Structured vs. unstructured interviews: A complete guide

Last updated

7 March 2023

Reviewed by

Miroslav Damyanov

Interviews can help you understand the context of a subject, eyewitness accounts of an event, people's perceptions of a product, and more.

In some instances, semi-structured or unstructured interviews can be more helpful; in others, structured interviews are the right choice to obtain the information you seek.

In some cases, structured interviews can save time, making your research more efficient. Let’s dive into everything you need to know about structured interviews.

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  • What are structured interviews?

Structured interviews are also known as standardized interviews, patterned interviews, or planned interviews. They’re a research instrument that uses a standard sequence of questions to collect information about the research subject. 

Often, you’ll use structured interviews when you need data that’s easy to categorize and quantify for a statistical analysis of responses.

Structured interviews are incredibly effective at helping researchers identify patterns and trends in response data. They’re great at minimizing the time and resources necessary for data collection and analysis.

What types of questions suit structured interviews?

Often, researchers use structured interviews for quantitative research . In these cases, they usually employ close-ended questions. 

Close-ended questions have a fixed set of responses from which the interviewer can choose. Because of the limited response selection set, response data from close-ended questions is easy to aggregate and analyze.

Researchers often employ multiple-choice or dichotomous close-ended questions in interviews. 

For multiple-choice questions, interviewees may choose between three or more possible answers. The interviewer will often restrict the response to four or five possible options. An interviewee will likely need help recalling more, which can slow down and complicate the interview process. 

For dichotomous questions, the interviewee may choose between two possible options. Yes or no and true or false questions are examples of dichotomous questions.

Open-ended questions are common in structured interviews. However, researchers use them when conducting qualitative research and looking for in-depth information about the interviewee's perceptions or experiences. 

These questions take longer for the interviewee to answer, and the answers take longer for the researcher to analyze. There's also a higher possibility of the researcher collecting irrelevant data. However, open-ended questions are more effective than close-ended questions in gathering in-depth information.

Sometimes, researchers use structured interviews in qualitative research. In this case, the research instrument contains open-ended questions in the same sequence. This usage is less common because it can be hard to compare feedback, especially with large sample sizes.

  • What types of structured interviews are there?

Researchers conduct structured interviews face-to-face, via telephone or videoconference, or through a survey instrument. 

Face-to-face interviews help researchers collect data and gather more detailed information. They can collect and analyze facial expressions, body language, tone, and inflection easier than they might through other interview methods . 

However, face-to-face interviews are the most resource-intensive to arrange. You'll likely need to assume travel and other related logistical costs for a face-to-face interview. 

These interviews also take more time and are more vulnerable to bias than some other formats. For these reasons, face-to-face interviews are best with a small sample size.

You can conduct interviews via an audio or video call. They are less resource-intensive than face-to-face interviews and can use a larger sample size. 

However, it can be difficult for the interviewer to engage effectively with the interviewee within this format, which can inject bias or ambiguity into the responses. This is particularly true for audio calls, especially if the interviewer and interviewee have not met before the interview. 

A video call can help the interviewer capture some data from body language and facial expressions, but less so than in a face-to-face interview. Technical issues are another thing to consider. If you’re studying a group of people that live in an area with limited Internet connectivity, this can make a video call challenging.

Survey questionnaires mirror the essential elements of structured interviews by containing a consistent sequence of standard questions. Surveys in quantitative research usually include close-ended questions. This data collection method can be beneficial if you need feedback from a large sample size.

Surveys are resource-efficient from a data administration standpoint but are more limited in the data they can gather. Further, if a survey question is ambiguous, you can’t clear up the ambiguity before someone responds. 

By contrast, in a face-to-face or tele-interview, an interviewee may ask clarifying questions or exhibit confusion when asked an unclear question, allowing the interviewer to clarify.

  • What are some common examples of structured interviews?

Structured interviews are relevant in many fields. You can find structured interviews in human resources, marketing, political science, psychology, and more. 

Academic and applied researchers commonly use them to verify insights from analyzing academic literature or responses from other interview types.

However, one of the most common structured interview applications lies outside the research realm: Human resource professionals and hiring managers commonly use these interviews to hire employees.

A hiring manager can easily compare responses and whittle down the applicant pool by posing a standard set of closed-ended interview questions to multiple applicants. 

Further, standard close-ended or open-ended questions can reduce bias and add objectivity and credibility to the hiring process.

Structured interviews are common in political polling. Candidates and political parties may conduct structured interviews with relatively small voter groups to obtain feedback. They ask questions about issues, messaging, and voting intentions to craft policies and campaigns.

  • What do you need to conduct a structured interview?

The tools you need to conduct a structured interview vary by format. But fundamentally, you will need: 

A participant

An interviewer

A pen and pad (or other note-taking tools)

A recording device

A consent form

A list of interview questions

While some interviewees may express qualms about you recording the interview, it’s challenging to conduct quality interviews while taking detailed notes. Even if you have a note-taker in the room, note-taking may introduce bias and can’t capture body language or facial expressions. 

Depending on the nature of your study, others may wish to review your sources. If they call your conclusions into question, audio recordings are additional evidence in your favor.

To record, you should ask the interviewee to sign a consent form. Check with your employer's legal counsel or institutional review board at your academic institution for guidance about obtaining consent legally in your state. 

If you're conducting a face-to-face interview, a camcorder, digital camera, or even some smartphones are sufficient for recording.

For a tele-interview, you'll find that today's leading video conferencing software applications feature a convenient recording function for data collection.

If a survey is your method of choice, you'll need the survey and a distribution and collection method. Online survey software applications allow you to create surveys by inputting the questions and distributing your survey via text or email. 

In some cases, survey companies even offer packages in which they will call those who do not respond via email or text and conduct the survey over the phone.

  • How to conduct a structured interview

If you're planning a face-to-face interview, you'll need to take a few steps to do it efficiently. 

First, prepare your questions and double-check that the structured interview format is best for your study. Make sure that they are neutral, unbiased, and close-ended. Ask a friend or colleague to test your questions pre-interview to ensure they are clear and straightforward.

Choose the setting for your interviews. Ideally, you'll select a location that is easy to get to. If you live in a city, consider addresses accessible via public transportation. 

The room where your interview takes place should be comfortable, without distraction, and quiet, so your recording device clearly captures your interviewee's audio.

If you're looking to interview people with specific characteristics, you'll need to recruit them. Some companies specialize in interview recruitment. You provide the attributes you need, and they identify a pool of candidates for a fee. Alternatively, you can advertise to participants on social media and other relevant avenues. 

If you're looking for college students in a specific region, look at student newspaper ads or affiliated social media pages. 

You'll also want to incentivize participation, as recruiting interview respondents without compensation is exceedingly difficult. It’s best to include a line or two about requiring written consent for participation and how you’ll use the interview audio.

When you have an interview participant, discuss the intent of your research and acquire their consent. Ensure your recording tools are working well, and begin your interview. 

Don't rely on the recordings alone: Note the most significant insights from your participant, as you could easily forget them when it's time to analyze your data.

You'll want to transcribe your audio at the data analysis stage. Some recording applications use AI to generate transcripts. Remove filler words and other sounds to generate a clear transcript for the best results. 

A written transcript will help you analyze data and pull quotes from your audio to include in your final research paper.

  • What are other common types of interviews?

Typically, you'll find researchers using at least one of these other common interview types:

Semi-structured interviews

As the name suggests, semi-structured interviews include some elements of a structured interview. You’ll include preplanned questions, but you can deviate from those questions to explore the interviewee's answers in greater depth.

Typically, a researcher will conduct a semi-structured interview with preplanned questions and an interview guide. The guide will include topics and potential questions to ask. Sometimes, the guide may also include areas or questions to avoid asking.

Unstructured interviews

In an unstructured interview , the researchers approach the interview subjects without predetermined questions. Researchers often use this qualitative instrument to probe into personal experiences and testimony, typically toward the beginning of a research study. 

Often, you’ll validate the insights you gather during unstructured and semi-structured interviews with structured interviews, surveys, and similar quantitative research tools.

Focus group interviews

Focus group interviews differ from the other three types of interviews as you pose the questions to a small group. Focus groups are typically either structured or semi-structured. When researchers employ structured interview questions, they are typically confident in the areas they wish to explore. 

Semi-structured interviews are perfect for a researcher seeking to explore broad issues. However, you must be careful that unplanned questions are unambiguous and neutral. Otherwise, you could wind up with biased results.

What is a structured vs. an unstructured interview?

A structured interview consists of standard preplanned questions for data collection. These questions may be close-ended, open-ended, or a combination. 

By contrast, an unstructured interview includes unplanned questions. In these interviews, you’ll usually equip facilitators with an interview guide. This includes guidelines for asking questions and samples that can help them ask relevant questions.

What are the advantages of a structured interview?

Relative to other interview formats, a structured interview is usually more time-efficient. With a preplanned set of questions, your interview is less likely to go into tangents, especially if you use close-ended questions. 

The more structure you provide to the interview, the more likely you are to generate responses that are easy to analyze. By contrast, an unstructured interview may involve a freewheeling conversation with off-topic and irrelevant feedback that lasts a long time.

What is an example of a structured question?

A structured question is any question you ask in an interview that you’ve preplanned and standardized.

For example, if you conduct five interviews and the first question you ask each one is, "Do you believe the world is round, yes or no?" you have asked them a structured question. This is also a close-ended dichotomous question.

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The Interview Method In Psychology

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

On This Page:

Interviews involve a conversation with a purpose, but have some distinct features compared to ordinary conversation, such as being scheduled in advance, having an asymmetry in outcome goals between interviewer and interviewee, and often following a question-answer format.

Interviews are different from questionnaires as they involve social interaction. Unlike questionnaire methods, researchers need training in interviewing (which costs money).

Multiracial businesswomen talk brainstorm at team meeting discuss business ideas together. Diverse multiethnic female colleagues or partners engaged in discussion. Interview concept

How Do Interviews Work?

Researchers can ask different types of questions, generating different types of data . For example, closed questions provide people with a fixed set of responses, whereas open questions allow people to express what they think in their own words.

The researcher will often record interviews, and the data will be written up as a transcript (a written account of interview questions and answers) which can be analyzed later.

It should be noted that interviews may not be the best method for researching sensitive topics (e.g., truancy in schools, discrimination, etc.) as people may feel more comfortable completing a questionnaire in private.

There are different types of interviews, with a key distinction being the extent of structure. Semi-structured is most common in psychology research. Unstructured interviews have a free-flowing style, while structured interviews involve preset questions asked in a particular order.

Structured Interview

A structured interview is a quantitative research method where the interviewer a set of prepared closed-ended questions in the form of an interview schedule, which he/she reads out exactly as worded.

Interviews schedules have a standardized format, meaning the same questions are asked to each interviewee in the same order (see Fig. 1).

interview schedule example

   Figure 1. An example of an interview schedule

The interviewer will not deviate from the interview schedule (except to clarify the meaning of the question) or probe beyond the answers received.  Replies are recorded on a questionnaire, and the order and wording of questions, and sometimes the range of alternative answers, is preset by the researcher.

A structured interview is also known as a formal interview (like a job interview).

  • Structured interviews are easy to replicate as a fixed set of closed questions are used, which are easy to quantify – this means it is easy to test for reliability .
  • Structured interviews are fairly quick to conduct which means that many interviews can take place within a short amount of time. This means a large sample can be obtained, resulting in the findings being representative and having the ability to be generalized to a large population.


  • Structured interviews are not flexible. This means new questions cannot be asked impromptu (i.e., during the interview), as an interview schedule must be followed.
  • The answers from structured interviews lack detail as only closed questions are asked, which generates quantitative data . This means a researcher won’t know why a person behaves a certain way.

Unstructured Interview

Unstructured interviews do not use any set questions, instead, the interviewer asks open-ended questions based on a specific research topic, and will try to let the interview flow like a natural conversation. The interviewer modifies his or her questions to suit the candidate’s specific experiences.

Unstructured interviews are sometimes referred to as ‘discovery interviews’ and are more like a ‘guided conservation’ than a strictly structured interview. They are sometimes called informal interviews.

Unstructured interviews are most useful in qualitative research to analyze attitudes and values. Though they rarely provide a valid basis for generalization, their main advantage is that they enable the researcher to probe social actors’ subjective points of view.

Interviewer Self-Disclosure

Interviewer self-disclosure involves the interviewer revealing personal information or opinions during the research interview. This may increase rapport but risks changing dynamics away from a focus on facilitating the interviewee’s account.

In unstructured interviews, the informal conversational style may deliberately include elements of interviewer self-disclosure, mirroring ordinary conversation dynamics.

Interviewer self-disclosure risks changing the dynamics away from facilitation of interviewee accounts. It should not be ruled out entirely but requires skillful handling informed by reflection.

  • An informal interviewing style with some interviewer self-disclosure may increase rapport and participant openness. However, it also increases the chance of the participant converging opinions with the interviewer.
  • Complete interviewer neutrality is unlikely. However, excessive informality and self-disclosure risk the interview becoming more of an ordinary conversation and producing consensus accounts.
  • Overly personal disclosures could also be seen as irrelevant and intrusive by participants. They may invite increased intimacy on uncomfortable topics.
  • The safest approach seems to be to avoid interviewer self-disclosures in most cases. Where an informal style is used, disclosures require careful judgment and substantial interviewing experience.
  • If asked for personal opinions during an interview, the interviewer could highlight the defined roles and defer that discussion until after the interview.
  • Unstructured interviews are more flexible as questions can be adapted and changed depending on the respondents’ answers. The interview can deviate from the interview schedule.
  • Unstructured interviews generate qualitative data through the use of open questions. This allows the respondent to talk in some depth, choosing their own words. This helps the researcher develop a real sense of a person’s understanding of a situation.
  • They also have increased validity because it gives the interviewer the opportunity to probe for a deeper understanding, ask for clarification & allow the interviewee to steer the direction of the interview, etc. Interviewers have the chance to clarify any questions of participants during the interview.
  • It can be time-consuming to conduct an unstructured interview and analyze the qualitative data (using methods such as thematic analysis).
  • Employing and training interviewers is expensive and not as cheap as collecting data via questionnaires . For example, certain skills may be needed by the interviewer. These include the ability to establish rapport and knowing when to probe.
  • Interviews inevitably co-construct data through researchers’ agenda-setting and question-framing. Techniques like open questions provide only limited remedies.

Focus Group Interview

Focus group interview is a qualitative approach where a group of respondents are interviewed together, used to gain an in‐depth understanding of social issues.

This type of interview is often referred to as a focus group because the job of the interviewer ( or moderator ) is to bring the group to focus on the issue at hand. Initially, the goal was to reach a consensus among the group, but with the development of techniques for analyzing group qualitative data, there is less emphasis on consensus building.

The method aims to obtain data from a purposely selected group of individuals rather than from a statistically representative sample of a broader population.

The role of the interview moderator is to make sure the group interacts with each other and do not drift off-topic. Ideally, the moderator will be similar to the participants in terms of appearance, have adequate knowledge of the topic being discussed, and exercise mild unobtrusive control over dominant talkers and shy participants.

A researcher must be highly skilled to conduct a focus group interview. For example, the moderator may need certain skills, including the ability to establish rapport and know when to probe.

  • Group interviews generate qualitative narrative data through the use of open questions. This allows the respondents to talk in some depth, choosing their own words. This helps the researcher develop a real sense of a person’s understanding of a situation. Qualitative data also includes observational data, such as body language and facial expressions.
  • Group responses are helpful when you want to elicit perspectives on a collective experience, encourage diversity of thought, reduce researcher bias, and gather a wider range of contextualized views.
  • They also have increased validity because some participants may feel more comfortable being with others as they are used to talking in groups in real life (i.e., it’s more natural).
  • When participants have common experiences, focus groups allow them to build on each other’s comments to provide richer contextual data representing a wider range of views than individual interviews.
  • Focus groups are a type of group interview method used in market research and consumer psychology that are cost – effective for gathering the views of consumers .
  • The researcher must ensure that they keep all the interviewees” details confidential and respect their privacy. This is difficult when using a group interview. For example, the researcher cannot guarantee that the other people in the group will keep information private.
  • Group interviews are less reliable as they use open questions and may deviate from the interview schedule, making them difficult to repeat.
  • It is important to note that there are some potential pitfalls of focus groups, such as conformity, social desirability, and oppositional behavior, that can reduce the usefulness of the data collected.
For example, group interviews may sometimes lack validity as participants may lie to impress the other group members. They may conform to peer pressure and give false answers.

To avoid these pitfalls, the interviewer needs to have a good understanding of how people function in groups as well as how to lead the group in a productive discussion.

Semi-Structured Interview

Semi-structured interviews lie between structured and unstructured interviews. The interviewer prepares a set of same questions to be answered by all interviewees. Additional questions might be asked during the interview to clarify or expand certain issues.

In semi-structured interviews, the interviewer has more freedom to digress and probe beyond the answers. The interview guide contains a list of questions and topics that need to be covered during the conversation, usually in a particular order.

Semi-structured interviews are most useful to address the ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘why’ research questions. Both qualitative and quantitative analyses can be performed on data collected during semi-structured interviews.

  • Semi-structured interviews allow respondents to answer more on their terms in an informal setting yet provide uniform information making them ideal for qualitative analysis.
  • The flexible nature of semi-structured interviews allows ideas to be introduced and explored during the interview based on the respondents’ answers.
  • Semi-structured interviews can provide reliable and comparable qualitative data. Allows the interviewer to probe answers, where the interviewee is asked to clarify or expand on the answers provided.
  • The data generated remain fundamentally shaped by the interview context itself. Analysis rarely acknowledges this endemic co-construction.
  • They are more time-consuming (to conduct, transcribe, and analyze) than structured interviews.
  • The quality of findings is more dependent on the individual skills of the interviewer than in structured interviews. Skill is required to probe effectively while avoiding biasing responses.

The Interviewer Effect

Face-to-face interviews raise methodological problems. These stem from the fact that interviewers are themselves role players, and their perceived status may influence the replies of the respondents.

Because an interview is a social interaction, the interviewer’s appearance or behavior may influence the respondent’s answers. This is a problem as it can bias the results of the study and make them invalid.

For example, the gender, ethnicity, body language, age, and social status of the interview can all create an interviewer effect. If there is a perceived status disparity between the interviewer and the interviewee, the results of interviews have to be interpreted with care. This is pertinent for sensitive topics such as health.

For example, if a researcher was investigating sexism amongst males, would a female interview be preferable to a male? It is possible that if a female interviewer was used, male participants might lie (i.e., pretend they are not sexist) to impress the interviewer, thus creating an interviewer effect.

Flooding interviews with researcher’s agenda

The interactional nature of interviews means the researcher fundamentally shapes the discourse, rather than just neutrally collecting it. This shapes what is talked about and how participants can respond.
  • The interviewer’s assumptions, interests, and categories don’t just shape the specific interview questions asked. They also shape the framing, task instructions, recruitment, and ongoing responses/prompts.
  • This flooding of the interview interaction with the researcher’s agenda makes it very difficult to separate out what comes from the participant vs. what is aligned with the interviewer’s concerns.
  • So the participant’s talk ends up being fundamentally shaped by the interviewer rather than being a more natural reflection of the participant’s own orientations or practices.
  • This effect is hard to avoid because interviews inherently involve the researcher setting an agenda. But it does mean the talk extracted may say more about the interview process than the reality it is supposed to reflect.

Interview Design

First, you must choose whether to use a structured or non-structured interview.

Characteristics of Interviewers

Next, you must consider who will be the interviewer, and this will depend on what type of person is being interviewed. There are several variables to consider:

  • Gender and age : This can greatly affect respondents’ answers, particularly on personal issues.
  • Personal characteristics : Some people are easier to get on with than others. Also, the interviewer’s accent and appearance (e.g., clothing) can affect the rapport between the interviewer and interviewee.
  • Language : The interviewer’s language should be appropriate to the vocabulary of the group of people being studied. For example, the researcher must change the questions’ language to match the respondents’ social background” age / educational level / social class/ethnicity, etc.
  • Ethnicity : People may have difficulty interviewing people from different ethnic groups.
  • Interviewer expertise should match research sensitivity – inexperienced students should avoid interviewing highly vulnerable groups.

Interview Location

The location of a research interview can influence the way in which the interviewer and interviewee relate and may exaggerate a power dynamic in one direction or another. It is usual to offer interviewees a choice of location as part of facilitating their comfort and encouraging participation.

However, the safety of the interviewer is an overriding consideration and, as mentioned, a minimal requirement should be that a responsible person knows where the interviewer has gone and when they are due back.

Remote Interviews

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated remote interviewing for research continuity. However online interview platforms provide increased flexibility even under normal conditions.

They enable access to participant groups across geographical distances without travel costs or arrangements. Online interviews can be efficiently scheduled to align with researcher and interviewee availability.

There are practical considerations in setting up remote interviews. Interviewees require access to internet and an online platform such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype through which to connect.

Certain modifications help build initial rapport in the remote format. Allowing time at the start of the interview for casual conversation while testing audio/video quality helps participants settle in. Minor delays can disrupt turn-taking flow, so alerting participants to speak slightly slower than usual minimizes accidental interruptions.

