This week I had an enquiry from a student about the best approach to recording interviews, which got me thinking about this and some of the other practical aspects which might not be quite so easy to find out about in the research methods literature. My PhD research involved interviews and focus groups, all of which I recorded, and I learned a few things along the way.
I have never been the type to own the most cutting-edge mobile phone and so using mine as a recording device was not an option. At the time when I needed to start my interviews, we had not long had the Kaikōura earthquake which had seriously impacted my School’s building and their own recording devices, which they would lend to staff and students, were inaccessible. So I had to go to the Learning and Teaching technologists and I ended up being really lucky with the device that they lent me. While it was probably about ten years old and had to be plugged into the mains (which was occasionally a little awkward in terms of placing the device in a suitable location), it was really incredibly sensitive. In one of my focus groups, one of the participants unexpectedly brought along their small child who was talking and laughing throughout. In the spirit of being welcoming and going with the flow, I took it in my stride and hoped I was coming across as relaxed and not fazed by this development, although of course I was secretly freaking out that I would not be able to hear any of this fantastic kōrero because of all the background noise. I raced back to my accommodation, thinking at least if I got a first draft transcription done straight away it would be fresh in my mind so if anything was unclear I would be able to fill in the gaps from my memory of the interview. Thankfully, however, there was very little that was totally inaudible and I had a full first draft transcript by the time I checked out of my accommodation the following morning. Transcribing as soon as you can after an interview or focus group is advice that my supervisors gave me early on, mainly from the point of view of not getting behind and feeling swamped, but also for this reason as well, having it fresh in your memory so that as little data as possible is lost in the transcription process.
Another key piece of advice is to always have a back-up device. This is to avoid losing the record of your interview if your recording device fails. A related piece of advice is to make sure your backup device makes recordings of a similar high quality to the main recording device. I was extremely fortunate that none of my recordings failed, because I discovered later on that my back-up devices (audio recording software on my laptop for interviews and videoconferencing with recording functionality for focus groups) produced recordings of a much lower quality, which would have been very difficult and time-consuming to work with if they had been the only recordings available. Most interview studies will involve a pilot phase where you run through your questions with two or three individuals to make sure the questions work as well in reality as you think they do on paper. I’d suggest using those as an opportunity to also test out your set-up and thinking about factors such as location as well as whether your audio set-up works well. While you can’t always control for background noise as per my example above, it is good to also think about where you will be holding your interviews and whether there is likely to be a lot of ambient noise. This can be tricky in some cases because you also need to factor in what is best for the interviewee and they may well be the one booking the room if you go to their workplace, for example. Avoid very noisy areas such as cafes if you can, as these will have a lot of background noise.
It is a good idea to think about these issues in advance, because you don’t want to be distracted by them during the interviews themselves, as these require your full attention. Interviews and focus groups are a great opportunity to hear more about a topic of interest to you, and my advice is to enjoy them because they will be finished quicker than you expect.
Do post a comment below if you have any more advice about the practicalities of interviews, or if there are any similar topics which you would like us to cover.