Chapter 13: Interviews

Danielle Berkovic

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand when to use interviews in qualitative research.
  • Develop interview questions for an interview guide.
  • Understand how to conduct an interview.


What are interviews?

An interviewing method is the most commonly used data collection technique in qualitative research.1 The purpose of an interview is to explore the experiences, understandings, opinions and motivations of research participants.2 Interviews are conducted one-on-one with the researcher and the participant. Interviews are most appropriate when seeking to understand a participant’s subjective view of an experience and are also considered suitable for the exploration of sensitive topics.

What are the different types of interviews?

There are four main types of interviews:

  • Key stakeholder: A key stakeholder interview aims to explore one issue in detail with a person of interest or importance concerning the research topic.3 Key stakeholder interviews seek the views of experts on some cultural, political or health aspects of the community, beyond their personal beliefs or actions. An example of a key stakeholder is the Chief Health Officer of Victoria (Australia’s second-most populous state) who oversaw the world’s longest lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Dyad: A dyad interview aims to explore one issue in a level of detail with a dyad (two people). This form of interviewing is used when one participant of the dyad may need some support or is not wholly able to articulate themselves (e.g. people with cognitive impairment, or children). Independence is acknowledged and the interview is analysed as a unit.4
  • Narrative: A narrative interview helps individuals tell their stories, and prioritises their own perspectives and experiences using the language that they prefer.5 This type of interview has been widely used in social research but is gaining prominence in health research to better understand person-centred care, for example, negotiating exercise and food abstinence whilst living with Type 2 diabetes.6,7
  • Life history: A life history interview allows the researcher to explore a person’s individual and subjective experiences within a history of the time framework.8 Life history interviews challenge the researcher to understand how people’s current attitudes, behaviours and choices are influenced by previous experiences or trauma. Life history interviews have been conducted with Holocaust survivors9 and youth who have been forcibly recruited to war.10

Table 13.4 provides a summary of four studies, each adopting one of these types of interviews.

Interviewing techniques

There are two main interview techniques:

  • Semi-structured: Semi-structured interviewing aims to explore a few issues in moderate detail, to expand the researcher’s knowledge at some level.11 Semi-structured interviews give the researcher the advantage of remaining reasonably objective while enabling participants to share their perspectives and opinions. The researcher should create an interview guide with targeted open questions to direct the interview. As examples, semi-structured interviews have been used to extend knowledge of why women might gain excess weight during pregnancy,12 and to update guidelines for statin uptake.13
  • In-depth: In-depth interviewing aims to explore a person’s subjective experiences and feelings about a particular topic.14 In-depth interviews are often used to explore emotive (e.g. end-of-life care)15 and complex (e.g. adolescent pregnancy) topics.16 The researcher should create an interview guide with selected open questions to ask of the participant, but the participant should guide the direction of the interview more than in a semi-structured setting. In-depth interviews value participants’ lived experiences and are frequently used in phenomenology studies (as described in Chapter 6).

When to use the different types of interviews

The type of interview a researcher uses should be determined by the study design, the research aims and objectives, and participant demographics. For example, if conducting a descriptive study, semi-structured interviews may be the best method of data collection. As explained in Chapter 5, descriptive studies seek to describe phenomena, rather than to explain or interpret the data. A semi-structured interview, which seeks to expand upon some level of existing knowledge, will likely best facilitate this.

Similarly, if conducting a phenomenological study, in-depth interviews may be the best method of data collection. As described in Chapter 6, the key concept of phenomenology is the individual. The emphasis is on the lived experience of that individual and the person’s sense-making of those experiences. Therefore, an in-depth interview is likely best placed to elicit that rich data.

While some interview types are better suited to certain study designs, there are no restrictions on the type of interview that may be used. For example, semi-structured interviews provide an excellent accompaniment to trial participation (see Chapter 11 about mixed methods), and key stakeholder interviews, as part of an action research study, can be used to define priorities, barriers and enablers to implementation.