Keeping remote interviews under an hour avoids fatigue for stare at a screen. Seeking advanced ethical clearance for verbal consent at the interview start saves participant time. Adapting to the remote context shows care for interviewees and aids rich discussion.

However, it remains important to critically reflect on how removing in-person dynamics may shape the co-created data. Perhaps some nuances of trust and disclosure differ over video.

Vulnerable Groups

The interviewer must ensure that they take special care when interviewing vulnerable groups, such as children. For example, children have a limited attention span, so lengthy interviews should be avoided.

Developing an Interview Schedule

An interview schedule is a list of pre-planned, structured questions that have been prepared, to serve as a guide for interviewers, researchers and investigators in collecting information or data about a specific topic or issue.
  • List the key themes or topics that must be covered to address your research questions. This will form the basic content.
  • Organize the content logically, such as chronologically following the interviewee’s experiences. Place more sensitive topics later in the interview.
  • Develop the list of content into actual questions and prompts. Carefully word each question – keep them open-ended, non-leading, and focused on examples.
  • Add prompts to remind you to cover areas of interest.
  • Pilot test the interview schedule to check it generates useful data and revise as needed.
  • Be prepared to refine the schedule throughout data collection as you learn which questions work better.
  • Practice skills like asking follow-up questions to get depth and detail. Stay flexible to depart from the schedule when needed.
  • Keep questions brief and clear. Avoid multi-part questions that risk confusing interviewees.
  • Listen actively during interviews to determine which pre-planned questions can be skipped based on information the participant has already provided.

The key is balancing preparation with the flexibility to adapt questions based on each interview interaction. With practice, you’ll gain skills to conduct productive interviews that obtain rich qualitative data.

The Power of Silence

Strategic use of silence is a key technique to generate interviewee-led data, but it requires judgment about appropriate timing and duration to maintain mutual understanding.
  • Unlike ordinary conversation, the interviewer aims to facilitate the interviewee’s contribution without interrupting. This often means resisting the urge to speak at the end of the interviewee’s turn construction units (TCUs).
  • Leaving a silence after a TCU encourages the interviewee to provide more material without being led by the interviewer. However, this simple technique requires confidence, as silence can feel socially awkward.
  • Allowing longer silences (e.g. 24 seconds) later in interviews can work well, but early on even short silences may disrupt rapport if they cause misalignment between speakers.
  • Silence also allows interviewees time to think before answering. Rushing to re-ask or amend questions can limit responses.
  • Blunt backchannels like “mm hm” also avoid interrupting flow. Interruptions, especially to finish an interviewee’s turn, are problematic as they make the ownership of perspectives unclear.
  • If interviewers incorrectly complete turns, an upside is it can produce extended interviewee narratives correcting the record. However, silence would have been better to let interviewees shape their own accounts.

Recording & Transcription

Design choices.

Design choices around recording and engaging closely with transcripts influence analytic insights, as well as practical feasibility. Weighing up relevant tradeoffs is key.
  • Audio recording is standard, but video better captures contextual details, which is useful for some topics/analysis approaches. Participants may find video invasive for sensitive research.
  • Digital formats enable the sharing of anonymized clips. Additional microphones reduce audio issues.
  • Doing all transcription is time-consuming. Outsourcing can save researcher effort but needs confidentiality assurances. Always carefully check outsourced transcripts.
  • Online platform auto-captioning can facilitate rapid analysis, but accuracy limitations mean full transcripts remain ideal. Software cleans up caption file formatting.
  • Verbatim transcripts best capture nuanced meaning, but the level of detail needed depends on the analysis approach. Referring back to recordings is still advisable during analysis.
  • Transcripts versus recordings highlight different interaction elements. Transcripts make overt disagreements clearer through the wording itself. Recordings better convey tone affiliativeness.

Transcribing Interviews & Focus Groups

Here are the steps for transcribing interviews:
  • Play back audio/video files to develop an overall understanding of the interview
  • Format the transcription document:
  • Add line numbers
  • Separate interviewer questions and interviewee responses
  • Use formatting like bold, italics, etc. to highlight key passages
  • Provide sentence-level clarity in the interviewee’s responses while preserving their authentic voice and word choices
  • Break longer passages into smaller paragraphs to help with coding
  • If translating the interview to another language, use qualified translators and back-translate where possible
  • Select a notation system to indicate pauses, emphasis, laughter, interruptions, etc., and adapt it as needed for your data
  • Insert screenshots, photos, or documents discussed in the interview at the relevant point in the transcript
  • Read through multiple times, revising formatting and notations
  • Double-check the accuracy of transcription against audio/videos
  • De-identify transcript by removing identifying participant details

The goal is to produce a formatted written record of the verbal interview exchange that captures the meaning and highlights important passages ready for the coding process. Careful transcription is the vital first step in analysis.

Coding Transcripts

The goal of transcription and coding is to systematically transform interview responses into a set of codes and themes that capture key concepts, experiences and beliefs expressed by participants. Taking care with transcription and coding procedures enhances the validity of qualitative analysis .
  • Read through the transcript multiple times to become immersed in the details
  • Identify manifest/obvious codes and latent/underlying meaning codes
  • Highlight insightful participant quotes that capture key concepts (in vivo codes)
  • Create a codebook to organize and define codes with examples
  • Use an iterative cycle of inductive (data-driven) coding and deductive (theory-driven) coding
  • Refine codebook with clear definitions and examples as you code more transcripts
  • Collaborate with other coders to establish the reliability of codes

Ethical Issues

Informed consent.

The participant information sheet must give potential interviewees a good idea of what is involved if taking part in the research.

This will include the general topics covered in the interview, where the interview might take place, how long it is expected to last, how it will be recorded, the ways in which participants’ anonymity will be managed, and incentives offered.

It might be considered good practice to consider true informed consent in interview research to require two distinguishable stages:

  • Consent to undertake and record the interview and
  • Consent to use the material in research after the interview has been conducted and the content known, or even after the interviewee has seen a copy of the transcript and has had a chance to remove sections, if desired.

Power and Vulnerability

  • Early feminist views that sensitivity could equalize power differences are likely naive. The interviewer and interviewee inhabit different knowledge spheres and social categories, indicating structural disparities.
  • Power fluctuates within interviews. Researchers rely on participation, yet interviewees control openness and can undermine data collection. Assumptions should be avoided.
  • Interviews on sensitive topics may feel like quasi-counseling. Interviewers must refrain from dual roles, instead supplying support service details to all participants.
  • Interviewees recruited for trauma experiences may reveal more than anticipated. While generating analytic insights, this risks leaving them feeling exposed.
  • Ultimately, power balances resist reconciliation. But reflexively analyzing operations of power serves to qualify rather than nullify situtated qualitative accounts.

Some groups, like those with mental health issues, extreme views, or criminal backgrounds, risk being discredited – treated skeptically by researchers.

This creates tensions with qualitative approaches, often having an empathetic ethos seeking to center subjective perspectives. Analysis should balance openness to offered accounts with critically examining stakes and motivations behind them.

Potter, J., & Hepburn, A. (2005). Qualitative interviews in psychology: Problems and possibilities.  Qualitative research in Psychology ,  2 (4), 281-307.

Houtkoop-Steenstra, H. (2000). Interaction and the standardized survey interview: The living questionnaire . Cambridge University Press

Madill, A. (2011). Interaction in the semi-structured interview: A comparative analysis of the use of and response to indirect complaints. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 8 (4), 333–353.

Maryudi, A., & Fisher, M. (2020). The power in the interview: A practical guide for identifying the critical role of actor interests in environment research. Forest and Society, 4 (1), 142–150

O’Key, V., Hugh-Jones, S., & Madill, A. (2009). Recruiting and engaging with people in deprived locales: Interviewing families about their eating patterns. Social Psychological Review, 11 (20), 30–35.

Puchta, C., & Potter, J. (2004). Focus group practice . Sage.

Schaeffer, N. C. (1991). Conversation with a purpose— Or conversation? Interaction in the standardized interview. In P. P. Biemer, R. M. Groves, L. E. Lyberg, & N. A. Mathiowetz (Eds.), Measurement errors in surveys (pp. 367–391). Wiley.

Silverman, D. (1973). Interview talk: Bringing off a research instrument. Sociology, 7 (1), 31–48.

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structured interviews qualitative research

Structured Interviews: Guide to Standardized Questions

structured interviews qualitative research


Types of interviews in qualitative research, what are structured interviews good for, structured interview process.

Qualitative researchers are used to dealing with unstructured data in social settings that are often dynamic and unpredictable. That said, there are research methods that can provide some more control over this unpredictable data while collecting insightful data .

The structured interview is one such method. Researchers can conduct a structured interview when they want to standardize the research process to give all respondents the same questions and analyze differences between answers.

In this article, we'll look at structured interviews, when they are ideal for your research, and how to conduct them.

structured interviews qualitative research

Interviews are intentionally crafted sources of data in social science research. There are three types of interviews in research that balance research rigor and rich data collection .

To better understand structured interviews, it's important to contrast them with the other types of interviews that also serve useful purposes in research. As always, the best tool for data collection depends on your research inquiry.

Structured interviews

The structured interview format is the most rigid of the three types of interviews conceptualized in qualitative research. Imagine policy makers want to understand the perceptions of dozens or even hundreds of individuals. In this case, it may make it easier to streamline the interview process by simply asking the same questions of all respondents.

The same structured interview questions are posed to each and every respondent, akin to how hiring managers ask the same questions to all applicants during the hiring process. The intention behind this approach is to ensure that the interview is the same no matter who the respondent is, leaving only the differences in responses to be analyzed .

Moreover, the standardized interview format typically involves respondents being asked the same set of questions in the same order. A uniform sequence of questions ensures for an easy analysis when you can line up answers across respondents.

structured interviews qualitative research

Unstructured interviews

An unstructured interview is the exact opposite of a structured interview, as unstructured interviews have no predetermined set of questions. Instead of a standardized interview, a researcher may opt for a study that remains open to exploring any issues or topics that a participant brings up in their interview. While this can generate unexpected insights, it can also be time-consuming and may not always yield answers that are directly related to the original research question guiding the study.

However, this doesn't make a study that employs unstructured interviews less rigorous . In fact, unstructured interviews are a great tool for inductive inquiry . One typical use for unstructured interviews is to probe not only for answers but for the salient points of a topic to begin with.

When a researcher uses an unstructured interview, they usually have a topic in mind but not a predetermined set of data points to analyze at the outset. This format allows respondents to speak at length on their perspectives and offer the researcher insights that can later form a theoretical framework for future research that could benefit from a structured interview format.

Moreover, this format provides the researcher with the greatest degree of freedom in determining questions depending on how they interact with their respondents. A respondent's body language, for example, may signal discomfort with a particularly controversial question. The interviewer can thus decide to adjust or reword their questions to create a more comfortable environment for the respondent.

Semi-structured interviews

A semi-structured interview lies in the middle ground between the structured and unstructured interview. This type of interview still relies on predetermined questions as a structured interview does. However, unlike structured interviews, a semi-structured interview also allows for follow-up questions to respondents when their answers warrant further probing. The predetermined questions thus serve as a guide for the interviewer, but the wording and ordering of questions can be adjusted, and additional questions can be asked during the course of the interview.

A researcher may conduct semi-structured interviews when they need flexibility in asking questions but can still benefit from advance preparation of key questions. In this case, much of the advice in this article about structured interviews still applies in terms of ensuring some degree of standardization when conducting research.

structured interviews qualitative research

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Consider that more free-flowing interview formats in qualitative research allow for the interviewer to more freely probe a respondent for deeper, more insightful answers on the topic of inquiry. This approach to research is useful when the researcher needs to develop theoretical coherence surrounding a new topic or research context in which it would be difficult to predict beforehand which questions are worth asking.

In this sense, structured interviews make more sense for research inquiries with a well-defined theoretical framework that guides the data collection and data analysis process . With such a framework in mind, researchers can devise questions that are grounded in existing research so that new insights further develop that scholarship.

Advantages of structured interviews

Formal, structured interviews are ideal for keeping interviewers and interview respondents focused on the topic at hand. A conversation might take unanticipated turns without a set goal or predetermined objective in mind; a structured interview helps keep the dialogue from going down any irrelevant tangents and minimize potentially unnecessary, extended monologues.

Another key advantage of structured interviews is that it makes comparisons across participants easier. Since each person was asked the same questions, the data is produced in a consistent format. Researchers can then focus on analyzing answers to a particular question, and there is minimal data organization work that needs to be done to facilitate the analysis.

There are also benefits in terms of the logistics of conducting structured interviews. Interviewers concerned with time constraints will find this format beneficial to their data collection .

Moreover, ensuring that respondents are asked the same questions in the same order limits the need for training interviewers to conduct interviews in a consistent manner. Unstructured and semi-structured interviews rely on the ability to ask follow-up questions in moments when the responses provide opportunities for deeper elaboration.

Those who conduct a structured interview, on the other hand, need only read from an interview guide with a list of questions to pose to respondents. This allows the researcher more freedom to rely on assistants to conduct interviews with minimal training and resources.

structured interviews qualitative research

Disadvantages of structured interviews

In structured interviews, there is little room for asking probing questions of respondents, particularly if the researcher believes that follow-up questions might adversely influence how the respondent answers subsequent core questions. Restricting the interview to a predetermined set of questions may mitigate this effect, but it may also prevent a sufficiently clear understanding of respondents' perspectives established from the use of follow-up questions.

Forcing the interviewer to ask the same order of questions in an interview can also have a consequential effect on the data collection . Because every respondent is different, the interview questions may resonate with each person in different ways. A skillful interviewer conducting unstructured or semi-structured interviews has the freedom to make choices about what questions to ask in order to gather the most insightful data.

Ultimately, the biggest disadvantage of structured interviews comes from their biggest advantage: using predetermined questions can be a double-edged sword, providing consistency and systematic organization but also limiting the research to the questions that were decided before conducting the interviews. This makes it crucial that researchers have a clear understanding of which questions they want to ask and why. It can also be helpful to conduct pilot tests of the interview, to test out the structured questions with a handful of people and assess if any changes to the questions need to be made.

Why not just do surveys?

You might think that a structured interview is no different from a survey with open-ended questions. After all, the questions are determined ahead of time and won't change over the course of data collection . In many ways, there are many similarities in both methods.

There are, of course, benefits to either approach. Surveys permit data collection from much larger numbers of respondents than may be feasible for an interview study. Structured interviews, however, allow the interviewer some degree of flexibility, particularly when the respondent has trouble understanding the question or needs further prompting to provide a sufficient response.

Moreover, the interpersonal interaction between the interviewer and respondent offers potential for richer data collection because of the degree of rapport established through face-to-face communication. Where written questions may seem static and impersonal, an in-person interview (or at least one conducted in real time) might make the respondent more comfortable in answering questions.

Individual interviews are also more likely to generate detailed responses to questions in comparison to surveys. Interviews are also well suited for research topics that bear some personal significance for participants, providing ample space for them to express themselves.

When you conduct a structured interview, you are designing a study that is as standardized as possible to mitigate context effects and ensure the ease of data collection and analysis . As with all interviews conducted in qualitative research , there is an intentional process to planning for structured interviews with considerations that researchers should keep in mind.

Research design

As mentioned above, research inquiries with clearly defined theoretical frameworks tend to benefit from structured interviews. Researchers can create a list of questions from such frameworks so that answers speak directly to, affirm, or challenge the existing scholarship surrounding the topic of interest.

A researcher should conduct a literature review to determine the extent of theoretical coherence in the topic they are researching. Are there aspects of a topic or phenomenon that scholars have identified that can serve as key data points around which questions can be crafted? Conversely, is it a topic or phenomenon that lacks sufficient conceptualization?

If your literature review does not allow you to create or use a robust theoretical framework for data collection, consider other types of interviews that allow you to inductively generate that framework in data analysis .

You should also make decisions about the conditions under which you conduct interviews. Some studies go as far as making sure that the interview environment is a uniform context across respondents. Are interviews in a quiet, comfortable environment? What time of day are interviews conducted?

The degree to which you ensure uniform conditions across interviews is up to you. Whatever you decide, however, creating an environment where respondents feel free to volunteer answers will facilitate rich data collection that will make data analysis more meaningful.

Structured interview questions

An interview guide is an essential tool for structured interviews. This guide is little more than a list of required questions to ask, but this list ensures consistency across the interviews in your study.

When you write questions for a structured interview, rely on your literature review to identify salient points around which you can design questions. This approach ensures that you are grounding your data collection in the established research.

When crafting your guide, think about the time constraints and the likely length of answers that your respondents may give. Structured interviews can involve five or 25 questions, but if you are limited to 30-45 minutes per respondent, you will need to consider whether you can ask the required questions and collect sufficient responses within your timeframe.

As a result, it's important to pilot your questions with preliminary respondents or other researchers. A pilot interview allows you to test your interview protocol and make tweaks to your question guide before conducting your study in earnest.

structured interviews qualitative research

Collecting data from structured interviews

Data collection refers to conducting the interviews , recording what you and your respondents say, and transcribing those recordings for data analysis . While this is a simple enough task, it is important to consider the equipment you use to collect data.

If the verbal utterances of your respondents are your sole concern, then an audio recorder should be sufficient for capturing your respondents' answers. Your choice of equipment can be as simple as a smartphone audio recorder application. Alternatively, you can consider professional equipment to make sure you collect as much audio detail as possible from your interviews.

Communication studies, for example, may be more concerned about the interviewer effect (e.g., studies that ask controversial questions to evoke particular responses) or the context effects (i.e., the effect of the surrounding environment on respondents) in interviews . In such cases, interviewers may capture data with video recordings to analyze body language or facial expressions to certain interview questions. Responses caught on video can be analyzed for any patterns across respondents.

Analyzing structured interviews

Once you have transcribed your interviews, you can analyze your data. One of the more common means for analyzing qualitative data is thematic analysis , which relies on the identification of commonly recurring themes throughout your research. What codes occur the most often? Are there commonalities across responses that are worth pointing out to your research audience?

structured interviews qualitative research

It's a good idea to code each response by the question they address. The set order of questions in a structured interview study makes it easy to identify the answers given by each respondent. By coding each answer by the question they respond to and the themes apparent in the response, you will be able to analyze what themes and patterns occur in each set of answers.

structured interviews qualitative research

You can also analyze differences between respondents. In ATLAS.ti, you can place interview transcripts into document groups to organize and divide your data along salient categories such as gender, age group, socioeconomic status, and other identifiers you may find useful. In doing so, you will be able to restrict your data analysis to a specific group of interview respondents to see how their answers differ from other groups.

Presenting interview findings

Disseminating qualitative research is often a matter of summarizing the salient points of your data analysis so that it is easy to understand, insightful, and useful to your research audience. For research collecting data from interviews , two of the more common approaches to presenting findings include visualizations and excerpts.

Visualizations are ideal for representing the salient ideas arising from large sets of otherwise unstructured data . Meaningful illustrations such as frequency charts, word clouds, and Sankey diagrams can prove more persuasive than an extended narrative in a research paper or presentation.

Consider the word cloud in the screenshot of ATLAS.ti below. This word cloud was generated from the transcripts of a set of interviews to illustrate what concepts appear the most often in the selected data. Concepts mentioned more often appear closer to the center of the cloud, showing which keywords appear most frequently in the data. Such a visualization can provide a quick illustration to show to your research audience what topics emerged in the data analysis.

structured interviews qualitative research

You can also effectively represent each of your themes with an example or two from the responses in your data . Data exemplars are representations that the researcher deems are typical of or significant about the portion of the data under discussion. Often in research that employs interviews or observations , an author will present an exemplar to explain a theme that is significant to theory development or challenges an existing theory.

structured interviews qualitative research

ATLAS.ti provides tools to restrict your view of the data to codes you find significant to your findings. The Code Manager view makes it easy to look not at the entire data set but the specific segments of text that have been coded with a particular code. In similar fashion, ATLAS.ti's Query Tool is ideal for defining a set of criteria based on the codes in the data to see which data segments are most relevant to your research inquiry.

structured interviews qualitative research

Conduct interview research with ATLAS.ti

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structured interviews qualitative research

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How to carry out great interviews in qualitative research.

11 min read An interview is one of the most versatile methods used in qualitative research. Here’s what you need to know about conducting great qualitative interviews.

What is a qualitative research interview?

Qualitative research interviews are a mainstay among q ualitative research techniques, and have been in use for decades either as a primary data collection method or as an adjunct to a wider research process. A qualitative research interview is a one-to-one data collection session between a researcher and a participant. Interviews may be carried out face-to-face, over the phone or via video call using a service like Skype or Zoom.

There are three main types of qualitative research interview – structured, unstructured or semi-structured.

  • Structured interviews Structured interviews are based around a schedule of predetermined questions and talking points that the researcher has developed. At their most rigid, structured interviews may have a precise wording and question order, meaning that they can be replicated across many different interviewers and participants with relatively consistent results.
  • Unstructured interviews Unstructured interviews have no predetermined format, although that doesn’t mean they’re ad hoc or unplanned. An unstructured interview may outwardly resemble a normal conversation, but the interviewer will in fact be working carefully to make sure the right topics are addressed during the interaction while putting the participant at ease with a natural manner.
  • Semi-structured interviews Semi-structured interviews are the most common type of qualitative research interview, combining the informality and rapport of an unstructured interview with the consistency and replicability of a structured interview. The researcher will come prepared with questions and topics, but will not need to stick to precise wording. This blended approach can work well for in-depth interviews.

