Whether you're building a new product or improving an existing one, one tool in your research arsenal can give you significant insights about your users: user interviews.

In our user interview series, we've discussed structured interviews, which use a fixed set of questions in a specific order, and semi-structured interviews, which use a smaller set of pre-prepared open-ended questions, with the flexibility to probe deeper into responses.

In this guide, we'll be discussing unstructured interviews for user research. We’ll cover the following:

  • What is an unstructured interview for user research?

  • Advantages and disadvantages of unstructured interviews

  • Unstructured interview questions

  • How to conduct an unstructured interview

  • Analyzing unstructured interviews

  • Presenting unstructured interview findings

By the end of this guide, you should be confident in starting an unstructured interview study with your UX research team.

What is an unstructured interview for user research?

An unstructured interview is the most flexible type of interview method, as it involves using participant responses to form subsequent questions. As such, there are very few (if any) set questions prior to the start of an unstructured interview.

Beyond basic introductory questions to confirm that you’re talking to the correct participant, unstructured interview questions are open-ended, allowing for detailed responses and opportunities to discover information you might not have been able to get with a more structured approach.

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When should you conduct unstructured interviews?

Since the strength of unstructured interviews is gathering new and deep information, the best time to conduct this type of exploratory research is as early as possible in the research process.

Unstructured interviews can help you better understand your users’ attitudes, behaviors, and preferences. They can set a foundation for future research and validate any ideas that develop through the unstructured interview stage.

In other words, if you're looking for descriptive data to help you contextualize an existing hypothesis, or if you're looking for information to help develop a new hypothesis, an unstructured interview study could be a great choice.

Unstructured interviews

Advantages of unstructured interviews

As a qualitative researcher in my academic field, I may be slightly biased in my preference for unstructured and semi-structured interviews. However, they still have pros and cons, especially in the context of UX research. So, let's first look at the advantages of unstructured interviews.

They're the most flexible type of interview method

As I've mentioned, unstructured interviews provide a lot of flexibility. That's because there aren't any set questions, and you respond to each participant's unique answers.

By having the freedom to delve deeper into participant responses and ask personalized, relevant questions based on their thoughts and experiences, you can discover new avenues for future research.

It's easier to build rapport with your participants

Since you’re more likely to be deeply engaged in their responses, participants tend to feel a greater rapport with you, as they're being listened to, not just heard and recorded.

An especially skilled interviewer can also make the interview feel more like a conversation, which can potentially reduce bias in the participant's responses (e.g. wanting to increase social desirability).

It's an excellent method for explorative work

When you have minimal background context for your target audience, developing a relevant testing hypothesis and test questions for a quantitative study can be extremely difficult.

An unstructured interview study can help you explore your users' lives and discover more of the "why" and "how" behind thoughts and behaviors rather than just the "what," allowing you to find solutions that deeply resonate with your users.

Disadvantages of unstructured interviews

As mentioned, it's not all sunshine and rainbows with unstructured interviews. Some downsides are worth considering before committing to an unstructured interview study.

You need a skilled interviewer

Since a significant factor in conducting unstructured interviews is developing new questions on the spot, you'll need an interviewer with prior experience to avoid introducing bias or asking leading questions.

The researcher also needs experience in skillfully redirecting a conversation back onto the research topic, which can be tricky in an unstructured interview.

They don’t often meet traditional credibility and validity standards

Most of the 'traditional' standards of research credibility and validity come from the modernity age, or 'the enlightenment' era – where the idea of finding an 'objective truth' was the highest priority. This is still often the case in quantitative research.

However, in qualitative research, the ‘truth' is often subjective to each participant's unique experiences. Researchers with a background in quantitative methodology can struggle to shift their research philosophy, including validity, to accept the subjectivity of qualitative work.

Similarly, if the interviewer strays too far from the research objective in their interview, this can reduce (or remove) the internal validity of the research.

They can take a lot longer than other types of interviews

Lastly, given the explorative nature of unstructured interviews, with open-ended and probing questions, they can take much longer to conduct and analyze than structured or semi-structured interviews.

As a result, you'll need to factor that extra time into the overall research project, which can impact the research budget and the number of participants you can realistically interview.

Also, if you manually transcribe your interviews, you may miss important data. We’d ‌ recommend using an accurate automated transcription service.

Unstructured interviews

Unstructured interview questions

Since you won't have a specific set of questions to work with in an unstructured user interview, you'll need to rely on the conversation and cues in your participants' responses to guide things – even if you have an idea of some questions you'd like to ask.

Beyond needing a skilled interviewer, the key to unstructured interviews is preparing some background information on the topic you're researching ahead of time. Prep some notes to bring along to the interview to help you develop questions relevant to your research question while keeping the participant's responses in mind.

Another tip is to ask open-ended questions that encourage your participant to use a lengthy response — it might be difficult at first, but as the interview goes on, participants are likely to open up a bit more.