How do I write my interview questions?

An interview aims to explore the experiences, understandings, opinions and motivations of research participants. The general rule is that the interviewee should speak for 80 per cent of the interview, and the interviewer should only be asking questions and clarifying responses, for about 20 per cent of the interview. This percentage may differ depending on the interview type; for example, a semi-structured interview involves the researcher asking more questions than in an in-depth interview. Still, to facilitate free-flowing responses, it is important to use open-ended language to encourage participants to be expansive in their responses. Examples of open-ended terms include questions that start with ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘where’.

The researcher should avoid closed-ended questions that can be answered with yes or no, and limit conversation. For example, asking a participant ‘Did you have this experience?’ can elicit a simple ‘yes’, whereas asking them to ‘Describe your experience’, will likely encourage a narrative response. Table 13.1 provides examples of terminology to include and avoid in developing interview questions.

Table 13.1. Interview question formats to use and avoid

Use Avoid
Tell me about… Do you think that…
What happened when… Will you do this…
Why is this important? Did you believe that…
How did you feel when…

How do you…
Were there issues from your perspective…
What are the…

What does...

How long should my interview be?

There is no rule about how long an interview should take. Different types of interviews will likely run for different periods of time, but this also depends on the research question/s and the type of participant. For example, given that a semi-structured interview is seeking to expand on some previous knowledge, the interview may need no longer than 30 minutes, or up to one hour. An in-depth interview seeks to explore a topic in a greater level of detail and therefore, at a minimum, would be expected to last an hour. A dyad interview may be as short as 15 minutes (e.g. if the dyad is a person with dementia and a family member or caregiver) or longer, depending on the pairing.

Designing your interview guide

To figure out what questions to ask in an interview guide, the researcher may consult the literature, speak to experts (including people with lived experience) about the research and draw on their current knowledge. The topics and questions should be mapped to the research question/s, and the interview guide should be developed well in advance of commencing data collection. This enables time and opportunity to pilot-test the interview guide. The pilot interview provides an opportunity to explore the language and clarity of questions, the order and flow of the guide and to determine whether the instructions are clear to participants both before and after the interview. It can be beneficial to pilot-test the interview guide with someone who is not familiar with the research topic, to make sure that the language used is easily understood (and will be by participants, too). The study design should be used to determine the number of questions asked and the duration of the interview should guide the extent of the interview guide. The participant type may also determine the extent of the interview guide; for example, clinicians tend to be time-poor and therefore shorter, focused interviews are optimal. An interview guide is also likely to be shorter for a descriptive study than a phenomenological or ethnographic study, given the level of detail required. Chapter 5 outlined a descriptive study in which participants who had undergone percutaneous coronary intervention were interviewed. The interview guide consisted of four main questions and subsequent probing questions, linked to the research questions (see Table 13.2).17

Table 13.2. Interview guide for a descriptive study

Research question Open questions Probing questions and topics
How does the patient feel, physically and psychologically, after their procedure? From your perspective, what would be considered a successful outcome of the procedure? Did the procedure meet your expectations? How do you define whether the procedure was successful?
How did you feel after the procedure?

How did you feel one week after the procedure and how does that compare with how you feel now?
How does the patient function after their procedure? After your procedure, tell me about your ability to do your daily activities? Prompt for activities including gardening, housework, personal care, work-related and family-related tasks.

Did you attend cardiac rehabilitation? Can you tell us about your experience of cardiac rehabilitation? What effect has medication had on your recovery?

What are the long-term effects of the procedure? What, if any, lifestyle changes have you made since your procedure?

Table 13.3 is an example of a larger and more detailed interview guide, designed for the qualitative component of a mixed-methods study aiming to examine the work and financial effects of living with arthritis as a younger person. The questions are mapped to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health, which measures health and disability at individual and population levels.18


Table 13.3. Detailed interview guide

Research questions Open questions Probing questions
How do young people experience their arthritis diagnosis? Tell me about your experience of being diagnosed with arthritis.

