview process.
  • You are seeking descriptive data, and are ready to ask questions that will deepen and contextualise your initial thoughts and hypotheses
  • Your research depends on forming connections with your participants and making them feel comfortable revealing deeper emotions, lived experiences, or thoughts
What is an interviewer effect?

The interviewer effect is a type of bias that emerges when a characteristic of an interviewer (race, age, gender identity, etc.) influences the responses given by the interviewee.

There is a risk of an interviewer effect in all types of interviews, but it can be mitigated by writing really high-quality interview questions.

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students. A well-designed natural experiment is her favorite type of research, but she also loves qualitative methods of all varieties.

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