Semi-Structured Interviews

Our earlier discussion focused on key informant interviews and how to conduct them. Key informant interviews are a type of interview which focuses on the main interlocutors who can provide you with the data you need.

They are very similar to semi-structured interviews, the key difference being that the latter can include interlocutors who are not absolutely central to your investigation.

In general, interviews are an excellent way of getting rich, qualitative data not only on how beneficiaries, stakeholders and participants feel about that project but also why they feel that way. They provide interesting insights from the field, as well as useful quotations.

They need to be prepared in advance and can follow a very structured, or a less structured format. They are usually done on a one to one basis and can be short (2 minutes) or more usually longer affairs lasting 30 minutes to an hour or so.

When interviewing vulnerable adults or children, particular care is needed and you should be particularly alert to ethical guidelines.

Semi-structured interviews involve interviews with beneficiaries/ stakeholders and NGO project staff. They involve a set of (pre-prepared but not rigidly applied) open and closed questions are a useful way of capturing softer data and of fact-checking claims or assumptions about a project/ programme.

These interviews can offer very rich data and tend to last between half an hour and an hour. You need to work out who you need to interview, when and why. You cannot do such in-depth interviews with everyone. So, who are the key beneficiaries or stakeholders or participants, perhaps also from your own organisation?

Sometimes you may just have to go with whoever is available but if you plan well enough in advance you increase your chances of getting better quality data. You may need an interpreter so build in the possible costs and extra transcription time associated.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Rich source of qualitative data  There can be issues of access to interviewees and suspicion of your motives, concerns over the anonymity of the interviewee
Good at checking assumptions and capturing impressions, attitudes, reasons for behaviourDanger of ‘happy talk’. Interviewees may just tell you what you want to hear
Useful for establishing outcomes/ impact: has the behaviour of participants changed?/ have their lives been transformed?Particular care is needed when dealing with children and vulnerable adults
Get round problem (which you have when using surveys) that some interviewees may be illiterateCan be time-consuming
Provide insights and cultural reference points which Northern NGOs often simply would not think ofThere may be a need to reward some interviewees and/ or to pay for the services of an interpreter/ translator

How to conduct semi-structured interviews 


  1. Decide what information you are looking for and whether semi-structured interviews are best suited to these ends? If you are interested in checking your assumptions or looking to identify attitudes, changes of behaviour and motives on the part of project participants and beneficiaries then semi-structured interviews are likely to be useful.
  2. Decide who you would like to speak to and let them know this well in advance by letter, email, text or word of mouth. Remember that particular care is needed when you plan to interview children or vulnerable adults: see ethical guidelines. You may wish to stress that the interview is anonymous, confidential and only attributable with the consent of interviewees.
  3. Let interviewees know in advance the purpose, format and venue of the interview. If requested, provide a list of possible questions. Ensure that the venue is accessible, relatively comfortable (e.g. in the shade if outdoors) and private (interviewees will open up more in such environments) but not too private (e.g. behind a locked door) as that can also intimidate some interviewees. Outdoor interviews can attract attention from other members of the village: is this likely to be a source of distraction or could it engage more interviewees?
  4. Prepare your list of questions. Some of these will usually be set questions (What is going well with the project? What could be improved and how?) Others will be tailored to specific interviewees. There would, for example, be little point asking an African schoolboy about the politics of the region. He could, however, provide valuable insights into questions of local schooling and family life.
  5. Bring a pad of paper and a pen. Alternatively, you may use a dictaphone, mobile phone or iPad recorder. But remember that will mean a lot of transcription later.
  6. If appropriate, arrange for an interpreter to be present at the right time and venue and have enough local currency with you to pay him/ her. Keep on good terms with this interpreter as you will need his/ her help with transcription and potentially future interviews.


  1. Start your interview by explaining/ reiterating the purpose of the interview, checking that you have informed consent, indicating how long it should take and pointing out that you will stop at any time if the interviewee feels uncomfortable.
  2. Begin with an open question then use both open and closed questions, including how and why questions and even ‘on a scale of 1 to 10′ type questions.
  3. Once you have asked your core questions, be flexible and think on your feet. You have your interviewee in front of you and he/she will have a view on at least some aspect of the project? Try to get some kind of useful insights or comments from every interviewee. After all, everyone is different and has a right to be heard.
  4. Ask if your interviewee thinks that there is anything you haven’t asked about that you should have? Ask who else you should speak to. This is a technique known as snowballing and can generate further interviews. But your time in the field may be limited so listen carefully as to why such interviewees might be useful. Ask for contact details (email or more usefully mobile phone number).


  1. Write up or transcribe your interview. This may require the help of your interpreter. You may also ask a colleague to help with the time-consuming business of transcription.
  2. Read through the interview data, along with other interview write-ups/ transcripts. Look at the answers to your core questions on what is going well, what could be improved, how have attitudes or behaviours changes, was the project right to assume X and Y? Coding techniques may be used if you are confident with this approach.
  3. Start to input this data into your evaluation or annual report. Some of the material may help you understand the project and report back on softer variables (increased feelings of security, happiness, renewed sense of community). For example:
    • Assumptions:  Our first assumption was confirmed by two villagers who claimed in interviews that access to drinking water is now the main concern of herders.
    • Outcomes:  Evidence was cited by interviewee X that schoolchildren now systematically wash their hands before lunch in the canteen.
    • Impact: In interviews, two local farmers reported that, as a direct result of the new techniques they have learned from this project, this is the first year that they have not had to throw away up to half their crop because of locust infestation.
  4. Finally, look for inconsistencies in your interview data. Can these be explained by further interviews or investigation? That is part of the process of triangulation, checking using more than one research method.
  5. Also, look out for evidence that your assumptions may be wrong and that your project may not be working or may even be doing harm. This kind of data, especially if confirmed by successive interviews or other investigative methods (e.g. surveys/ focus groups), is sometimes hard to take. Despite this, remember that there is often time to change course, alter your assumptions and potentially revise your theory of change. You may need to let your funders know, but such findings are not the end of the world and may help others better target their interventions.

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