The Art of the Semi-Structured Interview Part 1: Developing an Effective Interview Protocol

Qualitative Methodology

A semi-structured interview is used commonly in qualitative research, as it provides structure for the interview protocol (the list of questions that you are asking of everyone), but also provides flexibility for the research participants to elaborate on the points of each question that are meaningful to them, thereby driving the conversation even deeper. In this blog, I will focus on how to prepare an effective interview protocol to ensure that you get the information that you are after.

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Once you have developed your research questions and theoretical framework, and have determined that a semi-structured interview is an appropriate method of data collection for your research study, then you can begin to develop the interview protocol. This might sound easy, but it takes some work. The good news is that more work up front on these questions can really improve your success in the interview itself! With research questions in hand, start brainstorming a list of questions that you can ask of everyone that will help you to understand their perspectives on the problem (you will need to return to your statement of the problem here) and start to get at the answers to your research questions. Avoid yes and no questions. Think about how your participants might respond to these questions. Have you thought about each angle of the problem? Are you asking questions along these lines? Will your questions capture a wide range of perspectives on the problem or phenomenon under study? Do you have questions that do not really relate to the problem that you could toss aside? Take your time to get all of this worked out in this stage.

Once you have your basic interview questions set, build in probing questions. Probing questions will elicit more information from your participants and help when people are providing only short answers. Probing questions can be as broad as, “can you tell me more?”, or they can be more focused and address a point that the participant has touched on that you would like to know more about. Remember that the goal is to get as much information as possible so that you can answer your research questions, and to do this you will need to get your participants talking.

Now, take your interview protocol and test it out! This is not a pilot study, but a way to ensure that your questions make sense to someone else. Ideally, this will be someone in the study population, though not someone who will participate in the research study later. For example, when I was conducting my own dissertation research, I brought my interview protocol to my research assistant and we did a couple of practice interviews. The questions did not all make sense, and I would not have known that had I not conducted these mock interviews.

Learning to be a good interviewer takes time and patience. That effort is the difference between getting lots of rich data and new insight into your research topic and having to re-do your interviews, which is even more time intensive for both you and your research participants. Now that you have an effective interview protocol that you have tested, you can feel confident that you are ready to conduct your first interviews. In the next blog, we will tackle some do’s and don’ts for success in the interview itself. See you then!