What is it?
If an interview is carried out as a semi-structured interview, it means using loosely composed questions and a loose overall structure. Your questions can even just be topics you wish to discuss in the interview. There is time to develop the informants’ ideas while they speak. Therefore the method is an effective tool to uncover different aspects of a challenge. It is also suitable for gathering deep-rooted knowledge about the informants’ feelings and values.
Semi-structured interviews are useful for examining your assumptions or gathering new knowledge about the informants’ beliefs and values. It is important to remember that your informants are the people who hold the insights you need. So you need to manage the time frame for the interview while letting the informants speak freely. The method of semi-structured interviews can be combined with questionnaires and one or several forms of prototyping.
How is it done?
Limit the challenge to one field of inquiry
You begin by finding out exactly what you want to know something about.
Think outside the challenge, turn it over and flip it around
Different ways of contextualizing the challenge may give you new ideas for ways to solve it. It is important to stay open to new patterns of thought.
Break down the field of enquiry into the subjects, which the challenge touches upon
By breaking down the field of enquiry it is possible to keep the interview guide progressively structured and effectively carried out.
Compose 1 or 2 main questions for each subject
It is a good idea to have these questions as they can help you stay within your field of inquiry. They are also good if the interview is coming to a standstill and you need to get the informant going again.
Compose the interview guide
The interview guide is not a long list of questions. It is rather a list of topics with relevance to the field of inquiry. It invites open-ended stories from the informants. It is an associative mode of interview, which works well when you want to uncover experiences or beliefs and values.
Find your informants
A good starting point is to find 3-5 informants. Take both the users of your products or service, your employees, experts, business partners or others with relevant insight into account. As a general rule, you should always find the relevant informants vis-a-vis your specific situation.
Set up the interviews
Semi-structured interviews can be carried out in different settings depending on the situation and the logistical needs of both the informant and you. They are, however, conducted most effectively in calm surroundings e.g. with a cup of coffee.
Conduct the interviews
The interviewer should be interested, empathic and polite during the interview. Make sure you are thorough and don’t worry about moving outside the scope of the interview guide. The conversation can easily steer off in unforeseen directions and you should preferably talk about too much rather than too little. It is, however, the job of the interviewer to stay within the time frame and keep the general focus of the interview in mind. It is a good idea to record the interview on a recorder or a camera. This will also be an aid when analyzing the interview. An interview usually takes around 1 Ã 1½ hour and don’t be afraid of silence along the way. Informants might need to think about what they are saying.
Analyze the material
If the interview is recorded you can transcribe it partially or completely on a computer. It is always a good idea to write down the most important points during the interview and immediately afterwards.
Find the main points from the material
Think back from the challenge and read or listen to the interview. Find the places where the informants are talking about something with relevance for the challenge. Since even small comments and half sentences can be important, it is important to be thorough. Informants will often have a very precise way of framing, what they see as the challenge so direct quotes are useful.
What does it take?
The method can be conducted over 1-4 days depending on the amount of informants.
- Loosely composed interview guides for conducting the interviews. These can be printed or handwritten copies.
- A recorder or a camera for documenting the interviews.
- A whiteboard for gaining a general view while composing the interview guide and for comparing the interviews.
The method demands 1-4 employees. They don’t necessarily need to have any specific skills but the method is furthered by an empathic and attentive approach towards the informants and a knack for writing things down quickly and thoroughly.
Corinne works in a small art gallery, which mainly shows pieces from local artists. Despite an increasing amount of visitors to the city, the art gallery hasn’t had more visitors than usually. Corinne suggests using semi-structured interviews to find out why.
Corinne and her supervisor discuss the city’s new visitors and the interior decoration and physical placement of the gallery in the city. They also think about the admission price and the advertisement of the gallery. They formulate 2-4 questions within each topic and compose an interview guide from them.
They identify informants who know something about the challenge and set up interviews in the gallery. As informants they find the manager of the cafe across the street from the gallery, one of the ticket vendors in the gallery, and a tourist who has been to the cafe. During the interviews Corinne and her supervisor keep the atmosphere friendly and cozy so the informants feel comfortable in the situation. They also record the interviews on a recorder so they can go through them afterwards.
Having concluded the interviews, Corinne writes down the main points. Apparently the manager of the cafe has wondered why the gallery and the cafe don’t have a kind of business cooperation. The ticket vendor doesn’t seem to think that they have decorated the gallery in an inviting manner. The tourist claims to never have heard about the art gallery. He has, however, visited the cafe on several occasions while he has been in town. Corinne compares their views and presents them to her supervisor.
They realize that new tourists don’t know of the gallery because the location doesn’t invite chance visits. As a result they make a deal with the cafe across the street that they advertise the shows at the gallery. In exchange a ticket to the gallery grants a free cup of coffee at the cafe.
Through the semi-structured interviews, Corinne identified a challenge and acted to change the situation.
More on the method
Further readings on structures interviews:
Spradley, James (1972) – The Ethnographic Interview – United States: Wadsworth Group
O’Reilly, Karen (2004) – Ethnographic Methods