How did being diagnosed with arthritis make you feel?

Tell me about your experience of arthritis flare ups what do they feel like?

What impacts arthritis flare ups or feeling like your arthritis is worse?

What circumstances lead to these feelings?

Based on your experience, what do you think causes symptoms of arthritis to become worse?
When were you diagnosed with arthritis?

What type of arthritis were you diagnosed with?

Does anyone else in your family have arthritis? What relation are they to you?
What are the work impacts of arthritis on younger people? What is your field of work, and how long have you been in this role?

How frequently do you work (full-time/part-time/casual)?
How has arthritis affected your work-related demands or career? How so?

Has arthritis led you to reconsider your career? How so?

Has arthritis affected your usual working hours each week? How so?

How have changes to work or career because of your arthritis impacted other areas of life, i.e. mental health or family role?
What are the financial impacts of living with arthritis as a younger person? Has your arthritis led to any financial concerns? Financial concerns pertaining to:

• Direct costs: rheumatologist, prescribed and non-prescribed medications (as well as supplements), allied health costs (rheumatology, physiotherapy, chiropractic, osteopathy, myotherapy), Pilates, and gym/personal trainer fees, complementary therapies.

• Indirect costs: workplace absenteeism, productivity, loss of wages, informal care, cost of different types of insurance: health insurance (joint replacements)

It is important to create an interview guide, for the following reasons:

  • The researcher should be familiar with their research questions.
  • Using an interview guide will enable the incorporation of feedback from the piloting process.
  • It is difficult to predict how participants will respond to interview questions. They may answer in a way that is anticipated or they may provide unanticipated insights that warrant follow-up. An interview guide (a physical or digital copy) enables the researcher to note these answers and follow-up with appropriate inquiry.
  • Participants will likely have provided heterogeneous answers to certain questions. The interview guide enables the researcher to note similarities and differences across various interviews, which may be important in data analysis.
  • Even experienced qualitative researchers get nervous before an interview! The interview guide provides a safety net if the researcher forgets their questions or needs to anticipate the next question.

Setting up the interview

In the past, most interviews were conducted in person or by telephone. Emerging technologies promote easier access to research participation (e.g. by people living in rural or remote communities, or for people with mobility limitations). Even in metropolitan settings, many interviews are now conducted electronically (e.g. using videoconferencing platforms). Regardless of your interview setting, it is essential that the interview environment is comfortable for the participant. This process can begin as soon as potential participants express interest in your research. Following are some tips from the literature and our own experiences of leading interviews:

