The Difference Between Structured & Semi-structured Interviews in Qualitative Research
Qualitative research studies should never be truly unstructured. After all, when you are trying to collect specific information or data points, you must have some form of structure. Structured interviews are less open-ended and offer a more guided approach. Semistructured interviews, on the other hand, are more open-ended.
Structured interviews could be considered researcher-guided interviews. In these cases, the researcher will ask the participant specific questions that demand a short response. Semistructured interviews, by contrast, are researcher proctored. In these interviews, how the information is accessed can be considered as important or more important than the information that is given.
So, what is the difference between structured and semistructured interviews? Tailoring your questions during a structured interview is of the utmost importance. You want to prompt the participant to give you honest answers without talking to you at length. In these interviews, you tend to have a narrower goal than if you were going to be giving a semistructured interview.
Semistructured interviews take a slightly more open-ended approach. The goal of a semistructured interview is to recognize patterns in customer interactions and to determine how the customer feels about a certain thing, such as an ad campaign. At this moment, they want to hear the customer’s thoughts, feedback and side commentary. They can compare phrases and basic feelings over the entire participant group.
If you were conducting a structured interview, you could ask participants, “Could you describe the purchasing process in your own words?” By asking the question in this way, you avoid them talking at length because you’ve asked them to describe a process. Once they have finished describing the process, there will be a natural space to ask the next question.
If you were conducting a semistructured interview, you could ask participants, “How do you feel about our new campaign for teapots?” When paired with the logo and a few ads, this question allows your participants to give their honest opinions, their impressions and, most importantly, their feelings to you without constraint.
Note that there is typically a specific "ask" about a campaign. Once the participant begins to wander on a tangential topic, he should be redirected. Junior-level researchers may find this difficult at first, but they should attempt it to understand how to control conversations.
- Be mindful of your "ask." You do not want to ask any questions that could feed your participant an answer. For example, you would not say “What would you call this basket?” when the "ask" is specifically trying to find out what the said object was.
- Avoid answering your "ask." Have someone else in your department look over your questions at least once before you begin giving your interviews. The second set of eyes can realize hidden biases you may have missed, even if the bias is as simple as your preferred wording.
- Be mindful of preinterview chatter. You should always be warm and friendly to your participants, but avoid getting too personal with them. They should feel comfortable with you but not so comfortable that you speak at length.
- Count to three. After a participant has spoken, silently wait for the count of three until you speak again. You want to give the participant plenty of time to consider what she is going to say without making the pause go on for too long. The three-second wait also allows you to formulate your question.
- Be flexible. While you will always have research goals and specific questions to ask, there are times when you should skip questions or reword them on the spot. Practicing this with members of your cohort or department is a great way to learn to pivot when needed.