Types of interviews for data collection

Interview in Progress
Key to a good interview

In this blog post I want to take some time looking at the different types of interviews for collecting data. Every qualitative researcher will at one time or another need to conduct research where they need to interview their research participant(s).  In the view of the research (Burnard, Gill, Stewart, Treasure, & Chadwick, 2008; Gill, Stewart, Treasure, & Chadwick, 2008; Morse & Corbin, 2003) there are three fundamental types of research interviews, these are:

  • Structured,
  • Semi-structured
  • Unstructured

Each of these have a slight variation in their structure and more importantly conduct. Morse & Corbin (2003) discus this in more detail and note that the main difference between the three approaches is “The degree to which participants have control over the process and content of the interview”.

So lets look at these three types of interviews in a little bit of detail and try to identify the advantages and the disadvantages of each.

Structured Interview

The structured interview is by its very nature a very rigid instrument,In the view of Gill et al., (2008) the structured interviews is defined as a “verbally administered questionnaire” which does not use prompts and provides very little scope for follow up questions to investigate responses which warrant more depth and detail. The advantage of such an approach is that this extra structure allows for the interview to be administered quickly, though it is of little use if ‘depth’ is required.

Unstructured Interview (In-depth interview)

The opposite to this type of approach is the unstructured interview also referred to by Legard et al., (2003) as the In-depth interview. Legard et al., (2003) describe the unstructured interview as a “conversation with a purpose” (p. 138) as it is intended to allow researchers to collect in-depth information. This is a view also shared by Morse & Corbin (2003) who describe the unstructured interview as a shared experience “in which researchers and interviewees come together to create a context of conversational intimacy in which participants feel comfortable telling their story”. In the view of Legard et al., (2003) one of the “main advantages of the in-depth interview is the ability to combine structure with flexibility” (p. 141).

Gill et al., (2008) view the unstructured interview in a slightly different light and argue that the unstructured interview does “not reflect any preconceived theories or idea and are performed with little or no organisation”, thereby implying that the process of the unstructured interview can be a little bit chaotic with little structure or planning.

Semi-structured Interview

The final interview approach is the semi-structured interview, Gill et al., (2008) define this approach as an interview that has several key questions which help to define the areas to be explored, but also allow the researcher the flexibility to pursue an idea in a response in more detail, this is a medium between structured and unstructured interviews.

Whats best for me and my research?

It is important to remember that the construction of knowledge is only viable when the data collection method allows the researcher to use a range of probes and other techniques to achieve depth of answer in terms of penetration, exploration and explanation (Legard et al., 2003, p. 141). Hence only you can know which interview approach is best for you, because only you know your research. 

However in saying that, my own personal view is that within a Qualitative interview the best approach to take is that of the the in-depth unstructured interview, really getting to the heart of the matter and exploring the phenomenon in its truest form. In-depth interviews as a research technique are valuable because they are flexible, interactive and responsive, allow for probing during the interview, and thus enabling researchers to explore the meanings people attach to their experiences. Legard et al., (2003), also mention that researchers should view interviewing as a special type of “partnership” and “conversation with purpose” (p. 41).

Whats next?

Once the decision has been made in relation to the in-depth interviews, King and Horrocks (2010) propose the need for researchers to make a decision about the format of interviews they want to use, they propose that researches should ask themselves if they want to use face-to-face interviews or whether telephone or internet interviews are appropriate. I would always recommend the use of the primary interview technique as face-to-face. However, in cases where a face-to-face interview is not possible, in those scenarios I would propose the use of Skype for long distance interviews, and make sure you electronically record these interviews. This technique is invaluable for solving the issues of managing long distance interviews where timing is difficult (Beddall-Hill, Jabbar, & Shehri, 2011).


Beddall-Hill, N., Jabbar, A. & Shehri, S., 2011. Social Mobile Devices as Tools for Qualitative Research in Education: iPhones and iPads in Ethnography, Interviewing, and Design-Based Research. Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology, 7(1), pp.67–89. Available at: http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/10507/.

King, N. & Horrocks, C., 2010. Interviews in qualitative research, London: SAGE Publications Limited.

Legard, R., Keegan, J. & Ward, K., 2003. In-depth interviews. In J. Ritchie & J. Lewis, eds. Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers. pp. 138–169.

Gill, P. et al., 2008. Methods of data collection in qualitative research: interviews and focus groups. Br Dent J, 204(6), pp.291–295. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/bdj.2008.192.


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