Free eBook: The qualitative research design handbook

What are the pros and cons of interviews in qualitative research?

As a qualitative research method interviewing is hard to beat, with applications in social research, market research, and even basic and clinical pharmacy. But like any aspect of the research process, it’s not without its limitations. Before choosing qualitative interviewing as your research method, it’s worth weighing up the pros and cons.

Pros of qualitative interviews:

  • provide in-depth information and context
  • can be used effectively when their are low numbers of participants
  • provide an opportunity to discuss and explain questions
  • useful for complex topics
  • rich in data – in the case of in-person or video interviews , the researcher can observe body language and facial expression as well as the answers to questions

Cons of qualitative interviews:

  • can be time-consuming to carry out
  • costly when compared to some other research methods
  • because of time and cost constraints, they often limit you to a small number of participants
  • difficult to standardize your data across different researchers and participants unless the interviews are very tightly structured
  • As the Open University of Hong Kong notes, qualitative interviews may take an emotional toll on interviewers

Qualitative interview guides

Semi-structured interviews are based on a qualitative interview guide, which acts as a road map for the researcher. While conducting interviews, the researcher can use the interview guide to help them stay focused on their research questions and make sure they cover all the topics they intend to.

An interview guide may include a list of questions written out in full, or it may be a set of bullet points grouped around particular topics. It can prompt the interviewer to dig deeper and ask probing questions during the interview if appropriate.

Consider writing out the project’s research question at the top of your interview guide, ahead of the interview questions. This may help you steer the interview in the right direction if it threatens to head off on a tangent.

structured interviews qualitative research

Avoid bias in qualitative research interviews

According to Duke University , bias can create significant problems in your qualitative interview.

  • Acquiescence bias is common to many qualitative methods, including focus groups. It occurs when the participant feels obliged to say what they think the researcher wants to hear. This can be especially problematic when there is a perceived power imbalance between participant and interviewer. To counteract this, Duke University’s experts recommend emphasizing the participant’s expertise in the subject being discussed, and the value of their contributions.
  • Interviewer bias is when the interviewer’s own feelings about the topic come to light through hand gestures, facial expressions or turns of phrase. Duke’s recommendation is to stick to scripted phrases where this is an issue, and to make sure researchers become very familiar with the interview guide or script before conducting interviews, so that they can hone their delivery.

What kinds of questions should you ask in a qualitative interview?

The interview questions you ask need to be carefully considered both before and during the data collection process. As well as considering the topics you’ll cover, you will need to think carefully about the way you ask questions.

Open-ended interview questions – which cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ – are recommended by many researchers as a way to pursue in depth information.

An example of an open-ended question is “What made you want to move to the East Coast?” This will prompt the participant to consider different factors and select at least one. Having thought about it carefully, they may give you more detailed information about their reasoning.

A closed-ended question , such as “Would you recommend your neighborhood to a friend?” can be answered without too much deliberation, and without giving much information about personal thoughts, opinions and feelings.

Follow-up questions can be used to delve deeper into the research topic and to get more detail from open-ended questions. Examples of follow-up questions include:

  • What makes you say that?
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you tell me more about X?
  • What did/does that mean to you?

As well as avoiding closed-ended questions, be wary of leading questions. As with other qualitative research techniques such as surveys or focus groups, these can introduce bias in your data. Leading questions presume a certain point of view shared by the interviewer and participant, and may even suggest a foregone conclusion.

An example of a leading question might be: “You moved to New York in 1990, didn’t you?” In answering the question, the participant is much more likely to agree than disagree. This may be down to acquiescence bias or a belief that the interviewer has checked the information and already knows the correct answer.

Other leading questions involve adjectival phrases or other wording that introduces negative or positive connotations about a particular topic. An example of this kind of leading question is: “Many employees dislike wearing masks to work. How do you feel about this?” It presumes a positive opinion and the participant may be swayed by it, or not want to contradict the interviewer.

Harvard University’s guidelines for qualitative interview research add that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask embarrassing questions – “if you don’t ask, they won’t tell.” Bear in mind though that too much probing around sensitive topics may cause the interview participant to withdraw. The Harvard guidelines recommend leaving sensitive questions til the later stages of the interview when a rapport has been established.

More tips for conducting qualitative interviews

Observing a participant’s body language can give you important data about their thoughts and feelings. It can also help you decide when to broach a topic, and whether to use a follow-up question or return to the subject later in the interview.

Be conscious that the participant may regard you as the expert, not themselves. In order to make sure they express their opinions openly, use active listening skills like verbal encouragement and paraphrasing and clarifying their meaning to show how much you value what they are saying.

Remember that part of the goal is to leave the interview participant feeling good about volunteering their time and their thought process to your research. Aim to make them feel empowered , respected and heard.

Unstructured interviews can demand a lot of a researcher, both cognitively and emotionally. Be sure to leave time in between in-depth interviews when scheduling your data collection to make sure you maintain the quality of your data, as well as your own well-being .

Recording and transcribing interviews

Historically, recording qualitative research interviews and then transcribing the conversation manually would have represented a significant part of the cost and time involved in research projects that collect qualitative data.

Fortunately, researchers now have access to digital recording tools, and even speech-to-text technology that can automatically transcribe interview data using AI and machine learning. This type of tool can also be used to capture qualitative data from qualitative research (focus groups,ect.) making this kind of social research or market research much less time consuming.

structured interviews qualitative research

Data analysis

Qualitative interview data is unstructured, rich in content and difficult to analyze without the appropriate tools. Fortunately, machine learning and AI can once again make things faster and easier when you use qualitative methods like the research interview.

Text analysis tools and natural language processing software can ‘read’ your transcripts and voice data and identify patterns and trends across large volumes of text or speech. They can also perform k

which assesses overall trends in opinion and provides an unbiased overall summary of how participants are feeling.

structured interviews qualitative research

Another feature of text analysis tools is their ability to categorize information by topic, sorting it into groupings that help you organize your data according to the topic discussed.

All in all, interviews are a valuable technique for qualitative research in business, yielding rich and detailed unstructured data. Historically, they have only been limited by the human capacity to interpret and communicate results and conclusions, which demands considerable time and skill.

When you combine this data with AI tools that can interpret it quickly and automatically, it becomes easy to analyze and structure, dovetailing perfectly with your other business data. An additional benefit of natural language analysis tools is that they are free of subjective biases, and can replicate the same approach across as much data as you choose. By combining human research skills with machine analysis, qualitative research methods such as interviews are more valuable than ever to your business.

Related resources

Market intelligence 10 min read, marketing insights 11 min read, ethnographic research 11 min read, qualitative vs quantitative research 13 min read, qualitative research questions 11 min read, qualitative research design 12 min read, primary vs secondary research 14 min read, request demo.

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Textbooks, Guidebooks, and Handbooks  

  • The Ethnographic Interview by James P. Spradley  “Spradley wrote this book for the professional and student who have never done ethnographic fieldwork (p. 231) and for the professional ethnographer who is interested in adapting the author’s procedures (p. iv). Part 1 outlines in 3 chapters Spradley’s version of ethnographic research, and it provides the background for Part 2 which consists of 12 guided steps (chapters) ranging from locating and interviewing an informant to writing an ethnography. Most of the examples come from the author’s own fieldwork among U.S. subcultures . . . Steps 6 and 8 explain lucidly how to construct a domain and a taxonomic analysis” (excerpted from book review by James D. Sexton, 1980).  
  • Fundamentals of Qualitative Research by Johnny Saldana (Series edited by Patricia Leavy)  Provides a soup-to-nuts overview of the qualitative data collection process, including interviewing, participant observation, and other methods.  
  • InterViews by Steinar Kvale  Interviewing is an essential tool in qualitative research and this introduction to interviewing outlines both the theoretical underpinnings and the practical aspects of the process. After examining the role of the interview in the research process, Steinar Kvale considers some of the key philosophical issues relating to interviewing: the interview as conversation, hermeneutics, phenomenology, concerns about ethics as well as validity, and postmodernism. Having established this framework, the author then analyzes the seven stages of the interview process - from designing a study to writing it up.  
  • Practical Evaluation by Michael Quinn Patton  Surveys different interviewing strategies, from, a) informal/conversational, to b) interview guide approach, to c) standardized and open-ended, to d) closed/quantitative. Also discusses strategies for wording questions that are open-ended, clear, sensitive, and neutral, while supporting the speaker. Provides suggestions for probing and maintaining control of the interview process, as well as suggestions for recording and transcription.  
  • The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research by Amir B. Marvasti (Editor); James A. Holstein (Editor); Jaber F. Gubrium (Editor); Karyn D. McKinney (Editor)  The new edition of this landmark volume emphasizes the dynamic, interactional, and reflexive dimensions of the research interview. Contributors highlight the myriad dimensions of complexity that are emerging as researchers increasingly frame the interview as a communicative opportunity as much as a data-gathering format. The book begins with the history and conceptual transformations of the interview, which is followed by chapters that discuss the main components of interview practice. Taken together, the contributions to The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research: The Complexity of the Craft encourage readers simultaneously to learn the frameworks and technologies of interviewing and to reflect on the epistemological foundations of the interview craft.  
  • The SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods by Nigel G. Fielding, Raymond M. Lee and Grant Blank (Editors) Bringing together the leading names in both qualitative and quantitative online research, this new edition is organised into nine sections: 1. Online Research Methods 2. Designing Online Research 3. Online Data Capture and Data Collection 4. The Online Survey 5. Digital Quantitative Analysis 6. Digital Text Analysis 7. Virtual Ethnography 8. Online Secondary Analysis: Resources and Methods 9. The Future of Online Social Research


  • Interviews as a Method for Qualitative Research (video) This short video summarizes why interviews can serve as useful data in qualitative research.  
  • Companion website to Bloomberg and Volpe's  Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map from Beginning to End,  4th ed Provides helpful templates and appendices featured in the book, as well as links to other useful dissertation resources.
  • International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry Annual conference hosted by the International Center for Qualitative Inquiry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which aims to facilitate the development of qualitative research methods across a wide variety of academic disciplines, among other initiatives.  
  • METHODSPACE ​​​​​​​​An online home of the research methods community, where practicing researchers share how to make research easier.  
  • SAGE researchmethods ​​​​​​​Researchers can explore methods concepts to help them design research projects, understand particular methods or identify a new method, conduct their research, and write up their findings. A "methods map" facilitates finding content on methods.

The decision to conduct interviews, and the type of interviewing to use, should flow from, or align with, the methodological paradigm chosen for your study, whether that paradigm is interpretivist, critical, positivist, or participative in nature (or a combination of these).


  • Structured Interview. Entry in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methodsby Floyd J. Fowler Jr., Editors: Michael S. Lewis-Beck; Alan E. Bryman; Tim Futing Liao (Editor)  A concise article noting standards, procedures, and recommendations for developing and testing structured interviews. For an example of structured interview questions, you may view the Current Population Survey, May 2008: Public Participation in the Arts Supplement (ICPSR 29641), Apr 15, 2011 at (To see the survey questions, preview the user guide, which can be found under the "Data and Documentation" tab. Then, look for page 177 (attachment 8).


  • Semi-Structured Interview. Entry in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methodsby Lioness Ayres; Editor: Lisa M. Given  The semi-structured interview is a qualitative data collection strategy in which the researcher asks informants a series of predetermined but open-ended questions. The researcher has more control over the topics of the interview than in unstructured interviews, but in contrast to structured interviews or questionnaires that use closed questions, there is no fixed range of responses to each question.


  • Unstructured Interview. Entry in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methodsby Michael W. Firmin; Editor: Lisa M. Given  Unstructured interviews in qualitative research involve asking relatively open-ended questions of research participants in order to discover their percepts on the topic of interest. Interviews, in general, are a foundational means of collecting data when using qualitative research methods. They are designed to draw from the interviewee constructs embedded in his or her thinking and rationale for decision making. The researcher uses an inductive method in data gathering, regardless of whether the interview method is open, structured, or semi-structured. That is, the researcher does not wish to superimpose his or her own viewpoints onto the person being interviewed. Rather, inductively, the researcher wishes to understand the participant's perceptions, helping him or her to articulate percepts such that they will be understood clearly by the journal reader.

Genres and Uses

Focus groups:.

  • "Focus Groups." Annual Review of Sociology 22 (1996): David L. Morgan  Discusses the use of focus groups and group interviews as methods for gathering qualitative data used by sociologists and other academic and applied researchers. Focus groups are recommended for giving voice to marginalized groups and revealing the group effect on opinion formation.  
  • Qualitative Research Methods: A Data Collector's Field Guide (See Module 4: "Focus Groups")by Mack, N., et al.  This field guide is based on an approach to doing team-based, collaborative qualitative research that has repeatedly proven successful in research projects sponsored by Family Health International (FHI) throughout the developing world. With its straightforward delivery of information on the main qualitative methods being used in public health research today, the guide speaks to the need for simple yet effective instruction on how to do systematic and ethically sound qualitative research. The aim of the guide is thus practical. In bypassing extensive discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of qualitative research, it distinguishes itself as a how-to guide to be used in the field.

In-Depth (typically One-on-One):

  • A Practical Introduction to in-Depth Interviewingby Alan Morris  Are you new to qualitative research or a bit rusty and in need of some inspiration? Are you doing a research project involving in-depth interviews? Are you nervous about carrying out your interviews? This book will help you complete your qualitative research project by providing a nuts and bolts introduction to interviewing. With coverage of ethics, preparation strategies and advice for handling the unexpected in the field, this handy guide will help you get to grips with the basics of interviewing before embarking on your research. While recognising that your research question and the context of your research will drive your approach to interviewing, this book provides practical advice often skipped in traditional methods textbooks.  
  • Qualitative Research Methods: A Data Collector's Field Guide (See Module 3: "In-Depth Interviews")by Mack, N., et al.  This field guide is based on an approach to doing team-based, collaborative qualitative research that has repeatedly proven successful in research projects sponsored by Family Health International (FHI) throughout the developing world. With its straightforward delivery of information on the main qualitative methods being used in public health research today, the guide speaks to the need for simple yet effective instruction on how to do systematic and ethically sound qualitative research. The aim of the guide is thus practical. In bypassing extensive discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of qualitative research, it distinguishes itself as a how-to guide to be used in the field.

Folklore Research and Oral Histories:

In addition to the following resource, see the  Oral History   page of this guide for helpful resources on Oral History interviewing.

American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman’s Introduction to Field Techniques Interviews gathered for purposes of folklore research are similar to standard social science interviews in some ways, but also have a good deal in common with oral history approaches to interviewing. The focus in a folklore research interview is on documenting and trying to understand the interviewee's way of life relative to a culture or subculture you are studying. This guide includes helpful advice and tips for conducting fieldwork in folklore, such as tips for planning, conducting, recording, and archiving interviews.

An interdisciplinary scientific program within the Institute for Quantitative Social Science which encourages and facilitates research and instruction in the theory and practice of survey research. The primary mission of PSR is to provide survey research resources to enhance the quality of teaching and research at Harvard.

  • Internet, Phone, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveysby Don A. Dillman; Jolene D. Smyth; Leah Melani Christian  The classic survey design reference, updated for the digital age. The new edition is thoroughly updated and revised, and covers all aspects of survey research. It features expanded coverage of mobile phones, tablets, and the use of do-it-yourself surveys, and Dillman's unique Tailored Design Method is also thoroughly explained. This new edition is complemented by copious examples within the text and accompanying website. It includes: Strategies and tactics for determining the needs of a given survey, how to design it, and how to effectively administer it. How and when to use mail, telephone, and Internet surveys to maximum advantage. Proven techniques to increase response rates. Guidance on how to obtain high-quality feedback from mail, electronic, and other self-administered surveys. Direction on how to construct effective questionnaires, including considerations of layout. The effects of sponsorship on the response rates of surveys. Use of capabilities provided by newly mass-used media: interactivity, presentation of aural and visual stimuli. The Fourth Edition reintroduces the telephone--including coordinating land and mobile.

User Experience (UX) and Marketing:

  • See the  "UX & Market Research Interviews"  tab on this guide, above. May include  Focus Groups,  above.

Screening for Research Site Selection:

  • Research interviews are used not only to furnish research data for theoretical analysis in the social sciences, but also to plan other kinds of studies. For example, interviews may allow researchers to screen appropriate research sites to conduct empirical studies (such as randomized controlled trials) in a variety of fields, from medicine to law. In contrast to interviews conducted in the course of social research, such interviews do not typically serve as the data for final analysis and publication.


Research ethics  .

  • Human Subjects (IRB) The Committee on the Use of Human Subjects (CUHS) serves as the Institutional Review Board for the University area which includes the Cambridge and Allston campuses at Harvard. Find your IRB  contact person , or learn about  required ethics training.  You may also find the  IRB Lifecycle Guide  helpful. This is the preferred IRB portal for Harvard graduate students and other researchers. IRB forms can be downloaded via the  ESTR Library  (click on the "Templates and Forms" tab, then navigate to pages 2 and 3 to find the documents labelled with “HUA” for the Harvard University Area IRB. Nota bene: You may use these forms only if you submit your study to the Harvard University IRB). The IRB office can be reached through email at [email protected] or by telephone at (617) 496-2847.  
  • Undergraduate Research Training Program (URTP) Portal The URTP at Harvard University is a comprehensive platform to create better prepared undergraduate researchers. The URTP is comprised of research ethics training sessions, a student-focused curriculum, and an online decision form that will assist students in determining whether their project requires IRB review. Students should examine the  URTP's guide for student researchers: Introduction to Human Subjects Research Protection.  
  • Ethics reports From the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR)  
  • Respect, Beneficence, and Justice: QDR General Guidance for Human Participants If you are hoping to share your qualitative interview data in a repository after it has been collected, you will need to plan accordingly via informed consent, careful de-identification procedures, and data access controls. Consider  consulting with the Qualitative Research Support Group at Harvard Library  and consulting with  Harvard's Dataverse contacts  to help you think through all of the contingencies and processes.  
  • "Conducting a Qualitative Child Interview: Methodological Considerations." Journal of Advanced Nursing 42/5 (2003): 434-441 by Kortesluoma, R., et al.  The purpose of this article is to illustrate the theoretical premises of child interviewing, as well as to describe some practical methodological solutions used during interviews. Factors that influence data gathered from children and strategies for taking these factors into consideration during the interview are also described.  
  • "Crossing Cultural Barriers in Research Interviewing." Qualitative Social Work 63/3 (2007): 353-372 by Sands, R., et al.  This article critically examines a qualitative research interview in which cultural barriers between a white non-Muslim female interviewer and an African American Muslim interviewee, both from the USA, became evident and were overcome within the same interview.  
  • Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith  This essential volume explores intersections of imperialism and research - specifically, the ways in which imperialism is embedded in disciplines of knowledge and tradition as 'regimes of truth.' Concepts such as 'discovery' and 'claiming' are discussed and an argument presented that the decolonization of research methods will help to reclaim control over indigenous ways of knowing and being. The text includes case-studies and examples, and sections on new indigenous literature and the role of research in indigenous struggles for social justice.  

This resource, sponsored by University of Oregon Libraries, exemplifies the use of interviewing methodologies in research that foregrounds traditional knowledge. The methodology page summarizes the approach.

  • Ethics: The Need to Tread Carefully. Chapter in A Practical Introduction to in-Depth Interviewing by Alan Morris  Pay special attention to the sections in chapter 2 on "How to prevent and respond to ethical issues arising in the course of the interview," "Ethics in the writing up of your interviews," and "The Ethics of Care."  
  • Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology by Joan Cassell (Editor); Sue-Ellen Jacobs (Editor)  This publication of the American Anthropological Association presents and discusses issues and sources on ethics in anthropology, as well as realistic case studies of ethical dilemmas. It is meant to help social science faculty introduce discussions of ethics in their courses. Some of the topics are relevant to interviews, or at least to studies of which interviews are a part. See chapters 3 and 4 for cases, with solutions and commentary, respectively.  
  • Research Ethics from the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies, Trent University  (Open Access) An overview of Indigenous research ethics and protocols from the across the globe.  
  • Resources for Equity in Research Consult these resources for guidance on creating and incorporating equitable materials into public health research studies that entail community engagement.

The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics by Ron Iphofen (Editor); Martin Tolich (Editor)  This handbook is a much-needed and in-depth review of the distinctive set of ethical considerations which accompanies qualitative research. This is particularly crucial given the emergent, dynamic and interactional nature of most qualitative research, which too often allows little time for reflection on the important ethical responsibilities and obligations. Contributions from leading international researchers have been carefully organized into six key thematic sections: Part One: Thick Descriptions Of Qualitative Research Ethics; Part Two: Qualitative Research Ethics By Technique; Part Three: Ethics As Politics; Part Four: Qualitative Research Ethics With Vulnerable Groups; Part Five: Relational Research Ethics; Part Six: Researching Digitally. This Handbook is a one-stop resource on qualitative research ethics across the social sciences that draws on the lessons learned and the successful methods for surmounting problems - the tried and true, and the new.


