June 10, 2015

Surviving Interviews – Saving my (academic) life

I’ve been conducting interviews of late in a variety of situations – face to face interviews, phone interviews and Skype interviews. As part of university ethics clearance I am permitted to record the interviews in both an audio and video format, pending sign-off from the interviewee.

Aside from the huge effort that goes into ethics applications for university research, some of the more practical aspects of interviewing almost tripped me over early in the data gathering process. How do I record interviews? Can I rely on a single source for audio recording? What notes do I take? What about recording phone calls or Skype?

The following has gotten me through interviews thus far, and I hope that it serves as a useful resource for those starting out on their interviewing journey.

It should be noted that I use iPhones, iPads and Macs. This is mostly to highlight what has worked for me. I’m sure there are alternatives on Samsung’s, ASUS, Windows, etc. But this may give you an idea what to search for in trying to emulate this setup. Good luck!

Please note that I have paid for any apps or equipment myself. I consider my PhD an investment and I’ve been willing to buy equipment if necessary. None of the information below is sponsored, nor have I received any money for these links. This is totally my own opinion and I simply hope it assists people with the process, whether you use the same equipment or not.

1. Decide how you will be recording audio

I decided pretty early on it was going to be my smartphone. In my case it is an iPhone, and I started on a 5, and am continuing on a 6. Whatever you use, two things became evident for me: Familiarity and Space (as in disk space).

Familiarity with my iPhone was one key factor – I know the Voice Memos software on it quite well. Using the basic voice recorder was a no brainer in terms of operation, as well as knowing whether it was recording or not. Being able to quickly look at the device and know whether it was recording is important in making sure the device is on. Don’t believe this is important? There are loads of horror stories about people thinking they started recording, only to find out that the recorder didn’t start and they have to reconstruct an hour’s worth of interview responses from memory. I so didn’t want to be that person. There are a bunch of apps that do audio recording as well (see here for a bunch), and I used one for my backup, but in terms of my setup the default Voice Memos app suited my purpose on the iPhone just fine.


The other key factor was disk space. I’ve never scrimped on disk space and always bought the largest I could afford. This may not be an option for some, and I thought if it came to that for me, then I would have to get religious about backing up files from my iPhone immediately after interviews in order to make space. Again there are horror stories about those where the interview recording cuts off after XX minutes because the disk on their device was full. Using the iPhone voice memo app I budget about 100Mb per hour of recording. It’s probably more room than I need, but I’d rather be safe that panicked or humiliated.

Regardless of whether you use your phone, a dedicated recording device or some other method of recording, be familiar with your equipment and be sure you have room for any recordings.

2. Invest in a microphone

I’ve heard lots of good things about people using their mobile phone microphones quite adequately in recording interviews. However “adequate” sound vs sound you can listen to while transcribing and/or coding files is two different things.

I did a number of tests with meeting conversations (with permission) and realised that there are limitations to the microphones on a number of devices. Background noise such as the rustling of papers or dropping of bags, multiple people talking at once, any of these can highlight the limitations of your device’s microphone.

After investigating a number of items online I bit the bullet and decided on the iQ5 by Zoom. I tried the recommended app to go with it, however because I was satisfied with the standard Voice Memo app on my iPhone, I just just stuck with that.

How did I decide? I read a lot of reviews. There were some that liked it, some that didn’t, but I made sure that I looked for reviews that were related to what I was doing. Some didn’t appear to like this mic for music recording, however I didn’t need it for that. I ended up buying it locally in Singapore, however it can be purchased online. It was reasonable, highly portable (another of my criteria) and easy to install. At the end of the day it was a risk… I’m not an experienced recording expert so I knew that there was always going to be a chance that it wouldn’t work for me. I got lucky, I guess. My advice is to read a lot of reviews and contact people on their blogs if you’re still not getting the information you need. A week of investigation can save you a bunch in terms of wasted time and money.

2a. Invest in something to protect your equipment.

