What is an Unstructured Interview?

What is an unstructured interview?


Think about your last job or college application. You were probably required to give an interview. Or when you had to gain information for your research paper. Again, you turned to interviews to help you. Interviews are impossible to escape these days. That’s because they are the most common and efficient methods of collecting data. So, it is best to understand them and their types to know better. One such type is the unstructured interview. 

Now “What is an unstructured interview?” The answer to that question and others like “Where are unstructured interviews used?” or “What is the difference between structured and unstructured interviews?” will be given by me in this article. So, keep scrolling!

In simple and easy terms, Unstructured interviews are a type of interview in which factors like ‘total number of questions’ ‘sequence of questions’ ‘duration of interview’ etc. are not pre-determined. Unstructured interviews, also called non-directive interviews, are informal in nature, more free-flowing, and laid back. These interviews strongly rely on spontaneity and follow-up questioning. Open-ended questions are made to the interviewee, and based on their answers, the conversation is guided further.

Now let us dive into a deeper understanding of the same.

How do Unstructured Interview work?

As mentioned before, in unstructured interviews, the interviewer relies on spontaneity to keep the interview going. Depending on the responses of the interviewee, the interviewer improvises and modifies their questions on the spot. So remember, Spontaneity is key here! This type of interview can be compared to an everyday conversation with a specific purpose. The interviewer can start with a standard question related to the purpose of the interview. From there, the interview can flow in the direction of the conversation. Unlike structured interviews, there is no standard template on the parameters of the interview. They are almost entirely dependent on the conversation. This way, the interviewer and interviewee can steer the course of the interview TOGETHER!

For better understanding, let us take a field of study as a reference: Psychology. When a counselor or therapist interviews their patient/client, they frequently use the unstructured method to direct the conversation. This means that they ask open-ended questions to their clients, which provides them with rich and qualitative information about the client’s personality. This might also help the interviewer get valuable information about the client’s knowledge of the subject, personal conflicts, hidden emotions, etc. 

Where are unstructured interviews used?

Unstructured interviews can be used in any field where the purpose is to collect qualitative data. Job interviews are an excellent example of unstructured interviews.  In these, a recruiter might start with a standard question that is still open-ended (For example, ‘Tell us about yourself?’)  and then, depending on the candidate’s responses, modifies their next questions. This enables the recruiter to get information relevant to the purpose of the interview and, at the same time, is customized according to the responses of each specific candidate.

Some other areas where unstructured interviews are used:

  1. Panel Interviews
  2. Case Study
  3. Group Discussions
  4. Press Conferences

What are structured interviews?

As the names suggest, a structured interview is the opposite of an unstructured interview. In a structured interview, the interviewer follows a standardized format. Close-ended questions are asked to the interviewee, and there is no room for follow-up questions. The factors of the interview, like the number of questions, the sequence of questions, the duration of the interview, etc., are all pre-determined. The interviewer does not deviate from the decided schedule. There is usually a formal and serious tone to the interview.  The data collected is straightforward and relevant to the research topic. This is especially useful for quantitative research.  

Structured vs. Unstructured 

Structured Interviews Unstructured Interviews
Useful for quantitative research. Useful for qualitative research.
It follows a standardized format.Does not follow a standardized format.
Usually asks close-ended questions. Usually asks open-ended questions.
Formal and serious tone. Informal and laid-back tone.
Straight-forward answers.In-depth answers.

Advantages of Unstructured Interviews

  • Validity: Unstructured interviews are more capable of providing valid and clear data. This is because of their informal nature. The interview can be perceived as a safe and comfortable environment where the interviewee can respond freely without having to alter their answers to be more favorable or desirable. This is also helpful when talking about sensitive topics. Similarly, the interviewer can ask the interviewee for clarification or elaboration due to its unstructured form. This helps to get a deeper and clear understanding of the interviewee’s perspective and the research topic in general.