Research Compliance Program for FAS/SEAS at Harvard : The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), including the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR) have established a shared Research Compliance Program (RCP). An area of common concern for interview studies is international projects and collaboration . RCP is a resource to provide guidance on which international activities may be impacted by US sanctions on countries, individuals, or entities and whether licenses or other disclosure are required to ship or otherwise share items, technology, or data with foreign collaborators.

  • Harvard Global Support Services (GSS) is for students, faculty, staff, and researchers who are studying, researching, or working abroad. Their services span safety and security, health, culture, outbound immigration, employment, financial and legal matters, and research center operations. These include travel briefings and registration, emergency response, guidance on international projects, and managing in-country operations.

Generative AI: Harvard-affiliated researchers should not enter data classified as confidential ( Level 2 and above ), including non-public research data, into publicly-available generative AI tools, in accordance with the University’s Information Security Policy. Information shared with generative AI tools using default settings is not private and could expose proprietary or sensitive information to unauthorized parties.

Privacy Laws: Be mindful of any potential privacy laws that may apply wherever you conduct your interviews. The General Data Protection Regulation is a high-profile example (see below):

  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) This Regulation lays down rules relating to the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and rules relating to the free movement of personal data. It protects fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons and in particular their right to the protection of personal data. The free movement of personal data within the Union shall be neither restricted nor prohibited for reasons connected with the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data. For a nice summary of what the GDPR requires, check out the GDPR "crash course" here .


If you would like to see examples of consent forms, ask your local IRB, or take a look at these resources:

  • Model consent forms for oral history, suggested by the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University  
  • For NIH-funded research, see this  resource for developing informed consent language in research studies where data and/or biospecimens will be stored and shared for future use.


If you wish to assemble resources to aid in sampling, such as the USPS Delivery Sequence File, telephone books, or directories of organizations and listservs, please contact our  data librarian  or write to  [email protected] .

  • Research Randomizer   A free web-based service that permits instant random sampling and random assignment. It also contains an interactive tutorial perfect for students taking courses in research methods.  
  • Practical Tools for Designing and Weighting Survey Samples by Richard Valliant; Jill A. Dever; Frauke Kreuter  Survey sampling is fundamentally an applied field. The goal in this book is to put an array of tools at the fingertips of practitioners by explaining approaches long used by survey statisticians, illustrating how existing software can be used to solve survey problems, and developing some specialized software where needed. This book serves at least three audiences: (1) Students seeking a more in-depth understanding of applied sampling either through a second semester-long course or by way of a supplementary reference; (2) Survey statisticians searching for practical guidance on how to apply concepts learned in theoretical or applied sampling courses; and (3) Social scientists and other survey practitioners who desire insight into the statistical thinking and steps taken to design, select, and weight random survey samples. Several survey data sets are used to illustrate how to design samples, to make estimates from complex surveys for use in optimizing the sample allocation, and to calculate weights. Realistic survey projects are used to demonstrate the challenges and provide a context for the solutions. The book covers several topics that either are not included or are dealt with in a limited way in other texts. These areas include: sample size computations for multistage designs; power calculations related to surveys; mathematical programming for sample allocation in a multi-criteria optimization setting; nuts and bolts of area probability sampling; multiphase designs; quality control of survey operations; and statistical software for survey sampling and estimation. An associated R package, PracTools, contains a number of specialized functions for sample size and other calculations. The data sets used in the book are also available in PracTools, so that the reader may replicate the examples or perform further analyses.  
  • Sampling: Design and Analysis by Sharon L. Lohr  Provides a modern introduction to the field of sampling. With a multitude of applications from a variety of disciplines, the book concentrates on the statistical aspects of taking and analyzing a sample. Overall, the book gives guidance on how to tell when a sample is valid or not, and how to design and analyze many different forms of sample surveys.  
  • Sampling Techniques by William G. Cochran  Clearly demonstrates a wide range of sampling methods now in use by governments, in business, market and operations research, social science, medicine, public health, agriculture, and accounting. Gives proofs of all the theoretical results used in modern sampling practice. New topics in this edition include the approximate methods developed for the problem of attaching standard errors or confidence limits to nonlinear estimates made from the results of surveys with complex plans.  
  • "Understanding the Process of Qualitative Data Collection" in Chapter 13 (pp. 103–1162) of 30 Essential Skills for the Qualitative Researcher by John W. Creswell  Provides practical "how-to" information for beginning researchers in the social, behavioral, and health sciences with many applied examples from research design, qualitative inquiry, and mixed methods.The skills presented in this book are crucial for a new qualitative researcher starting a qualitative project.  
  • Survey Methodology by Robert M. Groves; Floyd J. Fowler; Mick P. Couper; James M. Lepkowski; Eleanor Singer; Roger Tourangeau; Floyd J. Fowler  coverage includes sampling frame evaluation, sample design, development of questionnaires, evaluation of questions, alternative modes of data collection, interviewing, nonresponse, post-collection processing of survey data, and practices for maintaining scientific integrity.

The way a qualitative researcher constructs and approaches interview questions should flow from, or align with, the methodological paradigm chosen for the study, whether that paradigm is interpretivist, critical, positivist, or participative in nature (or a combination of these).

Constructing Your Questions

Helpful texts:.

  • "Developing Questions" in Chapter 4 (pp. 98–108) of Becoming Qualitative Researchers by Corrine Glesne  Ideal for introducing the novice researcher to the theory and practice of qualitative research, this text opens students to the diverse possibilities within this inquiry approach, while helping them understand how to design and implement specific research methods.  
  • "Learning to Interview in the Social Sciences" Qualitative Inquiry, 9(4) 2003, 643–668 by Roulston, K., deMarrais, K., & Lewis, J. B. See especially the section on "Phrasing and Negotiating Questions" on pages 653-655 and common problems with framing questions noted on pages 659 - 660.  
  • Qualitative Research Interviewing: Biographic Narrative and Semi-Structured Methods (See sections on “Lightly and Heavily Structured Depth Interviewing: Theory-Questions and Interviewer-Questions” and “Preparing for any Interviewing Sequence") by Tom Wengraf  Unique in its conceptual coherence and the level of practical detail, this book provides a comprehensive resource for those concerned with the practice of semi-structured interviewing, the most commonly used interview approach in social research, and in particular for in-depth, biographic narrative interviewing. It covers the full range of practices from the identification of topics through to strategies for writing up research findings in diverse ways.  
  • "Scripting a Qualitative Purpose Statement and Research Questions" in Chapter 12 (pp. 93–102) of 30 Essential Skills for the Qualitative Researcher by John W. Creswell  Provides practical "how-to" information for beginning researchers in the social, behavioral, and health sciences with many applied examples from research design, qualitative inquiry, and mixed methods.The skills presented in this book are crucial for a new qualitative researcher starting a qualitative project.  
  • Some Strategies for Developing Interview Guides for Qualitative Interviews by Sociology Department, Harvard University Includes general advice for conducting qualitative interviews, pros and cons of recording and transcription, guidelines for success, and tips for developing and phrasing effective interview questions.  
  • Tip Sheet on Question Wording by Harvard University Program on Survey Research

Let Theory Guide You:

The quality of your questions depends on how you situate them within a wider body of knowledge. Consider the following advice:

A good literature review has many obvious virtues. It enables the investigator to define problems and assess data. It provides the concepts on which percepts depend. But the literature review has a special importance for the qualitative researcher. This consists of its ability to sharpen his or her capacity for surprise (Lazarsfeld, 1972b). The investigator who is well versed in the literature now has a set of expectations the data can defy. Counterexpectational data are conspicuous, readable, and highly provocative data. They signal the existence of unfulfilled theoretical assumptions, and these are, as Kuhn (1962) has noted, the very origins of intellectual innovation. A thorough review of the literature is, to this extent, a way to manufacture distance. It is a way to let the data of one's research project take issue with the theory of one's field.

McCracken, G. (1988), The Long Interview, Sage: Newbury Park, CA, p. 31

When drafting your interview questions, remember that everything follows from your central research question. Also, on the way to writing your "operationalized" interview questions, it's  helpful to draft broader, intermediate questions, couched in theory. Nota bene:  While it is important to know the literature well before conducting your interview(s), be careful not to present yourself to your research participant(s) as "the expert," which would be presumptuous and could be intimidating. Rather, the purpose of your knowledge is to make you a better, keener listener.

If you'd like to supplement what you learned about relevant theories through your coursework and literature review, try these sources:

  • Annual Reviews   Review articles sum up the latest research in many fields, including social sciences, biomedicine, life sciences, and physical sciences. These are timely collections of critical reviews written by leading scientists.  
  • HOLLIS - search for resources on theories in your field   Modify this example search by entering the name of your field in place of "your discipline," then hit search.  
  • Oxford Bibliographies   Written and reviewed by academic experts, every article in this database is an authoritative guide to the current scholarship in a variety of fields, containing original commentary and annotations.  
  • ProQuest Dissertations & Theses (PQDT)   Indexes dissertations and masters' theses from most North American graduate schools as well as some European universities. Provides full text for most indexed dissertations from 1990-present.  
  • Very Short Introductions   Launched by Oxford University Press in 1995, Very Short Introductions offer concise introductions to a diverse range of subjects from Climate to Consciousness, Game Theory to Ancient Warfare, Privacy to Islamic History, Economics to Literary Theory.


Equipment and software:  .

  • Lamont Library  loans microphones and podcast starter kits, which will allow you to capture audio (and you may record with software, such as Garage Band). 
  • Cabot Library  loans digital recording devices, as well as USB microphones.

If you prefer to use your own device, you may purchase a small handheld audio recorder, or use your cell phone.

  • Audio Capture Basics (PDF)  - Helpful instructions, courtesy of the Lamont Library Multimedia Lab.
  • Getting Started with Podcasting/Audio:  Guidelines from Harvard Library's Virtual Media Lab for preparing your interviewee for a web-based recording (e.g., podcast, interview)
  • ​ Camtasia Screen Recorder and Video Editor
  • Zoom: Video Conferencing, Web Conferencing
  • Visit the Multimedia Production Resources guide! Consult it to find and learn how to use audiovisual production tools, including: cameras, microphones, studio spaces, and other equipment at Cabot Science Library and Lamont Library.
  • Try the virtual office hours offered by the Lamont Multimedia Lab!


Quick handout:  .

  • Research Interviewing Tips (Courtesy of Dr. Suzanne Spreadbury)

Remote Interviews:  

  • For Online or Distant Interviews, See "Remote Research & Virtual Fieldwork" on this guide .  
  • Deborah Lupton's Bibliography: Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic

Seeking Consent:

Books and articles:  .

  • "App-Based Textual Interviews: Interacting With Younger Generations in a Digitalized Social Reallity."International Journal of Social Research Methodology (12 June 2022). Discusses the use of texting platforms as a means to reach young people. Recommends useful question formulations for this medium.  
  • "Learning to Interview in the Social Sciences." Qualitative Inquiry, 9(4) 2003, 643–668 by Roulston, K., deMarrais, K., & Lewis, J. B. See especially the section on "Phrasing and Negotiating Questions" on pages 653-655 and common problems with framing questions noted on pages 659-660.  
  • "Slowing Down and Digging Deep: Teaching Students to Examine Interview Interaction in Depth." LEARNing Landscapes, Spring 2021 14(1) 153-169 by Herron, Brigette A. and Kathryn Roulston. Suggests analysis of videorecorded interviews as a precursor to formulating one's own questions. Includes helpful types of probes.  
  • Using Interviews in a Research Project by Nigel Joseph Mathers; Nicholas J Fox; Amanda Hunn; Trent Focus Group.  A work pack to guide researchers in developing interviews in the healthcare field. Describes interview structures, compares face-to-face and telephone interviews. Outlines the ways in which different types of interview data can be analysed.  
  • “Working through Challenges in Doing Interview Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Methods, (December 2011), 348–66 by Roulston, Kathryn.  The article explores (1) how problematic interactions identified in the analysis of focus group data can lead to modifications in research design, (2) an approach to dealing with reported data in representations of findings, and (3) how data analysis can inform question formulation in successive rounds of data generation. Findings from these types of examinations of interview data generation and analysis are valuable for informing both interview practice as well as research design.


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The way a qualitative researcher transcribes interviews should flow from, or align with, the methodological paradigm chosen for the study, whether that paradigm is interpretivist, critical, positivist, or participative in nature (or a combination of these).


Before embarking on a transcription project, it's worthwhile to invest in the time and effort necessary to capture good audio, which will make the transcription process much easier. If you haven't already done so, check out the  audio capture guidelines from Harvard Library's Virtual Media Lab , or  contact a media staff member  for customized recommendations. First and foremost, be mindful of common pitfalls by watching this short video that identifies  the most common errors to avoid!


  • Adobe Premiere Pro Speech-To-Text  automatically generates transcripts and adds captions to your videos. Harvard affiliates can download Adobe Premiere in the Creative Cloud Suite.  
  • GoTranscript  provides cost-effective human-generated transcriptions.  
  • pyTranscriber  is an app for generating automatic transcription and/or subtitles for audio and video files. It uses the Google Cloud Speech-to-Text service, has a friendly graphical user interface, and is purported to work nicely with Chinese.   
  • Otter  provides a new way to capture, store, search and share voice conversations, lectures, presentations, meetings, and interviews. The startup is based in Silicon Valley with a team of experienced Ph.Ds and engineers from Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Nuance (à la Dragon). Free accounts available. This is the software that  Zoom  uses to generate automated transcripts, so if you have access to a Zoom subscription, you have access to Otter transcriptions with it (applicable in several  languages ). As with any automated approach, be prepared to correct any errors after the fact, by hand.  
  • Panopto  is available to Harvard affiliates and generates  ASR (automated speech recognition) captions . You may upload compatible audio files into it. As with any automatically generated transcription, you will need to make manual revisions. ASR captioning is available in several  languages . Panopto maintains robust security practices, including strong authentication measures and end-to-end encryption, ensuring your content remains private and protected.  
  • REV.Com  allows you to record and transcribe any calls on the iPhone, both outgoing and incoming. It may be useful for recording phone interviews. Rev lets you choose whether you want an AI- or human-generated transcription, with a fast turnaround. Rev has Service Organization Controls Type II (SOC2) certification (a SOC2 cert looks at and verifies an organization’s processing integrity, privacy practices, and security safeguards).   
  • Scribie Audio/Video Transcription  provides automated or manual transcriptions for a small fee. As with any transcription service, some revisions will be necessary after the fact, particularly for its automated transcripts.  
  • Sonix  automatically transcribes, translates, and helps to organize audio and video files in over 40 languages. It's fast and affordable, with good accuracy. The free trial includes 30 minutes of free transcription.  
  • TranscriptionWing  uses a human touch process to clean up machine-generated transcripts so that the content will far more accurately reflect your audio recording.   
  • Whisper is a tool from OpenAI that facilitates transcription of sensitive audiovisual recordings (e.g., of research interviews) on your own device. Installation and use depends on your operating system and which version you install. Important Note: The Whisper API, where audio is sent to OpenAI to be processed by them and then sent back (usually through a programming language like Python) is NOT appropriate for sensitive data. The model should be downloaded with tools such as those described in this FAQ , so that audio is kept to your local machine. For assistance, contact James Capobianco .


  • Transcription pedals  are in circulation and available to borrow from the Circulation desk at Lamont, or use at Lamont Library's Media Lab on level B. For hand-transcribing your interviews, they work in conjunction with software such as  Express Scribe , which is loaded on Media Lab computers, or you may download for free on your own machine (Mac or PC versions; scroll down the downloads page for the latter). The pedals are plug-and-play USB, allow a wide range of playback speeds, and have 3 programmable buttons, which are typically set to rewind/play/fast-forward. Instructions are included in the bag that covers installation and set-up of the software, and basic use of the pedals.


  • Try the virtual office hours offered by the Lamont Multimedia Lab!    
  • If you're creating podcasts, login to  Canvas  and check out the  Podcasting/Audio guide . 

Helpful Texts:  

  • "Transcription as a Crucial Step of Data Analysis" in Chapter 5 of The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Analysisby Uwe Flick (Editor)  Covers basic terminology for transcription, shares caveats for transcribers, and identifies components of vocal behavior. Provides notation systems for transcription, suggestions for transcribing turn-taking, and discusses new technologies and perspectives. Includes a bibliography for further reading.  
  • "Transcribing the Oral Interview: Part Art, Part Science " on p. 10 of the Centre for Community Knowledge (CCK) newsletter: TIMESTAMPby Mishika Chauhan and Saransh Srivastav


Software  .

  • Free download available for Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) affiliates
  • Desktop access at Lamont Library Media Lab, 3rd floor
  • Desktop access at Harvard Kennedy School Library (with HKS ID)
  • Remote desktop access for Harvard affiliates from  IQSS Computer Labs . Email them at  [email protected] and ask for a new lab account and remote desktop access to NVivo.
  • Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) access available to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health affiliates


Data analysis methods should flow from, or align with, the methodological paradigm chosen for your study, whether that paradigm is interpretivist, critical, positivist, or participative in nature (or a combination of these). Some established methods include Content Analysis, Critical Analysis, Discourse Analysis, Gestalt Analysis, Grounded Theory Analysis, Interpretive Analysis, Narrative Analysis, Normative Analysis, Phenomenological Analysis, Rhetorical Analysis, and Semiotic Analysis, among others. The following resources should help you navigate your methodological options and put into practice methods for coding, themeing, interpreting, and presenting your data.

  • Users can browse content by topic, discipline, or format type (reference works, book chapters, definitions, etc.). SRM offers several research tools as well: a methods map, user-created reading lists, a project planner, and advice on choosing statistical tests.  
  • Abductive Coding: Theory Building and Qualitative (Re)Analysis by Vila-Henninger, et al.  The authors recommend an abductive approach to guide qualitative researchers who are oriented towards theory-building. They outline a set of tactics for abductive analysis, including the generation of an abductive codebook, abductive data reduction through code equations, and in-depth abductive qualitative analysis.  
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Qualitative Research: After the Interview by Charles F. Vanover, Paul A. Mihas, and Johnny Saldana (Editors)   Providing insight into the wide range of approaches available to the qualitative researcher and covering all steps in the research process, the authors utilize a consistent chapter structure that provides novice and seasoned researchers with pragmatic, "how-to" strategies. Each chapter author introduces the method, uses one of their own research projects as a case study of the method described, shows how the specific analytic method can be used in other types of studies, and concludes with three questions/activities to prompt class discussion or personal study.   
  • "Analyzing Qualitative Data." Theory Into Practice 39, no. 3 (2000): 146-54 by Margaret D. LeCompte   This article walks readers though rules for unbiased data analysis and provides guidance for getting organized, finding items, creating stable sets of items, creating patterns, assembling structures, and conducting data validity checks.  
  • "Coding is Not a Dirty Word" in Chapter 1 (pp. 1–30) of Enhancing Qualitative and Mixed Methods Research with Technology by Shalin Hai-Jew (Editor)   Current discourses in qualitative research, especially those situated in postmodernism, represent coding and the technology that assists with coding as reductive, lacking complexity, and detached from theory. In this chapter, the author presents a counter-narrative to this dominant discourse in qualitative research. The author argues that coding is not necessarily devoid of theory, nor does the use of software for data management and analysis automatically render scholarship theoretically lightweight or barren. A lack of deep analytical insight is a consequence not of software but of epistemology. Using examples informed by interpretive and critical approaches, the author demonstrates how NVivo can provide an effective tool for data management and analysis. The author also highlights ideas for critical and deconstructive approaches in qualitative inquiry while using NVivo. By troubling the positivist discourse of coding, the author seeks to create dialogic spaces that integrate theory with technology-driven data management and analysis, while maintaining the depth and rigor of qualitative research.   
  • The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers by Johnny Saldana   An in-depth guide to the multiple approaches available for coding qualitative data. Clear, practical and authoritative, the book profiles 32 coding methods that can be applied to a range of research genres from grounded theory to phenomenology to narrative inquiry. For each approach, Saldaña discusses the methods, origins, a description of the method, practical applications, and a clearly illustrated example with analytic follow-up. Essential reading across the social sciences.  
  • Flexible Coding of In-depth Interviews: A Twenty-first-century Approach by Nicole M. Deterding and Mary C. Waters The authors suggest steps in data organization and analysis to better utilize qualitative data analysis technologies and support rigorous, transparent, and flexible analysis of in-depth interview data.  
  • From the Editors: What Grounded Theory is Not by Roy Suddaby Walks readers through common misconceptions that hinder grounded theory studies, reinforcing the two key concepts of the grounded theory approach: (1) constant comparison of data gathered throughout the data collection process and (2) the determination of which kinds of data to sample in succession based on emergent themes (i.e., "theoretical sampling").  
  • “Good enough” methods for life-story analysis, by Wendy Luttrell. In Quinn N. (Ed.), Finding culture in talk (pp. 243–268). Demonstrates for researchers of culture and consciousness who use narrative how to concretely document reflexive processes in terms of where, how and why particular decisions are made at particular stages of the research process.   
  • The Ethnographic Interview by James P. Spradley  “Spradley wrote this book for the professional and student who have never done ethnographic fieldwork (p. 231) and for the professional ethnographer who is interested in adapting the author’s procedures (p. iv) ... Steps 6 and 8 explain lucidly how to construct a domain and a taxonomic analysis” (excerpted from book review by James D. Sexton, 1980). See also:  Presentation slides on coding and themeing your data, derived from Saldana, Spradley, and LeCompte Click to request access.  
  • Qualitative Data Analysis by Matthew B. Miles; A. Michael Huberman   A practical sourcebook for researchers who make use of qualitative data, presenting the current state of the craft in the design, testing, and use of qualitative analysis methods. Strong emphasis is placed on data displays matrices and networks that go beyond ordinary narrative text. Each method of data display and analysis is described and illustrated.  
  • "A Survey of Qualitative Data Analytic Methods" in Chapter 4 (pp. 89–138) of Fundamentals of Qualitative Research by Johnny Saldana   Provides an in-depth introduction to coding as a heuristic, particularly focusing on process coding, in vivo coding, descriptive coding, values coding, dramaturgical coding, and versus coding. Includes advice on writing analytic memos, developing categories, and themeing data.   
  • "Thematic Networks: An Analytic Tool for Qualitative Research." Qualitative Research : QR, 1(3), 385–405 by Jennifer Attride-Stirling Details a technique for conducting thematic analysis of qualitative material, presenting a step-by-step guide of the analytic process, with the aid of an empirical example. The analytic method presented employs established, well-known techniques; the article proposes that thematic analyses can be usefully aided by and presented as thematic networks.  
  • Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology by Virginia Braun and Victoria Clark Walks readers through the process of reflexive thematic analysis, step by step. The method may be adapted in fields outside of psychology as relevant. Pair this with One Size Fits All? What Counts as Quality Practice in Reflexive Thematic Analysis? by Virginia Braun and Victoria Clark


The quality of your data analysis depends on how you situate what you learn within a wider body of knowledge. Consider the following advice:

Once you have coalesced around a theory, realize that a theory should  reveal  rather than  color  your discoveries. Allow your data to guide you to what's most suitable. Grounded theory  researchers may develop their own theory where current theories fail to provide insight.  This guide on Theoretical Models  from Alfaisal University Library provides a helpful overview on using theory.


