Structured, semi-structured, and unstructured user interviews: which to choose for your UX study?

There are three types of user interviews: structured, semi-structured, and unstructured. Let me explain the difference between the three types and suggest which type is best for UX research.

Three types of user interviews

Structured interviews consist of a set of questions prepared in advance. The interviewer uses only the list of predetermined questions and in particular order. Sometimes structured interviews may even provide options for the respondent to choose from. Thus, structured interviews can be classified as both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Semi-structured interviews also consist of questions prepared in advance, but not only. During semi-structured interviews, the interviewer can also ask extra questions based on previous answers. This deep-dive can lead to an interesting discussion or the respondent elaborating on something that is critical for the interviewer to know.

Unstructured interviews do not have questions prepared in advance. Usually, the interviewer will have one or several topics to cover and will lead an informal conversation about them. The questions will depend on the respondent’s thoughts.

Pros and cons of different types

The main advantages of having user interviews that are more structured are that they take less time (to conduct, to transcribe, to analyse) and make it very easy to compare answers between different respondents. Yet, their main disadvantage is that they are less flexible. Because of that, they provide limited data.

The main advantage of user interviews that are less structured or unstructured is that they provide deeper insights. However, they can take a lot of time, they are hard to analyse (the data you get is quite messy), they do not allow for comparisons (every interview is different), and they are hard to do. You will have to practice.

Which type to choose for your study

Consider everything mentioned before. It becomes clear that the best way to go almost always is to take something from both sides and conduct semi-structured interviews. You will win because:

  • This way, you will always have a list of questions to follow which is useful in making sure that you ask everything. Also, it helps if you are having a bad day or the respondent is not very talkative.
  • You will not limit yourself. You will still have an opportunity to ask additional questions, e.g. to elaborate about specific experiences.

The question is, how much structure is recommended in semi-structured interviews?

Naturally, you want to be explorative if you are starting out with your product or service, especially if you only have an idea of what you want to build. If this is the case, you can have less structure. Prepare several major questions in advance and focus more on building from what the respondents have to say.

If you are interviewing in later stages, and you already have a product or a service running (or at least a prototype), then you may want to introduce more structure. If this is the case, prepare more specific questions. But remember this. You do not have to limit yourself by following this structure fully. If the respondent mentions something of interest, go ahead and ask them more about it.

By clicking here, read my other article about how to prepare for user interviews.

Would you like to discuss this post? Tweet or share it, tag me, and I will gladly join the discussion!

@arnasaleks on Twitter, Arnas Aleksandravičius on LinkedIn

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Should we learn both qualitative and quantitative methods?

Most researchers have a stronger side: some are in love with numbers, others find their passion for texts, concepts, symbols, and interpretation. Sometimes the fondness for one and the contempt for the other is so strong that we start to ask ourselves: what if we only focus on the favourite and ignore the disliked?

It is true that you can have a good research career by focusing only on one side. There are tons of job ads supporting that statement. For example:

However, putting all your eggs in one basket would mean that you are limited. You may end up in a situation where you cannot design and execute the most suitable methodology because of your limited skills. If you aspire to become a great researcher—instead of a good researcher—this limitation is unacceptable.

In my opinion, there is only one truly great path. And my advice is to follow it.

Build your expertise in methods you are good at. Master them. However, do not completely ignore your weaker side.

Get familiar with methods that seem daunting now. Try to incorporate them into your approach to UX studies.

Triangulation (studying the same object with multiple methods) is crucial to verify that your findings are meaningful. Mixed-methods studies which involve both qualitative and quantitative research achieve more. They build on the strengths and eliminate the weaknesses of both qualitative and quantitative data. Together they answer both major questions: the what and the why.

You can have your favourites. We all do. But you will thrive as a researcher by denying yourself the comfort of being limited.

Would you like to discuss this post? Tweet or share it, tag me, and I will gladly join the discussion!

@arnasaleks on Twitter, Arnas Aleksandravičius on LinkedIn

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How to Prepare for Your First User Interview

The key to conducting interviews successfully is simple: preparation. You can take a shortcut sometimes if you are experienced and skilled, but nothing beats being prepared. In most cases, I would rather have a well-prepared newbie than a too-busy-to-prepare senior researcher conducting the user interview. There different types of user interviews, click here to learn more about them.

In this post, I lay out my suggestions on what you can do to prepare for your first interview. Continue reading to find out.

Understand the purpose

You can increase the chances of success significantly by reading documentation. Learn a lot about the product or service you will be discussing. Understand the purpose of the study you will be conducting.

This investment of time will let you feel confident. You will know what you are doing.

You need to be able to answer the following questions before the interview:

  • What is your research object? Define the product or service you are studying. You should be able to explain it to others clearly.
  • What do you need to find out about your research object? This question focuses on the major objectives of your study and aims to reveal why you are interviewing in the first place. The answer will largely depend on the development stage you are in.

