Best Practices for Semi-Structured Qualitative Interviews

Qualitative interviews are a staple of good market research. They allow insight experts to gather deep, detailed data on any topic imaginable, whether on their own or as part of a larger research design to further inform the data gathered from other tasks.

These interviews can be conducted in a few ways, face-to-face, over the phone and online in focus groups or one-on-one conversations, with each option fitting a different research design, method and objective. It is the job of an insight expert to understand each different path and fit the right method into their research project to generate actionable insights that inform great stakeholder decisions.

What is a Semi-Structured Interview?

To be able to fit the right qualitative interview into your research design, it’s important to understand the options available. There are three ways to conduct these interviews:

  • Fully structured- very formal interviews, question and answer only, no conversation.
  • Semi-structured — slightly more informal, questions used as guides but some conversation and tangental discussions allowed as long as they’re relevant.
  • Unstructured — no questions, just topics laid out on the table and allow the conversation to guide the insights generated.

For this article, we will be focussing on semi-structured interviews and the potential they have for actionable insight generation. Semi-structured interviews are best for two main areas of study — a chance for future opportunity spotting using the semi-structured interviews as an initial research exercise to base further research efforts on; and secondly, a way to gather more in-depth explanatory insights after quantitative research has already gathered surface-level data.

Semi-structured interviews have the power to gain unexpected actionable insights, but only when conducted well.

Best Practices for Success

So, now that we have established an understanding of what semi-structured interviews are and what they’re typically used for, it’s time to go over some best practices for success.

1. Use the topic guide as a guide

Topic guides are used regularly by researchers in both project and task design to help keep all parties involved on track. With fully-structured qualitative interviews, the topic guide is used as a strategic plan and followed to the letter to make sure insight experts gather the data needed, but with semi-structured interviews, they’re used as a looser guide.

These guides contain a few pertinent questions that point the way to the insights needed, but insight experts can follow lines of inquiry that divert slightly if they believe the respondent has valuable tangental insights to share. Tangents like this are great for providing more context for fully-rounded insights as long as those tangents are relevant.

It pays to understand how to construct a topic guide for all types of interviews, and then how to follow it. For semi-structured interviews, have just a few base questions and then some satellite pointers if conversations stall, but leave the rest of the guide open for insightful conversations.

2. Remember that these interviews are less interviews and more conversations

Because of the semi-structured nature of these qualitative interviews and the loose structure of the topic guide, these interviews will be more like conversations kept on track by a couple of questions every now and then. Conducting these types of interviews like a formal, fully-structured interview will kill any chance of relaxed conversations that typically lead to unexpected insights.

This practice is also important for attaining the right balance of informal and formal to set the right tone. While there will always be a sense of professionalism between researcher and participant, there is a degree of comfort that researchers can manufacture through the tone, setting and resources used that will spark relaxed on-topic conversations and helpful elaboration for better insights.

3. Build a good rapport with your participants

This is crucial to gaining good insights from semi-structured interviews. Whether these respondents are participating in one-off research tasks or are a part of a long-standing community or panel, being able to build a good rapport with them will help create a safe space for them to share their views. The better the rapport, the more respondents will talk and the more data and insights insight teams will gain.

Once a good rapport is built, insight experts will then also know when implementing semi-structured interviews would work effectively and have a good enough impact on the success of the research project. Insight teams will also be able to identify which respondents might be the better subjects for such a respondent sample, who will be able to give us the insights we need.

There are a number of best practices to help insight experts get the most out of semi-structured interviews — and here are six to get you started.

4. Ask all questions and listen to the answers

The importance of listening is often understated. While we talk often about how to go about collecting valuable insights, the methods we can use and the innovations that can boost them, the simple power of listening isn’t a topic discussed along with it. Listening is just as important as the questions we ask.

As for the questions, there is no such thing as a stupid question. In semi-structured interviews, there are a few over-arching questions used as guides, but in a conversation, there’s a certain back and forth made up of smaller questions and answers that usually uncover a lot more than any topic guide ever could. It doesn’t matter if insight experts think those little conversations and questions aren’t productive, the inflexions and tone of the answers respondents provide to those questions will say more than words ever could.

5. Take notes or record the conversation

Because conversations tend to go on tangents, no one interview will be the same and there’s no way the researcher will be able to remember everything that’s said in a semi-structured or unstructured interview. And unless the interview takes place on an online text-based platform that allows for a downloadable transcript at the end, the only way to make sure that there is a record of the conversation and the data gathered is to note it down or record the conversation for later analysis.

Most of the time, dictaphones are used for face-to-face interactions and interviews. But with the rapid transition to online market research, there are platforms now that allow for recording at the click of a button. Of course, data security and privacy ethics should be embedded here to make sure that everything conducted is done above board and the respondent is comfortable participating.

6. Expect the unexpected

Last but not least, expect the unexpected. With only semi-structured interviews, there are a number of ways the conversation can go, so insight experts need to be prepared for everything to be discussed but what the stakeholders are after. This is where the topic guide comes in handy, which can contain satellite questions and prompts to nudge the conversation back on course. It’s important to understand how to direct people back to the topic of conversation if the tangents aren’t related, but also learn to identify which conversations will lead nowhere.

This article was originally published on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.




FlexMR is The Insights Empowerment Company. We help brands to act decisively, stay close to customers and embed agile insight at the heart of every decision.

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FlexMR is The Insights Empowerment Company. We help brands to act decisively, stay close to customers and embed agile insight at the heart of every decision.

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