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Read the PDF chapter 3 and answer the questions:What are some major takeaways you have from this chapter about unstructured interviews? What have your experiences with unstructured interviews been in the past?
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Interview Techniques for UX Practitioners
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Chapter 2. Semi-Structured Interviews
CHAPTER
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Chapter 4. Phone Interviews
3
Unstructured Interviews
The unstructured interview method is a conversation with participants where there are some general topics, but no predetermined format or highly specific questions. The goal of the unstructured interview is
to gather rich data about participants’ experiences without imposing constraints on what they can express. The direction of the interview is influenced by both the interviewer and the participant.
KEYWORDS
Interview; questionnaire; unstructured interview
OUTLINE
Overview of Unstructured Interviews
When Should You Use Unstructured Interviews?
Strengths
Weaknesses
What Do You Need to Use Unstructured Interviews?
Personnel, Participants, and Training
Hardware and Software
Documents and Materials
Procedures and Practical Advice on the Unstructured Interview Method
Planning and Developing the Unstructured Interview
Conducting an Unstructured Interview
After the Unstructured Interview Session
Variations and Extensions to Unstructured Interviews
Informal Interviewing
Validating Lists of Responses After Several Interviews
Major Issues in the Use of the Unstructured Interview Method
Using Probes
To Record or Not to Record
Bias in Unstructured Versus Structured Interviews
Prepping the Participants
Conclusions
Alternative Names: Flexible interview, in-depth interview, nondirective interview, open interview, open-ended interview, qualitative interview
Related Methods: Contextual inquiry, ethnographic interview, semi-structured interview, structured interview
Overview of Unstructured Interviews
Unstructured interviews are conversations with users and other stakeholders where there is a general topic and agenda, but no predetermined interview format or specific questions. The general goal of the unstructured interview is to gather rich, in-depth data about the users or other stakeholders’ experiences without imposing restrictions on what they can express.
Unstructured Interviews Are Challenging

Unstructured interviews are challenging, even for experienced interviewers. Common pitfalls for interviewers using the unstructured interview method include the following:
• Limited planning, training, and pilot testing
• Talking too much and not listening enough to the participant. Silences are awkward, but participants sometimes need to think before answering
• Trying too hard to get answers to each general topic or questions in each interview
• Using leading questions or prompts (Dumas & Redish, 1999)
• Focusing on note-taking rather than the interview (tape-recording interviews can reduce this burden)
• Determining how much time to spend on new or unexpected topics that are not in the interview guide
• Lacking a data analysis, interpretation, and reporting plan.
In an unstructured interview, the conversation is guided by the general goals of the project, an agenda of topics to cover, and the issues that participants feel are important. Both the interviewer and participant
influence the direction of unstructured interviews. Unstructured interviews require interviewers to be open to unanticipated topics, but also to be wary of conversations that ramble or participants who may get
long-winded and repetitive.
“Unstructured” does not mean unprepared. Interviewers need to define the goals of the interview clearly during planning and proceed with an agenda of the main topics. The agenda may change as the interview unfolds. One of the skills of a good interviewer is to realize when the conversation reveals a new issue or a different perspective on an old issue.
The document that contains the agenda of topics or general questions is often called an “interview guide.” The guide lists the areas to be covered, general questions to start a line of inquiry, and a checklist that
can serve as a memory aid.
When Should You Use Unstructured Interviews?
You can use unstructured interviews to do the following:
• Gather data on general themes rather than specific questions.
• Develop new insights about the user’s interactions with technology.
• Investigate a new product and get a sense of first impressions and features that catch the eye of the user.
• Explore a new domain where you are not certain of the major issues facing users and other stakeholders.
• Gather information on sensitive or emotional topics.
• Understand how experts solve problems. Experts often possess much tacit knowledge that requires a skilled interviewer and an unstructured format.
• Follow up on a quantitative interview where some qualitative data are needed to clarify the meaning of the quantitative findings.
Unstructured interviews often last from one-half to two hours. Interviews that are too long may reduce the pool of qualified participants because they don’t want to give up valuable work or leisure time. Interviews that are too short may not provide enough time to establish rapport and cover the topic in sufficient depth. Consider arranging unstructured interviews that last about an hour unless you know that the
participants are dedicated and willing to give up more time (Robson, 2002, p. 273).
Unstructured interviews can be done at any time during the development cycle (Table 3.1), but they are most useful during the early stages (problem definition, requirements gathering, conceptual design, prototyping, and detailed design) when you are trying to understand general issues and determine if your perception of the issues is similar to that of your users and other stakeholders. The small bar charts in Table 3.1 provide a sense of the overall effort, planning time, skill, resources, and analysis time, required to conduct unstructured interviews.
Table 3.1
Method Scorecard for Unstructured Interviews
Strengths
Unstructured interviews have the following strengths:
• They provide direct experience with users and stakeholders.
• Establishing rapport with participants in unstructured interviews may be easier than it is during semi-structured and structured interviews because unstructured interviews are less formal and more
conversational.
• Interviewers have more flexibility in how they word questions and probe for details than in other, more structured, styles of interviewing.
