Structured interviews

  • Typically consisting of 10 questions or less.
  • Designed to be conducted quickly, each interview taking between 5 and 15 minutes, either on the spot or by self-completion.
  • Repeated with a larger number of participants (case studies ranged from 15-20).

Structured questionnaires are commonly utilised for quantitative research but, although the format and means of completion leans towards shorter responses, providing the scope for open ended responses can allow for qualitative analysis. A critique remains that the framing of the questions is determined by the researcher and can be leading or reflect inherent assumptions and biases.

  • A simple A4 trifold flyer was developed (using a MSWord template) with information about the project, contact details, and small number of key questions.
  • Permission was obtained from the building manager to conduct a letterbox drop and one flyer was posted to each household. Large text versions were available upon request.
  • Simultaneously, posters about the study were put up in communal areas of the building.
  • A sealed box was placed in the concierge’s office for completed responses or responses could be emailed directly to an address given on the flyer.
  • Following a low response rate with self-completion, the same questions were used in short in-person interviews, approaching people in communal areas, on the street, or in public places (such as play parks) in the surrounding area.

Structured interviews were trialled in three studies (the Caterthuns, Cables Wynd House and Kinneil House & Estate) using both in-person and self-completion.

  • In-person completion rates ranged from 33% to 100%. In-person approaches also allowed for some follow-up questions with respondents who were willing to talk at more length, which resulted in more detailed responses.
  • The self-completion rate of leaflets dropped through people’s letterboxes at Cables Wynd House was less than 1%. Although the response rate was lower than expected, people who participated later in the study had seen the information, so it had been useful in raising awareness. The anonymity of self-completion may also yield responses that people are uncomfortable sharing in more public or in-person engagements.
  • The location where interview requests were made was also a factor in completion rates. People were less inclined to stop in town centres, where they were busy with their day-to-day business, than when visiting a site for leisure. However, interviewing in other locations may be important in engaging communities who are not present at the site.
  • In terms of the completed interviews, there was minimal difference in the degree of detail and type of response based on the location where the interview was conducted. The main point of difference was whether people had an established connection or association with a site or if they were visiting the area/site for the first time.

Semi-structured interviews

  • Also referred to as ‘key informant interviews’, indicating the targeted selection of participants.
  • Typically take 1 to 2 hours, allowing for in-depth and wide-ranging discussions.
  • Normally conducted one-on-one and in-person, although interviews can also be conducted by phone/online if necessary.

Semi-structured interviews allow for a depth of discussion and exchange. The researcher prepares a few key questions or prompts but the discussion is flexible and open to exploring unanticipated and new directions. Some feminist researchers have seen this form of interviewing as less hierarchical and extractive than more structured approaches, placing researcher and participant in a more equal and reciprocal relationship.

  • Potential respondents were identified by referral and (in many cases) confirmations of interest or an initial introduction was made by the established contact.
  • It was then possible to make direct contact, introducing the project and requesting a meeting. Information shared with participants in advance included the participant consent form and project information sheet.
  • A 1-2 hour interview required around 1 hour of prep (emails, background reading and question development).
  • Due to the nature of the site (outdoor) and time of year (autumn/winter), meetings mostly took place at a respondents’ place of work or in a quiet public place, such as a coffee shop.
  • A hard copy consent form and information sheet were provided at the start of the interview. This was a useful prompt to explain a little about the research and confirm the person’s time availability and expectations for the discussion.
  • Around six prepared questions were normally sufficient for an interview of 1-2 hours, depending on the talkativeness of the respondent. The questions addressed aspects of community, attachment, practice and memory.
  • Later that day or as soon as possible, the notes taken during the interview and any reflections on the process or content were typed up.
  • Each respondent received a note of thanks after the interview and, where relevant, follow-up on the information or contacts that they had offered to share.
  • Several people were interested in the project outputs and wanted to see the final site report, which was shared with all participants once drafted.

Semi-structured interviews were a core method for the research and were trialled in every study. The interviews explored issues such as personal memories and associations with the site, histories of engagement, personal or known practices and activities, and how the site featured in wider landscapes of significance and experience. The number of interviews varied by site, from 3 in the rapid Caterthuns study (where structured interviews were trialled prominently) to 9 in the extended Arnol Blackhouse study.

  • Semi-structured interviews with employees from managing agencies or formal representatives from community groups were frequently conducted early on in a study and provided a useful overview of the management context and active community relationships. Interviews with other community members took place throughout the research period as contacts were established.
  • Discussions were impacted by when and where the interviews took place. With a few exceptions, semi-structured interviews did not take place at the site and were therefore removed from an immediate experience of place.
  • Interviews were pre-arranged, meaning that participants had time to reflect in advance and consider what they wanted to share, as well as what they might be asked. Opportunities for participant reflection can be built into the interview process through scheduling a series of interviews and sharing transcripts in between.

What sort of questions to ask?

Open questions – What is your experience of… How would you describe… When were you last at… – rather than close questions that can be answered with Yes/No responses.

Indirect questions can sometimes be more effective in getting people talking than a direct question. When completing structured interviews, respondents found it difficult to describe their strongest memory. Their earliest memory or first visit to a site were easier for people to call to mind and (when completing an interview in-person) this then often led to sharing of other memories.

Follow-up questions – Can you tell me more about that… How did that make you feel… – can encourage people to share more details.

Allow for silences. This can be an important aspect of interviewing, as opposed to what we might normally consider as ‘a lapse in conversation’. Don’t rush to fill the gap, allow participants to use the space to think. Listening to a recorded interview is a good way to reflect on how much talking you are doing.

Allow the participant to ask questions and ask if there is anything else that they would like to share before concluding the interview. Allow an opportunity for reflection and for follow-up.

Be sensitive. Social values are connected to personal memories and feelings, which have the potential to be distressing or emotional. Remind participants at the outset that they are not required to answer any questions that they are uncomfortable with and that they have the right to withdraw from the process at any time. If a participant is becoming upset, bring the discussion to a close as quickly and sensitively as possible.

You may find it useful to listen to some interviews and reflect on the types of questions and interventions made by different interviewers. See online archives, for example the interviews recorded by the University of Stirling Oral History Group.

Where to interview?

Consider somewhere that will be convenient (for both of you) and conducive for your discussion.

For a semi-structured interview, choose somewhere sufficiently private, where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Ensure it is somewhere your participant will feel at ease and able to speak freely (this may not be the case in a formal space, like your office).

If people are busy with their day-to-day business, for example in town centres, they may be less inclined to stop and speak than if they are visiting a site for leisure and away from any immediate demands on their time. The benefit of approaching people in a range of locations is that you can engage communities not present at the site.

Audio Recordings and Transcription

Whether to record and transcribe interviews will depend on time available and the skill you have in note taking. If your real time note taking is sufficiently detailed and accurate to capture the feeling and content of discussions (including your own inputs), then audio recordings may not be necessary.

Transcription can be time consuming (3-4 times the duration of the original recording) and may not add significantly to the understanding obtained by reviewing real time notes.

However, audio recordings can be useful when it is difficult to take written notes, and in capturing other atmospheric details. There may be additional benefits, e.g. in studies connected to community archives or in documenting oral histories, which should be considered when making the decision whether or not to record interviews. If audio or video recordings are made with the intention of depositing the material in an archive (public or institutional), specific consent should be obtained from participants covering retention and potential future use. See for example the advice from the Scottish Oral History Centre.

Always make at least some written notes if possible, either in real time or immediately after the interview, as a back-up in case your files are lost/recording fails and to aid your memory.