GuidesResearch methodsTop interview methods for research

Top interview methods for research

Last updated

12 April 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Interviews are one of the most effective ways to gather people's opinions. To get the most out of this research method, it helps to be familiar with the different techniques and their benefits. Let’s dive in.

What is the interview method?

An interview is one of the best methods for gathering qualitative research. 

In contrast to quantitative data collection methods, interviews allow researchers to access the minds and emotions of subjects, getting more detailed and nuanced information. 

While methods such as surveys and polls are useful for learning people's opinions, interviews delve deeper into:

  • Feelings: People may have feelings about something you can't easily quantify.

  • Reasons: An interviewee can explain their answer rather than checking a yes/no box. 

  • Ambiguity: Sometimes, people have mixed feelings about a product, feature, or option.

  • Experience: In an interview, people reveal their unique backgrounds and life experience.

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Essential factors for interviews

These are critical factors to consider before conducting interviews:

Find appropriate subjects

Who you choose as interviewees will have a major impact on your results. Consider the demographics and characteristics of your subjects. 

Do you need a random sampling of opinions? 

For some uses, you need to narrow it down to people with certain characteristics. If you're asking people to compare experiences playing two computer games, you'd likely want subjects familiar with gaming.

Formulate questions

The questions you ask and how you phrase them will affect the responses. Leading, loaded, biased, or unclear questions will distort results.

Select an interview format

You can conduct interviews in person, by phone, or online (via email, video conferencing, or a chatting app). While in-person interviews are ideal for getting thorough and honest answers, they can be costlier and more time-consuming.

What are the main types of interview? 

The following are seven of the most effective and widely used interview methods for research.

1. Focus groups

Companies often use focus groups to test consumers' reactions to products. A focus group usually consists of interviewing 8–12 people together. These informal sessions are more like conversations than formal interviews. 

The advantages of focus groups include:

  • You can garner a lot of feedback from multiple participants in one session.

  • Interviewing people in groups is simpler than arranging one-on-one interviews.

  • In a group setting, people often let their guard down and reveal their true feelings. 

On the downside, more extroverted and aggressive participants may dominate the discussion, while shy people may be reluctant to speak up.

A group setting also requires skilled interviewers who keep the discussion on point. While the setting is usually informal, the session needs to stay on-topic.

2. Structured interview

A structured interview is usually a one-on-one discussion between interviewer and interviewee. 

Structured interviews are at the other end of the formality spectrum from focus groups. Rather than a flowing conversation, this type of interview involves a series of discrete questions. 

A job interview is a common example of a structured interview. Police and law enforcement agencies also employ this technique when questioning suspects or witnesses. 

Advantages of this approach include: 

  • The interview is very focused and efficient, with less room for digressions and biases.

  • Each interviewee answers identical questions, so the results are clear and easier to interpret than in a less structured interview. 

On the other hand, the formal atmosphere of a structured interview may put interviewees on guard, making them less likely to provide authentic answers. 

Some interviewees are inclined to provide the answers they think the interviewer wants, which is the social desirability bias.

While the standardized approach is useful in some ways, there are advantages to observing people's reactions when they are engaging more spontaneously. 

3. Unstructured interview

An unstructured or non-directive interview is where questions are open-ended and informal. 

In contrast to a structured interview, the interviewer does not have a predetermined list of questions. This creates a more conversational tone and relaxed atmosphere.

Unstructured interviews essentially have the reverse pros and cons of structured interviews.  

The advantage is that interviewees are more relaxed and likely to provide honest and spontaneous answers. On the downside, the informality of unstructured interviews makes it more challenging to analyze results systematically. 

Since the questions are likely to differ from one interview to the next, there will be a wider range of possible responses. This means it takes more time to analyze the results. 

4. Semi-structured interview

As the name suggests, a semi-structured interview lies between a structured and unstructured format. 

The interviewer doesn’t have a strict list of questions to ask in a predetermined order. Instead, a general framework gives the interview some structure. 

A semi-structured interview can combine some of the benefits of structured and unstructured interviews. The format is controlled enough to provide some structure but informal enough to keep the conversation casual and interviewees at ease. 

The disadvantages of this approach are similar to those of unstructured interviews to a lesser degree. Compared to a structured interview, it can be difficult to compare interviewee responses with precision. 

5. Personal interview

A personal interview is an in-person, one-on-one conversation between the interviewer and interviewee. Personal interviews can also be structured, unstructured, or semi-structured. 

Unlike a focus group, there are no distracting influences from other group members. The interviewee can place all of their attention on one person, allowing for in-depth communication.

The main drawback of personal interviews is the time and expense of arranging in-person sessions with each interviewee.

6. Phone interviews

The phone interview is another time-honored practice that's been around almost as long as telephones. The basic idea hasn't changed much over the years. 

In this age of digital technology and big data, it's possible to locate and screen potential interview candidates more precisely.

Advantages of phone interviews include:

  • The convenience for researchers and interviewees

  • The ability to tailor them to structured, unstructured, or semi-structured formats

  • Saving time and money

  • You can talk to multiple subjects on the phone in a short period. 

