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Types of interview, Using Interviews in a Research Project

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Types of interview. Using Interviews in a Research Project. Trent Focus for Research and Development. The interview is an important data gathering technique involving verbal communication between the researcher and the subject. Interviews are commonly used in survey designs and in exploratory and descriptive studies.

There are a range of approaches to interviewing, from completely unstructured in which the subject is allowed to talk freely about whatever they wish, to highly structured in which the subject responses are limited to answering direct questions.

The quality of the data collected in an interview will depend on both the interview design and on the skill of the interviewer. For example, a poorly designed interview may include leading questions or questions that are not understood by the subject.

A poor interviewer may consciously or unconsciously influence the responses that the subject makes. In either circumstance, the research findings will be influenced detrimentally.

It is often assumed that if one is clinically trained and used to dealing with patients, that this is sufficient training to carry out interviews with patients and others for research purposes.

Although there are some areas of overlap in terms of the basic communication skills required, it should be acknowledged that for research some different skills are required.

The context is also important, since in a clinical setting, there is a particular relationship between a patient and clinician.

It is possible that in this routine setting the patient would not be prepared to answer all the questions in a completely honest manner.

So it may well be worthwhile thinking about the interview from the respondent’s point of view and considering carefully who would be the most appropriate person to conduct the interview and in what setting.

There may be a conflict of roles, for example, therapeutic versus research; or even an unconscious adoption of roles that could affect the quality of the data collected.

Types of interviews-Trent Focus for Research and Development in Primary Health Care
Types of interviews-Trent Focus for Research and Development


Having successfully completed the work in this pack, you will be able to:

  • Describe the skills required to undertake a structured, semi-structured or unstructured interview.
  • Summaries the advantages and disadvantages of face-to-face and telephone interviews.
  • Outline the ways in which different types of interview data can be analysed.

Section 1: Types of interview

The interview design and question phrasing will influence the depth and freedom with which a subject can respond. Some interviews encourage lengthy and detailed replies while others are designed to elicit short and specific responses.

The degree of structure imposed on an interview will actually vary along a continuum but it is useful to think of three main types: structured, semi-structured and unstructured.

Structured or standardised interviews

Structured interviews enable the interviewer to ask each respondent the same questions in the same way. A tightly structured schedule of questions is used, very much like a questionnaire.

The questions contained in the questionnaire will have been planned in advance, sometimes with the help of a pilot study to refine the questions.

The questions in a structured interview may be phrased in such a way that a limited range of responses is elicited. For example:

“Do you think that health services in this area are excellent, good, average or poor?

This is an example of a closed question where the possible answers are defined in advance so that the respondent is limited to one of the pre-coded responses.

It is not unusual for otherwise structured interviews to contain a few open-ended questions. ‘Catch-all’ final questions are common.

for example, ‘Do you have anything more to add?’ These questions are useful in helping to capture as much information as possible but they increase the amount of time required for analysing the interview findings.

Semi-structured interviews

Semi-structured interviews involve a series of open-ended questions based on the topic areas the researcher wants to cover.

The open-ended nature of the question defines the topic under investigation but provides opportunities for both interviewer and interviewee to discuss some topics in more detail.

If the interviewee has difficulty answering a question or provides only a brief response, the interviewer can use cues or prompts to encourage the interviewee to consider the question further.

In a semi-structured interview, the interviewer also has the freedom to probe the interviewee to elaborate on the original response or to follow a line of inquiry introduced by the interviewee. An example would be:

Interviewer: “I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether changes in government policy have changed the work of the doctor in general practice. Has your work changed at all?”

Interviewee: “Absolutely! The workload has increased for a start.”

Interviewer: “In what way has it increased?”

Semi-structured interviews are useful when collecting attitudinal information on a large scale, or when the research is exploratory and it is not possible to draw up a list of possible pre-codes because little is known about the subject area.

However, analysing the interview data from open questions is more problematic than when closed questions are used as work must be done before often diverse responses from subjects can be compared.

