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Conversations and interviews
Conversations and interviews

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1.2.3 How do you know which type of interview to use?

In Table 1 below, I have summarised the main benefits of and problems with the different types of interview. As I’ve mentioned before there isn’t a right way of interviewing and you will find yourself choosing to question people in a more or less structured manner; it won’t always be a case of one or the other style. Anyway, here are some brief outlines of why you might choose one of the three types.

Table 1 Benefits of and problems with different types of interview
Interview TypeBenefitsProblems
Structuredhelps keep a consistency when you are interviewing several different people about the same issuestructure gets in the way of an organic interview; does not enable you to change your questions in tune with an emerging conversation, or follow up interesting themes, issues or inconsistencies
can be used to contrast responses from people in different groupsstructures the interview from your perspective rather than the respondent’s
questions can be designed before an interview, so that your wording can be made clear
you can pilot your questions beforehand, so that you can see if they work
whilst more care, and time, is needed in setting these interviews up, making sense of what’s been said is easier
Unstructuredgives more scope for the respondent to ‘structure’ the interviewinterviews can go off the topic you want to discuss
gives more opportunity for issues that are new to you to be discussedinterpreting the interview can often be time consuming
allows you to get a feel for how your respondent might work with your proposed changesperhaps easier for experienced interviewers
gives more opportunity to explore apparent inconsistencies, either within the interview itself or with information you have gathered from other sources
Semi-structuredcan give some of the benefits of both structured and unstructuredsemi-structured interviews won’t save you either from being too restrictive in your questions or from respondents who ignore your concerns and talk about their own issues!
possibly a good compromise for those new to conducting interviews

Reasons that you might choose to conduct a more structured interview

If you’ve never conducted an interview before, you might well want to have your questions set out in front of you so that you don’t forget an important question. In addition to settling your nerves it might also help you plan the questions and word them in a way that doesn’t confuse people. Asking questions is a skilled job and it does take time to build your confidence; experience will help you feel at ease in reading interview situations and asking good questions with less preparation. So be prepared to learn on the job, so to speak. It might well be worth practising with friends, especially if you’re about to interview your boss. And that point makes me think that maybe you should be careful about who to interview first!

There are other important reasons for asking your questions in a more structured way. For example, if you want to compare perceptions across different groups of people then you need to make sure that you ask them exactly the same questions. This will ensure that any differences are due to differences in the people you asked, not variation in your questions. In the same way, the more important it is that you build up a ‘true’ picture of a situation, the more important it is that you ask all your respondents the same questions. Consequently the quality of the questions becomes more important which, in turn, will mean that you need to prepare those questions more carefully.

Structured interviews are not without their problems. For example, they restrict your potential for following up an interesting point made by your respondent. Additionally, they can restrict your flexibility to change direction in an interview should that become necessary. Following a fixed set of questions can also make it very difficult to create a sense of conversation that may help to open up interesting themes of inquiry.

Reasons you might choose to conduct a less structured interview

There are three major reasons behind the choice of unstructured interview methods. First, an unstructured interview gives you far greater flexibility to follow themes that emerge during the interview. There are occasions when your respondent says something that is really interesting which you want to follow up with supplementary questions. A second reason for conducting unstructured interviews is that they give greater scope for the respondents to set the agenda for what is discussed. Obviously, the interviewer will have an overview of the general topic to be discussed, but there are always several perspectives from which a topic can be viewed. On occasions it can be important to let the respondent, rather than the interviewer, set that perspective for the discussion. This is because you may very well want to see how different people approach the same general topic; those differences are part of your inquiry.

A final reason for using a more unstructured approach is particular to a practice-centred inquiry. Often in conducting an interview you will not only be seeking out information but will also want to get a feel for how your respondent will co-ordinate with your intended new way of working. In such circumstances, giving space for your respondent to set an agenda will enable you to hear more of what is important to them and so attune your future actions to their values and opinions. Additionally, unstructured interviews give you, as the interviewer, greater scope to change your questions and inputs in tune with an emerging conversation. So you can test your new ideas or respond to a challenge or encouragement.

The problems with unstructured interviews include the danger of your respondents heading off into irrelevant topics. There is also a problem that as an unstructured interview goes on, it can be very difficult to fit in a particular question that you want to ask. Indeed, on occasions, I have got so interested in what my respondent was telling me that I forgot to bring up some of the issues on my list! A third problem with unstructured interviews is that it is very difficult to compare one person’s answer with another’s, for it might be that the reason that they didn’t talk about a topic is not to do with them considering it unimportant, but because the interview didn’t go that way.

So which ...?

Well, as I’ve said more than once, there is no right way of interviewing and neither are the different types of interview necessarily exclusive. I suspect that many reading this book will tend to go for a semistructured interview where you have a schedule of topics to discuss but where you can allow different interviews to develop in different ways. Certainly, if you are new to interviewing, then that would seem a wise way forward. As you build experience, so you may become more relaxed about how detailed to make your schedule of questions. Having said that, there are times when a structured approach to interviewing is more appropriate and when the benefits of that approach outweigh the benefits of flexibility in an unstructured interview. As you decide, keep in mind the objective that you’ve set for the interview: the purpose for which you want the information.