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Semi-Structured Interview

21 Jul 2021

two laptops with a coffee and a plant

Interviews are an essential part of the employment process. It would be impossible to take new team members on without having the chance to talk to them about their work and experience, but there are several different ways to approach something like this.

Semi-structured interviews have gained a lot of popularity in recent years, providing a unique approach to interviewing that can yield excellent results. But what exactly is a semi-structured interview and how does this process work? Let’s take a look.

What is a semi-structured interview?

Like any job interview, a semi-structured interview is designed to determine whether or not a candidate fits the job placement that they have applied for. Questions will be asked and the candidate will be expected to provide relatively quick answers, but these will be open-ended questions.

This enables the interviewer to follow up with questions that aren’t planned. This creates a back and forth dialogue that can make it much easier to assess a person’s knowledge and ability to do their job. Of course, though, this will be done with the aim of gathering specific information that the interviewer needs to make their final decision.

Who is responsible for a semi-structured interview?

Just like in a structured interview, the moderator will be responsible for each aspect of a semi-structured one. They will ask leading questions to get the answers they want, often coming up with new questions to ask on the fly.

Of course, though, this doesn’t mean that the candidate isn’t responsible for their own end of the interview. Good candidates will be responsive to the questions they are asked, going into detail and even asking their own questions. This enables a conversation to form, and this has been shown to be very successful in a lot of cases.

What is the semi-structured interview format?

In most cases, semi-structured interviews will have a less rigid format than structured ones. Once one of the prepared questions has been asked, the interviewee will be able to control the format of the interview somewhat. They can choose to answer questions in-depth or ask their own questions to show their understanding.

This can make it feel as though there is no format at all, though this isn’t the case. The format will still involve asking questions, though they won’t have definite answers and will often be impossible to get wrong.

What is the purpose of semi-structured interviews?

The main purpose of semi-structured interviews is to collect qualitative data about job candidates that have applied for a role. This methodology has been designed to make it possible for candidates to take the initiative and show their knowledge without being asked questions directly.

This makes unstructured interviews a powerful tool for both employment and research, with data collection being much easier when candidates are able to provide it without being directly prompted. Of course, though, this means that moderators must be paying attention to collect the data that they need.

What is the difference between a structured and semi-structured interview?

While structured and semi-structured interviews can be very similar, they also have some key differences that make them stand out from one another. It’s important to understand these differences before you begin preparing your interviews, as the approach you take can lead to very different results.

Open-ended questions

Rather than asking questions with yes or no answers, semi-structured interviews revolve around questions that are open-ended. This is done with the intention of starting a dialogue that doesn’t rely on interview questions being asked before the interviewee can say anything or provide information.

Testing initiative

Structured interviews are usually done with the aim of collecting specific data and information, but a semi-structured interview can be very different. Your candidates will be able to take the initiative and show their communication skills, while also being able to ask questions for themselves that will make it easier to see if they fit the job they’ve applied for.

Advantages & disadvantages of semi-structured interviews

Like any interview methodology, both structured and semi-structured interviews come with advantages and disadvantages. You need to have an idea of these areas before you attempt to conduct your interview, ensuring that you know what needs to be done when you’re going through this process.

Advantages of a semi-structured interview

  • Encouraging Conversations: Semi-structured interviews provide the opportunity for a natural conversation to form about the topic being discussed. This enables candidates to provide more information about sensitive topics, while also giving the interviewer the freedom to make more than one attempt to gather the information they need.

  • Qualitative Data Collection: This interview methodology makes it possible to collect qualitative data from interviewees that can be compared to the information provided by others. 

  • Less Stressful For Interviewees: Thanks to the relaxed nature of a semi-structured interview, many candidates will feel better about taking this type of interview. This can lower their stress levels and make it possible for them to provide better answers to the questions that you are asking them.

  • Providing Context For Answers: Semi-structured interviews give interviewees the chance to provide context for their answers. This can provide valuable insight into the knowledge and abilities, giving you the ability to figure out which candidates are essentially reading from a script.

Disadvantages of a semi-structured interview

  • Information Might Be Missed: It can be all too easy to miss out on important information when you rely on a semi-structured interview process. This means that interviewers have to work hard to make sure that they are asking the right probing questions to get the information they need.

  • Data Analysis Is Harder: Qualitative data is harder to analyse than quantitative data, and this also applies to interviews. This means that you are likely to have to do more work after a semi-structured interview to compare and contrast the results of each of your candidates.

