Recording research interviews is a great way to capture qualitative data in thesis or dissertation research and ensures descriptive validity. While taking notes and writing down your observations is important, it’s likely you’re going to miss out on some details. An audio recording of an interview also allows you to refer back to the interview and take a fresh look at the interview data, these are some of the advantages of recording interviews in qualitative research.

While recording an interview can be as easy as placing your iPhone on the table and tapping record, researchers tend to underestimate the challenges of getting an interview recording with good audio quality. This, coupled with the fact that the descriptive validity of qualitative data is directly related to the quality of the recording, means that researcher need to pay closer attention to how they record their research interviews.

Recording Research Interviews

Recording Research Interviews

Why is audio quality so important?  When transcribing interviews, the accuracy of the transcribed transcript is dependent on the quality of the recording. Poorly recorded interviews tend to have more errors and are usually incomplete due to in-audibles. Furthermore, most transcribers charge a 50% mark-up fee for poorly recorded research interviews as they take 50% longer to transcribe. A crisp-clear recording of an academic interview makes transcription of the interview easier and faster.

Thus, getting a high-quality recording of your research interviews ensures descriptive validity and reduces research costs.  Over the last 10 years, we’ve transcribed hundreds of hours of research interviews. 90% of the researchers could have greatly improved the quality of their audio interviews and lowered their transcribing costs by following these 3 simple tips.

Tips for Recording Research Interviews

1. Location, location, location

This is the key factor that determines audio recording quality. It’s, surprisingly, the most often overlooked. Researchers tend to be laissez-faire about the location of the interview. While it’s important to give choice to the interviewee in choosing an interview location, there are two venues you should avoid at all costs. 1) Public places: restaurants, cafes, cars, et. al. These are venues where you have little or no control of the background noise and interruptions. 2) Outdoors: parks, sidewalks, on the beach, et. al. Again you have little or no control of the noise level.

One of the best places to hold an interview is across the respondent’s kitchen table. Most participants don’t realize you can go to their house or office and conduct the interview. If you’re researching business or corporations, most of them have board rooms and office space that they’d be glad to let you use to conduct the interviews. Your home, the library, or a hotel room are great places to interview your participants. In essence, try and hold the interview in a place where you or the interviewee can control background noise and interruptions.

2. Equipment

Interview audio recording equipment is dirt cheap! You can buy a brand new high quality interview recorder for less than $80 $70! There is absolutely no need to use your iPhone or iPad to record research interviews. They generally offer very low quality recording, because they are designed to capture audio in close proximity.  In addition, if you receive a call or SMS, it will interrupt the recording.

The best way to record an interview is to use a digital sound recorder; here is a great post on how to choose a digital voice recorder. The main advantage of these type of recorders over magnetic tape recorders is that they make no mechanical noise that might be captured by the microphone. It’s also very easy to transfer the recorded interviews from digital voice recorders to your computer.  And finally, they have very good microphones for capturing audio interviews. However, I also would recommend buying an external microphone, which are also very affordable (less than $50), if you are going to conduct your interviews in a noisy environment or in the “field”. A laptop with an external microphone works great for recording interviews. Just make sure you place the laptop at some distance away (at least 6 feet) from the microphone.

One more thing, you want to record the interview using an uncompressed audio format, usually PCM or AIFF.  These become your master recording (that you can archive), and then you can make copies, compress and share with your transcriber. Compressing audio files while recording, for instance recording using the .mp3 format, greatly decreases audio quality and increases the difficulty of interview transcription.

3. It’s all about the Interviewee

It is important to keep in mind that the reason for conducting the interview is to gather information from the respondent. So, you want to place the microphone closer to the interviewee. Their answers are more important than your questions! You already have some form of an  interview guide, with your questions written down, that you can use as reference if your questions are not captured in the recording. So don’t worry too much about capturing your questions, but be very concerned about accurately capturing the interviewees responses.

Let your interviewee talk. A lot of researchers tend to cloud out their respondents with questions and interruptions. Let them talk. Don’t jump in with questions. Silence is golden: use the silent probe. Often, truths follow silence.  Use non verbal probes: nod, smile, tilt your head, raise your eyebrows, et. al. All these are great ways to enlist more information without interrupting the conversation. When you need to ask a question, wait until the interviewee has finished talking, count to five and then ask the question.

These are the top 3 tips I’d like to share on how to record research interviews. What’s the one tip to recording great research interviews you’d like to share?

6 thoughts on “3 Tips for Recording Research Interviews

  1. Paul Woods

    When I started my research interviews as part of the data collection for my Thesis I was petrified that the audio recording wouldn’t be good enough to transcribe the content easily. Your second point makes perfect sense! I tried using my mobile phone to record at first but it was very difficult to listen back to. Instead I purchased a digital voice recorder to conduct my interviews.

    I didn’t use your “silence is golden: silent probe” approach in my first few interviews, but I will make sure I keep that one in my kit bag of interview techniques for the rest of my data collection!

  2. Muna Bilgrami

    These are excellent tips and I’m glad to say I applied the first and third assiduously. However, having inherited an almost brand new iPhone from my son, I decided to use that placed close to the respondent, and feel that the quality has been really good. It was not connected to any mobile service, nor were my mobile phone or the respondent’s switched on during the interview. I’d have to look into which format it was saved in, so thanks for flagging that issue up.
    My one tip would be to reiterate at the start of each interview the purpose for the interview: this repetition sharpens your focus and as you repeat the process the trajectory of research may become more helpfully defined.

    1. Isaac Post author

      Muna, that’s a great tip. And it’s a great way to break the ice and get the interview process started, though you need to be careful not to “formalize” it. I find that for many researchers it becomes mechanical – and they usually read it verbatim from the interview guide. That’s tends to introduce a very formal tone to the interview and the interviewees become guarded, which is not what you want. You want them to be relaxed and eager to share their opinions/thoughts. Keep in mind the 3rd tip, the interview is not about you and your research, it’s about the interviewees experiences and practice.
      If you can get your hands on a good digital recorder, I’d recommend you use one. Believe me, you’ll notice a huge difference in the audio quality of the recording…

      All the best in your research.

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