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How to... conduct interviews

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Types of interview

The interview used for research purposes can be divided into various different types, which vary on a spectrum of structure and control from the highly structured (where questions are pre-set and the tone neutral) to unstructured, where there are no set questions and where the participant, rather than the interviewer, may even set the agenda.

Broadly speaking, the less structured the interview, the greater degree of depth of data is yielded. Again broadly speaking, the types of interview can be summed up as follows:

Image: interview types

Structured interviews

The structured interview is a quantitative technique, used in surveys, and we shall here limit our consideration to basic definitions.

Structured interviews involve asking the same questions in the same way to a large number of respondents. Questions are closed, in other words the respondent has to choose from a list of preset responses, and will probably read from a script. The main possibility of error lies in the phrasing of the questions, for example "Do you ever..." vs. "Do you never...", which is why the questions must be standardized, and phrasing, as in "Do you ever..." vs. "Do you never...", which is why the interviewer must try not to vary the tone.

The advantage of the structured questionnaire is that it is a good way of making sure that you cover a large amount of ground, because the items can be set out beforehand in a script: for example, if you are testing responses to a product and want to make sure that you cover all its features. It is also possible, because the interview is unlikely to take so long, to interview more respondents and thereby gain access to a wider sample. Data categories are likely to be predetermined and the questions pre-coded.

Structured interviews are good for explanatory research, when you are looking at the relationship between variables.

For more information, see Surveys - different methods and instruments.

Semi-structured interviews

With the semi structured interview, we move into more qualitative approaches to research, in which data collection is not to a rigid formula as with the structured interview, and is often analysed and coded after collection. As with all qualitative techniques, it is best used for issues which are less amenable to precise measurement, and which may be more complex or affective.

has this to say about the difference between structured and unstructured interviews:

"Each approach has strengths and weaknesses, and each may be more or less suitable for particular types and areas of research: e.g. the highly-structured approach may be good for eliciting information about large numbers of people using a reference library or for finding out people’s choice of consumer product, while informality and an open structure tend to be preferable when complex, personal or sensitive issues are being probed (e.g. perceptions of discrimination at work, disagreement with company policy, fears about redundancy)."

Research Interviews, New Library World, vol. 97 no. 5, quoting Patton, M.Q.,
Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods
(Sage, 1990)

In the semi structured interview, the researcher follows a list of questions, but these are open for the participant to respond as he or she feels appropriate. The order of the questions may also be varied if a particular response leads to one of the other questions.

Sometimes, there will not be a list of questions as such but rather an interview schedule or topic guide which lists the main issues which the researcher wishes to follow, and which will ensure consistent coverage over a number of respondents.

John Wood and Tricia Vilkinas in (Leadership & Organization Development Journal, vol. 26 no. 3) use a semi structured technique to investigate the leadership self perceptions of CEOs.

William Keogh and Victoria Stewart in used two sets of semi structured interviews to analyse the strategic and human resource issues around training in SMEs. (Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, vol. 8 no. 2)

Maia Duerr, in (Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 17 no. 1) used a semi structured approach to find out about the extent to which contemplative and meditative practices were used in organizations. 

Margaret Linehan, in , uses the semi structured technique to explore the topic of female networking "to ensure that the interviews covered the same main questions, but allowed participants to respond in a variety of ways and raise issues which were pertinent to the research" (Journal of Management Development , vol. 20 no. 10).

Non-directive in-depth interviews

In both sociological and management research, there is a move towards a type of in depth interviewing which is even less structured and directive than that where there is some sort of interviewer determined structure, and which gives more control to the interviewee. For example, the participant may be allowed to tell their own stories, or the interview may provide a framework which yields otherwise subconsciously buried information, or may redress the power balance between interviewer and interviewee so that the interviewee can raise issues which she/he considers important. (Feminist sociologists in particular have been critical of the hierarchical relationship between interviewers and their subjects.)

Stefanie C. Reissner, in (Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 18 no. 5), researched into the issue of how organizational change affects the individual's needs to learn different skills, focusing on one organization. She used the interview technique to allow participants to tell their own stories about their life with the organization, and how change affected them personally.

When interviewing people about a subject such as organizational change to which there may be an infinite number of possible reactions, it is obviously good to use a technique that is as open ended as possible. In such circumstances, people's reactions are probably reasonable close to the surface. There are other circumstances, however, when it may be necessary to use techniques which tease out issues that are otherwise hidden and are less likely to come out in more 'standard' interviewing.

In , Denise G. Jarratt uses the technique of laddering, which uses probes to uncover emotional reactions, and to probe the critical thinking behind consumer choices. (Marketing Intelligence & Planning , vol. 14 no. 6)

use the technique of 'phenomenology', which

"allows people's 'life-worlds' to be discovered (Küpers, 1998), thus capturing their intersubjective experiences. Phenomenology is used to describe the structure of experiences as they present themselves to consciousness, and to find what is hidden in ordinary experiences
(Gibb, 1998)."

"Customer satisfaction and retention: the experiences of individual employees",
Managing Service Quality, vol. 14 no. 1
quoting Küpers, W. (1998), "Phenomenology of embodied productivity in services",
International Journal of Service Industry Management, vol. 9 no.4 
and Gibb, S. (1998), "Exploring career chaos: patterns of belief",
Career Development International, vol. 3 no.4

This sort of in-depth interviewing can be used to uncover very complex, affective issues as well as in the exploratory stages of research, to help uncover key issues for research questions.

Key informant interviews

These differ from 'ordinary' interviews in that the respondent is chosen because of his or her specialist knowledge, and becomes not just a provider of data but someone who helps frame the research questions. It is likely that you will here use a purposive, snowball sampling technique, whereby respondents suggest other likely interviewees. The probable determining criteria will be position in the organization, knowledge of the issue, and willingness to help.

Group interviews

A group interview occurs when there are a number of participants, and is also referred to as a focus group - see How to... conduct a focus group for a full guide. 

How does the interview take place?

Because of the emotionally intensive nature of interviewing, it is probably best if it takes place face to face, as talking face to face is more relaxing if the conversation is long and detailed. However, if the interviewees are a great distance apart, then it may be more practical to talk to them over the phone. Email interviewing is also becoming more popular, with the advantage that the medium allows for automatic recording of responses; it is also possible to allow more time for response. The disadvantage with both email and telephone, however, is that you don't see the non verbal signals, which are important in any 'in depth' conversation.