Managing your elicited interview data, general guidance:  .

  • Research Data Management @ Harvard A reference guide with information and resources to help you manage your research data. See also: Harvard Research Data Security Policy , on the Harvard University Research Data Management website.  
  • Data Management For Researchers: Organize, Maintain and Share Your Data for Research Success by Kristin Briney. A comprehensive guide for scientific researchers providing everything they need to know about data management and how to organize, document, use and reuse their data.  
  • Open Science Framework (OSF) An open-source project management tool that makes it easy to collaborate within and beyond Harvard throughout a project's lifecycle. With OSF you can manage, store, and share documents, datasets, and other information with your research team. You can also publish your work to share it with a wider audience. Although data can be stored privately, because this platform is hosted on the Internet and designed with open access in mind, it is not a good choice for highly sensitive data.  
  • Free cloud storage solutions for Harvard affiliates to consider include:  Google Drive ,  DropBox , or  OneDrive ( up to DSL3 )  

Data Confidentiality and Secure Handling:  

  • Data Security Levels at Harvard - Research Data Examples This resource provided by Harvard Data Security helps you determine what level of access is appropriate for your data. Determine whether it should be made available for public use, limited to the Harvard community, or be protected as either "confidential and sensitive," "high risk," or "extremely sensitive." See also:  Harvard Data Classification Table  
  • Harvard's Best Practices for Protecting Privacy and  Harvard Information Security Collaboration Tools Matrix Follow the nuts-and-bolts advice for privacy best practices at Harvard. The latter resource reveals the level of security that can be relied upon for a large number of technological tools and platforms used at Harvard to conduct business, such as email, Slack, Accellion Kiteworks, OneDrive/SharePoint, etc.  
  • “Protecting Participant Privacy While Maintaining Content and Context: Challenges in Qualitative Data De‐identification and Sharing.” Proceedings of the ASIST Annual Meeting 57 (1) (2020): e415-420 by Myers, Long, and Polasek Presents an informed and tested protocol, based on the De-Identification guidelines published by the Qualitative Data Repository (QDR) at Syracuse University. Qualitative researchers may consult it to guide their data de-identification efforts.  
  • QDS Qualitative Data Sharing Toolkit The Qualitative Data Sharing (QDS) project and its toolkit was funded by the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute (R01HG009351). It provides tools and resources to help researchers, especially those in the health sciences, share qualitative research data while protecting privacy and confidentiality. It offers guidance on preparing data for sharing through de-identification and access control. These health sciences research datasets in ICPSR's Qualitative Data Sharing (QDS) Project Series were de-identified using the QuaDS Software and the project’s QDS guidelines.  
  • Table of De-Identification Techniques  
  • Generative AI Harvard-affiliated researchers should not enter data classified as confidential ( Level 2 and above ), including non-public research data, into publicly-available generative AI tools, in accordance with the University’s Information Security Policy. Information shared with generative AI tools using default settings is not private and could expose proprietary or sensitive information to unauthorized parties.  
  • Harvard Information Security Quick Reference Guide Storage guidelines, based on the data's security classification level (according to its IRB classification) is displayed on page 2, under "handling."  
  • Email Encryption Harvard Microsoft 365 users can now send encrypted messages and files directly from the Outlook web or desktop apps. Encrypting an email adds an extra layer of security to the message and its attachments (up to 150MB), and means only the intended recipient (and their inbox delegates with full access) can view it. Message encryption in Outlook is approved for sending high risk ( level 4 ) data and below.  

Sharing Qualitative Data:  

  • Repositories for Qualitative Data If you have cleared this intention with your IRB, secured consent from participants, and properly de-identified your data, consider sharing your interviews in one of the data repositories included in the link above. Depending on the nature of your research and the level of risk it may present to participants, sharing your interview data may not be appropriate. If there is any chance that sharing such data will be desirable, you will be much better off if you build this expectation into your plans from the beginning.  
  • Guide for Sharing Qualitative Data at ICPSR The Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) has created this resource for investigators planning to share qualitative data at ICPSR. This guide provides an overview of elements and considerations for archiving qualitative data, identifies steps for investigators to follow during the research life cycle to ensure that others can share and reuse qualitative data, and provides information about exemplars of qualitative data  

International Projects:

  • Research Compliance Program for FAS/SEAS at Harvard The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), including the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR) have established a shared Research Compliance Program (RCP). An area of common concern for interview studies is international projects and collaboration . RCP is a resource to provide guidance on which international activities may be impacted by US sanctions on countries, individuals, or entities and whether licenses or other disclosure are required to ship or otherwise share items, technology, or data with foreign collaborators.

Finding Extant Interview Data

Finding journalistic interviews:  .

  • Academic Search Premier This all-purpose database is great for finding articles from magazines and newspapers. In the Advanced Search, it allows you to specify "Document Type":  Interview.  
  • Guide to Newspapers and Newspaper Indexes Use this guide created to Harvard Librarians to identify newspapers collections you'd like to search. To locate interviews, try adding the term  "interview"  to your search, or explore a database's search interface for options to  limit your search to interviews.  Nexis Uni  and  Factiva  are the two main databases for current news.   
  • Listen Notes Search for podcast episodes at this podcast aggregator, and look for podcasts that include interviews. Make sure to vet the podcaster for accuracy and quality! (Listen Notes does not do much vetting.)  
  • NPR  and  ProPublica  are two sites that offer high-quality long-form reporting, including journalistic interviews, for free.

Finding Oral History and Social Research Interviews:  

  • To find oral histories, see the Oral History   page of this guide for helpful resources on Oral History interviewing.  
  • Repositories for Qualitative Data It has not been a customary practice among qualitative researchers in the social sciences to share raw interview data, but some have made this data available in repositories, such as the ones listed on the page linked above. You may find published data from structured interview surveys (e.g., questionnaire-based computer-assisted telephone interview data), as well as some semi-structured and unstructured interviews.  
  • If you are merely interested in studies interpreting data collected using interviews, rather than finding raw interview data, try databases like  PsycInfo ,  Sociological Abstracts , or  Anthropology Plus , among others. 

Finding Interviews in Archival Collections at Harvard Library:

In addition to the databases and search strategies mentioned under the  "Finding Oral History and Social Research Interviews" category above,  you may search for interviews and oral histories (whether in textual or audiovisual formats) held in archival collections at Harvard Library.

  • HOLLIS searches all documented collections at Harvard, whereas HOLLIS for Archival Discovery searches only those with finding aids. Although HOLLIS for Archival Discovery covers less material, you may find it easier to parse your search results, especially when you wish to view results at the item level (within collections). Try these approaches:

Search in  HOLLIS :  

  • To retrieve items available online, do an Advanced Search for  interview* OR "oral histor*" (in Subject), with Resource Type "Archives/Manuscripts," then refine your search by selecting "Online" under "Show Only" on the right of your initial result list.  Revise the search above by adding your topic in the Keywords or Subject field (for example:  African Americans ) and resubmitting the search.  
  •  To enlarge your results set, you may also leave out the "Online" refinement; if you'd like to limit your search to a specific repository, try the technique of searching for  Code: Library + Collection on the "Advanced Search" page .   

Search in  HOLLIS for Archival Discovery :  

  • To retrieve items available online, search for   interview* OR "oral histor*" limited to digital materials . Revise the search above by adding your topic (for example:  artist* ) in the second search box (if you don't see the box, click +).  
  • To preview results by collection, search for  interview* OR "oral histor*" limited to collections . Revise the search above by adding your topic (for example:  artist* ) in the second search box (if you don't see the box, click +). Although this method does not allow you to isolate digitized content, you may find the refinement options on the right side of the screen (refine by repository, subject or names) helpful.  Once your select a given collection, you may search within it  (e.g., for your topic or the term interview).


Ux at harvard library  .

  • User Experience and Market Research interviews can inform the design of tangible products and services through responsive, outcome-driven insights. The  User Research Center  at Harvard Library specializes in this kind of user-centered design, digital accessibility, and testing. They also offer guidance and  resources  to members of the Harvard Community who are interested in learning more about UX methods. Contact [email protected] or consult the URC website for more information.


  • User Interviews: The Beginner’s Guide (Chris Mears)  
  • Interviewing Users (Jakob Nielsen)


  • Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal; Grant McCracken (Foreword by)  Interviewing is a foundational user research tool that people assume they already possess. Everyone can ask questions, right? Unfortunately, that's not the case. Interviewing Users provides invaluable interviewing techniques and tools that enable you to conduct informative interviews with anyone. You'll move from simply gathering data to uncovering powerful insights about people.  
  • Rapid Contextual Design by Jessamyn Wendell; Karen Holtzblatt; Shelley Wood  This handbook introduces Rapid CD, a fast-paced, adaptive form of Contextual Design. Rapid CD is a hands-on guide for anyone who needs practical guidance on how to use the Contextual Design process and adapt it to tactical projects with tight timelines and resources. Rapid Contextual Design provides detailed suggestions on structuring the project and customer interviews, conducting interviews, and running interpretation sessions. The handbook walks you step-by-step through organizing the data so you can see your key issues, along with visioning new solutions, storyboarding to work out the details, and paper prototype interviewing to iterate the design all with as little as a two-person team with only a few weeks to spare *Includes real project examples with actual customer data that illustrate how a CD project actually works.



Instructional Presentations on Interview Skills  

  • Interview/Oral History Research for RSRA 298B: Master's Thesis Reading and Research (Spring 2023) Slideshow covers: Why Interviews?, Getting Context, Engaging Participants, Conducting the Interview, The Interview Guide, Note Taking, Transcription, File management, and Data Analysis.  
  • Interview Skills From an online class on February 13, 2023:  Get set up for interview research. You will leave prepared to choose among the three types of interviewing methods, equipped to develop an interview schedule, aware of data management options and their ethical implications, and knowledgeable of technologies you can use to record and transcribe your interviews. This workshop complements Intro to NVivo, a qualitative data analysis tool useful for coding interview data.

NIH Data Management & Sharing Policy (DMSP) This policy, effective January 25, 2023, applies to all research, funded or conducted in whole or in part by NIH, that results in the generation of  scientific data , including NIH-funded qualitative research. Click here to see some examples of how the DMSP policy has been applied in qualitative research studies featured in the 2021 Qualitative Data Management Plan (DMP) Competition . As a resource for the community, NIH has developed a resource for developing informed consent language in research studies where data and/or biospecimens will be stored and shared for future use. It is important to note that the DMS Policy does NOT require that informed consent obtained from research participants must allow for broad sharing and the future use of data (either with or without identifiable private information). See the FAQ for more information.

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  • Published: 05 October 2018

Interviews and focus groups in qualitative research: an update for the digital age

  • P. Gill 1 &
  • J. Baillie 2  

British Dental Journal volume  225 ,  pages 668–672 ( 2018 ) Cite this article

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Highlights that qualitative research is used increasingly in dentistry. Interviews and focus groups remain the most common qualitative methods of data collection.

Suggests the advent of digital technologies has transformed how qualitative research can now be undertaken.

Suggests interviews and focus groups can offer significant, meaningful insight into participants' experiences, beliefs and perspectives, which can help to inform developments in dental practice.

Qualitative research is used increasingly in dentistry, due to its potential to provide meaningful, in-depth insights into participants' experiences, perspectives, beliefs and behaviours. These insights can subsequently help to inform developments in dental practice and further related research. The most common methods of data collection used in qualitative research are interviews and focus groups. While these are primarily conducted face-to-face, the ongoing evolution of digital technologies, such as video chat and online forums, has further transformed these methods of data collection. This paper therefore discusses interviews and focus groups in detail, outlines how they can be used in practice, how digital technologies can further inform the data collection process, and what these methods can offer dentistry.

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Traditionally, research in dentistry has primarily been quantitative in nature. 1 However, in recent years, there has been a growing interest in qualitative research within the profession, due to its potential to further inform developments in practice, policy, education and training. Consequently, in 2008, the British Dental Journal (BDJ) published a four paper qualitative research series, 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 to help increase awareness and understanding of this particular methodological approach.

Since the papers were originally published, two scoping reviews have demonstrated the ongoing proliferation in the use of qualitative research within the field of oral healthcare. 1 , 6 To date, the original four paper series continue to be well cited and two of the main papers remain widely accessed among the BDJ readership. 2 , 3 The potential value of well-conducted qualitative research to evidence-based practice is now also widely recognised by service providers, policy makers, funding bodies and those who commission, support and use healthcare research.

Besides increasing standalone use, qualitative methods are now also routinely incorporated into larger mixed method study designs, such as clinical trials, as they can offer additional, meaningful insights into complex problems that simply could not be provided by quantitative methods alone. Qualitative methods can also be used to further facilitate in-depth understanding of important aspects of clinical trial processes, such as recruitment. For example, Ellis et al . investigated why edentulous older patients, dissatisfied with conventional dentures, decline implant treatment, despite its established efficacy, and frequently refuse to participate in related randomised clinical trials, even when financial constraints are removed. 7 Through the use of focus groups in Canada and the UK, the authors found that fears of pain and potential complications, along with perceived embarrassment, exacerbated by age, are common reasons why older patients typically refuse dental implants. 7

The last decade has also seen further developments in qualitative research, due to the ongoing evolution of digital technologies. These developments have transformed how researchers can access and share information, communicate and collaborate, recruit and engage participants, collect and analyse data and disseminate and translate research findings. 8 Where appropriate, such technologies are therefore capable of extending and enhancing how qualitative research is undertaken. 9 For example, it is now possible to collect qualitative data via instant messaging, email or online/video chat, using appropriate online platforms.

These innovative approaches to research are therefore cost-effective, convenient, reduce geographical constraints and are often useful for accessing 'hard to reach' participants (for example, those who are immobile or socially isolated). 8 , 9 However, digital technologies are still relatively new and constantly evolving and therefore present a variety of pragmatic and methodological challenges. Furthermore, given their very nature, their use in many qualitative studies and/or with certain participant groups may be inappropriate and should therefore always be carefully considered. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a detailed explication regarding the use of digital technologies in qualitative research, insight is provided into how such technologies can be used to facilitate the data collection process in interviews and focus groups.

In light of such developments, it is perhaps therefore timely to update the main paper 3 of the original BDJ series. As with the previous publications, this paper has been purposely written in an accessible style, to enhance readability, particularly for those who are new to qualitative research. While the focus remains on the most common qualitative methods of data collection – interviews and focus groups – appropriate revisions have been made to provide a novel perspective, and should therefore be helpful to those who would like to know more about qualitative research. This paper specifically focuses on undertaking qualitative research with adult participants only.

Overview of qualitative research

Qualitative research is an approach that focuses on people and their experiences, behaviours and opinions. 10 , 11 The qualitative researcher seeks to answer questions of 'how' and 'why', providing detailed insight and understanding, 11 which quantitative methods cannot reach. 12 Within qualitative research, there are distinct methodologies influencing how the researcher approaches the research question, data collection and data analysis. 13 For example, phenomenological studies focus on the lived experience of individuals, explored through their description of the phenomenon. Ethnographic studies explore the culture of a group and typically involve the use of multiple methods to uncover the issues. 14

While methodology is the 'thinking tool', the methods are the 'doing tools'; 13 the ways in which data are collected and analysed. There are multiple qualitative data collection methods, including interviews, focus groups, observations, documentary analysis, participant diaries, photography and videography. Two of the most commonly used qualitative methods are interviews and focus groups, which are explored in this article. The data generated through these methods can be analysed in one of many ways, according to the methodological approach chosen. A common approach is thematic data analysis, involving the identification of themes and subthemes across the data set. Further information on approaches to qualitative data analysis has been discussed elsewhere. 1

Qualitative research is an evolving and adaptable approach, used by different disciplines for different purposes. Traditionally, qualitative data, specifically interviews, focus groups and observations, have been collected face-to-face with participants. In more recent years, digital technologies have contributed to the ongoing evolution of qualitative research. Digital technologies offer researchers different ways of recruiting participants and collecting data, and offer participants opportunities to be involved in research that is not necessarily face-to-face.

Research interviews are a fundamental qualitative research method 15 and are utilised across methodological approaches. Interviews enable the researcher to learn in depth about the perspectives, experiences, beliefs and motivations of the participant. 3 , 16 Examples include, exploring patients' perspectives of fear/anxiety triggers in dental treatment, 17 patients' experiences of oral health and diabetes, 18 and dental students' motivations for their choice of career. 19

Interviews may be structured, semi-structured or unstructured, 3 according to the purpose of the study, with less structured interviews facilitating a more in depth and flexible interviewing approach. 20 Structured interviews are similar to verbal questionnaires and are used if the researcher requires clarification on a topic; however they produce less in-depth data about a participant's experience. 3 Unstructured interviews may be used when little is known about a topic and involves the researcher asking an opening question; 3 the participant then leads the discussion. 20 Semi-structured interviews are commonly used in healthcare research, enabling the researcher to ask predetermined questions, 20 while ensuring the participant discusses issues they feel are important.

Interviews can be undertaken face-to-face or using digital methods when the researcher and participant are in different locations. Audio-recording the interview, with the consent of the participant, is essential for all interviews regardless of the medium as it enables accurate transcription; the process of turning the audio file into a word-for-word transcript. This transcript is the data, which the researcher then analyses according to the chosen approach.

Types of interview

Qualitative studies often utilise one-to-one, face-to-face interviews with research participants. This involves arranging a mutually convenient time and place to meet the participant, signing a consent form and audio-recording the interview. However, digital technologies have expanded the potential for interviews in research, enabling individuals to participate in qualitative research regardless of location.

Telephone interviews can be a useful alternative to face-to-face interviews and are commonly used in qualitative research. They enable participants from different geographical areas to participate and may be less onerous for participants than meeting a researcher in person. 15 A qualitative study explored patients' perspectives of dental implants and utilised telephone interviews due to the quality of the data that could be yielded. 21 The researcher needs to consider how they will audio record the interview, which can be facilitated by purchasing a recorder that connects directly to the telephone. One potential disadvantage of telephone interviews is the inability of the interviewer and researcher to see each other. This is resolved using software for audio and video calls online – such as Skype – to conduct interviews with participants in qualitative studies. Advantages of this approach include being able to see the participant if video calls are used, enabling observation of non-verbal communication, and the software can be free to use. However, participants are required to have a device and internet connection, as well as being computer literate, potentially limiting who can participate in the study. One qualitative study explored the role of dental hygienists in reducing oral health disparities in Canada. 22 The researcher conducted interviews using Skype, which enabled dental hygienists from across Canada to be interviewed within the research budget, accommodating the participants' schedules. 22

A less commonly used approach to qualitative interviews is the use of social virtual worlds. A qualitative study accessed a social virtual world – Second Life – to explore the health literacy skills of individuals who use social virtual worlds to access health information. 23 The researcher created an avatar and interview room, and undertook interviews with participants using voice and text methods. 23 This approach to recruitment and data collection enables individuals from diverse geographical locations to participate, while remaining anonymous if they wish. Furthermore, for interviews conducted using text methods, transcription of the interview is not required as the researcher can save the written conversation with the participant, with the participant's consent. However, the researcher and participant need to be familiar with how the social virtual world works to engage in an interview this way.

