Background Complex or heterogeneous data pose challenges for systematic review and meta-analysis. In recent years, a number of new methods have been developed to meet these challenges. This qualitative interview study aimed to understand researchers’ understanding of complexity and heterogeneity and the factors which may influence the choices researchers make in synthesising complex data. Methods We conducted interviews with a purposive sample of researchers (N = 19) working in systematic review or meta-analysis across a range of disciplines. We analysed data thematically using a framework approach. Results Participants reported using a broader range of methods and data types in complex reviews than in traditional reviews. A range of techniques are used to explore heterogeneity, but there is some debate about their validity, particularly when applied post hoc. Conclusions Technical considerations of how to synthesise complex evidence cannot be isolated from questions of the goals and contexts of research. However, decisions about how to analyse data appear to be made in a largely informal way, drawing on tacit expertise, and their relation to these broader questions remains unclear.