  • People who may be reluctant to take the time to attend a live session are more likely to agree to a phone interview at their convenience. 

Despite their convenience, phone interviews don't provide researchers with quite the same benefits as live sessions. Disadvantages include:

  • Being unable to observe body language and facial expressions

  • Many people are distracted while on the phone

Respondents may be multitasking while on the phone, so you may be interviewing someone who’s cleaning the house, watching TV, or scrolling through social media. In person, you have a better chance of getting the interviewee's full attention. 

7. Online interview

Online interviews provide some of the benefits of phone interviews with some additional possibilities. 

Online interviews fall into two general categories: Asynchronous and synchronous. 

Typically, you’ll conduct asynchronous interviews via email. This includes one-on-one interviews, where interviewees respond to individual emails. There are also group interviews with group emails.

Synchronous interviews are real-time, using chat programs or video conferencing software. 

Video interviews provide many of the advantages of live interviews along with the convenience of phone interviews, including: 

  • Video interviews put the user in their natural, most comfortable environments.

  • Researchers can observe interviewees’ facial expressions and body language.

  • People are less likely to be distracted or multitasking while talking into a camera. 

One potential drawback of online interviews is that they require interviewees to use a certain technology. This may exclude participants who are older, less tech-savvy, or without access to the appropriate technology. 

What type of interview is the best?

You need to consider your needs and budget when determining the best interview method for your research. 

Generally, focus groups and other in-person interviews in the user’s most authentic environment are best. They allow for the most depth and quality of communication. However, this is not always possible due to time and financial limits.

How to conduct interviews in research

Follow these steps for conducting interviews:

Choose your interview method

When comparing interview formats, consider several criteria:

The type of research

The more complex the topic, the more advantageous it is to conduct in-person interviews. 

For example, determining whether a user uses a product is much less complex than understanding exactly how and when they use it.

The population you're studying

When selecting an interview method, consider if that method favors or excludes participants. 

Your budget

Phone or online interviews are a good choice if you have a limited budget, as you won’t need to secure a physical interview space.

Time constraints

In-person interviews are considerably more time-consuming than online or phone interviews.

Develop interview questions and process

The questions you ask and how you phrase them can greatly impact responses. For example, you can ask similar questions using informal language or industry jargon. You also need to avoid leading questions. 

Facilitate the interview

Whether you conduct interviews in person, by phone, or online, you must select interviewees and set up times and locations. 

When arranging interviews, ensure participants know how much of their time you’ll need. 

Analyze your results

Analyzing the results of interviews consists of several steps:

  • Gather recordings of the interviews.

  • Transcribe the interviews:

    • If responses were via email, you'll already have the transcriptions

    • Otherwise, you can use AI tools to transcribe the interviews

  • Identify themes and categories, including: 

    • Common reactions to questions

    • Reasons given for answers

    • Any reluctance to answer certain questions

  • Identify possible biases or limitations:

    • Interviewees may not represent a broad enough population

    • Leading questions may encourage or exclude certain answers

Tips for conducting interviews

Keep these guidelines in mind when using interviews for research:

Choose the right interview setting

For in-person interviews, be mindful of the setting. The best environment is neutral without distractions, and interviewees should feel comfortable. Ensure comfortable seating, adequate lighting, and an appropriate temperature.

Be mindful of researcher bias

Bias can intrude on research in several ways, including: 

  • In the formulation of questions

  • How you ask questions (e.g., your tone of voice)

  • In the interpretation of data

You can minimize this by taking appropriate precautions. 

The most common types of researcher bias include:

Selection bias

You exclude part of the target population from the research. 

Analysis bias

Researchers may emphasize data that confirms their beliefs.

Interviewer bias

The way you ask a question or your attitude can influence the response. 

Here’s an example:

"How often do you engage in unhealthy habits?" 

The negative connotations of "unhealthy" may influence the interviewee to understate how often they actually engage in the behavior.

Response bias

Researchers need to be aware of bias on the part of interviewees. People may answer questions based on what they think is the right or socially acceptable answer.

Sometimes interviewees can go silent or not speak their minds enough. You can use several techniques to try to get the information from a participant:

  • Remind them to “think aloud.

  • More timid participants may need extra encouragement: Humor can bring down walls.

  • Playing dumb about specifics can boost confidence in quieter participants.

  • Silence is a powerful tool—it can open up even the most difficult subjects.

Advantages and disadvantages of interviews

Here are some pros and cons of interviews as a research method:

Advantages

  • Good for qualitative research, producing more than simple answers from surveys 

  • In-person and video interviews provide non-verbal clues about how interviewees feel.

Disadvantages

  • Interviews are a costly, time-consuming research method.

  • Lack of anonymity may cause respondents to be less honest on sensitive topics.

  • Personal interaction can trigger interviewers’ and interviewees’ biases. 

Interviews are a valuable research tool

Interviews are extremely helpful for qualitative research, providing in-depth insights into people's opinions and experiences. Take the time to identify the most appropriate subjects to interview and questions to ask them to get the best results from interviews. It's also critical to account for and minimize biases. 

You can use phone or online interviews if you have time or budget constraints. 

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