Updated: Mar 10
An interview is not a sandwich.
There is more to an interview structure than a stack of meaty middle topics sandwiched between “can you tell me about yourself?” and “is there anything else you’d like to share?”
A good interview structure depends on the goal of the conversation. Too often, interviewers create the same design over and over again based on convenience and comfort rather than what makes sense for each unique evaluation context. I have nothing against snack-based metaphors or how anyone designs their interviews. While a go-to structure can be a useful starting point for learning and building confidence, a high-quality interview requires more thoughtfulness than just slotting new questions into an old template. And, I want to help!
At AND, Jennica and I spend time at the beginning of our projects asking if what we have in mind is the best way of collecting information. We debate the merits of different interview structures for each client and context. Sometimes, we talk ourselves out of doing interviews altogether when there is a better way of collecting relevant data.
Drawing on lessons learned from my experience conducting evaluation interviews, I reflect on - and share tips for using - the three most common qualitative interview structures:
1. Structured Interviews
The structured interview is like a corndog. It centres on a rigid frame to ensure consistency. Like a corndog at a fair, the structured interview is a crowd-pleaser that works best when the primary goal is to reach a large group. Questions are organized around a few key topics or themes related to the evaluation. Every participant is asked the same question in the same way to create a standardized set of comparable answers.
Typically, this interview is used with a large group of people when little variation between reflections on a particular topic is anticipated. Brief responses illustrate a range of expected or unexpected experiences – like what patients think is working or not working in a hospital unit.
Suggestions on Style:
To gather a narrow range of answers from a large group of people, structured interviews must be focused. While all interviewers have their own style, I like getting to the point. Using direct “what” or “how” questions, I focus on a few key themes important to the evaluation. Interviewees walk me through what happened and briefly explain their experiences.
For example, suppose one key theme is about the accessibility of care in a hospital unit that I am evaluating. In that case, I might ask a direct question, “What was it like for you to access care in this hospital unit?” Then, I might follow up with either a specifying question, “Can you recall which specific steps you took to gain access to care?” or a prompt, “Can you give me an example of one thing that made care accessible for you?”
Because the structured interview can come across as more formal, I ask only a few things about each theme before moving on to avoid exhausting the interviewee. My style is to keep it light, catch a glimpse of something, and move on. I also practice my questions with Jennica ahead of time to ensure that I create a good balance between topics, ask answerable questions, and avoid the urge to improvise.
The most challenging thing about the structured interview is just reading the question verbatim with a similar tone every time. I usually sit on my hands and fight the urge to improvise.
2. Semi-Structured Interviews
The semi-structured interview is like a burger. Variations in the bun, patty, toppings, and sauces are expected but still count as burgers. It depends on who makes it, who orders it, and when. Like a burger, this interview structure works when the primary goal is to create preferable options for a reasonable number of people.
In a semi-structured interview, questions are organized around a few key topics or themes related to the evaluation. But, unlike the structured interview, variation is allowed between interviews.
Which aspects of the interview can be changed, and to what end?
Some interviewers believe that the order and delivery of questions must be consistent across all participants. Therefore, variation is only allowed with follow-up prompts (e.g., can you tell me more about that?) and clarification questions (e.g., what do you mean by that?). This is like adding mustard to one burger and not another. Other interviewers change the order and phrasing of questions based on context. Only the question's underlying themes and goals are consistent. This is like substituting the bun, patty, and toppings to get it right for each person.
Typically, this interview is used with a smaller group of people when the goal is to explore a few themes in more depth and detail. There may be some expectation that responses can be compared across participants. The human element may be of interest, too, when all those “it depends” answers are in scope for the evaluation. Longer interviews with more variation in response are expected – like what facilitates positive recovery experiences for longer-term patients in the rehabilitation unit of a hospital.
Suggestions on Style:
A common misconception about the semi-structured interview is that it is a free-for-all. It takes skill and practice to understand when, how, with whom, and to what end to improvise questions and flow. Too many changes may compromise the interview's integrity by neglecting the goal, central themes, and time. On the other hand, too few changes may make the interview feel stiff, intimidating, and irrelevant to different participants.
The interviewer’s style and skill make all the difference.
Like structured interviews, I also organize my semi-structured interviews around a mix of “what” and “how” questions related to key evaluation topics. I also ask questions that dive deeper into specific experiences to elicit illustrative examples, memories, and underlying values or beliefs.
Because the semi-structured interview can quickly become a runaway train, my practice centres on staying on track. Before the interview, I practice my questions with Jennica. In addition to checking the balance between topics and the answerability of questions, I also check my pace and timing. Because improvisations can be time-consuming, I practice my impromptu prompts to check how much time I can afford to stay on each theme before moving on. Then, I practice segues and transitions to ensure I can steer the conversation without ruining the rapport.
At the interview, I ask questions that help me to read the room. For example, I often ask people what motivated them to talk to me. This tells me which questions may be more relevant for them, what the emotional tone of our conversation might be, and if there are topics I should avoid. Then, I adjust my questions to engage each person. I also pay more attention to the emotional tone of the interview as it goes on to understand if the person needs to take a beat, wants to keep jamming on an idea, or is ready to move on.
Speaking of moving on…
3. Unstructured Interviews
The unstructured interview is like a charcuterie board. It has flair instead of a frame. There is no expectation of eating anything in any order. You could eat just the cheese or no cheese at all. We could also make it work if you ditch the charcuterie board and rummage through the fridge for leftovers instead.
Like a charcuterie board, an unstructured interview works best when the primary goal is to foster meaningful options and interactions for a select few. The conversation is organized around one or more broad themes – the fewer, the better. A list of prompts (loosely phrased questions or topic ideas) may also be prepared ahead of time. Uniquely, this interview follows the interviewee’s lead. The interviewer improvises questions to guide the discussion as it unfolds. There is no expectation that any two interviews will be the same.
Typically, unstructured interviews occur with a small group of people and with more time. These in-depth interviews often centre on illustrative examples, memories, or stories that speak to at least one key theme. In addition, the interviewee may introduce new topics through a side tangent or spontaneous story. These interviews result in a rich and complex insight into each person’s unique experience – like the experience of undergoing treatment in a hospital unit as a patient.
Suggestions on Style:
Just as a host cannot call a single plastic-wrapped slice of American cheese a charcuterie board, an unprepared interviewer cannot call whatever they improvise an unstructured interview. Although this technique can look and feel effortless, it requires the most effort of the three structures I mentioned (in my humble opinion).
To prepare, I brainstorm numerous questions and prompts corresponding to each key theme central to my evaluation project. This makes it easier for me to recall and improvise questions if I get nervous or stuck. Then, I create a few possible options for introductory questions that do two things:
The question should help the interviewee feel in control of the conversation, but not on the spot. It’s a chat, not a test.
I want the question to result in a rich answer that invites natural prompts to take us forward. Specifically, I should be able to ask a gentle follow-up question that: (a) achieves clarity and specificity or (b) transitions the interviewee's train of thought to an interconnected theme of interest.
I practice these openers and prompts with Jennica to get a good feel for how they land and where we can go from there. This helps me to understand where I might fumble into a conversational dead-end so I can come prepared with the right restructuring question or transition. I also spend time getting into my "interviewer character" to ensure I bring the right energy and non-verbal prompts into the interview to help steer the conversation (learn more about how I do that here).
Interview Structures in Comparison
At a glance, here is how the structures discussed compare.
The best way to hone your interview structuring skills is to practice. Bravely step out of a template and blend different questions to see what flows. Practice, adjust, and practice more. You got this!
Have a question or another food metaphor in mind? Send an email with any questions or thoughts you might have!
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