Interviews vs. Surveys

In the red corner, weighing in at a hefty time commitment and a massive transcription job, we have… INTERVIEWS!

In the blue corner, weighing in at a stack of paper and variable data quality, we have… SURVEYS!

In the battle of the qualitative data collection methods, surveys and interviews both pack quite a punch. Both can help you figure out what your human participants are thinking; how they make decisions, how they behave, and what they believe. Traditionally, both involve questions (which you ask as the researcher) and answers (which your participants contribute). But despite their similarities, surveys and interviews can yield very different results.

One of the most crucial decisions to make before your data collection is which method/s to use. The last thing you want to do is get halfway through interviewing 50 people, only to realise that you really should have surveyed them instead.

Here are a few differences to think about as you consider which data collection method is best for your research.

  Survey Interview
Questions · Often many

· Simple / short-answer

· Multiple-choice, scaled, or free-text

· Few (ideally 6-8)

· In-depth

· Open-ended

Format On paper or online In person or on the phone / Skype
Data relevance
Variable depending on the participants’ understanding of instructions Easier to keep participants on-topic
Good for Capturing simple information in numerical or short-text form Capturing discursive or complex information on participants’ thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and beliefs
Ease for participants Easy to fill out if kept simple Requires a time commitment
Ease for researchers Easy to bulk-process online surveys and collate results, but still requires some interpretation Requires time and effort to conduct, transcribe, and analyse interviews
Design process Must carefully design questions and instructions Must carefully design questions and practice good interview techniques

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

2 thoughts on “Interviews vs. Surveys

  1. This is great – I’d also like to add my 2c. Surveys are very useful if you already know what is important, interesting and you can express it so it is understandable- and interviews are a great way of getting that information. In my experience a big problem with surveys is that they can be designed in such a way as to completely put off the participant ( asking questions which are basically your constructs, “do you think the use of mobile technology is moderately influenced by your gender ?”), But also missing the opportunity for surprise (“who buys the groceries, you, your partner, your parents ?” seems to exclude “actually we dumpster dive for everything in my house “). I would say the key advantage of surveys is if you are looking for differences between groups, but at least some interviews first can really firm up the questions.

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