  • Answer questions and set clear expectations. Participating in research is not an everyday task. People do not necessarily know what to expect during a research interview, and this can be daunting. Give people as much information as possible, answer their questions about the research and set clear expectations about what the interview will entail and how long it is expected to last. Let them know that the interview will be recorded for transcription and analysis purposes. Consider sending the interview questions a few days before the interview. This gives people time and space to reflect on their experiences, consider their responses to questions and to provide informed consent for their participation.
  • Consider your setting. If conducting the interview in person, consider the location and room in which the interview will be held. For example, if in a participant’s home, be mindful of their private space. Ask if you should remove your shoes before entering their home. If they offer refreshments (which in our experience many participants do), accept it with gratitude if possible. These considerations apply beyond the participant’s home; if using a room in an office setting, consider privacy and confidentiality, accessibility and potential for disruption. Consider the temperature as well as the furniture in the room, who may be able to overhear conversations and who may walk past. Similarly, if interviewing by phone or online, take time to assess the space, and if in a house or office that is not quiet or private, use headphones as needed.
  • Build rapport. The research topic may be important to participants from a professional perspective, or they may have deep emotional connections to the topic of interest. Regardless of the nature of the interview, it is important to remember that participants are being asked to open up to an interviewer who is likely to be a stranger. Spend some time with participants before the interview, to make sure that they are comfortable. Engage in some general conversation, and ask if they have any questions before you start. Remember that it is not a normal part of someone’s day to participate in research. Make it an enjoyable and/or meaningful experience for them, and it will enhance the data that you collect.
  • Let participants guide you. Oftentimes, the ways in which researchers and participants describe the same phenomena are different. In the interview, reflect the participant’s language. Make sure they feel heard and that they are willing and comfortable to speak openly about their experiences. For example, our research involves talking to older adults about their experience of falls. We noticed early in this research that participants did not use the word ‘fall’ but would rather use terms such as ‘trip’, ‘went over’ and ‘stumbled’. As interviewers we adopted the participant’s language into our questions.
  • Listen consistently and express interest. An interview is more complex than a simple question-and-answer format. The best interview data comes from participants feeling comfortable and confident to share their stories. By the time you are completing the 20th interview, it can be difficult to maintain the same level of concentration as with the first interview. Try to stay engaged: nod along with your participants, maintain eye contact, murmur in agreement and sympathise where warranted.
  • The interviewer is both the data collector and the data collection instrument. The data received is only as good as the questions asked. In qualitative research, the researcher influences how participants answer questions. It is important to remain reflexive and aware of how your language, body language and attitude might influence the interview. Being rested and prepared will enhance the quality of the questions asked and hence the data collected.
  • Avoid excessive use of ‘why’. It can be challenging for participants to recall why they felt a certain way or acted in a particular manner. Try to avoid asking ‘why’ questions too often, and instead adopt some of the open language described earlier in the chapter.

After your interview

When you have completed your interview, thank the participant and let them know they can contact you if they have any questions or follow-up information they would like to provide. If the interview has covered sensitive topics or the participant has become distressed throughout the interview, make sure that appropriate referrals and follow-up are provided (see section 6).

Download the recording from your device and make sure it is saved in a secure location that can only be accessed by people on the approved research team (see Chapters 35 and 36).

It is important to know what to do immediately after each interview is completed. Interviews should be transcribed – that is, reproduced verbatim for data analysis. Transcribing data is an important step in the process of analysis, but it is very time-consuming; transcribing a 60-minute interview can take up to 8 hours. Data analysis is discussed in Section 4.

Table 13.4. Examples of the four types of interviews

Title Current and emerging disaster risks perceptions in Oceania: key stakeholders recommendations for disaster management and resilience building19 Thematic analysis of dyadic coping in couples with young-onset dementia20 Living with psychosis without mental health services: a narrative interview study21 Life histories and lifelines: a methodological symbiosis for the study of female genital mutilation22
CC Licence CC BY 4.0 CC BY CC BY 4.0 CC BY-NC 4.0
First author and year Cuthbertson, 2019 Bannon, 2021 McGranahan, 2020 Gutierrez-Garcia, 2021
Interview type Key stakeholder Dyad Narrative Life history
Interview guide Appendix A eAppendix Supplement Not provided, but the text states that ‘qualitative semi-structured narrative interviews’ were conducted.’ [methods] Not provided, but the text states that ‘an open and semi-structured question guide was designed for use.' [methods]
Study design Convergent mixed-methods study Qualitative dyadic study Narrative interview study Life history and lifeline techniques
Number of participants 30

Key stakeholders were emergency management or disaster healthcare practitioners, academics specialising in disaster management in the Oceania region, and policy managers.
23 dyads 28 7
Aim ‘To investigate threats to the health and well-being of societies associated with disaster impact in Oceania.’ [abstract] ‘To explore the lived experiences of couples managing young-onset dementia using an integrated dyadic coping model.’[abstract] ‘To explore the experiences and views of people with psychotic experiences who have not received any treatment or other support from mental health services for the past 5 years.’ [abstract] ‘To analyse the use of life histories and lifelines in the study of female genital mutilation in the context of cross-cultural research in participants with different languages.’ [abstract]
Country Australia, Fiji, Indonesia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Timor Leste and Tonga United States England Spain
Length of interview 45–60 minutes 60 minutes 40-120 minutes 3 sessions

Session 1: life history interview

Session 2: Lifeline activity where participants used drawings to complement or enhance their interview

Session 3: The researchers and participants worked together to finalise the lifeline.
The life history interviews ran for 40 – 60 minutes. The timing for sessions 2 and 3 is not provided.
Sample of interview questions from interview guide 1. What do you believe are the top five disaster risks or threats in the Oceania region today?

