Qualitative Research

Conducting an Interview

A Qualitative Interview is a method of collecting rich and detailed information about how individuals experience, understand and explain events in their lives. It is…

“…a conversation with a purpose” (Holloway, 1997)

…a relationship between two or more human beings (Randall and Phoenix, 2009)

Types of questioning

  • Unstructured Interview The interviewer uses at most an 'aide memoir' - notes to jog the memory - rather than a list of questions. The interview may be like a conversation, with the interviewer responding to the interviewee and letting them speak freely.

  • Semi-structured Interview The interviewer has a list of questions or key points to be covered and works through them in a methodical manner. Similar questions are asked of each interviewee, although supplementary questions can be asked as appropriate. The interviewee can respond how they like and does not have to 'tick a box' with their answer.

  • Structured Interview The interviewer asks the interviewee a series of specific questions, to which a fixed range of answers are possible ('ticking a box'). This is the typical form of interview used in social survey research, and can provide quantitative data, as in a questionnaire.

The Interview Guide

  • Drawing on relevant literature (rather than solely personal experience) construct a list of questions that relate to the research topic, they should address the interviewees experience, behaviour, context, values, senses and personal background. Do not expect interviewees to be able to directly address your research question.

  • Questions should be broad and open-ended, clearly worded, to the point and understandable to the participant. They should be structured so they are “funnelled” from broader “warm-up” questions through to more focussed probing questions.

  • Make sure you introduce yourself and explain the aim of the interview. Also adhere to academic ethics by making sure the interviewee is fully aware of the purpose of the research

  • Avoid asking leading questions.

  • Review, refine, trial and repeat this process several times rather than use the first questions that you develop.

  • Kvale (1996) identified nine kinds of question asked in qualitative interviews. There is no prescribed use of these questions but they may help develop the interview guide.

    • Introducing questions: 'Why did you...?' or 'Can you tell me about...?'

    • Follow up questions: Questions may include: 'What did you mean...?' or 'Can you give more detail...?'

    • Probing questions: You can employ direct questioning to follow up what has been said and to get more detail. 'Do you have any examples?' or 'Could you say more about...?'

    • Specifying questions: Such as 'What happened when you said that?' or 'What did he say next?'

    • Direct questions: Questions with a yes or no answer are direct questions. You might want to leave these questions until the end so you don't lead the interviewee to answer a certain way.

    • Indirect questions: You can ask these to get the interviewee's true opinion.

    • Structuring questions: These move the interview on to the next subject. For example, 'Moving on to...'

    • Silence: Through pauses you can suggest to the interviewee that you want them to answer the question!

    • Interpreting questions: 'Do you mean that...?' or 'Is it correct that...?'

Borek et al. (2019). ‘We’re all in the same boat’: A qualitative study on how groups work in a diabetes prevention and management programme. British Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 787–805. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12379 Click here for interview guide

Examples of Interview Guides


Before the interview

  • Contact your participant at least one day before the interview by phone or email as a courtesy reminder (Sparkes and Smith, 2014).

  • Practice using the methods of recording.

  • Choose a comfortable setting for the interview that is free from distractions.

  • Gain consent from your interviewee, highlight that you will be recording the interview.

During the interview

  • Avoid sharing your hypotheses but do explain in broad terms the goals of the research, particularly if you can frame it in terms of solving a problem that is important to the interviewee.

  • Make sure the interviewee understands the confidentiality of the interview and issues surrounding ethics, data storage and how the information will be used.

  • Trust and rapport and empathy are important so that participants are more likely to be open in their responses. Be cautious of over-rapport (Sparkes and Smith, 2014) and of projecting your own fears, interests and values on to the participant.

  • Record the interview (as long as the participant agrees to this) and consider where you will be sat in relation to the recording device.

  • Do not use emotional, loaded or biased language in either your questioning or any responses.

  • Be an active listener (body language, attitude, conversational style) and be careful about what your behaviour conveys to participants (e.g., expressions of surprise, jumping to take notes).

  • Follow-up questions should be used to encourage expansion of ideas deemed most relevant to the research question These probes should be short and simple to avoid breaking the interviewee’s focus

    • For continuation “Then what happened?”...for elaboration “Can you give me an example?”…for steering the conversation “You mentioned that…”

    • Probes can be non-verbal as well, such as using silence to encourage elaboration, or leaning forward to indicate interest. Be careful to vary the probes and not to overuse them

  • When interviewees are comfortable and conversational, you may miss the opportunity for intended follow-up questions. Rather than interrupting, keep notes on follow-up to ensure that you remember to return to them later.

  • It may be helpful to summarise key ideas and themes back to the interviewee to ensure you have a proper understanding of their meaning.

After the interview

  • Make field notes as soon as possible

  • Contact the interviewee and thank them for their time.

  • As soon as possible after the interview, transcribe it using the recording and your field notes.