Conducting an interview

Ensuring informed consent before any interview is a fundamental aspect of the research process. Participants in research must be afforded autonomy and respect; consent should be informed and voluntary. 24 Individuals should have the opportunity to read an information sheet about the study, ask questions, understand how their data will be stored and used, and know that they are free to withdraw at any point without reprisal. The qualitative researcher should take written consent before undertaking the interview. In a face-to-face interview, this is straightforward: the researcher and participant both sign copies of the consent form, keeping one each. However, this approach is less straightforward when the researcher and participant do not meet in person. A recent protocol paper outlined an approach for taking consent for telephone interviews, which involved: audio recording the participant agreeing to each point on the consent form; the researcher signing the consent form and keeping a copy; and posting a copy to the participant. 25 This process could be replicated in other interview studies using digital methods.

There are advantages and disadvantages of using face-to-face and digital methods for research interviews. Ultimately, for both approaches, the quality of the interview is determined by the researcher. 16 Appropriate training and preparation are thus required. Healthcare professionals can use their interpersonal communication skills when undertaking a research interview, particularly questioning, listening and conversing. 3 However, the purpose of an interview is to gain information about the study topic, 26 rather than offering help and advice. 3 The researcher therefore needs to listen attentively to participants, enabling them to describe their experience without interruption. 3 The use of active listening skills also help to facilitate the interview. 14 Spradley outlined elements and strategies for research interviews, 27 which are a useful guide for qualitative researchers:

Greeting and explaining the project/interview

Asking descriptive (broad), structural (explore response to descriptive) and contrast (difference between) questions

Asymmetry between the researcher and participant talking

Expressing interest and cultural ignorance

Repeating, restating and incorporating the participant's words when asking questions

Creating hypothetical situations

Asking friendly questions

Knowing when to leave.

For semi-structured interviews, a topic guide (also called an interview schedule) is used to guide the content of the interview – an example of a topic guide is outlined in Box 1 . The topic guide, usually based on the research questions, existing literature and, for healthcare professionals, their clinical experience, is developed by the research team. The topic guide should include open ended questions that elicit in-depth information, and offer participants the opportunity to talk about issues important to them. This is vital in qualitative research where the researcher is interested in exploring the experiences and perspectives of participants. It can be useful for qualitative researchers to pilot the topic guide with the first participants, 10 to ensure the questions are relevant and understandable, and amending the questions if required.

Regardless of the medium of interview, the researcher must consider the setting of the interview. For face-to-face interviews, this could be in the participant's home, in an office or another mutually convenient location. A quiet location is preferable to promote confidentiality, enable the researcher and participant to concentrate on the conversation, and to facilitate accurate audio-recording of the interview. For interviews using digital methods the same principles apply: a quiet, private space where the researcher and participant feel comfortable and confident to participate in an interview.

Box 1: Example of a topic guide

Study focus: Parents' experiences of brushing their child's (aged 0–5) teeth

1. Can you tell me about your experience of cleaning your child's teeth?

How old was your child when you started cleaning their teeth?

Why did you start cleaning their teeth at that point?

How often do you brush their teeth?

What do you use to brush their teeth and why?

2. Could you explain how you find cleaning your child's teeth?

Do you find anything difficult?

What makes cleaning their teeth easier for you?

3. How has your experience of cleaning your child's teeth changed over time?

Has it become easier or harder?

Have you changed how often and how you clean their teeth? If so, why?

4. Could you describe how your child finds having their teeth cleaned?

What do they enjoy about having their teeth cleaned?

Is there anything they find upsetting about having their teeth cleaned?

5. Where do you look for information/advice about cleaning your child's teeth?

What did your health visitor tell you about cleaning your child's teeth? (If anything)

What has the dentist told you about caring for your child's teeth? (If visited)

Have any family members given you advice about how to clean your child's teeth? If so, what did they tell you? Did you follow their advice?

6. Is there anything else you would like to discuss about this?

Focus groups

A focus group is a moderated group discussion on a pre-defined topic, for research purposes. 28 , 29 While not aligned to a particular qualitative methodology (for example, grounded theory or phenomenology) as such, focus groups are used increasingly in healthcare research, as they are useful for exploring collective perspectives, attitudes, behaviours and experiences. Consequently, they can yield rich, in-depth data and illuminate agreement and inconsistencies 28 within and, where appropriate, between groups. Examples include public perceptions of dental implants and subsequent impact on help-seeking and decision making, 30 and general dental practitioners' views on patient safety in dentistry. 31

Focus groups can be used alone or in conjunction with other methods, such as interviews or observations, and can therefore help to confirm, extend or enrich understanding and provide alternative insights. 28 The social interaction between participants often results in lively discussion and can therefore facilitate the collection of rich, meaningful data. However, they are complex to organise and manage, due to the number of participants, and may also be inappropriate for exploring particularly sensitive issues that many participants may feel uncomfortable about discussing in a group environment.

Focus groups are primarily undertaken face-to-face but can now also be undertaken online, using appropriate technologies such as email, bulletin boards, online research communities, chat rooms, discussion forums, social media and video conferencing. 32 Using such technologies, data collection can also be synchronous (for example, online discussions in 'real time') or, unlike traditional face-to-face focus groups, asynchronous (for example, online/email discussions in 'non-real time'). While many of the fundamental principles of focus group research are the same, regardless of how they are conducted, a number of subtle nuances are associated with the online medium. 32 Some of which are discussed further in the following sections.

Focus group considerations

Some key considerations associated with face-to-face focus groups are: how many participants are required; should participants within each group know each other (or not) and how many focus groups are needed within a single study? These issues are much debated and there is no definitive answer. However, the number of focus groups required will largely depend on the topic area, the depth and breadth of data needed, the desired level of participation required 29 and the necessity (or not) for data saturation.

The optimum group size is around six to eight participants (excluding researchers) but can work effectively with between three and 14 participants. 3 If the group is too small, it may limit discussion, but if it is too large, it may become disorganised and difficult to manage. It is, however, prudent to over-recruit for a focus group by approximately two to three participants, to allow for potential non-attenders. For many researchers, particularly novice researchers, group size may also be informed by pragmatic considerations, such as the type of study, resources available and moderator experience. 28 Similar size and mix considerations exist for online focus groups. Typically, synchronous online focus groups will have around three to eight participants but, as the discussion does not happen simultaneously, asynchronous groups may have as many as 10–30 participants. 33

The topic area and potential group interaction should guide group composition considerations. Pre-existing groups, where participants know each other (for example, work colleagues) may be easier to recruit, have shared experiences and may enjoy a familiarity, which facilitates discussion and/or the ability to challenge each other courteously. 3 However, if there is a potential power imbalance within the group or if existing group norms and hierarchies may adversely affect the ability of participants to speak freely, then 'stranger groups' (that is, where participants do not already know each other) may be more appropriate. 34 , 35

Focus group management

Face-to-face focus groups should normally be conducted by two researchers; a moderator and an observer. 28 The moderator facilitates group discussion, while the observer typically monitors group dynamics, behaviours, non-verbal cues, seating arrangements and speaking order, which is essential for transcription and analysis. The same principles of informed consent, as discussed in the interview section, also apply to focus groups, regardless of medium. However, the consent process for online discussions will probably be managed somewhat differently. For example, while an appropriate participant information leaflet (and consent form) would still be required, the process is likely to be managed electronically (for example, via email) and would need to specifically address issues relating to technology (for example, anonymity and use, storage and access to online data). 32

The venue in which a face to face focus group is conducted should be of a suitable size, private, quiet, free from distractions and in a collectively convenient location. It should also be conducted at a time appropriate for participants, 28 as this is likely to promote attendance. As with interviews, the same ethical considerations apply (as discussed earlier). However, online focus groups may present additional ethical challenges associated with issues such as informed consent, appropriate access and secure data storage. Further guidance can be found elsewhere. 8 , 32

Before the focus group commences, the researchers should establish rapport with participants, as this will help to put them at ease and result in a more meaningful discussion. Consequently, researchers should introduce themselves, provide further clarity about the study and how the process will work in practice and outline the 'ground rules'. Ground rules are designed to assist, not hinder, group discussion and typically include: 3 , 28 , 29

Discussions within the group are confidential to the group

Only one person can speak at a time

All participants should have sufficient opportunity to contribute

There should be no unnecessary interruptions while someone is speaking

Everyone can be expected to be listened to and their views respected

Challenging contrary opinions is appropriate, but ridiculing is not.

Moderating a focus group requires considered management and good interpersonal skills to help guide the discussion and, where appropriate, keep it sufficiently focused. Avoid, therefore, participating, leading, expressing personal opinions or correcting participants' knowledge 3 , 28 as this may bias the process. A relaxed, interested demeanour will also help participants to feel comfortable and promote candid discourse. Moderators should also prevent the discussion being dominated by any one person, ensure differences of opinions are discussed fairly and, if required, encourage reticent participants to contribute. 3 Asking open questions, reflecting on significant issues, inviting further debate, probing responses accordingly, and seeking further clarification, as and where appropriate, will help to obtain sufficient depth and insight into the topic area.

Moderating online focus groups requires comparable skills, particularly if the discussion is synchronous, as the discussion may be dominated by those who can type proficiently. 36 It is therefore important that sufficient time and respect is accorded to those who may not be able to type as quickly. Asynchronous discussions are usually less problematic in this respect, as interactions are less instant. However, moderating an asynchronous discussion presents additional challenges, particularly if participants are geographically dispersed, as they may be online at different times. Consequently, the moderator will not always be present and the discussion may therefore need to occur over several days, which can be difficult to manage and facilitate and invariably requires considerable flexibility. 32 It is also worth recognising that establishing rapport with participants via online medium is often more challenging than via face-to-face and may therefore require additional time, skills, effort and consideration.

As with research interviews, focus groups should be guided by an appropriate interview schedule, as discussed earlier in the paper. For example, the schedule will usually be informed by the review of the literature and study aims, and will merely provide a topic guide to help inform subsequent discussions. To provide a verbatim account of the discussion, focus groups must be recorded, using an audio-recorder with a good quality multi-directional microphone. While videotaping is possible, some participants may find it obtrusive, 3 which may adversely affect group dynamics. The use (or not) of a video recorder, should therefore be carefully considered.

At the end of the focus group, a few minutes should be spent rounding up and reflecting on the discussion. 28 Depending on the topic area, it is possible that some participants may have revealed deeply personal issues and may therefore require further help and support, such as a constructive debrief or possibly even referral on to a relevant third party. It is also possible that some participants may feel that the discussion did not adequately reflect their views and, consequently, may no longer wish to be associated with the study. 28 Such occurrences are likely to be uncommon, but should they arise, it is important to further discuss any concerns and, if appropriate, offer them the opportunity to withdraw (including any data relating to them) from the study. Immediately after the discussion, researchers should compile notes regarding thoughts and ideas about the focus group, which can assist with data analysis and, if appropriate, any further data collection.

Qualitative research is increasingly being utilised within dental research to explore the experiences, perspectives, motivations and beliefs of participants. The contributions of qualitative research to evidence-based practice are increasingly being recognised, both as standalone research and as part of larger mixed-method studies, including clinical trials. Interviews and focus groups remain commonly used data collection methods in qualitative research, and with the advent of digital technologies, their utilisation continues to evolve. However, digital methods of qualitative data collection present additional methodological, ethical and practical considerations, but also potentially offer considerable flexibility to participants and researchers. Consequently, regardless of format, qualitative methods have significant potential to inform important areas of dental practice, policy and further related research.

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Semi-structured Interviews

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Open-ended interview ; Qualitative interview ; Systematic exploratory interview ; Thematic interview

The semi-structured interview is an exploratory interview used most often in the social sciences for qualitative research purposes or to gather clinical data. While it generally follows a guide or protocol that is devised prior to the interview and is focused on a core topic to provide a general structure, the semi-structured interview also allows for discovery, with space to follow topical trajectories as the conversation unfolds.


Qualitative interviews exist on a continuum, ranging from free-ranging, exploratory discussions to highly structured interviews. On one end is unstructured interviewing, deployed by approaches such as ethnography, grounded theory, and phenomenology. This style of interview involves a changing protocol that evolves based on participants’ responses and will differ from one participant to the next. On the other end of the continuum...

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Nursing students’ stressors and coping strategies during their first clinical training: a qualitative study in the United Arab Emirates

  • Jacqueline Maria Dias 1 ,
  • Muhammad Arsyad Subu 1 ,
  • Nabeel Al-Yateem 1 ,
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  • Mini Sara Abraham 1 ,
  • Sareh Mirza Forootan 1 ,
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  • Fatemeh Javanbakh 1  

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Understanding the stressors and coping strategies of nursing students in their first clinical training is important for improving student performance, helping students develop a professional identity and problem-solving skills, and improving the clinical teaching aspects of the curriculum in nursing programmes. While previous research have examined nurses’ sources of stress and coping styles in the Arab region, there is limited understanding of these stressors and coping strategies of nursing students within the UAE context thereby, highlighting the novelty and significance of the study.

A qualitative study was conducted using semi-structured interviews. Overall 30 students who were undergoing their first clinical placement in Year 2 at the University of Sharjah between May and June 2022 were recruited. All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim and analyzed for themes.

During their first clinical training, nursing students are exposed to stress from different sources, including the clinical environment, unfriendly clinical tutors, feelings of disconnection, multiple expectations of clinical staff and patients, and gaps between the curriculum of theory classes and labatories skills and students’ clinical experiences. We extracted three main themes that described students’ stress and use of coping strategies during clinical training: (1) managing expectations; (2) theory-practice gap; and (3) learning to cope. Learning to cope, included two subthemes: positive coping strategies and negative coping strategies.


This qualitative study sheds light from the students viewpoint about the intricate interplay between managing expectations, theory practice gap and learning to cope. Therefore, it is imperative for nursing faculty, clinical agencies and curriculum planners to ensure maximum learning in the clinical by recognizing the significance of the stressors encountered and help students develop positive coping strategies to manage the clinical stressors encountered. Further research is required look at the perspective of clinical stressors from clinical tutors who supervise students during their first clinical practicum.

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Nursing education programmes aim to provide students with high-quality clinical learning experiences to ensure that nurses can provide safe, direct care to patients [ 1 ]. The nursing baccalaureate programme at the University of Sharjah is a four year program with 137 credits. The programmes has both theoretical and clinical components withs nine clinical courses spread over the four years The first clinical practicum which forms the basis of the study takes place in year 2 semester 2.

Clinical practice experience is an indispensable component of nursing education and links what students learn in the classroom and in skills laboratories to real-life clinical settings [ 2 , 3 , 4 ]. However, a gap exists between theory and practice as the curriculum in the classroom differs from nursing students’ experiences in the clinical nursing practicum [ 5 ]. Clinical nursing training places (or practicums, as they are commonly referred to), provide students with the necessary experiences to ensure that they become proficient in the delivery of patient care [ 6 ]. The clinical practicum takes place in an environment that combines numerous structural, psychological, emotional and organizational elements that influence student learning [ 7 ] and may affect the development of professional nursing competencies, such as compassion, communication and professional identity [ 8 ]. While clinical training is a major component of nursing education curricula, stress related to clinical training is common among students [ 9 ]. Furthermore, the nursing literature indicates that the first exposure to clinical learning is one of the most stressful experiences during undergraduate studies [ 8 , 10 ]. Thus, the clinical component of nursing education is considered more stressful than the theoretical component. Students often view clinical learning, where most learning takes place, as an unsupportive environment [ 11 ]. In addition, they note strained relationships between themselves and clinical preceptors and perceive that the negative attitudes of clinical staff produce stress [ 12 ].

The effects of stress on nursing students often involve a sense of uncertainty, uneasiness, or anxiety. The literature is replete with evidence that nursing students experience a variety of stressors during their clinical practicum, beginning with the first clinical rotation. Nursing is a complex profession that requires continuous interaction with a variety of individuals in a high-stress environment. Stress during clinical learning can have multiple negative consequences, including low academic achievement, elevated levels of burnout, and diminished personal well-being [ 13 , 14 ]. In addition, both theoretical and practical research has demonstrated that increased, continual exposure to stress leads to cognitive deficits, inability to concentrate, lack of memory or recall, misinterpretation of speech, and decreased learning capacity [ 15 ]. Furthermore, stress has been identified as a cause of attrition among nursing students [ 16 ].

Most sources of stress have been categorized as academic, clinical or personal. Each person copes with stress differently [ 17 ], and utilizes deliberate, planned, and psychological efforts to manage stressful demands [ 18 ]. Coping mechanisms are commonly termed adaptation strategies or coping skills. Labrague et al. [ 19 ] noted that students used critical coping strategies to handle stress and suggested that problem solving was the most common coping or adaptation mechanism used by nursing students. Nursing students’ coping strategies affect their physical and psychological well-being and the quality of nursing care they offer. Therefore, identifying the coping strategies that students use to manage stressors is important for early intervention [ 20 ].

Studies on nursing students’ coping strategies have been conducted in various countries. For example, Israeli nursing students were found to adopt a range of coping mechanisms, including talking to friends, engaging in sports, avoiding stress and sadness/misery, and consuming alcohol [ 21 ]. Other studies have examined stress levels among medical students in the Arab region. Chaabane et al. [ 15 ], conducted a systematic review of sudies in Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, Palestine and Bahrain, and reported that stress during clinical practicums was prevalent, although it could not be determined whether this was limited to the initial clinical course or occurred throughout clinical training. Stressors highlighted during the clinical period in the systematic review included assignments and workload during clinical practice, a feeling that the requirements of clinical practice exceeded students’ physical and emotional endurance and that their involvement in patient care was limited due to lack of experience. Furthermore, stress can have a direct effect on clinical performance, leading to mental disorders. Tung et al. [ 22 ], reported that the prevalence of depression among nursing students in Arab countries is 28%, which is almost six times greater than the rest of the world [ 22 ]. On the other hand, Saifan et al. [ 5 ], explored the theory-practice gap in the United Arab Emirates and found that clinical stressors could be decreased by preparing students better for clinical education with qualified clinical faculty and supportive preceptors.

The purpose of this study was to identify the stressors experienced by undergraduate nursing students in the United Arab Emirates during their first clinical training and the basic adaptation approaches or coping strategies they used. Recognizing or understanding different coping processes can inform the implementation of corrective measures when students experience clinical stress. The findings of this study may provide valuable information for nursing programmes, nurse educators, and clinical administrators to establish adaptive strategies to reduce stress among students going clinical practicums, particularly stressors from their first clinical training in different healthcare settings.

A qualitative approach was adopted to understand clinical stressors and coping strategies from the perspective of nurses’ lived experience. Qualitative content analysis was employed to obtain rich and detailed information from our qualitative data. Qualitative approaches seek to understand the phenomenon under study from the perspectives of individuals with lived experience [ 23 ]. Qualitative content analysis is an interpretive technique that examines the similarities and differences between and within different areas of text while focusing on the subject [ 24 ]. It is used to examine communication patterns in a repeatable and systematic way [ 25 ] and yields rich and detailed information on the topic under investigation [ 23 ]. It is a method of systematically coding and categorizing information and comprises a process of comprehending, interpreting, and conceptualizing the key meanings from qualitative data [ 26 ].

Setting and participants

This study was conducted after the clinical rotations ended in April 2022, between May and June in the nursing programme at the College of Health Sciences, University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. The study population comprised undergraduate nursing students who were undergoing their first clinical training and were recruited using purposive sampling. The inclusion criteria for this study were second-year nursing students in the first semester of clinical training who could speak English, were willing to participate in this research, and had no previous clinical work experience. The final sample consisted of 30 students.

Research instrument

The research instrument was a semi structured interview guide. The interview questions were based on an in-depth review of related literature. An intensive search included key words in Google Scholar, PubMed like the terms “nursing clinical stressors”, “nursing students”, and “coping mechanisms”. Once the questions were created, they were validated by two other faculty members who had relevant experience in mental health. A pilot test was conducted with five students and based on their feedback the following research questions, which were addressed in the study.

How would you describe your clinical experiences during your first clinical rotations?

In what ways did you find the first clinical rotation to be stressful?

What factors hindered your clinical training?

How did you cope with the stressors you encountered in clinical training?

Which strategies helped you cope with the clinical stressors you encountered?

Data collection

Semi-structured interviews were chosen as the method for data collection. Semi structured interviews are a well-established approach for gathering data in qualitative research and allow participants to discuss their views, experiences, attitudes, and beliefs in a positive environment [ 27 ]. This approach allows for flexibility in questioning thereby ensuring that key topics related to clinical learning stressors and coping strategies would be explored. Participants were given the opportunity to express their views, experiences, attitudes, and beliefs in a positive environment, encouraging open communication. These semi structured interviews were conducted by one member of the research team (MAS) who had a mental health background, and another member of the research team who attended the interviews as an observer (JMD). Neither of these researchers were involved in teaching the students during their clinical practicum, which helped to minimize bias. The interviews took place at the University of Sharjah, specifically in building M23, providing a familiar and comfortable environment for the participant. Before the interviews were all students who agreed to participate were provided with an explanation of the study’s purpose. The time and location of each interview were arranged. Before the interviews were conducted, all students who provided consent to participate received an explanation of the purpose of the study, and the time and place of each interview were arranged to accommodate the participants’ schedules and preferences. The interviews were conducted after the clinical rotation had ended in April, and after the final grades had been submitted to the coordinator. The timings of the interviews included the month of May and June which ensured that participants have completed their practicum experience and could reflect on the stressors more comprehensively. The interviews were audio-recorded with the participants’ consent, and each interview lasted 25–40 min. The data were collected until saturation was reached for 30 students. Memos and field notes were also recorded as part of the data collection process. These additional data allowed for triangulation to improve the credibility of the interpretations of the data [ 28 ]. Memos included the interviewers’ thoughts and interpretations about the interviews, the research process (including questions and gaps), and the analytic progress used for the research. Field notes were used to record the interviewers’ observations and reflections on the data. These additional data collection methods were important to guide the researchers in the interpretation of the data on the participants’ feelings, perspectives, experiences, attitudes, and beliefs. Finally, member checking was performed to ensure conformability.

