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GuidesResearch methodsA quick guide to unstructured interviews

A quick guide to unstructured interviews

Last updated

7 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Interviews are an incredibly valuable research tool for gathering information — but did you know that different interview styles and question types can result in different participant insights?

Unstructured interviews are a popular research tool used by teams looking to take an exploratory and open approach to collect information about their target audience and customers. Offering an informal but personal interview experience, unstructured interviews have plenty of benefits (provided that they are conducted correctly, of course).

If your team wants to gain valuable qualitative data about your customers, unstructured interviews are a great avenue to explore. In this quick guide, learn the essential components of high-quality unstructured interviews — covering what you need to know about this exciting and exploratory research tool.

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What is an unstructured interview?

An unstructured interview is one of the available interviewing styles for collecting data from your target audience. Depending on the type of information that you are looking to gain during this process, there are three primary interview styles worth considering:

Structured interviews

A structured interview is the most restrictive style of interview. Before a structured interview, the interviewer will create a set list of questions that will be asked in sequential order throughout the conversation with a participant. In most cases, straying from this set list of questions is not encouraged during a structured interview, as the goal is to collect answers to the specific set of questions. 

Structured interviews are a great option for larger-scale, short interviews designed to get answers to closed-ended and straightforward questions about your brand and your customer’s experience. Often, structured interviews are used when you must conduct a statistical analysis of your responses. To do so requires that you have data that can be easily categorized and quantified.

Unstructured interviews

Unstructured interviews take a more informal and flexible approach to collecting data and learning about your target audience. Relying heavily on open-ended questions, the goal of unstructured interviews is to allow the conversation to flow in whatever direction the interviewee chooses, allowing for more profound, qualitative research. 

Generally speaking, interviewers do not have a list of questions going into unstructured interviews. Instead, they are more focused on listening and learning from the interviewee as they speak to gain valuable insights.

Semi-structured interviews

Acting as a blend of the two above-mentioned interview methods, a semi-structured interview is conducted with styles borrowed from both structured and unstructured interviews. When planning a semi-structured interview, the interviewer may write out a few guiding questions (possibly as a bullet point list to act as a map or guide for the conversation). 

Throughout the interview, the goal is to gain answers to the set questions, but the interviewer is also empowered to ask additional questions and explore topics not previously set as part of their plan. 

The pros and cons of unstructured interviews

Like any other research tool, choosing to use an unstructured interview to collect valuable information comes with advantages and drawbacks:

Advantages of unstructured interviews

  • Unstructured interviews are flexible — Without a set list of questions to get through, unstructured interviews offer the opportunity to build rapport with the interviewee while they share their story. Because the interviewer can adjust their plan as the interview unfolds, unstructured interviews allow for increased exploration and curiosity, no matter what direction the conversation takes.

  • Unstructured interviews feel more natural — At its fundamental core, an unstructured interview is a conversation between the interviewer and interviewee. As the two participants get to know each other, the natural and comfortable feeling of this type of interview allows for more in-depth insights and increased trust throughout.

  • Unstructured interviews allow for detailed and accurate responses — Without strict limitations and mandatory questions, unstructured interviews allow the interviewer to ask for clarification on any answer provided by the interviewee. By asking additional questions, your team can be more confident that they will avoid misinterpreting the answers of your participants.

Disadvantages of unstructured interviews

  • Unstructured interviews are resource-consuming — Without the set question list of a structured interview, unstructured interviews often come with a bigger investment, both financially and in terms of time. Depending on the number of participants you plan to interview, unstructured interviews can be a resource-expensive option for collecting customer data.

  • Unstructured interviews can be biased — As the interviewer conducts the conversation, they can ask leading questions that introduce their own personal bias. If this isn’t caught early during the interview, it is possible for the interviewee to provide less accurate information, which can influence the final results of your study.

