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.

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@arnasaleks on Twitter, Arnas Aleksandravičius on LinkedIn