Research Savvy Practitioner

This regular feature of the Research Review discusses the qualitative research method referred to as Key Informant Interviews (KII) that was used in the data collection of information for the Alliance’s Child Neglect Prevention Initiative. This feature will detail this methodology, its advantages and limitations, and the interpretation of results.

PDF Print out this issue of the Research Savvy Practitioner


The term key informant interview is generally associated with qualitative research in which an individual (i.e., researcher) conducts in-depth interviews on a specific topic(s) in which knowledgeable and/or experienced participants can provide significant contributions to the investigative inquiry. A structured or semi-structured questionnaire is administered one-on-one (both in-person and telephone interviews are acceptable techniques) to 15 to 351   selected informants that allows the researcher to seek insights, ask follow-up questions, explore different points made during the course of conversation and identify distinctions in perspectives.


The key informant interview method can prove useful in all phases of development, implementation and evaluation. Below are selected opportunities when the KII may benefit your research endeavor as well as advantages and disadvantages of this research method2.   Key informant interviews are helpful when:

  • Use of qualitative, descriptive information is sufficient for research purposes
  • There is a need to understand behavior and perspectives of a particular target population on a specific issue
  • It is important to obtain in-depth information from individuals with diverse backgrounds, opinions and knowledge
  • Discussion focuses on sensitive topics and benefits from candid responses from participants
  • Recommendations need to be generated - this is the main purpose of your inquiry
  • You wish to provide a context and additional interpretation of quantitative data collected through other methods.
Raises awareness, interest & enthusiasm around an issue Not useful if quantitative data are needed
Helps obtain detailed and rich information in a straightforward and inexpensive manner Difficult to prove validity of findings; typically unable to generalize results given the number of KIs
Provides flexibility to explore new ideas and issues that were not originally anticipated Biased if informants are not carefully selected (see Selection of Key Informants)
Allows interviewer to establish rapport with KI and clarify interview items as needed Difficult to select the ‘right’ key informants so there is diverse representation of backgrounds and perspectives
Provides opportunity to build/strengthen relationships with significant informants and stakeholders Can be challenging to make contact with and schedule interviews with KIs
Can be used alone or in conjunction with another research approach  
Return to top


There are several ways to parse out the activities involved in the Key Informant Interview Process. For the purposes of this article, five activities will be briefly described:

While each of these activities is distinct, it is quite possible that you or your research team will be involved in several activities concurrently. For example, as you develop your interview questions, you may also be amending your list of key informants as the interview content evolves and thus provides increased clarity in terms of the specific questions that need to be asked.


The initiation of the key informant process begins with the specification of the subject in which you are interested. Because key informant interviews are ideal for exploring issues in-depth, identify two or three sub-themes you want to cover in the interviews and then begin your research on existing literature and data. It is important to enhance your knowledge of the subject area and ascertain, to the best of your ability, whether some or all of the information you are looking to obtain already exists.

Return to top


While the essence of obtaining the needed information resides ultimately with asking the right questions of your key informants, the interview protocol is defined by the following choices:

Structured or Semi-Structured Interview

In its simplest form, a structured interview involves one person asking another person a list of pre-determined questions about selected topics using a questionnaire that often resembles a script. The aim of a structured interview is to ensure that each KI is asked exactly the same questions, preferably in the same order. This ensures that answers can be accurately aggregated and that comparisons can be made with confidence3 .   A semi-structured interview is a guided interview with a limited number of pre-determined, open-ended questions with the aim of stimulating discussion on a given topic. When conducting a semi-structured interview, the interviewer uses a checklist or interview outline instead of a questionnaire and tries to build a relaxed and constructive relationship with the KI through a conversational approach.4

Telephone or In-Person Interview 5

The technique used to obtain key informant information is dependent on (1) logistical feasibility; (2) available time and resources; (3) key informant’s availability and (4) key informant’s expressed choice (in some instances). Both telephone and face-to-face techniques can be effective and they are not mutually exclusive.

In-person interviews are most often used in the key informant interview method. The format is more labor intensive as it requires additional scheduling and planning of logistics. The advantages of the face-to-face interview are that it facilitates the exchange of ideas and is conducive to asking more complex questions and obtaining more detailed responses. Telephone interviews are typically more convenient and less time intensive for all involved parties. The major drawback of the telephone interview is the absence of visual connection and personal interaction that is possible with the face-to-face interview. It is important to note that the development and use of a structured telephone key informant interview may secure all the information needed.

