The Difference Between Structured and Unstructured Interviews

Posted by IntroMagic Team on September 4th, 2021

Interviews are complex. Whether you are an interviewer or an interviewee, understanding these complexities in and out is important to ace the process. Although there are different types of interview formats, this blog focuses on telling you the difference between structured and unstructured interviews.

In simple terms, structured interview is patterned with a predetermined set of questions whereas an unstructured interview does not involve any fixed format and focuses more on spontaneity. 

While many feel anxious and scared (framing the interview as a now or never situation), others remain confident and prepared at all times. Well, it’s always good to sit in an interview with a positive attitude.

Sometimes, what is unsettling is the interview pattern. You may be prepared for a structured interview but what about an unstructured one?

Industry trends reveal that only 20% of the total applicants for a job role make it to the interview round. With industry witnessing a sea change in the interview process, it’s best to go prepared and understand the key difference between structured and unstructured interviews. 

What is a Structured Interview?

Structured interviews are subject to close-ended questions and the candidates are required to follow certain guidelines. These interviews are standard in nature and are used to collect data in numerical values, which is further used for research, comparison and scoring candidates. A structured interview is ideal when dealing with a large population or mass hiring.

This form of interview follows a sequence, is inflexible, more effective and involves less communication between the interviewer and candidate. 

Since the questions are fixed, these interviews are easy to replicate and easy to quantify, meaning simplification in testing the reliability. However, this form of interview lacks detailed information of the candidate, making it difficult to ascertain his/her behavioral inputs.

What is an Unstructured Interview?

Unstructured interview is a qualitative research process, allowing the interviewer the freedom to ask any kind of questions. He/she is not bound to any particular sequence or format. 

However, the person in-charge must have in-depth knowledge of the subject being talked about and skills associated with it. Such interviews are unplanned, lack uniformity but open room for exploratory research data collection. 

With no systematic sequence involved, unstructured interviews are based on spontaneity and are highly descriptive in nature. This form of interview is best suitable when hiring for limited or specialized positions. 

Here, the conversation is not time-bound and can last longer than usual. Such interviews give the candidate a good chance to influence the interviewer. Qualities like politeness, mature behaviour and social skills are of great significance during an unstructured interview.

Difference Between Structured and Unstructured Interviews

Comparison Basis Structured Interview Unstructured Interview
Meaning Structured interview is the one involving a fixed set of questions. The interviewer comes prepared in advance with a particular questionnaire. The dependency is on the interview pattern, that must be carried out with uniformity. Unstructured interview is the one where the interviewer initiates casual conversation with the candidate. There is no pattern or fixed format set in advance that allows the interviewer to indulge in informal discussion mixed with interview questions.
Nature These interviews are directive in nature, meaning that a sequential procedure is followed with proper guidelines. Leading questions with preferred answers approach remains in highlight. These are majorly guided discussions.  This form of interview is non-directive in nature, meaning that the interviewer is not bound to follow any set pattern or leads. However, he/she must take a non-judgemental stand and seek no preferred response. Active listening remains a salient feature to initiate descriptive conversations. This is more of a discovery interview.  
Sequence In a structured interview, the interviewer must follow the standardized interview sequence with questions set in a particular order. One typically does not deviate from the set pattern.  In an unstructured interview, the interviewer is free to ask any questions. He/she might prepare a few questions in advance but is not bound to follow any interview sequence. It relies on spontaneity to direct the interview into a conversation. 
Data Collection A structured interview generates quantitative data. While this data is measurable, it lacks details concerning the candidate’s behaviour in a particular situation or event. And does not allow discovery of candidates outside the format. An unstructured interview is used to collect data in qualitative research. Since the candidate is allowed to be descriptive of his words, the interviewer is able to gather in-depth information and gain a better sense of a person’s situational understanding. 
Types of Questions  This form of interview involves inclusion of close-ended questions, which allows the interviewer to limit the possible responses to pre-conceived options. The validity of the data recorded is quite less as compared to unstructured interviews.  This interview has open-ended questions that allow the candidate the opportunity to dive into multiple perspectives. Moreover, it allows the interviewer to gain deeper understanding by improvising the research questions. These interviews have increased validity as the interviewer gathers in-depth information of the subject discussed. 
Examples of Questions In a structured interview, the questions are common for all candidates such as:
  • Tell us something about yourself?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What do you know about our company? 
  • Why should we hire you?
Such questions make for a controlled and consistent response, thus simplifying comparison and reducing influence of personal bias. 
In an unstructured interview, the questions differ from candidate to candidate and follows conversational path such as:
  • Do you enjoy using our product/service?
  • What improvisations do you think we can make?
  • What are your thoughts on the industry trends concerning our product/service?
  • Why do you use/like our product?
Such questions are open to interpretations and initie deeper discussions.
Time Duration With a pre-planned set of questions in place, structured interviews are quick to conduct within a shorter time period. It is most effective when catering to a larger pool of candidates.  With no planned questionnaire in place, unstructured interviews become a time-consuming affair. Deeper the conversation, the longer the interview goes.
Research  Structured interviews are descriptive research that includes systematic data collection. Along with being economical, these interviews can be easily inferred to derive results.  Unstructured interviews are descriptive research and generally used for examining a limited data sample. These interviews are personalized and require employing trained interviewers, which is expensive and time consuming. 
Tools Structured interviews are subject to surveys and questionnaires as tools for gathering relevant information. Such tools simplify administration and comparison of information. Also, a structured interview can take place physically or virtually through set formats and methods.  Equipment like audio recorders, camcorders and telephones are used to conduct an unstructured interview.  Also, these interviews involve personal interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee to gather valid information. 
Comparability  The information collected in a structured interview is subject to comparison. The collective data samples are set to the same parameters of inquiry, ideal for quantitative observation and analysis.  Since an unstructured interview is more likely to differ for each participant, the data samples do not allow for comparability. The interviewer is directed to probe on personal details, spontaneity and situational understanding of the candidate to pass the final judgement. 
Usage Data collected from structured interviews are used by positivists who emphasize on the quantitative nature to reveal the statistics. A positivist approach can be inflexible and makes fair judgment based on logic and scientific knowledge.  Data collected from unstructured interviews are used by interpretivists who favour qualitative data and derive conclusions only after understanding all social actions. An interpretivist believes that human behaviour is complex and cannot be judged based on social actions or quantification. 


With structured interviews employing a one-size-fits-all approach, the process can become cold and impersonal that directly affects the selection of the right candidate with right experience.

On the other hand, unstructured interviews are highly personalized and allow the candidate to act to the spontaneity of the event. The pre-developed systematic approach of the former directs towards logical reasoning and testing whereas the casual and unrehearsed nature of the latter brings out the best skills and competencies of the candidates. 

The difference between structured and unstructured interviews lies in the questions being asked. When mass hiring like campus placements, structured interviews are the ones to be expected as these are more formal and standardized. 

On the contrary, unstructured interviews are best suitable for assessing candidates when hiring for specialist roles. These allow room for creative exploration, are more flexible and invite more inclusive, free-flowing conversations. 

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