Recommended Essential Reading

Mack, N., Woodsong, C., MacQueen, K.M., Guest, G. and Namey, E. (2005). Qualitative research methods: A data collector’s field guide. Family Health International https://www.fhi360.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/Qualitative%20Research%20Methods%20-%20A%20Data%20Collector%27s%20Field%20Guide.pdf

References & Further Reading

Arsel, Z. (2017). Asking questions with reflexive focus: A tutorial on designing and conducting interviews. Journal of Consumer Research, 44(4), 939-948. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucx096

Brinkmann, S. (2013). Qualitative interviewing. Oxford university press.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2019). To saturate or not to saturate? Questioning data saturation as a useful concept for thematic analysis and sample-size rationales. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1704846

Dowling, F., & Flintoff, A. (2011). Getting beyond normative interview talk of sameness and celebrating difference. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 3(1), 63-79. https://doi.org/10.1080/19398441.2011.547689

Kvale, S. (1996) InterViews: An Introduction to Qualitative Interviewing. Sage Publications. [synopsis]

Turner, D. W., III. 2010. “Qualitative Interview Design: A Practical Guide for Novice Investigators.” The Qualitative Report 15:754-760. [full text]

Gubrium, J.F. (2012) The Sage handbook of interview research: the complexity of the craft London: Sage

Jacob, S.A. and Furgerson, P.A. (2012) Writing Interview Protocols and Conducting Interviews: Tips for Students New to the Field of Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report Volume 17, T&L Art. 6, 1-10 [full text]

Josselson, R. (2013). Interviewing for qualitative inquiry: A relational approach. Guilford Press.

King, N. and Horrocks, C. (2010) Interviews in qualitative research London: Sage

Langley, A., & Meziani, N. (2020). Making interviews meaningful. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 56(3), 370-391. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0021886320937818

McNiff, K. (2017) Are You Really Listening? Tips For Conducting Qualitative Interviews. https://www.qsrinternational.com/nvivo-qualitative-data-analysis-software/resources/blog/tips-for-conducting-qualitative-interviews

Morgan, D. L. (2010). Reconsidering the role of interaction in analyzing and reporting focus groups. Qualitative health research, 20(5), 718-722.[full text]

Roulston, K. (2010). Considering quality in qualitative interviewing. Qualitative Research, 10(2), 199-228.[full text]

Roulston, K. (2011) Reflective Interviewing: A Guide to Theory and Practice London: Sage [chapter 1]

Rutakumwa, R., Mugisha, J. O., Bernays, S., Kabunga, E., Tumwekwase, G., Mbonye, M., & Seeley, J. (2019). Conducting in-depth interviews with and without voice recorders: a comparative analysis. Qualitative Research, 1468794119884806. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1468794119884806

Salmons, J. (2014). Qualitative online interviews: Strategies, design, and skills. Sage Publications.

Silverman, D. (2010) Doing Qualitative Research (3rd ed) London: Sage

Shelton, S. A., & Flint, M. A. (2020). Dichotomies of method and practice: a review of literature on transcription. Qualitative Research Journal. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRJ-05-2020-0046

Smith, B. (2018). Generalizability in qualitative research: Misunderstandings, opportunities and recommendations for the sport and exercise sciences. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 10(1), 137-149. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2017.1393221

Smith, B., & Sparkes, A. C. (2016). Interviews: Qualitative interviewing in the sport and exercise sciences. In Routledge handbook of qualitative research in sport and exercise (pp. 125-145). Routledge.

Sparkes, A. C., & Smith, B. (2014). Qualitative research methods in sport, exercise and health: From process to product. London: Routledge.

Stuckey, H. L. (2013). Three types of interviews: Qualitative research methods in social health. Journal of Social Health and Diabetes, 1(02), 056-059. http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/2321-0656.115294

Tausch, A. P., & Menold, N. (2016). Methodological aspects of focus groups in health research: results of qualitative interviews with focus group moderators. Global qualitative nursing research, 3, 2333393616630466. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2333393616630466

Tong, A., Sainsbury, P., & Craig, J. (2007). Consolidated criteria for reporting qualitative research (COREQ): a 32-item checklist for interviews and focus groups. International journal for quality in health care, 19(6), 349-357. https://academic.oup.com/intqhc/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/intqhc/mzm042

Turner, D.W. (2010) Qualitative Interview Design: A Practical Guide for Novice Investigators. The Qualitative Report 15(3): 754-760 [full text]

Studies that have used interviews as a method

Borek et al. (2019). ‘We’re all in the same boat’: A qualitative study on how groups work in a diabetes prevention and management programme. British Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 787–805. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12379 Click here for interview guide

Portman, R. M., Levy, A. R., Maher, A. J., & Fairclough, S. J. (2021). Co-developing peer interventions in health-related contexts: A case study from exercise referral. Health Education Journal, 00178969211045106. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F00178969211045106

Further Links

Qualitative Research Methods - another resource page on this website

How to conduct a focus group

A toolkit for conducting focus groups

SAGE Research Methods: Conducting Focus Groups

Should we transcribe everything - Tweet by Trish Greenhalgh (Feb, 2020)