  • Unstructured interview data is more difficult to analyze — In most cases, the data collected from unstructured interviews is anecdotal experiences and opinions. As a result, analyzing and interpreting the data from a group of interviews poses a more significant challenge than simple, closed-ended questions.

The best types of questions for unstructured interviews

While unstructured interviews do not come with a set list of questions to ask, there are specific types of questions that help to facilitate a natural flow of conversation. Most often, unstructured interviews use open-ended questions rather than closed-ended or multiple-choice options. 

Examples of productive questions to use during your unstructured interview include:

Introducing questions

Introducing questions are most commonly used during the early stages of the interview. They offer a starting point for your interviewee and help to build rapport and set the tone for the interview. 

Introducing questions often start with wording such as:

  • When was the last time you experienced…?

  • Can you tell me about…?

  • How do you feel about…?

Probing questions

Once you have reached the entry-level narrative with your interviewee, probing questions are used to dig deeper into their experience. The goal of probing questions is to get more information about their feelings or thoughts regarding a specific situation. 

Probing questions often begin with:

  • Do you have another example of …?

  • Could you share more about…?

  • What was it like/how did you feel when…?

Interpreting questions

Interpreting questions are used to clarify or rephrase an answer from your interviewee to solidify your understanding. This should be done to ensure that your team is clear on the meaning of your participant’s responses. 

Examples of interpreting questions include:

  • Am I correct in saying that you felt…?

  • When you say …, what does that mean to you?

  • Can we dig deeper into the meaning of…?

Process questions

Oftentimes during job or user interviews, interviewers would like to understand the process and steps someone took to complete actions in their career or with a particular product. The goal is to understand what situations people encountered and how they solved a particular problem. 

  • Can you walk me through your resume? 

  • Will you walk me through how you would use this product? 

Your guide to running a successful unstructured interview

If you and your team are looking to collect some qualitative research using unstructured interviews, here is our step-by-step guide to ensure you get the most out of your efforts:

  1. Set your interview goals — Define the research question and type of information you want to collect to help guide your questions as the interview naturally progresses.

  2. Find your target audience — Narrow down your target audience. Because unstructured interviews take up more financial and personal resources, ensuring you target the right participants is necessary for success.

  3. Schedule time with participants — Once you have volunteers ready to interview, be sure to schedule appropriate time slots to get a natural conversation going. Ideally, 30-minute interviews are a great length to gain helpful insights without over-extending the process.

  4. Organize a flow for your interview — Before your interview, make sure you review the types of questions that work best. Knowing the types of questions you want to ask will be a great help if you get stuck, reducing awkward pauses and discomfort. 

  5. Ask questions and listen — During the interview, after you establish rapport, your job is to listen and encourage. Taking notes and recording your participants' answers are essential for collecting valuable information. Be sure to allow your participant to speak freely on the topic, offering gentle nudges and asking questions only as needed.

  6. Allow yourself to explore and be curious — If your participants say something that you want to be clarified, ask them to elaborate. These conversations that dig deeper into their stories and underlying feelings are where the good bits are, so be sure not to shy away from asking deeper questions. 

How to analyze the success of your unstructured interview

Once the data is collected from running your unstructured interviews, the fun has only just begun. From your coded and organized interview transcripts, you now get to take the time to analyze your results — looking for patterns, shared experiences, and any other helpful insights that may appear.

To dig deeper into your collected information, qualitative data analysis software can be incredibly beneficial. As a resource designed to help companies put their customers first, it ensures that you get the most out of the data you worked so hard to collect. 

After thorough analysis, your team will be ready to share their findings. This is the final step in the unstructured interview process, sharing the results and insights that will be used to improve your services and products or act as a guiding light for brand redesigns.

Whether you present your findings to a small team in your department or share these insights as feedback to key stakeholders in your business, you will be able to provide the results requested if you follow this quick step-by-step guide.

We hope you find this resource useful and encouraging as you start your next ambitious custom research project — we know you are going to crush it!

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