Data analysis

The study used the content analysis method proposed by Graneheim and Lundman [ 24 ]. According to Graneheim and Lundman [ 24 ], content analysis is an interpretive technique that examines the similarities and differences between distinct parts of a text. This method allows researchers to determine exact theoretical and operational definitions of words, phrases, and symbols by elucidating their constituent properties [ 29 ]. First, we read the interview transcripts several times to reach an overall understanding of the data. All verbatim transcripts were read several times and discussed among all authors. We merged and used line-by-line coding of words, sentences, and paragraphs relevant to each other in terms of both the content and context of stressors and coping mechanisms. Next, we used data reduction to assess the relationships among themes using tables and diagrams to indicate conceptual patterns. Content related to stress encountered by students was extracted from the transcripts. In a separate document, we integrated and categorized all words and sentences that were related to each other in terms of both content and context. We analyzed all codes and units of meaning and compared them for similarities and differences in the context of this study. Furthermore, the emerging findings were discussed with other members of the researcher team. The final abstractions of meaningful subthemes into themes were discussed and agreed upon by the entire research team. This process resulted in the extraction of three main themes in addition to two subthemes related to stress and coping strategies.

Ethical considerations

The University of Sharjah Research Ethics Committee provided approval to conduct this study (Reference Number: REC 19-12-03-01-S). Before each interview, the goal and study procedures were explained to each participant, and written informed consent was obtained. The participants were informed that participation in the study was voluntary and that they could withdraw from the study at any time. In the event they wanted to withdraw from the study, all information related to the participant would be removed. No participant withdrew from the study. Furthermore, they were informed that their clinical practicum grade would not be affected by their participation in this study. We chose interview locations in Building M23that were private and quiet to ensure that the participants felt at ease and confident in verbalizing their opinions. No participant was paid directly for involvement in this study. In addition, participants were assured that their data would remain anonymous and confidential. Confidentiality means that the information provided by participants was kept private with restrictions on how and when data can be shared with others. The participants were informed that their information would not be duplicated or disseminated without their permission. Anonymity refers to the act of keeping people anonymous with respect to their participation in a research endeavor. No personal identifiers were used in this study, and each participant was assigned a random alpha-numeric code (e.g., P1 for participant 1). All digitally recorded interviews were downloaded to a secure computer protected by the principal investigator with a password. The researchers were the only people with access to the interview material (recordings and transcripts). All sensitive information and materials were kept secure in the principal researcher’s office at the University of Sharjah. The data will be maintained for five years after the study is completed, after which the material will be destroyed (the transcripts will be shredded, and the tapes will be demagnetized).

In total, 30 nursing students who were enrolled in the nursing programme at the Department of Nursing, College of Health Sciences, University of Sharjah, and who were undergoing their first clinical practicum participated in the study. Demographically, 80% ( n  = 24) were females and 20% ( n  = 6) were male participants. The majority (83%) of study participants ranged in age from 18 to 22 years. 20% ( n  = 6) were UAE nationals, 53% ( n  = 16) were from Gulf Cooperation Council countries, while 20% ( n  = 6) hailed from Africa and 7% ( n  = 2) were of South Asian descent. 67% of the respondents lived with their families while 33% lived in the hostel. (Table  1 )

Following the content analysis, we identified three main themes: (1) managing expectations, (2) theory-practice gap and 3)learning to cope. Learning to cope had two subthemes: positive coping strategies and negative coping strategies. An account of each theme is presented along with supporting excerpts for the identified themes. The identified themes provide valuable insight into the stressors encountered by students during their first clinical practicum. These themes will lead to targeted interventions and supportive mechanisms that can be built into the clinical training curriculum to support students during clinical practice.

Theme 1: managing expectations

In our examination of the stressors experienced by nursing students during their first clinical practicum and the coping strategies they employed, we identified the first theme as managing expectations.

The students encountered expectations from various parties, such as clinical staff, patients and patients’ relatives which they had to navigate. They attempted to fulfil their expectations as they progressed through training, which presented a source of stress. The students noted that the hospital staff and patients expected them to know how to perform a variety of tasks upon request, which made the students feel stressed and out of place if they did not know how to perform these tasks. Some participants noted that other nurses in the clinical unit did not allow them to participate in nursing procedures, which was considered an enormous impediment to clinical learning, as noted in the excerpt below:

“…Sometimes the nurses… They will not allow us to do some procedures or things during clinical. And sometimes the patients themselves don’t allow us to do procedures” (P5).

Some of the students noted that they felt they did not belong and felt like foreigners in the clinical unit. Excerpts from the students are presented in the following quotes;

“The clinical environment is so stressful. I don’t feel like I belong. There is too little time to build a rapport with hospital staff or the patient” (P22).

“… you ask the hospital staff for some guidance or the location of equipment, and they tell us to ask our clinical tutor …but she is not around … what should I do? It appears like we do not belong, and the sooner the shift is over, the better” (P18).

“The staff are unfriendly and expect too much from us students… I feel like I don’t belong, or I am wasting their (the hospital staff’s) time. I want to ask questions, but they have loads to do” (P26).

Other students were concerned about potential failure when working with patients during clinical training, which impacted their confidence. They were particularly afraid of failure when performing any clinical procedures.

“At the beginning, I was afraid to do procedures. I thought that maybe the patient would be hurt and that I would not be successful in doing it. I have low self-confidence in doing procedures” (P13).

The call bell rings, and I am told to answer Room No. XXX. The patient wants help to go to the toilet, but she has two IV lines. I don’t know how to transport the patient… should I take her on the wheelchair? My eyes glance around the room for a wheelchair. I am so confused …I tell the patient I will inform the sister at the nursing station. The relative in the room glares at me angrily … “you better hurry up”…Oh, I feel like I don’t belong, as I am not able to help the patient… how will I face the same patient again?” (P12).

Another major stressor mentioned in the narratives was related to communication and interactions with patients who spoke another language, so it was difficult to communicate.

“There was a challenge with my communication with the patients. Sometimes I have communication barriers because they (the patients) are of other nationalities. I had an experience with a patient [who was] Indian, and he couldn’t speak my language. I did not understand his language” (P9).

Thus, a variety of expectations from patients, relatives, hospital staff, and preceptors acted as sources of stress for students during their clinical training.

Theme 2: theory-practice gap

Theory-practice gaps have been identified in previous studies. In our study, there was complete dissonance between theory and actual clinical practice. The clinical procedures or practices nursing students were expected to perform differed from the theory they had covered in their university classes and skills lab. This was described as a theory–practice gap and often resulted in stress and confusion.

“For example …the procedures in the hospital are different. They are different from what we learned or from theory on campus. Or… the preceptors have different techniques than what we learned on campus. So, I was stress[ed] and confused about it” (P11).

Furthermore, some students reported that they did not feel that they received adequate briefing before going to clinical training. A related source of stress was overload because of the volume of clinical coursework and assignments in addition to clinical expectations. Additionally, the students reported that a lack of time and time management were major sources of stress in their first clinical training and impacted their ability to complete the required paperwork and assignments:

“…There is not enough time…also, time management at the hospital…for example, we start at seven a.m., and the handover takes 1 hour to finish. They (the nurses at the hospital) are very slow…They start with bed making and morning care like at 9.45 a.m. Then, we must fill [out] our assessment tool and the NCP (nursing care plan) at 10 a.m. So, 15 only minutes before going to our break. We (the students) cannot manage this time. This condition makes me and my friends very stressed out. -I cannot do my paperwork or assignments; no time, right?” (P10).

“Stressful. There is a lot of work to do in clinical. My experiences are not really good with this course. We have a lot of things to do, so many assignments and clinical procedures to complete” (P16).

The participants noted that the amount of required coursework and number of assignments also presented a challenge during their first clinical training and especially affected their opportunity to learn.

“I need to read the file, know about my patient’s condition and pathophysiology and the rationale for the medications the patient is receiving…These are big stressors for my learning. I think about assignments often. Like, we are just focusing on so many assignments and papers. We need to submit assessments and care plans for clinical cases. We focus our time to complete and finish the papers rather than doing the real clinical procedures, so we lose [the] chance to learn” (P25).

Another participant commented in a similar vein that there was not enough time to perform tasks related to clinical requirements during clinical placement.

“…there is a challenge because we do not have enough time. Always no time for us to submit papers, to complete assessment tools, and some nurses, they don’t help us. I think we need more time to get more experiences and do more procedures, reduce the paperwork that we have to submit. These are challenges …” (P14).

There were expectations that the students should be able to carry out their nursing duties without becoming ill or adversely affected. In addition, many students reported that the clinical environment was completely different from the skills laboratory at the college. Exposure to the clinical setting added to the theory-practice gap, and in some instances, the students fell ill.

One student made the following comment:

“I was assisting a doctor with a dressing, and the sight and smell from the oozing wound was too much for me. I was nauseated. As soon as the dressing was done, I ran to the bathroom and threw up. I asked myself… how will I survive the next 3 years of nursing?” (P14).

Theme 3: learning to cope

The study participants indicated that they used coping mechanisms (both positive and negative) to adapt to and manage the stressors in their first clinical practicum. Important strategies that were reportedly used to cope with stress were time management, good preparation for clinical practice, and positive thinking as well as engaging in physical activity and self-motivation.

“Time management. Yes, it is important. I was encouraging myself. I used time management and prepared myself before going to the clinical site. Also, eating good food like cereal…it helps me very much in the clinic” (P28).

“Oh yeah, for sure positive thinking. In the hospital, I always think positively. Then, after coming home, I get [to] rest and think about positive things that I can do. So, I will think something good [about] these things, and then I will be relieved of stress” (P21).

Other strategies commonly reported by the participants were managing their breathing (e.g., taking deep breaths, breathing slowly), taking breaks to relax, and talking with friends about the problems they encountered.

“I prefer to take deep breaths and breathe slowly and to have a cup of coffee and to talk to my friends about the case or the clinical preceptor and what made me sad so I will feel more relaxed” (P16).

“Maybe I will take my break so I feel relaxed and feel better. After clinical training, I go directly home and take a long shower, going over the day. I will not think about anything bad that happened that day. I just try to think about good things so that I forget the stress” (P27).

“Yes, my first clinical training was not easy. It was difficult and made me stressed out…. I felt that it was a very difficult time for me. I thought about leaving nursing” (P7).

I was not able to offer my prayers. For me, this was distressing because as a Muslim, I pray regularly. Now, my prayer time is pushed to the end of the shift” (P11).

“When I feel stress, I talk to my friends about the case and what made me stressed. Then I will feel more relaxed” (P26).

Self-support or self-motivation through positive self-talk was also used by the students to cope with stress.

“Yes, it is difficult in the first clinical training. When I am stress[ed], I go to the bathroom and stand in the front of the mirror; I talk to myself, and I say, “You can do it,” “you are a great student.” I motivate myself: “You can do it”… Then, I just take breaths slowly several times. This is better than shouting or crying because it makes me tired” (P11).

Other participants used physical activity to manage their stress.

“How do I cope with my stress? Actually, when I get stressed, I will go for a walk on campus” (P4).

“At home, I will go to my room and close the door and start doing my exercises. After that, I feel the negative energy goes out, then I start to calm down… and begin my clinical assignments” (P21).

Both positive and negative coping strategies were utilized by the students. Some participants described using negative coping strategies when they encountered stress during their clinical practice. These negative coping strategies included becoming irritable and angry, eating too much food, drinking too much coffee, and smoking cigarettes.

“…Negative adaptation? Maybe coping. If I am stressed, I get so angry easily. I am irritable all day also…It is negative energy, right? Then, at home, I am also angry. After that, it is good to be alone to think about my problems” (P12).

“Yeah, if I…feel stress or depressed, I will eat a lot of food. Yeah, ineffective, like I will be eating a lot, drinking coffee. Like I said, effective, like I will prepare myself and do breathing, ineffective, I will eat a lot of snacks in between my free time. This is the bad side” (P16).

“…During the first clinical practice? Yes, it was a difficult experience for us…not only me. When stressed, during a break at the hospital, I will drink two or three cups of coffee… Also, I smoke cigarettes… A lot. I can drink six cups [of coffee] a day when I am stressed. After drinking coffee, I feel more relaxed, I finish everything (food) in the refrigerator or whatever I have in the pantry, like chocolates, chips, etc” (P23).

These supporting excerpts for each theme and the analysis offers valuable insights into the specific stressors faced by nursing students during their first clinical practicum. These insights will form the basis for the development of targeted interventions and supportive mechanisms within the clinical training curriculum to better support students’ adjustment and well-being during clinical practice.

Our study identified the stressors students encounter in their first clinical practicum and the coping strategies, both positive and negative, that they employed. Although this study emphasizes the importance of clinical training to prepare nursing students to practice as nurses, it also demonstrates the correlation between stressors and coping strategies.The content analysis of the first theme, managing expectations, paves the way for clinical agencies to realize that the students of today will be the nurses of tomorrow. It is important to provide a welcoming environment where students can develop their identities and learn effectively. Additionally, clinical staff should foster an environment of individualized learning while also assisting students in gaining confidence and competence in their repertoire of nursing skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills [ 8 , 15 , 19 , 30 ]. Another challenge encountered by the students in our study was that they were prevented from participating in clinical procedures by some nurses or patients. This finding is consistent with previous studies reporting that key challenges for students in clinical learning include a lack of clinical support and poor attitudes among clinical staff and instructors [ 31 ]. Clinical staff with positive attitudes have a positive impact on students’ learning in clinical settings [ 32 ]. The presence, supervision, and guidance of clinical instructors and the assistance of clinical staff are essential motivating components in the clinical learning process and offer positive reinforcement [ 30 , 33 , 34 ]. Conversely, an unsupportive learning environment combined with unwelcoming clinical staff and a lack of sense of belonging negatively impact students’ clinical learning [ 35 ].

The sources of stress identified in this study were consistent with common sources of stress in clinical training reported in previous studies, including the attitudes of some staff, students’ status in their clinical placement and educational factors. Nursing students’ inexperience in the clinical setting and lack of social and emotional experience also resulted in stress and psychological difficulties [ 36 ]. Bhurtun et al. [ 33 ] noted that nursing staff are a major source of stress for students because the students feel like they are constantly being watched and evaluated.

We also found that students were concerned about potential failure when working with patients during their clinical training. Their fear of failure when performing clinical procedures may be attributable to low self-confidence. Previous studies have noted that students were concerned about injuring patients, being blamed or chastised, and failing examinations [ 37 , 38 ]. This was described as feeling “powerless” in a previous study [ 7 , 12 ]. In addition, patients’ attitudes towards “rejecting” nursing students or patients’ refusal of their help were sources of stress among the students in our study and affected their self-confidence. Self-confidence and a sense of belonging are important for nurses’ personal and professional identity, and low self-confidence is a problem for nursing students in clinical learning [ 8 , 39 , 40 ]. Our findings are consistent with a previous study that reported that a lack of self-confidence was a primary source of worry and anxiety for nursing students and affected their communication and intention to leave nursing [ 41 ].

In the second theme, our study suggests that students encounter a theory-practice gap in clinical settings, which creates confusion and presents an additional stressors. Theoretical and clinical training are complementary elements of nursing education [ 40 ], and this combination enables students to gain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to provide nursing care. This is consistent with the findings of a previous study that reported that inconsistencies between theoretical knowledge and practical experience presented a primary obstacle to the learning process in the clinical context [ 42 ], causing students to lose confidence and become anxious [ 43 ]. Additionally, the second theme, the theory-practice gap, authenticates Safian et al.’s [ 5 ] study of the theory-practice gap that exists United Arab Emirates among nursing students as well as the need for more supportive clinical faculty and the extension of clinical hours. The need for better time availability and time management to complete clinical tasks were also reported by the students in the study. Students indicated that they had insufficient time to complete clinical activities because of the volume of coursework and assignments. Our findings support those of Chaabane et al. [ 15 ]. A study conducted in Saudi Arabia [ 44 ] found that assignments and workload were among the greatest sources of stress for students in clinical settings. Effective time management skills have been linked to academic achievement, stress reduction, increased creativity [ 45 ], and student satisfaction [ 46 ]. Our findings are also consistent with previous studies that reported that a common source of stress among first-year students was the increased classroom workload [ 19 , 47 ]. As clinical assignments and workloads are major stressors for nursing students, it is important to promote activities to help them manage these assignments [ 48 ].

Another major challenge reported by the participants was related to communicating and interacting with other nurses and patients. The UAE nursing workforce and population are largely expatriate and diverse and have different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Therefore, student nurses encounter difficulty in communication [ 49 ]. This cultural diversity that students encounter in communication with patients during clinical training needs to be addressed by curriculum planners through the offering of language courses and courses on cultural diversity [ 50 ].

Regarding the third and final theme, nursing students in clinical training are unable to avoid stressors and must learn to cope with or adapt to them. Previous research has reported a link between stressors and the coping mechanisms used by nursing students [ 51 , 52 , 53 ]. In particular, the inability to manage stress influences nurses’ performance, physical and mental health, attitude, and role satisfaction [ 54 ]. One such study suggested that nursing students commonly use problem-focused (dealing with the problem), emotion-focused (regulating emotion), and dysfunctional (e.g., venting emotions) stress coping mechanisms to alleviate stress during clinical training [ 15 ]. Labrague et al. [ 51 ] highlighted that nursing students use both active and passive coping techniques to manage stress. The pattern of clinical stress has been observed in several countries worldwide. The current study found that first-year students experienced stress during their first clinical training [ 35 , 41 , 55 ]. The stressors they encountered impacted their overall health and disrupted their clinical learning. Chaabane et al. [ 15 ] reported moderate and high stress levels among nursing students in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Another study from Bahrain reported that all nursing students experienced moderate to severe stress in their first clinical placement [ 56 ]. Similarly, nursing students in Spain experienced a moderate level of stress, and this stress was significantly correlated with anxiety [ 30 ]. Therefore, it is imperative that pastoral systems at the university address students’ stress and mental health so that it does not affect their clinical performance. Faculty need to utilize evidence-based interventions to support students so that anxiety-producing situations and attrition are minimized.

In our study, students reported a variety of positive and negative coping mechanisms and strategies they used when they experienced stress during their clinical practice. Positive coping strategies included time management, positive thinking, self-support/motivation, breathing, taking breaks, talking with friends, and physical activity. These findings are consistent with those of a previous study in which healthy coping mechanisms used by students included effective time management, social support, positive reappraisal, and participation in leisure activities [ 57 ]. Our study found that relaxing and talking with friends were stress management strategies commonly used by students. Communication with friends to cope with stress may be considered social support. A previous study also reported that people seek social support to cope with stress [ 58 ]. Some students in our study used physical activity to cope with stress, consistent with the findings of previous research. Stretching exercises can be used to counteract the poor posture and positioning associated with stress and to assist in reducing physical tension. Promoting such exercise among nursing students may assist them in coping with stress in their clinical training [ 59 ].

Our study also showed that when students felt stressed, some adopted negative coping strategies, such as showing anger/irritability, engaging in unhealthy eating habits (e.g., consumption of too much food or coffee), or smoking cigarettes. Previous studies have reported that high levels of perceived stress affect eating habits [ 60 ] and are linked to poor diet quality, increased snacking, and low fruit intake [ 61 ]. Stress in clinical settings has also been linked to sleep problems, substance misuse, and high-risk behaviors’ and plays a major role in student’s decision to continue in their programme.

Implications of the study

The implications of the study results can be grouped at multiple levels including; clinical, educational, and organizational level. A comprehensive approach to addressing the stressors encountered by nursing students during their clinical practicum can be overcome by offering some practical strategies to address the stressors faced by nursing students during their clinical practicum. By integrating study findings into curriculum planning, mentorship programs, and organizational support structures, a supportive and nurturing environment that enhances students’ learning, resilience, and overall success can be envisioned.

Clinical level

Introducing simulation in the skills lab with standardized patients and the use of moulage to demonstrate wounds, ostomies, and purulent dressings enhances students’ practical skills and prepares them for real-world clinical scenarios. Organizing orientation days at clinical facilities helps familiarize students with the clinical environment, identify potential stressors, and introduce interventions to enhance professionalism, social skills, and coping abilities Furthermore, creating a WhatsApp group facilitates communication and collaboration among hospital staff, clinical tutors, nursing faculty, and students, enabling immediate support and problem-solving for clinical situations as they arise, Moreover, involving chief nursing officers of clinical facilities in the Nursing Advisory Group at the Department of Nursing promotes collaboration between academia and clinical practice, ensuring alignment between educational objectives and the needs of the clinical setting [ 62 ].

Educational level

Sharing study findings at conferences (we presented the results of this study at Sigma Theta Tau International in July 2023 in Abu Dhabi, UAE) and journal clubs disseminates knowledge and best practices among educators and clinicians, promoting awareness and implementation of measures to improve students’ learning experiences. Additionally we hold mentorship training sessions annually in January and so we shared with the clinical mentors and preceptors the findings of this study so that they proactively they are equipped with strategies to support students’ coping with stressors during clinical placements.