• Participants can describe issues in their own words, so unstructured interviews can be useful in understanding the users’ vocabulary and any metaphors that are relevant.
• Unstructured interviews can reveal issues that the interviewer had not considered before (and may not have asked about on more structured interviews).
• Unstructured interviews sometimes provide insight into political issues that can affect product design and acceptance.
• Unstructured interviews may provide a more relaxed atmosphere than highly structured interviews where interviewers are limited in their ability to probe and explore paths important to the participant.
• Unstructured interviews can be used to gather information from key stakeholders (in addition to users) so the issues important to these stakeholders don’t pop up later and derail the effort.
• Unstructured interviews can provide important insights for the design of more focused semi-structured and structured interviews and surveys. For example, you can use the results from unstructured interviews to create more complete response categories to closed-ended questions.
Weaknesses
Unstructured interviews have the following weaknesses:
• Becoming skilled at facilitating unstructured interviews takes time, practice, and frequent assessment by colleagues.
• Even small studies can generate large amounts of qualitative data, so the analysis and interpretation of the data can be quite time-consuming. For example, a one-hour video recording or audiotape from a
talkative person might take anywhere from three to ten hours to review and transcribe. After the data are transcribed, the analysis of the “raw” data can take many more hours.
• Taking notes during unstructured interviews can be difficult because the participant can digress or ramble. Digital audio or video recorders are recommended, but some sites may not allow any recording.
Conducting interviews in pairs (if your budget allows) can reduce this problem because one person can conduct the interview while the other person focuses on taking detailed notes. Notetakers should remain
in the background and let the interviewer conduct the session so the participant isn’t switching attention back and forth like a fan at a tennis match.
• Unstructured interviews have no set format, so each interview is a novel event that requires a skilled and flexible interviewer.
• The data are rich but not replicable.
• Large amounts of data may require expensive and complicated qualitative analysis software.
What Do You Need to Use Unstructured Interviews?
This section provides a brief description of the basic resources needed to conduct an unstructured interview.
PERSONNEL, PARTICIPANTS, AND TRAINING
Unstructured interviews can be conducted with a single interviewer if you are using some recording equipment. If you cannot record the interview, a notetaker should accompany the interviewer. Ideally, the
notetaker should have familiarity with the domain, terminology, and product to make note-taking easier and more accurate.
Unstructured interviews are perhaps the most difficult style of interview because they provide the least structure for interacting with stakeholders and require lengthy training and preparation. Novices should
accompany experienced interviewers, practice, get feedback from colleagues before doing real interviews, and be involved in the development of interview guides.
HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE
Unstructured interviews can benefit from audio recorders or video recorders so you have a complete record of the interview. Digital cameras can be useful for documenting the physical environment and any artifacts that are important to the study topic. If you plan to conduct a large number of interviews, consider using a specialized qualitative data analysis tool for categorizing the qualitative data.
DOCUMENTS AND MATERIALS
Documents and materials for unstructured interviews include the following:
• An interview project plan that describes the goals of the study, the recruiting plan, the background on the companies and people you are going to visit, the general topics that are of interest, the guidelines for
interviewers, and the data collection and analysis plan. The level of detail depends on the magnitude of the study, but even small studies can benefit from a project plan.
• A letter of introduction that you can send or e-mail to prospective participants and their management.
• Consent forms for recording and data collection.
• NDA forms (these may not be required) if the participants have not already signed a form.
• Some type of database or software for storing and analyzing qualitative data (if you expect to have large amounts of data). You may want to examine data over a period of time or compare it to other sources
®
of data, so some way to store it other than Post-It Notes can be beneficial in the long run.
• Interview agendas or guides with the general areas that you will cover and potential probing questions.
• Maps and good directions.
• Small gifts or incentives for your hosts and those interviewed. See Chapter 6 for more details.
Beware of Bribery
Some companies have codes of business conduct that have statements about the propriety of gifts of property or cash. Before you provide cash or gift certificates or other types of incentives, check the code
of conduct at your company or organization to see if there are any issues that might get you in trouble with legal. This author has run into this several times and had to obtain permission from legal compliance groups to give away gift certificates ranging from $25 to $100.
Procedures and Practical Advice on the Unstructured Interview Method
This section provides a brief description of the basic steps needed to conduct an unstructured interview.
PLANNING AND DEVELOPING THE UNSTRUCTURED INTERVIEW
To plan and develop the unstructured interview, follow these steps:
1. Determine the goals of your unstructured interviews and make sure that all your topics have a solid connection to those goals. Examples of interview goals include the following:
a. Understanding the social, organizational, technical, and physical environments of your users
b. Understanding how current technology is used
c. Understanding tasks and workflow.
2. Recruit participants who meet your sampling criteria far in advance because interviews in the field can take from days to months to arrange. The lead time for some interviews may be weeks, especially
for very busy people. After you select your group of participants, send them an invitation that explains the following:
a. Who is conducting the study
b. Why they were selected
c. The general goals and procedures for the interviews, including how long they will take
d. The process for collecting data (recording devices, notetakers)
e. How the data will be used and how you will keep it private.