DH and I are somewhat anal about screen protectors, sleeves, etc. We often give our old tech to the kids or other family members, or even sell it when we upgrade so we like to make sure it’s protected. In the case of this microphone I didn’t want it damaged during transportation so that I couldn’t use it. It came in a little velvet pouch, however as anyone who has ever owned a handbag (or tech-bag) knows, gadgets can get eaten alive in there.

I got a little hard case that protects the mic so that I can just whip it out, attach it to my phone and record. Then when done I can zip it back in and throw it in my handbag. I was expecting to have to do interviews in cafes so portability was a big consideration, and with portability came the risk of damage.

Ultimately, this is my current setup, including storage and how it fits together:


3. Have a backup for recording

I’m not so naive as to thinking this set up is bulletproof – anything could happen where the recording doesn’t work the way I intended.

Additionally, while I have the option of asking for video as part of my ethics clearance, few people thus far have given me permission to record video. The intention of asking for video was to note body language or any other non-verbal clues that might give me some indication as to their feelings on certain questions. How does this relate to a backup for recording? My backup allows me to associate my notes with the audio, while at the same time creating a backup audio recording in case something happens with the main recording.

My backup is an app called Notability, which I use on my iPad. One of the key features of Notability is the ability to record audio while taking notes. Then, when I play back the audio, I can tap on a note and it will skip to the audio that is related to the note, without having to rewind or fast forward or wonder about when the interviewee was nervous and why did I take that note then?

Another key consideration is information security. Notability allows me to set a password on folders within the app, which can be very useful due to privacy and confidentiality reasons. I learned the hard way that this password cannot be reset – I forgot it on a folder and tried contacting the developers. Their response was a justified “sorry, but there is nothing we can do.” About a month later I found a scribbled note in a notebook and it was luckily my password (I never do that – it’s changed and secure now, but 😥 – I was super stressed for a while there). Fortunately this was a test interview, and it is my backup method, but still… handy feature if you don’t lose your password.

It’s not a free app, but I’ve personally found worth the investment in a number of cases. It works on both the iPhone and the ipad, which can come in handy when listening back over interviews during commutes.


4. Not all interviews were in person – what now?

Some interviews have been via phone call or Skype. Originally I thought I was going to have to resort to putting them on speaker phone and dealing with dodgy recording quality, however there are options for recording Skype calls, which I then applied to recording phone calls as well.

I use Call Recorder for Skype, by eCamm. Basically it does what it says on the box – it records calls on Skype. I originally used this for video interviews with industry partners for classes when teaching, and it worked a peach. If I am given permission to video record – awesome – as it records both audio and video. If I don’t have permission to video, I do the interview with the video off in Skype. This avoids any “accidental” recording of video, which would violate my ethics clearance.

I also invested in some Skype credit and make all phone call interviews through Skype as well. I use a headset and use the dialler to make the call, and the call logs are very handy in terms of recording date, time and duration of calls (see below).


I budget the calls accordingly – Skype has clear rate tables – and again, make sure that I have enough call credit. Obviously Skype-to-Skype (aka free) calls are preferred, however as I am asking for people’s time, if they prefer to use the phone, then I’ll spend the $1-2 on the call.

Check your credit as like the situation where you run out of disk space, running out of call credit could potentially be embarrassing and make you look unprofessional. Not cool.

5. Converting Files

The call recorder tends to output media in a mov format. It may accommodate other formats for audio only, however I haven’t experimented with the settings as I rely on it. It works. I ain’t messing with it. Period. I have found that Quicktime (the default OS X move player) does a nice job of exporting audio only.

Simply open the .mov file in Quicktime and select File –> Export –> Audio Only. This can then be loaded in to nvivo or dedoose (or your qualitative analysis software of choice) and off you go into to transcription gaga land (which is a whole other story 😝).

Convert-mov to audio using quicktime

I’m sure there are other considerations with regards to interviewing, however I think I’ve covered the main points here. I hope that someone gets some use out of this.

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