Research Interviewing: Tips and Insights

For the past couple of weeks my professional life has been pretty much filled with three things: arranging, conducting and transcribing interviews.  It’s been two years since my last round of semi-structured research interviews, and it’s been interesting in how my approach this time has benefited from my prior experiences.  So I thought I’d share some of these experiences on conducting effective and pain-free research interviewing.

Preparation

Proper preparation & planning prevents piss poor performance

  • What do I want? Before starting to recruit for my interviews going back over my research plan, and refreshing in my mind just what I wanted to find out.  Only then did I start to craft my interview questions.
  • Script-writing: Yes I work from a script.  No, I don’t use exactly the same words each time.  Yes, it is no more than one page of A4 (so it can sit on my document reader stand during the interview).  I use a lot of emboldening to pick out the key headings, so my eye can jump to them easily in the heat of the interview itself.
  • It’s not 20 questions: One thing my previous batch of interviews taught me is you can get a lot of information with just a few, well crafted questions.  In fact, with too many questions you may find that the interviews run on and on and on…  Last time I think I asked too many. This time, I’m focused down to just 4.
  • Lead them in: My interview scripts have leading statements that frame/contextualise what I’m about to ask.  This helps make it clear what I’m talking about and interested in, rather than just leaping in with question, question, question.  I want my interviewees to open up to me – not feel like they’re on the other end of an interrogation.
  • Follow ups matter: For every question I ask, I have at least one follow up question to dig a bit deeper, or to help to prompt an interviewee who is less than chatty.

Recruitment

I choose you Pikachu!

  • Justify your sample: I know at some point down the line I’ll need to justify WHY I chose a particular set of potential-respondents to approach.  Some (major UK research funders) may be a small enough group that approaching them all is ok.  Others (any UK academic) is such a broad a varied group, that taking great pains to write notes to myself explaining my rationale for selection will make writing this up later easier.
  • First contact: I agonise over the recruitment emails I send out.  I keep them short and to the point (since I have to assume my potential candidates will be busy and not bother to read that much.  text).  Tell ’em who I am. Tell ’em what I want.  Tell ’em how much time it’ll take up (not much is a good idea).  And keep the tone professional, positive, and engaging.  I expect at best a 50% response rate from each sample group.  Less than 25% and I’ll need to revise my approach.  More than 50% and I’ll be delighted.  For my phase 1 interviews in 2013 I scored a 67% response rate…which was stunning!
  • Responding: I also find it’s good to have a longer email pre-written going into more detail about what I’m doing and what I’m looking for from my candidates is essential.  It saves time as I can just copy and paste it into responses, and then modify.  Easier than having to write everything out by hand.  It’s also the point where I explain about important ethical considerations like recording and anonymisation options.
  • Record keeping: I’ve a spreadsheet with everyone I’ve contacted with key information including: when they were contacted, any response, email and phone details.  And then I colour code it I can tell in a glance how my various groups of potential recruits are going.  Also, were there are follow ups to do (I get some who say “I’m busy now, but please contact me in three weeks”) I make them stand out with red-text action points.
  • Overbooking: For interviews that might last an 15-20 minutes, I clear a full hour in my schedule.  From past experience some interviewees will run long – and rather than cutting short a valuable exchange, I want to make sure that I’m not going to be checking my watch every few minutes.
  • Review and reminders: Keep checking your records every (working) day to see how your recruitment is going.  I have a two-three week schedule to send out reminder emails to those from whom I’ve heard nothing, or who promised to reply but haven’t.  If I hear nothing from them, then on to my second wave…
  • Sample waves: For the groups where I’ve got a lot of potential candidates, I’ve ascribed waves of contact.  So I’ll approach and then later remind them.  But if I’m still short of candidates for a sample group, then it’s onto the 2nd wave, and perhaps even a 3rd wave.
  • Targets: One mistake I made in my first round of interviews is I never really had a cut off point, I was ready to talk to any one who responded to my recruitment emails.  This meant I didn’t have a clear exit strategy.  This time I’ve agreed with my supervisors the min/max numbers of my sample – so I know when I hit them…I can be ready to close down that part of the research.  Although, if one or two extras pop up, I’d probably include them in the sample…but no more, my time is finite.