With few exceptions, the interview should be constructed using open-ended questions (i.e., those with no fixed responses allowing the informant to answer in their own words). Closed-ended questions have a set of established responses from which the informant is to choose. Given the architecture of the question, the forced choices do not allow for unique answers.

Regardless of the technique that is selected, the interview should be concluded within one hour. Interviewers should practice the interview tool - - to familiarize themselves with the questions, gain experience in conducting the interview and assure that they can complete the interview within the desired time period.

Return to top

Main Elements of the Generic Interview Tool

While it is not possible within the space constraints of this article to address the essentials of good question and questionnaire construction, below is a possible outline for a structured interview tool6  :

I. Introduction

a. Introduce yourself and your project

b. Thank the key informant for his/her willingness to participate in the interview process

c. Establish the purpose of the interview

d. Explain who is involved

e. Establish credibility for the interview and yourself as interviewer

f. Explain why their cooperation is significant in collecting the information needed

g. Explain what will happen with conflicted information and its benefits

h. Address confidentiality issues and request permission to record the interview

II. Key Questions

a. Develop five to ten key questions that are designed to elicit in-depth information about the issue or problem…some of these should draw upon the informant’s expertise and unique perspective.

III. Probing Questions

a. Develop several questions that encourage key informants to reflect on the implications of their comments. These questions are useful in getting informants to consider the cause or essence of the issue you are investigating.

IV. Closing Question

a. Provide the opportunity for the key informant to provide additional comments and/or information.

V. Summary

a. If time permits, briefly summarize the main comments that the key informant provided during the interview and ask if you omitted any of their main points.

b. Reiterate next steps (should they exist).

c. Thank the informants for their time and contributions to the project.

Return to top


Prospective key informants should be individuals who have specialized knowledge, unique perspectives, differing backgrounds and/or distinguished achievements in the subject area. One direct method of selecting key informants is to strategically consult with relevant experts who should be able to recommend the optimal key informant candidates. To further increase the likelihood of a desirable informant, it may be useful to select those individuals who were recommended by more than one expert. 7

The diversity of the selected informants is essential. Limiting the selection of key informants to a particular profession, ideology, demographic characteristics, etc. will result in biased results. The selection of a wide range of individuals allows for the identification of varying perspectives, underlying issues, and recommendations. 8

The diversity of key informants is even more critical in light of an inherent weakness of the methodology, that is, the incorporation of subjective perspectives 9    and the allowance for subjective interpretations of these perspectives. Thus, the more scrutiny that can be applied in a “balanced” list of key informants, the more likely there will be some counterbalance in the subjectivity of responses expressed.

The number of individuals interviewed is often dependent on data needs, available time and available resources. 10     There should be sufficient key informants to ensure adequate representation of distinct knowledge and experiences. Ideally, interviews should be conducted until interviewers find that additional information will not provide any new insights and responses provided by key informants are within a pattern of familiar responses that have already been collected. Additional interviewing is no longer needed or beneficial at this point. 11

Return to top


While there are no hard and fast rules as to how the interviewer is to conduct the key informant interview, the manner in which the interview is conducted, whether it is semi-structured or structured, can make a marked difference in the quality of the information obtained by the interviewer. Here are a few ‘pointers’ an interviewer can incorporate in conducting KI interviews:

  • Establish rapport
  • Maintain a neutral and objective stance
  • Listen carefully for recurring themes in the KI’s responses
  • Check in with the respondent when you sense that the KI could use additional information
  • Sequence questions, starting with those that are more factual (semi-structured interview)
  • Phrase questions carefully (semi-structured interview)
  • Use probing techniques to encourage informants to elaborate

The quality of the interview is contingent on the ability to collect accurate and comprehensive responses in an efficient way. Often the choice of whether to take notes or audio record is dictated by logistics. Note-taking during a face-to-face interview is difficult and likely to compromise the ability to capture information comprehensively. Thus, the data from these interviews (i.e., the interviewee’s responses) are best captured by an electronic audio recording device and/or a second person whose role is dedicated to note-taking.