  • Harder For Less Confident Interviewees: People who struggle with self-confidence may find semi-structured interviews harder than those who are very confident. This can make it all too easy for interviewers to mistake this lack of confidence for a lack of knowledge, even for roles that don’t require confidence.

As you can see, this interviewing methodology can provide a range of benefits and downsides. The disadvantages can often be overcome, but you still need to make sure that you’re choosing your interview method based on the type of role that is on offer.

How do you prepare for a semi-structured interview?

Preparing for a semi-structured interview can take less work than preparing for a structured one, but the type of preparation that needs to be done will be different. While you won’t have to prepare countless questions, you will need a way to gather the qualitative data you are collecting, and this can be a challenge.

Preparing Questions

Unlike a structured interview, the questions you prepare for an interview like this will usually be based on your talking points. This means that you will only need one question for each of the areas you need to talk about, but you need to make sure that they will offer the chance for interviewees to give you the information you’re looking for.

This can be a difficult process, and it will be well worth exploring sample interview questions before you start working on them. This can be as much about psychology as it is about getting information, making it a challenge for many employers who don’t have experience in this field.

Data Collection Methods

Structured interviews can often be held with nothing more than a pen and paper. The answers to questions can be ticked off of a list, and this means that the interviewer won’t need to collect the whole conversation. Semi-structured interviews are different.

Rather than having simple answers, you will have a lot of information to unpack at the end of the interview you’ve held. This makes it worth having methods to collect your data that will be easy to work with down the line. Audio and video recordings are perfect for this, though many interviewers will devise their own methods to ensure that they can get the information they need.

What are the steps to follow in a semi-structured interview?

As their name suggests, semi-structured interviews don’t have a rigid set of steps that can be followed to get the best results each time. Despite this, you can still adopt a general workflow that will make it possible to improve the consistency of your results between interviews. This can be achieved with ease once you have some practice, but it might take some time and experience to be able to do it perfectly.

Asking A Question

The first step in a semi-structured interview will be to ask an open-ended question. This will enable the interviewee to start talking about themselves, while also prompting them to keep the conversation moving in the right direction.

Assess The Answer

Once you have an answer to a question, it will be time to perform a brief assessment to make sure that you have gathered the information you need. If you have, you can move on to asking the next question. If not, though, you will need to think of another open-ended question to ask that will help the interviewee to offer the information you’re looking for.

Repeat The Process

Once you are satisfied with the answer to your first question, you can move onto the next one, and these steps will be repeated through your interview until it is complete. In some cases, you won’t need to ask everything on your list of questions, as the interviewee will provide the information in other answers.

The End Of The Interview

You’re going to have a lot of information to unravel once the interview is over. This will be easier if you have used good data collection methods, though you may also find that you need to keep your talking points in mind to get the best results. 

Common mistakes in a semi-structured interview

Using a semi-structured interview methodology can be a good way to improve the results of your interviews. While this may be so, though, you also need to think about the mistakes that can be made when you’re going through this process before you plan the interview you will be conducting.

  • Non-Leading Questions: The questions you ask are incredibly important during a semi-structured interview. You need to be extremely careful to avoid asking questions that won’t prompt a dialogue between you and the interviewee, and it can take some time to get to this point.

  • Skipping Important Information: Many interviewers find themselves moving onto the next question too quickly during their interviews. You will need to put a lot of time into each question, ensuring that you leave each one feeling satisfied before you move onto a new talking point.

  • Getting Distracted: While the whole point of a semi-structured interview is to start a conversation with your candidates, it can be all too easy to get distracted by the things you are talking about. You need to make sure that you keep on topic, even if the interviewee has a lot of interesting things to say.

  • Good Talkers vs. Good Candidates: Just because someone talks well and seems confident doesn’t mean that they are the right fit for the job. It’s crucial that you keep yourself mindful of the fact that a good impression can easily be formed without proving that someone is good for the job.

Are Semi-Structured Interviews The Best Method?

It is impossible to say which interview method is the best and which is the worst. There are a lot of interview methods out there, and each job role will benefit from a different approach. For example, this type of methodology can be ideal for jobs like research positions that will require employees that can take the initiative. For a role in a supermarket, though, a simple structured interview will probably be better.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re planning an interview, especially when you have a lot of candidates. Using the best methods can help with this, but you should also make sure that you feel confident in the methods you use before conducting interviews with them.

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