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What is a semi-structured interview?

Last updated

5 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

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User interviews are among the top research practices in user experience (UX) design and it’s not hard to see why. Conducting a one-to-one conversation can provide plenty of valuable insights into the consumer's attitudes and behavior.

When designed correctly, user interviews go much deeper than surface-level survey responses. They can provide new information about how people interact with your products and services, and shed light on the underlying reasons behind these habits.

Semi-structured user interviews are widely considered one of the most effective tools for doing this kind of qualitative research, depending on your specific goals. As the name suggests, the semi-structured format allows for a more natural, conversational flow, while still being organized enough to collect plenty of actionable data.

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What is a semi-structured interview?

A semi-structured interview is a qualitative research method used to gain an in-depth understanding of the respondent's feelings and beliefs on specific topics. As the interviewer prepares the questions ahead of time, they can adjust the order, skip any that are redundant, or create new ones. Additionally, the interviewer should be prepared to ask follow-up questions and probe for more detail.

Semi-structured interviews typically last between 30 and 60 minutes and are usually conducted either in person or via a video call. Ideally, the interviewer can observe the participant's verbal and non-verbal cues in real-time, allowing them to adjust their approach accordingly. The interviewer aims for a conversational flow that helps the participant talk openly while still focusing on the primary topics being researched.

Once the interview is over, the researcher analyzes the data in detail to draw meaningful results. This involves sorting the data into categories and looking for patterns and trends. This semi-structured interview approach provides an ideal framework for obtaining open-ended data and insights.

When to use a semi-structured interview?

Semi-structured interviews are considered the "best of both worlds" as they tap into the strengths of structured and unstructured methods. Researchers can gather reliable data while also getting unexpected insights from in-depth user feedback.

Semi-structured interviews can be useful during any stage of the UX product-development process, including exploratory research to better understand a new market or service. Further down the line, this approach is ideal for refining existing designs and discovering areas for improvement. Semi-structured interviews can even be the first step when planning future research projects using another method of data collection.

Advantages of semi-structured interviews


This style of interview is meant to be adapted according to the answers and reactions of the respondent, which gives a lot of flexibility. Semi-structured interviews encourage two-way communication, allowing themes and ideas to emerge organically.

Respondent comfort

The semi-structured format feels more natural and casual for participants than a formal interview. This can help to build rapport and more meaningful dialogue.

Rich data

Semi-structured interviews are excellent for user experience research because they provide rich, qualitative data about how people really experience your products and services.

Open-ended questions allow the respondent to provide nuanced answers, with the potential for more valuable insights than other forms of data collection, like structured interviews, surveys, or questionnaires.

Disadvantages of semi-structured interviews

Can be unpredictable

Less structure brings less control, especially if the respondent goes off tangent or doesn't provide useful information. If the conversation derails, it can take a lot of effort to bring the focus back to the relevant topics.

Lack of standardization

Every semi-structured interview is unique, including potentially different questions, so the responses collected are very subjective. This can make it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from the data unless your team invests the time in a comprehensive analysis.

Compared to other research methods, unstructured interviews are not as consistent or "ready to use."

Best practices when preparing for a semi-structured interview

While semi-structured interviews provide a lot of flexibility, they still require thoughtful planning. Maximizing the potential of this research method will depend on having clear goals that help you narrow the focus of the interviews and keep each session on track.

After taking the time to specify these parameters, create an interview guide to serve as a framework for each conversation. This involves crafting a range of questions that can explore the necessary themes and steer the conversation in the right direction. Everything in your interview guide is optional (that's the beauty of being "semi" structured), but it's still an essential tool to help the conversation flow and collect useful data.

Best practices to consider while designing your interview questions include:

Prioritize open-ended questions

Promote a more interactive, meaningful dialogue by avoiding questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no, otherwise known as close-ended questions.

Stick with "what," "when," "who," "where," "why," and "how" questions, which allow the participant to go beyond the superficial to express their ideas and opinions. This approach also helps avoid jargon and needless complexity in your questions.

Open-ended questions help the interviewer uncover richer, qualitative details, which they can build on to get even more valuable insights.

Plan some follow-up questions

When preparing questions for the interview guide, consider the responses you're likely to get and pair them up with some effective, relevant follow-up questions. Factual questions should be followed by ones that ask an opinion.

Planning potential follow-up questions will help you to get the most out of a semi-structured interview. They allow you to delve deeper into the participant's responses or hone in on the most important themes of your research focus.

Follow-up questions are also invaluable when the interviewer feels stuck and needs a meaningful prompt to continue the conversation.

Avoid leading questions

Leading questions are framed toward a predetermined answer. This makes them likely to result in data that is biased, inaccurate, or otherwise unreliable.

