Using interviews to gather patient insight

Interviews are a terrific way to build rapport and gather rich information. You can explore a patient’s experiences, perspectives and feelings in greater depth than other methods. 

Interviews can be face to face or over the phone and be structured, semi-structured or unstructured.

Unstructured interviews

Unstructured interviews are more like a guided conversation. The interviewer is free to vary the questions from patient to patient, so they can follow whatever lines of enquiry they think are most appropriate, depending on the responses given by each patient.


  • Respondent led so can uncover very rich and varied insights
  • Lots of flexibility  


  • Interviewer bias might undermine the validity of unstructured interviews
  • Requires greater facilitation skills – training may be required

Developing your interview script

Whether you’ve chosen a structured, semi-structured or unstructured interview, we recommend developing a script. Having a script can help you feel and look prepared, ensure your questions are related to your aims and objectives and make sure you provide enough information and support to each patient you’re interviewing. How detailed your script is will depend on the type of interview you’ve chosen.

When developing your interview script remember:

  • the interview should last no more than two hours
  • you should pick no more than 3-4 core topics to explore
  • to allow enough time for patients to answer fully
  • to prepare some probing questions to help delve deeper into patients’ answers

Structuring your interview script

You can use this format to structure your script:

  1. Welcome and introductions (put the patient at ease and make them feel valued)
  2. Explain how the interview is structured
  3. Provide a brief overview of your research
  4. Explain why you are involving patients and how you will use their insights
  5. Allow them to ask any questions before you start the interview
  6. Ask your interview questions
  7. Explain what the next steps and when can they expect an update on how you used their responses

Here’s a template script with more guidance you can use.

Choosing a date and time

Avoid using significant dates that might affect whether people can attend the interview. A significant date could be a religious event, a major sporting event or school holidays. This could also mean holding your interview after hours or on the weekend if your audience has responsibilities during the working hours. 

It’s good practice to shortlist a few days and times that you’re available and ask the patients to select what works best for them. Try to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. 

Face to face interview

Having your interview face to face is a great way to build rapport and non-verbal cues can help with facilitating the discussion. If you hold a face to face interview you can go to them or choose a venue that they can easily get to. Refer to budgeting for your patient involvement for more information on what to provide for face to face involvement. You should consult with the patients you recruit to find out any accessibility or mobility issues you will need to accommodate.

Telephone interview

It’s important to accommodate the needs of your target audience. While there are many benefits to holding the interview in person this might not always be possible. If the interview is over the phone we recommend that you call them to reduce their costs. It can also be daunting being interviewed over the phone, so you will need to try to put them at ease and build rapport.

Picking the right questions

One of the big benefits of using interviews as your method to involve patients is that you can collect rich information. To ensure you’re enabling patients to answer in depth, we recommend asking mostly open questions. Prepare some probe or follow-up questions to help delve deeper into patients answers.

Think about your respondents

When writing a question, ask yourself whether the respondents:

  • can understand the question
  • will be able to answer the question
  • will be willing to answer the question
  • will be led to answer the question in a certain way

If you need the patients to understand some topics before your interview in order to get their feedback, you can include it in your pre-read materials.

Make it relevant

Make sure respondents are only asked questions that are relevant to them. Ask yourself whether the respondents have the right knowledge or experience to answer the question. If particular experiences would be beneficial then you should include this when identifying your target audience.

Be clear

Make the questions easy to understand and be explicit with what you mean. There shouldn’t be room for interpretation, remember:

  • not all respondents will understand the question in the same way
  • don't be afraid to use definitions or give examples (e.g. a biopsy is a medical procedure where a small sample of body tissue is removed so it can be examined under a microscope)
  • to follow the guidelines for writing for a lay audience

One at a time

Avoid double barrelled questions by making sure you only ask one question at a time. ‘Is this toolkit interesting and useful?’ is an example of a double barreled question. Some people may think this toolkit is interesting but not useful, or useful but not interesting. This question doesn’t allow for accurate responses.

Question order matters

Question order is important to engage respondents and minimise bias. Questions should be ordered in a logical sequence, and start with broad questions before moving on to the more specific or sensitive questions. Think about whether the content of a question could influence how respondents answer subsequent questions.

Don’t make assumptions

Don’t assume that respondents have done/experienced/know something. Use filter questions or additional explanations if required. Don’t us wording like ‘with the way things are…’ as you can’t be certain that each respondent thinks in the same way.

Be objective

When you are talking with patients they shouldn’t be able to tell your opinion. Make sure questions are balanced, neutral, and don’t lead respondents to answer in a certain way. If holding your interview in person you should watch out for any non-verbal cues that might make the patient feel like you approve or disapprove of certain answers.

Be sensitive

The people responding to your survey may be very close to a cancer experience. Sensitivity is important. Try not to ask questions that have risk of offending or upsetting your audience. If you need to ask personal questions then it’s useful to justify why you require that information. Be prepared to pause the conversation if the patient gets emotional and ask them what they would like to do.

Recruiting to your patient involvement activity

Once you've planned your method, read on for more information about recruiting patients to your patient involvement activity.

Recruiting to your patient involvement activity

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