Well planned and conducted semi-structured interviews are the result of rigorous preparation. The development of the interview schedule, conducting the interview and analysing the interview data all require careful consideration and preparation.

Unstructured or in-depth interviews

Unstructured interviews (sometimes referred to as “depth” or “in depth” interviews) are so called because they have very little structure at all.

The interviewer approaches the interview with the aim of discussing a limited number of topics, sometimes as few as one or two, and frames successive questions according to the interviewee’s previous response. Although only one or two topics are discussed they are covered in great detail.

The interview might begin with the interviewer saying: “I’d like to hear your views on GP commissioning”. Subsequent questions would follow from the interviewee’s responses.

Unstructured interviews are exactly what they sound like – interviews where the interviewer wants to find out about a specific topic but has no structure or preconceived plan or expectation as to how the interview will proceed.

Generally, a researcher will try to understand the informants’ worldview in an unstructured interview. The relationship between the interviewer and the informant is important.

Some characteristics of depth interviewing are that the researcher has a general purpose and may use a topic guide but the informant provides most of the structure of the interview.

Generally the researcher follows up on ‘cues’ or leads provided by the informant.

Face-to-face interviews

In Face-to-face or personal interviews are very labour intensive, but can be the best way of collecting high quality data.

These Face-to-face interviews are preferable when the subject matter is very sensitive, if the questions are very complex or if the interview is likely to be lengthy. Interviewing skills are dealt with in more detail later in this pack.

Compared to other methods of data collection, face-to-face interviewing offers a greater degree of flexibility. A skilled interviewer can explain the purpose of the interview and encourage potential respondents to co-operate;

they can also clarify questions, correct misunderstandings, offer prompts, probe responses and follow up on new ideas in a way that is just not possible with other methods.

Telephone interviews | (Types of interview).

Telephone interviews can be a very effective and economical way of collecting data where the sample to be contacted are all accessible via the telephone.

They are not an appropriate method of data collection for a very deprived population where telephone ownership is likely to be low or where respondents may be ex-directory.

However telephone interviewing can be ideally suited to busy professional respondents, such as general practitioners, when the telephone numbers can be easily identified and timed appointments set up. Telephone interviews are also particularly useful when the respondents to be interviewed are widely geographically distributed.

One of the main disadvantages of a telephone interview is that it is difficult to incorporate visual aids and prompts and the respondents cannot read cards or scales. The length of a telephone interview is also limited, although this will vary with subject area and motivation.

Nevertheless it is possible to make prior appointments for a telephone interview and send stimulus material for the respondent to look at in advance of the interview. A prior appointment and covering letter may enhance the response rate and length of interview.

It is important to note that any findings derived from a telephone survey of the general population should be interpreted to take account of the non-responders who may not have access to a telephone or may be unlisted.

Focus group interviews | (Types of interview)

Sometimes it is preferable to collect information from groups of people rather than from a series of individuals. Focus groups can be useful to obtain certain types of information or when circumstances would make it difficult to collect information using other methods of data collection.

They have been widely used in the private sector over the past few decades, particularly in market research. They are being increasing used in the public sector.

(Types of interview)| Group interviews can be used when:

  1. Limited resources prevent more than a small number of interviews being undertaken.
  2. It is possible to identify a number of individuals who share a common factor and it is desirable to collect the views of several people within that population sub group.
  3. Group interaction among participants has the potential for greater insights to be developed.
© 1998. Copyright of the Trent Focus Group

This resource pack is one of a series produced by the Trent Focus Group. This series has been funded by the Research and Development Group of NHS Executive Trent.

This resource pack may be freely photocopied and distributed for the benefit of researchers. However it is the copyright of the Trent Focus Group and the authors and as such, no part of the content may be altered without the prior permission in writing, of the Copyright owner.

Reference as: Mathers, Nigel; Fox, Nick and Hunn, Amanda. Trent Focus for Research and Development in Primary Health Care: Using Interviews in a Research Project. Trent Focus, 1998.

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Types of interviews-Trent Focus for Research and Development

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