Designing interview studies

When researchers design qualitative interview studies they make a range of decisions. These decisions relate to pre- and post- elements of a study and impact what happens during the conduct of a study. This infographic represents decision points arranged in five areas. Although presented linearly, answering these questions can occur concurrently. It is important for researchers to think about these questions during the design phase, rather than beginning a study and encountering unexpected obstacles.

First, researchers situate their use of qualitative inquiry within their theoretical and methodological approach to research. One common approach to interview research is to use semi-structured interviews, in which researchers develop questions concerning the research topic. When conducting interviews they follow the lead of interviewees, rather than simply asking the next interview question. This means that what is discussed in semi-structured interviews will be different for any particular group of people since follow-up questions are based on individual interviewees’ accounts. Other researchers draw on more specific forms of interviews. For example, a feminist researcher might take a feminist approach to conduct interviews. Rather than dictating a specific style of interviewing, feminist interviewing relates to the ethical and relational qualities of the study as a whole. As another example, researchers using ethnography would likely use ethnographic interviews in which researchers observe what goes on in a field setting and ask questions in informal interviews related to the language use, activities, events, objects, and space and place in the community studied. Researchers make use of oral and life history interviews to study past events and people’s lived experiences, dyadic interviews (i.e., interviews with two people) in research with couples and families, and focus groups when examining people’s perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. Researchers have used walking or “go-along” interviews in which they spend time with participants and attend to space and place while walking or driving. Interviewers also used objects and images as a way to prompt participants’ story-telling. Deciding on the most appropriate approach to interviewing depends on the goals of a research study and the research questions posed. This list of approaches to interviewing is not exhaustive!

Second, researchers decide on what population can best answer questions about the research topic and how to go about selecting a sample. Qualitative studies typically use some form of criterion-based sampling that lists the criteria by which potential interviewees will be selected. To gain permission for human subjects’ research from an ethical review or institutional review board (IRB), researchers must project how many participants they will need to interview to generate sufficient data to answer the research questions, and describe the methods of recruitment. There is no “right” answer to questions to do with how many participants or interviews are needed for a study. Answers to these questions depend on many factors, including the research questions posed, the theoretical and methodological framing for a study, the audience to whom researchers wish to report findings, and how the quality of research is assessed in a specific discipline.

Third, when designing interview studies, if the researcher has identified specific considerations relative to a population, this may inform how interviews are conducted. For example, if participants are members of a “hard-to-reach” population (e.g., involved in illicit activities, or vulnerable in some way), researchers may need to do considerable work to gain the trust of a community in order to begin research. This may involve spending time in the community, working with co-researchers, or developing relationships with gatekeepers who can help with gaining access to potential participants. As in any research study, researchers must have good reasons for conducting the study and be able to explain these to potential participants. There are many populations for whom researchers have developed particular strategies to generate useful data. For example, researchers have used play-based methods when talking to young children, rather than conducting formal interviews. Researchers examining how people living with Alzheimer’s navigate community space have used walking interviews. When researchers conduct cross-cultural research, they think about what it means for participants to answer questions in a non-native language and whether an interpreter is needed. If interviews are conducted in a language other than the language for reporting, researchers must decide at what point interview accounts will be translated. Similarly, when researchers examine sensitive topics (e.g., intimate partner violence) they consider how to safeguard both participants and themselves when traumatic events are described. Researchers also think about their relationship to the research topic and the participants, and what this means for the generation of data. This means that researchers recognize both the benefits and limitations entailed by their “positionalities.”

Fourth, when planning a study, researchers decide how and where they will interview participants (e.g., in-person or online). Researchers have successfully used synchronous and asynchronous tools to conduct interviews online. Email interviews provide participants time to reflect on questions and respond to researchers over a longer time period. Asynchronous and synchronous interviews conducted using Voice Over Internet Protocols (VOIPs) such as Zoom, Facetime, or Skype enable researchers to recruit participants at a distance. Depending on the approach to interviewing that a researcher decides to use, they will likely develop an interview guide that lists the questions to be posed to participants. In qualitative inquiry, interview questions are typically open rather than closed in order to encourage participants to tell stories. Researchers usually arrange interview questions, beginning with broad topics before moving to specific questions related to the study. In the planning stage, researchers think through exactly what they are asking participants to do. What is the expected duration of interviews? How many interviews will be conducted? Will participants have the opportunity to participate in “member validation” – that is, will they be expected to review transcriptions and/or preliminary findings? These are the types of things that researchers explain during the informed consent process prior to interviewing a participant.

Fifth, although there are numerous voice-to-text applications that assist transcription, researchers must allow time for checking the accuracy of initial transcriptions. Decisions about what information to include in a transcription relate to how a researcher plans to analyze data, and to whom they wish to represent the study’s findings. When designing a study, researchers consider how they intend to transcribe interview talk, and analyze and represent data. Qualitative researchers use numerous approaches to data analysis and these relate to the ontological, epistemological, and theoretical frameworks informing the design of their studies.

Once researchers have designed a qualitative interview study, they need to complete an application to conduct research involving people with their local IRB. Once permission has been granted, they will then prepare to conduct interviews. And that is another topic!

Kathy Roulston


Roulston, K. (2022). Interviewing: A guide to theory and practice. SAGE.

Roulston, K., & Halpin, S. N. (2022). Designing qualitative research using interview data. In U. Flick (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Design (pp. 667-683). SAGE

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