Prepare the detailed interview guide

The interview guide is your safety net during the interview. You can always go back to it to make sure you are on the right track. If this is your first interview, I recommend that you have a very detailed interview guide, not just a questionnaire.

The first section of the interview guide is the introduction. Here you should write all the things you need to tell (and ask) your respondent before the study:

  • Introduce the respondent to the purpose and topic of this interview,
  • Explain how will you use the data obtained,
  • Indicate how long the interview is going to take (hopefully up to one hour),
  • Ensure trustworthiness: briefly describe your approach to anonymity, data safety and the possibility to quit at any time,
  • Ask for permission to record.

The second section of the interview guide is the questionnaire. Make sure to mark the distinction between main questions and follow-up questions. Use simple language and avoid Yes/No questions. Do not be afraid to ask the respondent to elaborate on some answers that are important to you.

The third section of the interview guide is additional comments. These comments should be visible in the margins of the interview guide. They indicate aspects that need your attention during the interview, e.g. when to click “Record” (you would hate to forget that!) or how much time you want to dedicate to each section.

The fourth section of the interview guide is the conclusion. It helps you find words to graciously wrap up the interview. Also, you can use this opportunity to:

  • inquire if the respondent would like to add something to what was already said;
  • request for permission to contact the respondent in the future;
  • answer the respondent’s questions;
  • thank the respondent.

Ensure the comfort of your respondent

The interview will be more successful if your respondent feels comfortable. This goes to both remote and face-to-face interviews. Here are three important aspects to have in mind:

  • You need to make sure that you and the respondent can find each other easily. In your email, provide clear instructions on how to connect: what app will be used, how to use it, and, of course, when to connect. Indicate if the app does not support specific devices or browsers. The same goes for face-to-face interviews: provide very clear instructions on how to arrive at the meeting place and explain where and when will you greet your respondent.
  • Be prepared that your behaviour can also make or break the interview. Try to show the respondent that you are listening: nod, comment with reassuring phrases like “OK, I understand”. Smile, keep frequent eye contact. Always wait until the respondent finishes a sentence, do not interrupt.
  • The surroundings are important, especially in a face-to-face setting. If you have a choice between a large professional-looking conference room and a cosy little room, I suggest you take the latter. Large rooms full of glass and devices are scary. Your respondent will provide an honest opinion only if he or she feels safe and comfortable.

Take care of yourself

While it is crucial that your respondent feels good during the interview, you should not forget yourself. Everyone is different so you know best what you need to feel good. My suggestions are the following:

  • Prepare for either notetaking or recording. There are two options: either you have a colleague who will be taking notes while you conduct the interview, or you record the interview. I hate taking notes during the interview if I am the only interviewer present. I need to focus on the respondent, not spend half the time with my nose in the notebook.
  • Have a bottle of water. Hopefully, the respondent will do the talking, but you can still get thirsty.
  • Don’t drink coffee before the interview. It can make your mouth dry, as well as be the cause of what is called a “coffee breath”.
  • Use the bathroom before the interview. Say what you want but I find this suggestion important.
  • Prepare yourself mentally. Breathe slowly and deeply. Users are good. In fact, most people are good. You can do this, just follow the guide and be genuine. By the way, your smile is beautiful!

A final observation

Conducting your first user interview can be scary. This task can seem super important to you now.

The truth is, one interview means very little. If it goes wrong, it is not the end of the world. Every researcher has experienced some unpleasant or even terrible interviews. You cannot think that an unsuccessful interview defines you as a researcher. No respondent is that important.

Would you like to discuss the post? Tweet or share it, tag me, and I will gladly join the discussion!

@arnasaleks on Twitter, Arnas Aleksandravičius on LinkedIn

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On Changing the World: The Siege of Tyre

The Siege of Tyre (332 BC) is a powerful piece of history. Whether you’re running a business, doing research or whatever, I hope it can be a source of inspiration and motivation.

The city of Tyre (modern-day Lebanon) was once an island city. It had a reputation of being impregnable because of its high fortress walls and a powerful navy.

During his famous campaigns, Alexander the Great needed to conquer the island as it was a stronghold of the Persian navy fleet. It was not an easy task. Negotiations with the Tyrians failed and attacking from the sea was very risky.

Therefore, Alexander decided to do something amazing: change the geography.

Macedonians spent months building a kilometre-long causeway stretching out to the island. This led to Alexander breaking through the fortress walls and finally capturing the city.

The siege of Tyre happened 2352 years ago.

Tyre has remained a peninsula instead of an island ever since.

This is a brutal example, but I like how it shows that one person’s determination can make a difference that will be seen for millennia to come.

I let this story be the introduction to my blog, where I will write about research. This blog is dedicated to whoever is interested in research, from product owners to UX designers. Whatever we work on, the role of a researcher always comes down to making a difference.

My best wishes to all who seek to change the world!

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