  • Flexibility: Unstructured interviews are more flexible due to their similarity with normal conversations. As there is no standard rule or template the interview can easily move towards any new development or new information. The interviewer can spontaneously improvise based on any new revelations that might have come up during the course of the interview. This enables a free dialogue with countless perspectives and ideas.

  • In-Depth Information: Unstructured interviews help to gather more qualitative data due to their use of open-ended questions. The interviewer can gain in-depth responses from the interviewee and their own views about the subject. This is beneficial to the interviewer to make an analysis based on different views. It might also provide the interviewer with additional information relevant to their research they might have not considered important previously.  

Disadvantages of Unstructured Interview

  • Time-Consuming: Unstructured interviews are more than often time-consuming and tedious. The interview process as well as the analysis of the collected information takes up a lot of time and resources. This is because of their unstructured nature. As there is no form, the interview can take many turns and twists and take up it’s own sweet time. Moreover, the information collected is unrefined which needs to be reviewed and filtered several times. Open-ended questions lead to elaborate answers. The interviewer can also take the research into a different area to explore as they seem fit. As the answers are varied and unpredictable, comparisons between data is difficult. All this leads to an exhaustive process.

  • Unsuitable for Quantitative Research: Unstructured interviews are not suitable in areas where quantitative data is required. Structured interviews make a better fit in fields where statistical data is the end goal. Unstructured interviews do not pose the same standard questions to all their subjects and hence, gaining statistical data becomes difficult. These interviews gather a large amount of data which is complicated to categorize and analyze. The answers collected are usually subjective which cannot be converted into numerical data. Hence, unstructured interviews are best suitable for qualitative research and not quantitative research. 

  • Research Bias: It is believed that personal bias plays a role in unstructured interviews. The interview being synonym to a conversation can allow areas where the interviewer’s or the interviewee’s bias comes into play. Their personal views can affect the validity of the research. There is a possibility of personal conflicts to seep into the discussion due to its informal nature. Moreover, the responses of the interviewee can be influenced by interpersonal interpretations which might not be factually accurate. Factors like race, gender, class, disabilities can likely affect the interviewer or the interviewee’s interpretations. 


To conclude, an unstructured interview is a guided dialogue with a determined purpose. It is excellent for qualitative research as it gives you an in-depth analysis of different viewpoints. Through the use of open-ended and follow-up questioning, the interviewer gets a deeper understanding of the topic. This is especially useful when dealing with smaller groups and with no time constraints. They are preferable when researching sensitive subjects as they provide a safe and informal environment for interviewees.

However, they have their advantages and disadvantages. It is best to find a way to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages with a skillful approach. Structured and unstructured interviews are widely used independently for different types of research.  There is no ‘better’ method among the structured and unstructured types. Your choice of selecting either of these for your research should depend on the purpose of your research, the time you can invest, and the end goal. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I prepare for an unstructured interview?

The best way to prepare for the ambiguity of unstructured interviews is to be calm and confident in yourself. Make sure your answers are genuine. It is best to stick to the interview topic and not stray away too far, giving unnecessary information.

  • How can I choose between structured and unstructured interviews?

To choose between the two types, take a look at the topic of your research. There are certain factors to be considered, like the purpose of your interview, the number of respondents, the time constraints, the type of research, and the end goal. For example, if your research requires subjective responses and in-depth analysis, then an unstructured interview would be a better fit.

  • What can I do to avoid the awkward and silent gaps between the interview?

It is very much possible that an unstructured interview can have small awkward silences as there is no standard template to refer to. Being spontaneous, sometimes there may be gaps where either of the two parties could be thinking of what to say next. Remember, here is not to try too hard to say something to fill in the gaps. This might make a stale impression. If you are an interviewee, stay calm, let the interviewer ask their next question, and trust them to take the interview forward. You can also ask any question you might have. If you are the one interviewing, listen carefully to the interviewer. This will help you to ask any follow-up questions and avoid silent gaps. 

What is an Unstructured Interview?

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