Wednesday 15 May 2013

Practical tips: note-taking during interviews

Taking notes in "qualitative" interviews, for example at the occasion of evaluations, seems a fairly simple and straightforward thing to do. Over the years, I have discovered that people take notes in many different ways. The way that works best for me is demanding on the interviewer, but quite efficient: no/ little need for extra transcription time after the interview!

A principle: Try to capture everything the person says, in the original wording, so as to avoid distortion. In an ideal world, you would audio-record the conversation and transcribe every single word later - a process likely to take 2-3 times longer than the actual interview. Unfortunately, the time-frames and budgets for most evaluations do not allow such a luxurious use of time.

My solution is touch-typing. There are plenty of touch-typing tutorials - including free ones, such as TIPP10 (click on the name to reach the TIPP10 site). Once you touch-type at a decent speed, you can transcribe the interviewee's answers while you conduct the interview, and maintain eye contact most of the time!

Meanwhile, regardless of the way in which you record the conversation (does anyone still know anything about stenography?), it helps to remember a few key things:

  • Write down as much as you can, including repetitions - they'll show, when you'll analyse your data, where the interviewee places importance. If you can't write as fast as the interviewee speaks, avoid asking her to wait until you are ready - that may block the conversation flow. For the case you need to verify something after the interview, make an audio recording of the conversation.
  • Write down what the interviewee says, in the words she/ he uses. In your notes, avoid paraphrasing or summarising what she/ he says - summarising what other people say means that you filter their words through your own mind, which may create distortion. (But it may of course be useful, in your actual conversation with the interviewee, to paraphrase what they say in a probing question, so as to increase chances you understand what they mean.)
  • Don't worry about orthography, typing mistakes, formatting - you can run a "spell-check" after the interview, if you need to share it with anyone
  • Just make sure you separate your questions (or any remarks you may find time to jot down) clearly from what the interviewee has said.  
  • When you ask (probing) questions, make sure you jot them down as well - but mark them as your questions, so that you recognise them as such when you read your notes.
  • If you lead a group discussion, write the name of the person next to what she says.
This is an open-ended list - I am currently working on a guide for qualitative interviews (in German, for the time being). Suggestions are welcome! (Comments box or message to me :-)

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