Organizational level

At the organizational we relooked at the available student support structures, including counseling, faculty advising, and career advice, throughout the nursing program emphasizing the importance of holistic support for students’ well-being and academic success as well as retention in the nursing program. Also, offering language courses as electives recognizes the value of communication skills in nursing practice and provides opportunities for personal and professional development.

For first-year nursing students, clinical stressors are inevitable and must be given proper attention. Recognizing nursing students’ perspectives on the challenges and stressors experienced in clinical training is the first step in overcoming these challenges. In nursing schools, providing an optimal clinical environment as well as increasing supervision and evaluation of students’ practices should be emphasized. Our findings demonstrate that first-year nursing students are exposed to a variety of different stressors. Identifying the stressors, pressures, and obstacles that first-year students encounter in the clinical setting can assist nursing educators in resolving these issues and can contribute to students’ professional development and survival to allow them to remain in the profession. To overcome stressors, students frequently employ problem-solving approaches or coping mechanisms. The majority of nursing students report stress at different levels and use a variety of positive and negative coping techniques to manage stress.

The present results may not be generalizable to other nursing institutions because this study used a purposive sample along with a qualitative approach and was limited to one university in the Middle East. Furthermore, the students self-reported their stress and its causes, which may have introduced reporting bias. The students may also have over or underreported stress or coping mechanisms because of fear of repercussions or personal reasons, even though the confidentiality of their data was ensured. Further studies are needed to evaluate student stressors and coping now that measures have been introduced to support students. Time will tell if these strategies are being used effectively by both students and clinical personnel or if they need to be readdressed. Finally, we need to explore the perceptions of clinical faculty towards supervising students in their first clinical practicum so that clinical stressors can be handled effectively.

Data availability

The data sets are available with the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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The authors are grateful to all second year nursing students who voluntarily participated in the study.

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Jacqueline Maria Dias, Muhammad Arsyad Subu, Nabeel Al-Yateem, Fatma Refaat Ahmed, Syed Azizur Rahman, Mini Sara Abraham, Sareh Mirza Forootan, Farzaneh Ahmad Sarkhosh & Fatemeh Javanbakh

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JMD conceptualized the idea and designed the methodology, formal analysis, writing original draft and project supervision and mentoring. MAS prepared the methodology and conducted the qualitative interviews and analyzed the methodology and writing of original draft and project supervision. NY, FRA, SAR, MSA writing review and revising the draft. SMF, FAS, FJ worked with MAS on the formal analysis and prepared the first draft.All authors reviewed the final manuscipt of the article.

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Exploring factors affecting the unsafe behavior of health care workers’ in using respiratory masks during COVID-19 pandemic in Iran: a qualitative study

  • Azadeh Tahernejad 1 ,
  • Sanaz Sohrabizadeh   ORCID: 1 &
  • Somayeh Tahernejad 2  

BMC Health Services Research volume  24 , Article number:  608 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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The use of respiratory masks has been one of the most important measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, correct and safe use of breathing masks is vital. The purpose of this study was to exploring factors affecting the unsafe behavior of health care workers’ in using respiratory masks during the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran.

This study was carried out using the conventional qualitative content analysis. Participants were the number of 26 health care workers selected by purposive sampling method. Data collection was conducted through in-depth semi-structured interviews. Data analysis was done using the content analysis approach of Graneheim and Lundman. This study aligns with the Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research (COREQ) checklist and was conducted between December 2021 and April 2022.

The factors affecting the unsafe behavior of health care workers while using respiratory masks were divided into 3 main categories and 8 sub-categories. Categories included discomfort and pain (four sub-categories of headache and dizziness, skin discomfort, respiratory discomfort, feeling hot and thirsty), negative effect on performance (four sub-categories of effect on physical function, effect on cognitive function, system function vision, and hearing), and a negative effect on the mental state (two subcategories of anxiety and depression).

The findings can help identify and analyze possible scenarios to reduce unsafe behaviors at the time of using breathing masks. The necessary therapeutic and preventive interventions regarding the complications of using masks, as well as planning to train personnel for the correct use of masks with minimal health effects are suggested.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to healthcare systems worldwide, requiring Health Care Workers (HCWs) to adopt strict infection control measures to protect themselves [ 1 ]. Among these measures, the proper use of respiratory masks plays a crucial role in preventing the transmission of the virus [ 2 ]. Iran was among the initial countries impacted by COVID-19. In Iran, as in many other countries, HCWs have been at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19, facing various challenges in utilizing respiratory masks effectively [ 3 ]. Over 7.6 million Iranians have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, with more than 146,480 reported deaths as of August 2023 [ 4 ]. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Iran’s healthcare system experienced significant impacts as well [ 5 ].

Despite the passage of several years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, new variant of the virus continues to emerge worldwide. It is crucial to be prepared for future pandemics and similar biological disasters.

Due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus transmission via respiratory droplets, the use of masks and personal protective equipment is essential [ 6 ]. The World Health Organization recommended the use of medical masks, such as surgical masks, for HCWs during the COVID-19 pandemic [ 7 ]. These masks are designed to provide a barrier to respiratory droplets and help reduce the transmission of the virus [ 8 ].

Few studies have been devoted to negative aspects of using respiratory masks in human being. The physiological and adverse effects of using PPE have been investigated in a systematic review study [ 9 ]. In another review study, of skin problems related to the use of respiratory masks were studied [ 10 ]. Also, in some studies, a significant relationship has been found between the time of using masks and the severity of the adverse effects of using masks [ 11 ]. In all the above studies, questionnaires have been used to check the prevalence of these adverse effects among HCWs.

Incorrect use of masks is considered as the unsafe behaviors of HCWs. In some studies, unsafe behaviors are defined as disobeying an accepted safe method while working with the capability of causing an accident [ 12 ]. Since the reasons for unsafe behavior are complex and multifaceted, their prevention requires a clear understanding of important and influential factors. In various studies about the prevalence of unsafe behaviors in work environments, several factors such as individual characteristics, psychological aspects, safety conditions, perceived risk, and stress have been introduced as effective factors in demonstrating the unsafe behaviors [ 12 , 13 , 14 ]. However, the findings are still unable to provide a deep understanding of the underlying causes and motivations contributing to unsafe behaviors.

In the present study, unsafe behaviors while using respiratory masks is defined as the behaviors that are seen by some HCWs, which reduce the effectiveness of respiratory masks due to improper placement on the face or hand contact with the mask [ 15 ]. Some researchers in their studies indicated that other unknown factors are also effective in the unsafe behaviors [ 14 ]. However, the findings are still unable to provide a deep understanding of the underlying causes and motivations contributing to unsafe behaviors. Qualitative studies are needed to answer these questions and determine its causes. Hence, the present study is aimed to explore the factors affecting the unsafe behavior of HCWs while using respiratory masks during the COVID-19 pandemic through a qualitative study.

Study design

This study was carried out using conventional qualitative content analysis (item 9 in COREQ checklist). The interviews explored HCWs’ experiences regarding factors affecting the unsafe behavior in using respiratory masks during covid-19 pandemic in Iran. This research adheres to the guidelines outlined in the Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research (COREQ).

This study was conducted in government and non-government hospitals in Tehran, Mashhad and Rafsanjan that admitted patients with COVID-19 disease. The authors’ place of work and access to participants were important causes of choosing the settings. Moreover, these hospitals experienced a large amount of patients seeking healthcare during the Covid-19 pandemic. This study was performed between December 2021 and April 2022.


In this study, interviews were performed with healthcare workers (HCWs) including nurses, physicians and hospital workers who had direct contact with patients that used masks for more than 4 h in each work shift. Also, participants frequently utilized surgical masks. Among them, few employed filter masks or a combination of both types. The inclusion criteria were people with experience of using respiratory masks for more than one year and the ability to express their experiences and point of views. The sole exclusion criterion of the current study was a lack of interest in further participation. The participants were selected using purposive sampling method (item 10 in COREQ checklist) in which the researcher selected the most informed people who could explain their experiences regarding the research topic [ 16 ]. The number of participants was determined based on the data saturation principle in which no new concepts were obtained. Data saturation was achieved after 24 interviews, and to ensure saturation, two more interviews were also performed. Finally, the total number of participants was 26 people (items 12–13 in COREQ checklist).

Data gathering

Data collection was performed through in-depth face to face (item 11 in COREQ checklist) semi-structured interviews. The first author, who received training in qualitative research methods, conducted all the interviews (items 1–5 in COREQ checklist). The participants were presented with information about the research topic, objectives, and the researchers’ identities. The researcher thoroughly described the study procedure to those who consented to participate, and written informed consent was obtained from all participants (items 6–8 in COREQ checklist). The data was gathered in the workplace of the participants. Additionally, demographic data of the participants was documented (items 14–16 in COREQ checklist). At first, 5 unstructured interviews were done to extract the primary concept, and then, 21 semi-structured interviews were conducted using the interview guide. The interviews were done in a quiet and comfortable place. The interviews started with simple and general topics and were gradually directed to specific questions based on the answers. Some of the questions were: Based on your experience, what factors are effective in not using your mask safely?

New concepts were extracted from each interview, and this process continued until data saturation was reached. After obtaining permission from the participants to record the interviews, the implementation of the interviews was done immediately after the completion of each interview to increase the accuracy of the obtained data. The duration of the interviews was between 15 and 40 min (30 min on average). Field notes were made during or after the interview and transcripts were returned to participants for the comments and corrections (items 17–23 in COREQ checklist).

Data analysis

Data analysis was done using the five-step content analysis approach of Graneheim and Lundman [ 17 ]. Immediately after conducting each interview, the recorded file of the interview was transcribed in Word software. The interview text was read several times and based on the research question, all the content related to the participants’ experiences were extracted in the form of meaning units. In addition, notes were written in the margins of the text and then, the abstracted meaning units were designated as the code. Subsequently, the compiled codes were categorized into subcategories according to similarities. This process was repeated for all transcribed interviews until the main categories were established. The whole data analysis process was carried out by the researchers. Direct quotes from the interviews included in the results section to elucidate the codes, categories, and themes. (items 24–32 in COREQ checklist).


The strategies of transferability, dependability, credibility outlined by Lincoln and Guba were employed to achieve data trustworthiness [ 18 ]. Credibility and dependability were established through data triangulation approach, which involved interviews and field notes. Furthermore, peer check and member check were applied for ensuring credibility. To obtain member check, the transcribed interviews and codes were shared with some participants to receive their feedbacks. In the case of peer check, the research team and independent experts were verified the extracted codes and sub-categories. Data transferability and Confirmability were met through the detailed explanation of the research stages and process.

Women were 50% of all participants and the highest frequency of education was bachelor’s degree ( n  = 17). Furthermore, the highest amount of work experience was 22 years (Table  1 ).

In the present study, 689 initial codes were identified in the initial writing, and after removing duplicate codes and cleaning, the number of final codes included 132 codes. After reviewing and analyzing the data, the factors affecting the unsafe behavior of HCWs while using respiratory masks were divided into 3 main categories and 8 sub-categories (Table  2 ). Categories included discomfort and pain (four sub-categories of headache and dizziness, skin discomfort, respiratory discomfort, feeling hot and thirsty), negative effect on performance (four sub-categories of effect on physical function, effect on cognitive function, system function vision and hearing), and a negative effect on the mental state (two subcategories of anxiety and depression).

Pain and discomfort

Some of the participants reported that the reason for improper and unsafe use of the mask is feeling pain and discomfort, and the reasons include the four subcategories of headache and dizziness, skin discomfort, respiratory discomfort, discomfort caused by heat and thirst.

Skin disorders

The side effects of the mask on the skin are of the important factors in this category. Thus, some participants, due effects of the mask to their skin, limited the use of the mask or did not use it correctly. Among the skin problems experienced by the participants were acne and skin sensitivities, which in some cases required drug treatments. The subcategory of skin sensitivities such as itching and burning was mentioned by more than 70% of the samples as the most important cause of discomfort.

“…I can’t help touching my mask. After half an hour when I put on the new mask, my face, especially my nose, starts to itch badly and I often have to blow my nose from under the mask or over the mask with my fingers, palm or the back of my hand…” (P1)

Respiratory disorders

Most of the participants in the study noted to problems such as difficulty in breathing, heart palpitations, carbon dioxide and unpleasant smell inside the mask as the most important respiratory problems. Therefore, it can be one of the important reasons for removing the mask and unsafe behavior in using the mask.

“… at any opportunity, I remove my mask to take a breath…” (P15)

Feeling hot and thirsty

Temperature discomfort, especially in long-term use and when people had to use two masks, was mentioned as an annoying factor.

“… the heat inside the mask bothers me a lot, I sweat and the mask gets wet… no matter how much water I drink, I still feel thirsty…” (P6)

Unfitness of mask with the individual’s face

Another important point extracted from the interviews was the importance of when to use the mask. In this way, as the time of using the mask increased, the person’s feeling of discomfort due to the mismatch between the belt and the mask increased, because the feeling of pressure and pain on the nose, behind the ears, and the face usually occurs several hours after wearing the mask. Several participants reported experiencing discomfort and headaches after wearing the mask. Although These headaches were often short-term and didn’t have long-term complications according to the participants’ reports, they could affect the work performance of HCWs and their behavior in the correct use of respiratory masks.

“…. After a while, the mask puts pressure on my nose and parts of my head and face. Sometimes I touch and move it unintentionally…” (P3) “… if I don’t move the mask on my face, I get a headache because the mask strap puts pressure on my head and nose…” (P21)

Effects on performance

The participants reported that wearing a mask for a long time is one of their important problems in performing their duties, and one of the main categories extracted from this study is the effects on performance, which includes the physical, cognitive, vision and hearing performance.

Effects on physical performance

The effect on the physical performance of HCWs had less effect on their unsafe behavior in using masks than other cases. But when masks were used for a long time and people were more physically tired, sometimes people removed the mask to increase their ability to perform physical work.

“…when I wear a mask, it becomes difficult for me to walk and do physical work, as if I am short of breath…” (P17)

Effects on cognitive function

It was the most frequent subcategory. Because when people feel uncomfortable, their attention decreases and part of the working memory is involved in feeling uncomfortable. Of course, it should be noted that many of the participants in the present study reported the decrease in alertness to be an effective factor in reducing their cognitive performance.

“…When I take off the mask, I can focus better on my work. Especially when I wear it in longer times, I get tired. Many times, I move the mask to finish my job faster…” (P8)

Based on the participants’ point of views, data perception (understanding information through the visual and auditory systems) decreases while using the mask. However, the negative effect of mask on the visual performance affects the unsafe behavior of the HCWs in the incorrect use of the mask and moving it on the face more than other cases. Most of the people who used glasses reported the steam condensation under the glasses as an important cause of discomfort and interference of the mask with their work duties.

“…Using glasses with a mask is really annoying. I have eye pain and burning, and there is always a fog in front of my eyes…” (P2)

Effects on mental status

Among the other main categories extracted in this study is the effects on mental status, which includes the subcategories of depression and anxiety. The negative effect of the mask on the mental state unconsciously affects the person’s behavior in using the respiratory mask.

Some of the participants in this study reported feeling anxious while wearing the mask for various reasons. Therefore, they refuse to wear masks, although they have no justification for doing so. In many cases, the participants in this study expressed that during higher psychological stress, they suffer more from wearing masks and tend to wear them improperly.

“… Sometimes I distractedly take off my mask so that the other person hears my voice better. However, there are many patients, So I am afraid of getting infected. Sometimes I have to speak loudly and this makes me furious … I worry about making a mistake or misunderstanding the conversation, and …” (P4)

One of the most important factors mentioned as a cause of depression was harder communication with colleagues and patients while wearing a mask. This occurs by increasing the physical and mental workload and placing people in social isolation. In this situation, HCWs sometimes consciously take off their masks, so that they can communicate with each other more conveniently.

“…When I wear a mask, I get tired when talking to others. I prefer not to talk to my colleague. Sometimes I don’t pay attention, I take the mask down so they can understand me …” (P5)

To the best of our knowledge, this research is one of the first qualitative studies to extract the experiences of HCWs for explaining the factors affecting the unsafe behavior of HCWs in using respiratory masks during the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran. Although many reasons can cause the unsafe behavior of HCWs in the correct use of respiratory masks in the hospital, according to the present results, three main categories include discomfort and pain, effects on performance, effects on mental status. Skin and respiratory discomforts and the negative effect of the mask on cognitive functions are among the most important factors affecting the unsafe behavior of HCWs in the field of correct use of respiratory masks.

Based on the present study, the participants experienced discomfort and pain while using the mask, and this was one of the important factors of unsafe use of respiratory masks. Discomfort while wearing masks has been confirmed in several studies [ 19 ]. Additionally, in a similar study, researchers found that wearing face masks during the COVID-19 era heightens the discomfort experienced by HCWs [ 20 ]. Some studies have delved into these discomforts in greater detail. For example, the prevalence of skin disorders among HCWs using PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic was reported to be significant [ 21 ]. Some researchers also reported significant prevalence of respiratory disorders and headaches when using PPE [ 22 ]. The findings of a study suggested that a novel form of headache has emerged among HCWs when using a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both exacerbation of existing headaches and the onset of new headaches have been observed to rise with mask usage, irrespective of the use duration [ 23 ]. In some studies, a significant percentage of people reported feeling thirsty and dehydrated after long-term use of respiratory masks [ 24 ]. Several studies reported disturbing rates of perspiration from prolonged use of respiratory masks [ 25 , 26 , 27 ]. A similar study reported that prolonged exposure to masks and protective gear, especially among HCWs, can lead to various issues such as acne, skin irritation, cognitive impairment, and headaches [ 28 ]. According to the results of the present study, discomfort often causes HCWs to move the mask and disturb the correct fitness of the mask on their face.

The results of the present study indicated that respiratory masks have the ability to hinder the work performance of their users. Various studies have confirmed the adverse effect of respiratory masks on HCWs performance. A similar research indicated that respiratory masks reduce physical performance [ 29 ]. Several studies have highlighted the issue of mask users’ ability to see and read being hindered by fogging of glasses [ 22 , 27 , 30 ]. The feel of weakness to perform cognitive tasks has also been reported in various studies [ 31 , 32 ]. An increase in physical fatigue has been mentioned in some studies as an adverse effect of respiratory masks [ 27 , 31 ]. A research showed the effect of respiratory mask on hearing and visual performance [ 33 ]. Another study reported that high-protection respiratory masks reduced physiological and psychological ability, especially if the workers perform physical work [ 34 ].

The third category is related to the negative impact on the psychological state of HCWs. Some studies noted the use of some PPE, including respiratory masks, as one of the possible reasons for the increase of mental health problems among HCWs [ 35 , 36 ]. Before the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus, the hypothesis of the negative effect of respiratory masks on the mental state of people was investigated and confirmed by some studies [ 37 ]. Furthermore, one study reported that wearing respiratory masks leads to an increase in anxiety [ 38 ].

The non-ergonomic nature of respiratory masks (the lack of suitability of masks for people for long-term use) can affect the effectiveness of respiratory masks by encouraging people to perform unsafe behaviors in using respiratory masks [ 39 ]. An important point was that the attitude and knowledge of health care works regarding the use of respiratory masks were not identified as the cause of unsafe behavior of HCWs. However, this factor has been reported in some previous studies as a reason for people not using PPE properly [ 40 ]. The COVID-19 pandemic situation and the extensive information collected about this pandemic may improve the level of awareness and the attitude of the HCWs.

The escalation in infection rates among HCWs, despite receiving training and utilizing personal protective equipment, served as a catalyst for this research endeavor. So far, there has been a deficiency in the context-specific research that could offer a more profound understanding of this issue. Therefore, the outcomes of this qualitative study may prove beneficial in enhancing the design and execution of respiratory protection programs for HCWs in infectious hospital departments or during similar pandemics.

Implications for nursing practice

It is expected that the findings of this study can provide a better understanding of the factors influencing the unsafe behavior of HCWs while using masks. Furthermore, it can be used as a preliminary study to evaluate the effectiveness of safety and infection control programs in hospitals in the COVID-19 pandemic and similar disasters in the future.

Discomfort and pain, effects on performance, and effects on mental status are important factors for unsafe behavior of HCWs’ in using respiratory masks. Our results could contribute to the identification and analysis of possible scenarios to reduce unsafe behaviors in the use of respiratory masks. Accordingly, it is recommended to provide the necessary therapeutic and preventive interventions regarding the complications of using masks. Planning to reduce the side effects of masks and training personnel on the correct use of masks with minimal health effects are recommended as well.


The physical and cognitive workload of HCWs which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic [ 41 ], had possible impacts on the work ability of the staff [ 42 ]. Therefore, their explanation about the negative effects of wearing masks may be affected by their specific working conditions.

Data availability

The datasets used during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Azadeh Tahernejad & Sanaz Sohrabizadeh

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Tahernejad, A., Sohrabizadeh, S. & Tahernejad, S. Exploring factors affecting the unsafe behavior of health care workers’ in using respiratory masks during COVID-19 pandemic in Iran: a qualitative study. BMC Health Serv Res 24 , 608 (2024).

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