Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Conversations and interviews
Conversations and interviews

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.2.2 Types of interview

A common way to look at interviewing people is to distinguish between structured, semi-structured and unstructured interviews. None of them is best and none of them is without problems, so your decision on how to design an interview will always be a matter of judgement. We’ll think about how you make that judgement in a moment, but first we’ll describe each interview in a little more detail. I would want to stress, however, that there are not three, distinct types of interview: structured, unstructured or semi-structured. Rather, these different types of interview are on a continuum (see Figure 3) and you will find yourself making quite fine judgements as to whether you want to be more structured or less structured in your interviewing technique.

Figure 3 The interview continuum
Figure 3 The interview continuum

Structured interviews

In a structured interview you will have a set schedule of questions from which you will not deviate. Indeed, at the most structured end of this type of interview, you will detail the very wording of each question. So for a structured interview you will go through several stages of preparation:

  1. Work out an overview of what sort of information you want to gather and who you will be interviewing.
  2. Design the questions that you will want to ask, taking care to make your wording clear so that it can’t be misunderstood. You’ll also try to be careful to ask questions that are sensitive to your interviewees.
  3. Work out the best and most logical order for your questions. You want to avoid jumping from one topic to another during an interview. If you have several questions on the same, similar or related topics, then put them together as that will help your respondent to think through the topic or remember details of an incident.
  4. Pilot your question schedule, looking for questions that puzzle your respondents, lead to digressions or cause you any difficulties.

There are several benefits to preparing and piloting structured interviews in this way:

  • This level of preparation may well help you word your questions sensitively...
  • ... and will help you ensure that you don’t ask leading questions and that you avoid any bias in your questions.
  • As you undertake a couple of pilot interviews you will get a very clear indication of how successful the interviews will be. This will help you adjust and improve the wording and order of your questions, giving you a better chance of conducting a consistent and good set of interviews.

Researcher’s experience: Jon Billsberry gives this important advice from his experience of conducting interviews.

‘One thing I always try to do is to pilot my questionnaires. I do this in two ways. First, I ask a few people to complete it to tell me if the questions make sense, whether there are any spelling mistakes, and to check the instructions. I guess everyone does this. But I do a second check as well. I imagine that fifty or so people have completed the questionnaire and I put numbers and words into my spreadsheet to mimic what the results could look like. I then imagine that I am writing up my report and try to incorporate data. As I do this, it makes me think about what the questions are really asking and what conclusions I can draw from them. It also tells me what sort of analysis I can do. I do this because in my early years as a researcher I found that I got people to complete my surveys and then found errors and problems that defied analysis.’

Unstructured interviews

At the opposite end of the structure continuum are completely unstructured interviews.

So how do you go about an unstructured interview? Well, I’ve found that there are two elements of a successful interview. First, you have to provide a hook; a theme or topic that interests your respondent. I have bad memories of times when I tried to interview someone about a topic that bored them! This hook has to be specific enough for the respondent to recognise its importance and its relevance to them. So, for example, it’s unlikely that a sales manager would understand why she’s being interviewed about the details of factory policy, but she might have something to say about how factory efficiency affects her sales success. Similarly, details of how a hospital recruits cleaning staff might not be very important to a consultant surgeon, but I bet that she’ll consider the cleanliness of the wards and operating theatres to be very important. You therefore need to choose your respondents carefully so that they’ll have something to say about a topic you’re interested in, and then you’ll have to describe that topic in a way that hooks your respondent into the interview. This might mean that you word the introduction to your interview slightly differently for each respondent.

Researcher’s experience: Caroline Ramsey explains why she tends to use completely unstructured interviews.

‘I guess that when I’m working with organisations, my particular interest is in finding out how people talk in that organisation, what sort of things are important to them and how they distinguish good from bad or successful from unsuccessful. So I’m possibly less interested in the topic they are actually talking about and more interested in their manner of talk. As a consequence, I want my respondents to choose what they talk about and how they talk about it. Unstructured interviews, often involving me asking managers to tell me stories of important incidents, are really helpful as I try to co-ordinate with members of an organisation.’