For example, asking "Why do you think our services are a good solution?" or "How satisfied have you been with our services?" will leave the interviewee feeling pressured to agree with some baseline assumptions.

Interviewers must take the time to evaluate their questions and make a conscious effort to remove any potential bias that could get in the way of authentic feedback.

Asking neutral questions is key to encouraging honest responses in a semi-structured interview. For example, "What do you consider to be the advantages of using our services?" or simply "What has been your experience with using our services?"

Neutral questions are effective in capturing a broader range of opinions than closed questions, which is ultimately one of the biggest benefits of using semi-structured interviews for research.

Use the critical incident method

The critical incident method is an approach to interviewing that focuses on the past behavior of respondents, as opposed to hypothetical scenarios. One of the challenges of all interview research methods is that people are not great at accurately recalling past experiences, or answering future-facing, abstract questions.

The critical incident method helps avoid these limitations by asking participants to recall extreme situations or 'critical incidents' which stand out in their memory as either particularly positive or negative. Extreme situations are more vivid so they can be recalled more accurately, potentially providing more meaningful insights into the interviewee’s experience with your products or services.

Best practices while conducting semi-structured interviews

Encouraging interaction is the key to collecting more specific data than is typically possible during a formal interview. Facilitating an effective semi-structured interview is a balancing act between asking prepared questions and creating the space for organic conversation. Here are some guidelines for striking the right tone.

Beginning the interview

Make participants feel comfortable by introducing yourself and your role at the organization and displaying appropriate body language.

Outline the purpose of the interview to give them an idea of what to expect. For example, explain that you want to learn more about how people use your product or service.

It's also important to thank them for their time in advance and emphasize there are no right or wrong answers.

Practice active listening

Build trust and rapport throughout the interview with active listening techniques, focusing on being present and demonstrating that you're paying attention by responding thoughtfully. Engage with the participant by making eye contact, nodding, and giving verbal cues like "Okay, I see," "I understand," and "M-hm."

Avoid the temptation to rush to fill any silences while they're in the middle of responding, even if it feels awkward. Give them time to finish their train of thought before interrupting with feedback or another prompt. Embracing these silences is essential for active listening because it's a sign of a productive interview with meaningful, candid responses.

Practicing these techniques will ensure the respondent feels heard and respected, which is critical for gathering high-quality information.

Ask clarifying questions in real time

In a semi-structured interview, the researcher should always be on the lookout for opportunities to probe into the participant's thoughts and opinions.

Along with preparing follow-up questions, get in the habit of asking clarifying questions whenever possible. Clarifying questions are especially important for user interviews because people often provide vague responses when discussing how they interact with products and services.

Being asked to go deeper will encourage them to give more detail and show them you’re taking their opinions seriously and are genuinely interested in understanding their experiences.

Some clarifying questions that can be asked in real-time include:

  • "That's interesting. Could you give me some examples of X?"

  • "What do you mean when you say "X"?"

  • "Why is that?"

  • "It sounds like you're saying [rephrase their response], is that correct?"

Minimize note-taking

In a wide-ranging conversation, it's easy to miss out on potentially valuable insights by not staying focused on the user. This is why semi-structured interviews are generally recorded (audio or video), and it's common to have a second researcher present to take notes.

The person conducting the interview should avoid taking notes because it's a distraction from:

  • Keeping track of the conversation

  • Engaging with the user

  • Asking thought-provoking questions

Watching you take notes can also have the unintended effect of making the participant feel pressured to give shallower, shorter responses—the opposite of what you want.

Concluding the interview

Semi-structured interviews don't come with a set number of questions, so it can be tricky to bring them to an end. Give the participant a sense of closure by asking whether they have anything to add before wrapping up, or if they want to ask you any questions, and then give sincere thanks for providing honest feedback.

Don't stop abruptly once all the relevant topics have been discussed or you're nearing the end of the time that was set aside. Make them feel appreciated!

Analyzing the data from semi-structured interviews

In some ways, the real work of semi-structured interviews begins after all the conversations are over, and it's time to analyze the data you've collected. This process will focus on sorting and coding each interview to identify patterns, often using a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods.

Some of the strategies for making sense of semi-structured interviews include:

  • Thematic analysis: focuses on the content of the interviews and identifying common themes

  • Discourse analysis: looks at how people express feelings about themes such as those involving politics, culture, and power

  • Qualitative data mapping: a visual way to map out the correlations between different elements of the data

  • Narrative analysis: uses stories and language to unlock perspectives on an issue

  • Grounded theory: can be applied when there is no existing theory that could explain a new phenomenon

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