2. What disaster risks do you believe are emerging in the Oceania region over the next decade?

3. Why do you think these are risks?

4. What are the drivers of these risks?

5. Do you have any suggestions on how we can improve disaster risk assessment?

6. Are the current disaster risk plans and practices suited to the future disaster risks? If not, why? If not, what do you think needs to be done to improve them?

7. What are the key areas of disaster practice that can enhance future community resilience to disaster risk?

8. What are the barriers or inhibitors to facilitating this practice?

9. What are the solutions or facilitators to enhancing community resilience?

[Appendix A]

1. We like to start by learning more about what you each first noticed that prompted the evaluations you went through to get to the diagnosis.

• Can you each tell me about the earliest symptoms you noticed?

2. What are the most noticeable or troubling symptoms that you have experienced since the time of diagnosis?

• How have your changes in functioning impacted you?

• Emotionally, how do you feel about your symptoms and the changes in functioning you are experiencing?

3. Are you open with your friends and family about the diagnosis?

• Have you experienced any stigma related to your diagnosis?

4. What is your understanding of the diagnosis?

• What is your understanding about the how this condition will affect you both in the future? How are you getting information about this diagnosis?

[eAppendix Supplement]

Not provided. Not provided.
Analysis Thematic analysis guided by The Hazard and Peril Glossary for describing and categorising disasters applied by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters Emergency Events Database Thematic analysis guided by the Dyadic Coping Theoretical Framework Inductive thematic analysis outlined by Braun and Clarke. Phenomenological method proposed by Giorgi (sense of the whole):

1. Reading the entire description to obtain a general sense of the discourse

2. The researcher goes back to the beginning and reads the text again, with the aim of distinguishing the meaning units by separating the perspective of the phenomenon of interest

3. The researcher expresses the contents of the units of meaning more clearly by creating categories

4. The researcher synthesises the units and categories of meaning into a consistent statement that takes into account the participant’s experience and language.
Main themes 1. Climate change is observed as a contemporary and emerging disaster risk

2. Risk is contextual to the different countries, communities and individuals in Oceania.

3. Human development trajectories and their impact, along with perceptions of a changing world, are viewed as drivers of current and emerging risks.

4. Current disaster risk plans and practices are not suited to future disaster risks.

5. Increased education and education of risk and risk assessment at a local level to empower community risk ownership.

[Results, Box 1]
1. Stress communication

2. Positive individual dyadic coping

3. Positive conjoint dyadic coping

4. Negative individual dyadic coping

5. Negative conjoint dyadic coping

1. Perceiving psychosis as positive

2. Making sense of psychotic experiences

3. Finding sources of strength

4. Negative past experiences of mental health services

5. Positive past experiences with individual clinicians

1. Important moments and their relationship with female genital mutilation

2. The ritual knife: how sharp or blunt it is at different stages, where and how women are subsequently held as a result

3. Changing relationships with family: how being subject to female genital mutilation changed relationships with mothers

4. Female genital mutilation increases the risk of future childbirth complications which change relationships with family and healthcare systems

5. Managing experiences with early exposure to physical and sexual violence across the lifespan.


Interviews are the most common data collection technique in qualitative research. There are four main types of interviews; the one you choose will depend on your research question, aims and objectives. It is important to formulate open-ended interview questions that are understandable and easy for participants to answer. Key considerations in setting up the interview will enhance the quality of the data obtained and the experience of the interview for the participant and the researcher.



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