Conducting and Capturing

Tell me of your homeworld, Usul

  • Practice, practice, practice: I rehearse asking my questions in the few minutes before each interview. Just to make sure I’m going to make sense. It helps with my diction, it also helps make sure I don’tjustspeaksofastthatIgabble, which can be a bit of a problem for me.
  • Active listening: 5 minutes before each interview I give myself a moment of quiet.  I run through the questions as above.  I double check the interviewee’s contact details and web page, just to get a mental image in my head.  And I prepare to listen, as for an interview to feel like a conversation I need to be ready to react, amplify or reflect on what the speaker is saying during the talk.  Which means I need to make sure I’m not distracted by anything else…not even the postman! You can read more about my thoughts on active listening here.
  • Recording: Recording interviews for me is key as I need the accurate words spoken for my analysis.  For me a combination of Skype and MP3Skype Recorder work for me 80% of the time.  For face to face interviews, I’ve a very good quality MP3 recorder.  I could use my phone, but I find the stereo recording facilities of my recorder help when listening for transcriptions – I can mute my own channel a bit to make sure I can hear my interviewee better.  For the odd call I have to do on the mobile I’ve tried using my portable MP3 player with the phone in hands free mode (okayish sound quality) or ACR Call Recorder (better quality).  While the sound quality can be more variable than my Skype recording, if it’s the only way to speak to an interviewee, it’s a handy back up.
  • Best Speaking Voice: Since I speak with a rather affected received English accent (for reasons that I still don’t understand), thus I don’t generally have a problem with making myself understood.  I do however, try and keep an ear on clearly enunciating…but without sounding like I’m cold and distant.
  • Tonal Warmth: My interviews should feel, for the interviewees, as close to conversations as possible.  It puts them at their ease, and means they are more likely to reveal perceptions, observations or attitudes that they might otherwise shroud from me.  I need to put them at their ease, and keep them engaged throughout.  And yes, I spend the entire interview smiling, because it really projects positive emoitional reinforcement into my voice too.
  • Dress for Success: I have never conducted an interview in my pajamas, okay.  Why?  Well because you never know when an interview over Skype might flick on your webcam (it’s happened to me).  So I dress, just like I would if I was meeting the interviewee in person.  Helps also shift me into a professional mode of thinking I find too.
  • Make a Note of It: I have a dedicated note book for my interviews in which I write (at the start of the day) the time and names of all the interviews that day.  Just in case email goes down and I can’t check my schedule (happened once this week already!).  While I’m listening, I write down key words, underlining those points I perhaps want to ask the speaker to develop more.  It’s also part of my back up regime, just in case my audio recording doesn’t work – or if a speaker says something vital and the audio clarity chooses that moment to drop out.
  • Jesus Saves: I back up both the audio and the transcripts off site.  Why?  Cos I don’t want to lose them!  They’re precious data artifacts that I’m not going to get back.  Currently using Google Drive, although there’s a future post about me trying to find out where I can store them on my institution’s file space.

Transcribing

It’s only words and words are all I have…

  • Software: I did try transcribing just using audio playback on Windows Media player and VLC, using my keyboard controls for media.  Doesn’t work that well as you don’t really have the level of fine control to zip forward, and far more often…go back three seconds to hear something again.  I’ve been using Express Scribe since my phase 1 interviews and it is pretty good, and thankfully not too expensive to buy.  Plus it works with a foot-pedal…
  • Pedal to the Metal: I might feel at times like an audio-stenographer, but I found that using a food-pedal to play/rewind my audio files at least tripled the speed at which I can transcribe.  I use the Infinity USB foot pedal, and it’s a great little device.  Easy to set up and configure, and works happily with Express Scribe.
  • Headphones: Even with good speakers, it’s better to cut out the surrounding noise (and avoid driving any one else in your house/office up the wall) and listen to the playback on a good set of noise-cancelling headphones.  While I have in-ear ones, I much prefer for long periods of time the comfort and audio clarity of my Hyper X Cloud headset.  They’re also brilliant as a headset for conducting the interviews in the first place.
  • KISS Notation: As in Keep It Simple Stupid!  I’m not doing conversation analysis so I keep my text pretty clear of any notation – beyond the odd emphasis (underlined) from the speaker, or paralanguage interjections ([laughs], [pause], or [deep sigh]).  Makes it faster to type, and easy to read for analysis too.

There you have it, my thoughts on conducting effective research interviews.  I’d love to hear from any other PhD researchers out there who conduct interviews and the tips you might have!  Please comment away…

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