You might consider some contingency plans for people who cancel or forget, especially if you are traveling to their site. One important thing to do is call the participants a few days before the session.
3. Develop an interview guide that lists the general topics or questions that you want to cover and a basic script for the interview guide. The interview guide should have an outline of the briefing, the list of
primary topics or questions, probing questions for different topics, a list of neutral prompts that interviewers can refer to (especially those who are new to unstructured interviews), and an outline of what to
cover in the postinterview debriefing.
Table 3.2 is an example of an interview guide for an experienced interviewer who wants to understand what it is like to work as an order-entry clerk for a large e-commerce corporation.
Here are some practical tips for constructing an interview guide for unstructured interviews:
• The guide should be simple and free from excess clutter so the interviewer can glance at it quickly. Weiss (1994) notes that a guide is like a teleprompter for an actor or politician. You don’t want to be reading
it verbatim.
• The guide should be readable from a clipboard (or tablet computer) that the interviewer holds during the interview session. Experiment with text size when you are pilot testing the guide and interview procedures.
• Less-experienced interviewers may require more detailed guides to avoid moments of silence; more experienced interviewers, who are familiar with the interview topics may need only sketchy guides.
• If your guide becomes too detailed or you feel that you need to cover all the items, you may be moving in the direction of a semi-structured interview. Keep the guide for unstructured interviews general, and
don’t feel pressured to cover all items in every interview. Some unstructured interviews may focus on a subset of topics that are especially important, so there should be no pressure to cover every topic (although across interviews, make sure that you have reasonable coverage for all your main topics).
4. Learn enough about the domain of interest to ask good questions and understand the general terminology used by participants. You don’t need to be an expert, but you do need to be credible.
Database Disaster
A Tale of Embarrassment and Lost Credibility
This author once set up interviews with a company interested in purchasing a complex decision-support tool. The customer was database savvy, and some of my colleagues weren’t. Soon after we arrived
and began the interviews, the host (a very senior manager) at the customer site called my manager and complained that my colleagues “didn’t even know what a ‘join’ was in a database.” The customers
felt that we were wasting their time and were technically ignorant. The interviewers were sent home.
This event was hard on my colleagues who were experts in usability but were relatively new to database terminology and principles.
Before the next set of interviews, everyone had to take a self-administered course on database design. Subsequent interviews with database-savvy customers went much more smoothly, and we never got
thrown out again because we were deficient in database principles and vocabulary!
5. Develop a data collection and analysis plan that includes an outline of how you gather, analyze, interpret, and present the qualitative data you get from your interviews. Plan sufficient time for working
with data. There is no single set of conventions for analyzing qualitative data.
6. Set up a few pilot sessions to practice your interviewing skills. This is a cardinal rule for all user-centered design (UCD) methods. The pilot session can breed confidence, weed out poor questions, and increase the odds that the actual interviews will be productive. Even expert interviewers with decades of experience should conduct a pilot test.
7. Create and assemble any forms or documents that you need, including the following:
• Screeners and letters that you use to recruit participants
• The interview guide with an agenda, probes, prompts, and so on
• An informed consent form if needed
• An NDA if needed. Send the NDA to the participants beforehand; ask them to read it before the study and bring the signed copy. Have blank NDAs and consent forms on hand in case a few participants forgot to sign the documents
• Receipts for any compensation paid to participants.
8. If you are visiting different companies, prepare a briefing memo for each company that describes how the company uses your product, what main issues the company faces, and the agenda for the day.
Also include the name of the participants, their locations, their phone numbers, and a brief note about their role with the product of interest. An example template for a briefing memo is shown in Table 3.3.
9. Develop a calm and confident attitude. An interviewer must be calm, confident, credible, knowledgeable, flexible, and professional, without being arrogant. This professional attitude is set when you make
first contact and reinforced as you set up interviews. Your first few minutes with the participant are likely to set the stage for the success of your interview. Robson (2002, p. 274) recommends the following rules
for interviewers:
• Listen more than you speak. Peer review during training and pilot testing can provide useful feedback on listening and prompting skills.
• Ask questions in a straightforward, clear, and nonthreatening manner. Avoid questions that tend to blame the participant, even in subtle ways. Never put the blame on the user by saying “you didn’t answer
my question.”
• Eliminate cues that lead participants to respond in a particular way.
• Be curious, interested, and engaged.
• Enjoy the interview (or at least look as though you do). Avoid any hint of boredom or anxiety. This last rule implies that you should be careful about scheduling too many interviews in a day. Whenever possible, schedule short breaks between interviews to consolidate your notes and write down questions that you might want to pose in subsequent interviews.
Table 3.2
Sample Interview Guide for an Unstructured Interview
Table 3.3
Outline of a Briefing Memo for a Set of Four Interviews at a Client Site
CONDUCTING AN UNSTRUCTURED INTERVIEW
To conduct an unstructured interview, follow these steps:
1. If possible, meet with all the people you plan to interview in a group at the beginning of the day, and give everyone an overview of your general plans (e.g., you will be audiotaping, the interview will
take about an hour). If you can set up this “group introduction,” you can save time …
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