Unstructured Interviews

Characteristics of Unstructured Interviews

  • The interviewer and respondents engage in a formal interview in that they have a scheduled time to sit and speak with each other and both parties recognize this to be an interview. 
  • The interviewer has a clear plan in mind regarding the focus and goal of the interview.  This guides the discussion. 
  • There is not a structured interview guide.  Instead, the interviewer builds rapport with respondents, getting respondents to open-up and express themselves in their own way. 
  • Questions tend to be open-ended and express little control over informants' responses. 

When to use unstructured interviews?

Unstructured interviewing is recommended when the researcher has developed enough of an understanding of a setting and his or her topic of interest to have a clear agenda for the discussion with the informant, but still remains open to having his or her understanding of the area of inquiry open to revision by respondents. 

Because these interviews are not highly structured and because the researcher's understanding is still evolving, it is helpful to anticipate the need to speak with informants on multiple occasions. 

Recording Unstructured interviews

Since unstructured interviews often contain open-ended questions and discussions may develop in unanticipated directions, it is generally best to tape-record interviews and later transcript these tapes for analysis.  This allows the interviewer to focus on interacting with the participant and follow the discussion.

While it is possible to try to jot notes to capture respondents' answers, it is difficult to focus on conducting an interview and jotting notes.  This approach will result in poor notes and also detract from the development of rapport between interviewer and interviewee.  Development of rapport and dialogue is essential in unstructured interviews.

If tape-recording an interview is out of the question, consider having a note-taker present during the interview.


Unstructured interviews are an extremely useful method for developing an understanding of an as-of-yet not fully understood or appreciated culture, experience, or setting. 

Unstructured interviews allow researchers to focus the respondents' talk on a particular topic of interest, and may allow researchers the opportunity to test out his or her preliminary understanding, while still allowing for ample opportunity for new ways of seeing and understanding to develop. 

Unstructured interviews can be an important preliminary step toward the development of more structured interview guides or surveys.

Click here to return to Interviewing