If conducting a one-on-one telephone interview, it is relatively straightforward to take notes and/or record the interview. This author engaged in both methods when conducting the key informant interviews on the prevention of child neglect. In cases in which the interviewer is his/her own transcriptionist, more than one documentation method is well advised whenever feasible. It is essential when audio recording to disclose this fact and obtain permission prior to recording. The interviewer can emphasize to the key informant that: (1) the recording assures that important insights and comments will not be missed; (2) the interview will not be recorded should they prefer this to be the case; and (3) the recording will not be shared with others and will be kept in a secure location. 12

Return to top


There is no doubt that the analysis of qualitative research in general and key informant interviews in particular is a complex undertaking. An initial decision is whether or not computer software will be used to compile and analyze data. While a description of each type of software cannot be adequately detailed here, it is significant to note that the software dictates whether data will be analyzed via spreadsheets, databases, or statistical analysis.

ATLAS.ti™, is a computer software program used mostly, but not exclusively, in qualitative research or qualitative data analysis. The purpose of ATLAS.ti is to help researchers uncover and systematically analyze complex phenomena hidden in unstructured data. The program provides tools that let the user locate, code, and annotate findings in primary data material; to weigh and evaluate their importance; and to visualize the often complex relations between them. 13    Other statistical analysis software includes Ethnograph™, and QSR NUDIST™. Statistical analysis software requires a substantial knowledge of statistics in order to use the software and to interpret the findings, and this software may be very expensive. 14

In lieu of computer software, analysis can be more challenging. Summarizing the data can be accomplished by identifying categories and subcategories that can be coded for each key informant and then across all key informants. In this manner, common themes and patterns of responses can be identified. In reviewing the notes and/or recordings, specific sections of the interview protocol can be highlighted and noteworthy KII comments can be identified for quotation in the findings and reports. Examining questions one at a time allows for a more detailed analysis. ‘Outlier’ responses can be identified and responses from sub-populations can be compared against the responses from other sub-groups. This is useful when comparisons are made between and among the demographics of the key informant population. 15

In preparing to develop a report of the key informant interview process and findings, it is helpful to revisit the purpose and objective(s) of the research investigation. The scope and type of report guides the extent of the analytical process and the level of detail incorporated into the report. Typically, there are three categories of key informant interview reports: (1) Brief oral reports that highlight key findings; (2) written descriptive reports that focus on the key informants’ comments and perspectives; and (3) written analytical reports that highlight the key findings, identify the significant patterns and includes key informant comments as examples. Regardless of the type of report, remember to share results with key informants and all individuals involved in the undertaking. It is a poignant gesture to let them know the importance of their contribution and the results of their efforts.

Return to top


This article has described the key informant interview process. There is a great deal of variability in terms of the degree of complexity and thus the level of analytic detail possible in this qualitative research method. It is important to recognize that, although on its face it may appear as simple and straightforward as having a formal conversation with a group of experts, there are a set of steps that should be followed in the key informant interview process. They are: (1) reviewing existing literature; (2) developing the interview protocol; (3) selecting the key informants; (4) conducting the key informant interviews; (5) analyzing the data; and (6) reporting the results. Given that much of our work in the prevention of child abuse and neglect is qualitative in nature, it is useful to gain experience in the use of this methodology.

Return to top


Access Project. (1999) Getting the Lay of the Land On Health: A Guide for Using Interviews to Gather Information (Key Informant Interviews).
ACAPS (October 2011) Technical Brief: Direct Observation and Key Informant Interview Techniques for Primary Data Collection during Rapid Assessments.
New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS)
Rice Hoppers (N.D.). Key Informant Interviews. Available at:
University of Illinois Extension – Program Planning and Assessment Extension Reporting
UCLA Center for Health Policy Researcha.
UCLA Center for Health Policy Researchb (December 2004). Technical Assistance Series Article #2: Using Computer Software to Compile and Analyze Data
USAID Center for Development Information and Education (1996, No.2) Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Tips: Conducting Key Informant Interviews. Accessed at:

Return to top


1. USAID Center for Development Information and Evaluation, 1996. For the Alliance’s Report on Key Informant Interviews on Child Neglect Prevention, 22 key informants were selected and interviewed.
2. List of Opportunities as well as Advantages/Disadvantages are a composite of items cited in USAID and UCLA
3. ACAPS, 2011, p.13
4. ACAPS, 2011, p.13
5. Section information synthesized from UCLA Center for Health Policy Research
6. UCLA Center for Health Policy Research
7. Rice Hoppers, N.D., p.2
8. UCLA Center for Health Policy Research
9. ACAPS, p. 12
10. UCLA Center for Health Policy Research
11. Rice Hoppers, N.D., p.2
12. UCLA Center for Health Policy Researcha
13. Wikipedia. ATLAS.ti
14. UCLA Center for Health Policy Researchb
15. Rice Hoppers
Return to top