If you have trouble getting lengthy responses, use probing "how" and "why" questions to get them to elaborate more. Avoid questions they can answer with just a "yes" or "no."

For example, in a user interview for a study on improving site information architecture, you might ask questions like:

  • Think back to when you were browsing a site for information but couldn't find what you were looking for. How did you feel? And what did you do?

  • If you had the power to redesign the organization of this website completely, what changes would you make? Why?

  • How would you normally navigate this website to complete X tasks?

No matter what questions you ask, start the interview with one that's easy to answer to help the participant feel more comfortable.

How to conduct an unstructured interview

So, now we'll discuss some of the more practical elements of conducting an unstructured interview study. There are four main steps: planning, recruiting participants, interviewing, and post-interview data analysis and report building.

Step 1: Planning

The first action you need to take is deciding what the goal or objective of your research is – only then will you be able to plan your study accordingly, including the context of questions, the participants you'll want to recruit, and how you'll interview them (remotely or in person).

Even though unstructured interviews are … unstructured … that doesn't mean they're unorganized. You'll need to stay vigilant about organizing your interviews and the data you generate to make sure you don't miss important information.

Make sure you have appropriate folders for background notes, notes you may take during the interview, and your transcripts. If being a student for a decade has taught me anything, it's that you need to back up your research project (either in the cloud or on a physical storage drive). You don't want to lose anything!

Step 2: Recruit participants

You may want to recruit participants from your existing user pool. If that's not possible, you can use your brand's ideal customer profile (ICP) to find matching participants from a research panel.

Also, consider the length of the interviews and your research budget – you'll likely end up with a small number of participants, which is expected in qualitative work.

Want to know how many user interviews you should do? Our article has all the important things to think about when making this decision for your UX research.

Step 3: Conduct your interviews

If you decide to conduct interviews in person, you'll need to schedule a mutually beneficial time and place for your participants to attend. Otherwise, if you opt for remote interviewing, you only need to worry about the schedule (and that the technology is working!).

Either way, once you've got your participants in the room (or on camera), greet them and confirm their consent to participate in the research. From there, lay out your expectations for the interview in terms of engagement and the expected interview length.

Remember to bring your notes and start with an easy question to break the ice.

Step 4: Post-interview analysis and reporting

Once you've completed the interviews, you should answer any follow-up questions you might have received, but otherwise, move on to transcribing them.

If you're transcribing manually and you're a reasonably quick typer, try speeding up the interview by 25% to help you complete the task. Otherwise, if you upload your interviews to Lyssna (or use an integration for automatic uploading), you can get an accurate, automated transcript ready for analysis.

After you analyze and synthesize the data, you can pull all your findings into a report ready to share with key research stakeholders.

Analyzing unstructured interviews

Unstructured interviews generate a ton of descriptive data, so thematic analysis is often the best method. Content analysis is another option, but that works best for existing content (e.g. feedback forms, website reviews, etc.)

To perform a thematic analysis, you'll need your transcripts and preferably software that will help you code them (you can code transcripts manually, but this adds time, and it would need someone with experience in qualitative coding).

Software such as Dovetail is a great option for brands to use for coding (I used a software called NVivo in my Master's and PhD, but this would be an expensive choice without an educator/student license).

To code your transcripts, you examine the text line by line and look for patterns, sentiments, common phrases, pain points, positive points, etc. Then, you 'tag' the text with a code.

It's best practice to examine your text at least twice, as some codes you add later might be relevant for earlier text.

Then, you group the texts by their codes and group codes by similarity. From there, determine if there's a common theme among them – these themes will be your findings.

If you prefer content analysis, another option is word clouds – a software feature that highlights words and phrases based on frequency.

Unstructured interviews

Presenting unstructured interview findings

No matter what research project you do, you'll need to present your findings to your stakeholders.

This will likely be a presentation or a written research report (or even both). Regardless of the format, you'll nearly always follow this pattern for presenting your research:

  • Research objectives: Present the purpose of your research and any key highlights you found important.

  • Methodology: In the case of unstructured interviews, present your participant recruitment strategy, discuss the reason for choosing this method, and your choice of analysis.

  • Findings: Discuss the themes from your data, highlighting samples to illustrate your points.

  • Discussion and recommendations: Do your findings help to achieve your research objectives? Based on what you've found, how would you recommend proceeding?

It's a good idea to save your presentation or report in a research repository, where you and other team members can refer to it in the future.

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Gain rich feedback from user interviews

Conducting user interviews for a UX research study can initially seem intimidating. Still, with good planning and the right technology, you can gain rich feedback.

So, if you'd like to take a qualitative approach to your next study, try using unstructured interviews – you may be surprised at what your users say.


Alexander Boswell is the Founder/Director of SaaSOCIATE, a B2B SaaS, MarTech and eCommerce Content Marketing Service and a Business PhD candidate. When he’s not writing, he’s playing baseball and D&D.

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