Second, you’ll need to establish a rhythm to your interview. I use the term rhythm to capture the sense in which unstructured interviews are different from structured interviews. In a structured interview, you will have a carefully planned and organised schedule of questions. That won’t be the case in unstructured interviews, but you will need some method of encouraging your respondent to talk and of helping them focus on the main theme of the interview. How can you do this without a set sequence of questions? Here are three possible rhythms that you might use. They are only examples and you might find that you develop one of your own that fits better with your own working context. Having introduced the general theme of the interview:

  • Ask what the key issues are, or what have been the significant events. Then ask for stories that illustrate that issue or event.
  • Ask how your respondent would evaluate the current situation or past events, or what they think will happen. Here you are asking for their opinions.
  • Or you could ask about their feelings about how a situation or project is progressing.

In each case, you are asking open questions that seek to encourage your respondent to talk freely, with as little direction from you as possible.

Definition: Open and closed questions

You can ask questions that have one right answer. For example, you could ask if it rained on Tuesday. The answer is either yes or no. Similarly, in asking: ‘What was our sales volume in August?’, you will expect one answer. These are closed questions. On the other hand, you might ask if the rain is likely to be heavy enough on Tuesday to stop us going jogging or you could ask the sales manager why sales had fallen during August. These questions would be open questions because they do not have a correct answer; rather they will elicit a more free-flowing response.


As the name implies, a semi-structured interview has some of the characteristics of both the structured and unstructured interview. There is no one correct way of doing this; it is an issue of judgement. Having taken a decision to conduct a semi-structured interview, you will plan an overall structure for it. Almost certainly you will either have a list of topics that you want to cover or a list of questions that are important. The more experienced you become at interviewing, the more you will tend to work to a list of topics; but when you first conduct an interview, it might be wisest to work out the best way of asking specific questions.

Where a semi-structured interview differs from a more structured conversation is in the way you give space to your respondent to expand on a particular topic. To do this you will tend to ask open rather than closed questions. If all your questions are purely about facts and details, you won’t get much further than a list of those details. If, on the other hand, you ask questions that offer your respondent more scope to discuss something that interests them, you are likely to get richer data.

Activity 3 Learning about people

Timing: 15 minutes

Write answers to the following two questions.

  1. What subjects have you covered in your studies so far?
  2. What are the most significant things that you’ve learned during your studies so far?

Which of these questions took longer to answer and which answer do you think would tell me more about you as a person, student and professional?


I have little doubt that your answer to the second question will have been much longer and that, whilst your answer to the first may have been quite a long list of topics from the different courses that you have studied, your answer to the second will almost certainly tell me which subjects have been more interesting to you, relevant to your professional work and influential in what you consider important.

On the other hand, your answers to the first question may be immensely helpful to me as I work out where to go in an interview. As has so often been the case in our discussion of inquiry, it isn’t a case of what is right and what is wrong; more, it is a case of working out whether open or closed questions are useful at a particular moment in an inquiry.

Take another look at question 2 in Activity 3. What do you think was the most important word in that question? I think that there are two really important words that make all the difference to how you answered the second question. They are

  • ‘learned’
  • ‘significant’.

In shifting from ‘subjects you have covered’ to ‘what you’ve learned’, I have opened up a much wider space for you to explore as you reply to my question. For example, you might well have learned about business topics such as marketing or finance but you have also learned about how well you can study on your own. Perhaps, given that this course is unlikely to have been your first course, you’ve also learned that ‘I can do it! I can study at university!’ For many people starting off their learning, the fact that they can do it when they had always thought that learning was beyond them is the biggest thing they learn.

Researcher’s experience: Mark Fenton-O’Creevy tells an interesting story.

‘My first degree was in pure mathematics and I learned a great deal about linear analysis, topological spaces and other esoteric subjects. However, I also learned problems come well-defined and neatly packaged and that there are clear-cut, right or wrong answers. As I’ve done more work in the field of management, I’ve had to ‘unlearn’ much of my learning from my first degree! Often diagnosing the problem is the hard part and most answers are partial or at best “good enough”.’

Not all learning is always helpful learning, as Mark points out. In changing my question from ‘subjects you’ve covered’ to ‘learning’, I’ve offered space for more personal, subjective details to inform an answer.

The second important word that I’ve used is ‘significant’. First, this word asks the respondent to evaluate their learning. I’m not just asking for a list of topics now; I’m asking for your judgement as to what is making a difference, what is becoming important to you. So perhaps you answered my second question by writing: ‘The most significant thing I’ve learned about business is the importance of people.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that has featured in many answers, but it begs a set of other questions, doesn’t it? How have you learned that? Why is it important? What are the implications for you of the learning? Can you give any examples of ‘the importance of people’ in your own working life? These are called supplementary questions and they are crucial to building up a successful semi- or unstructured interview.