Transcribing your own qualitative data

diy qualitative transcription

In a previous blog article I talked about some of the practicalities and costs involved in using a professional transcribing service to turn your beautifully recorded qualitative interviews and focus groups into text data ready for analysis. However, hiring a transcriber is expensive, and is often beyond the means of most post-graduate researchers.


There are also serious advantages to doing the transcription yourself that make a better end result and get you much closer to your data. In this article I’m going to go through some practical tips that should make doing transcription a little less painful.


But first, a little more on the benefits of transcribing your own data. If you were there in the room with the respondent, you asked the questions, and were watching and listening to the participant. Do the transcription soon after the interview and you are likely to remember words that might be muffled in the recording, points that the respondent emphasised by shaking their head – lots of little details to capture.


It’s important to remember that transcription is an interpretive act (Bailey 2008), you can’t just convert an interview into a perfect text version of that data. While this might be obvious when working between different languages where translation is required, I would argue that a transcriber always makes subjective decisions about misheard words, how to record pauses and inflictions, or unconsciously changes words or their order.


As I’ve mentioned before, you loose a lot of the nuance of an interview when moving to text, and the transcriber has to make choices about how to mitigate this: Was this hesitation or just pausing for breath? How should I indicate the participant banged on the table for emphasis? Capturing this non-verbal communication in a transcript can really change the interpretation in qualitative data, so I like it when this process is in the control of the researcher. For a lot more on these and other issues there is a review of the qualitative transcription literature by Davidson (2009).


What do I actually type?

In a word, everything: the questions, the answers, the hesitations and mumbles, and things that were communicated, but not said verbally.


First, some guidelines for what the transcription should look like, bearing in mind that there is no one standard. You can use a word processor, or a spreadsheet like Excel. It can be a little more difficult to get formatting right in a spreadsheet, for example you will need to use Shift+Return to make a new paragraph within a cell, and getting it to look right on a printed page is more of a challenge. Yet since interviews and especially focus groups will usually have more than one voice to assign text to, you need some way to structure the data.


In a spreadsheet you can use three columns: the first for an occasional time index (so you see where in the audio this section of text occurs), the second for name of voice, and the third widest one for text. While you can use a table to do the same thing in Word, spreadsheets will do auto-complete for your names, making things a bit faster. However, for just a one-on-one interview, it’s easy to just use a Q: / A: formatting for each respondent in a spreadsheet, and put periodic time stamps in brackets at the top of each page.


Second, record non-verbal data in a consistent way, usually in square brackets. For example [hesitates], [laughter], [bangs fist on table], or even when [coffee is delivered]. You may choose to use italics or bold type to show when someone puts emphasis on a word, but choose one or the other and be consistent.


Next, consider your system for indicating pauses. Usually a short pause is represented by three dots ‘…’ Anything longer is recorded in square brackets and roughly timed [5 second pause]. These pauses can show hesitation in the participant to answer a difficult question, and long pauses may have special meaning. There is actually a whole article on the importance of silences by Poland and Pederson (1998).


When you are transcribing, you also need to decide on the level of detail. Will you record every Um, Er, and stutter? In verbal speech these are surprisingly common. Most qualitative research does want this level of detail, but it is obviously more time consuming to type. You’ll often have corrections in the speech as well, commonly “I’ve… I’ll never say that ag... any more”. Do you include the first self correction? It’s clear in the audio the participant was going to say ‘again’ but changed themselves to ‘any more’ - should I record this? Decide on the level of detail early on, and be consistent.


Sometimes people can go completely off topic, or there will be a section in the audio where you were complaining about the traffic, ordering coffee, or a phone call interrupted things. If you decide it’s not relevant to capture, just indicate with time markings what happened in square brackets: [cup smashed on the floor, 5min to clear up].


Once you are done with an interview, it’s a good idea to listen to it back, reading through the transcript and correcting any mistakes. The first few times you will be surprised at how often you swapped a few words, or got strange typos.



So how long will it all take?

Starting out with all this can be daunting, especially if you have a large number of interviews to transcribe. A good rule of thumb is that transcribing an interview verbatim will take between 3 and 6 times longer than the audio. So for an hour of recording, it could take as little as three hours, or as much as six to type up.


This sounds horrifying, and it is. I’m quite a fast typer, and have done quite a bit of transcription before, but I average between 3x and 4x the audio time. If you are slow at typing, need to pause the audio a lot, or have to put in a lot of extra descriptive detail it can take a lot longer. The tips below should help you get towards the 3x benchmark, but it’s worth planning out your time a little before you begin.


If you have twenty interviews each lasting on average 1 hour, you should probably plan for at least 60 hours of transcription time. You are looking at nearly 9 days or two weeks of work at a standard 9-5 work day. I don’t say this to frighten you, just to mentally acclimatise you to the task ahead!


It’s also worth noting that transcription is very intensive work. You will be frantically typing as fast as you can, and it requires extreme mental concentration to listen and type simultaneously, while also watching for errors and fixing typos. I don’t think most people could just do two or three hour sessions at a time without going a little crazy! So you need to plan in some breaks, or at least some different non-typing work.


If this sounds insurmountable, don’t panic. Just spread out the work, especially if you can do the transcripts after each interview, instead of in one huge batch. This is generally better since you can review one interview before you do the next one, giving you a chance to change how you ask questions and cover any gaps. Transcription can also be quite engrossing (since you can’t possibly do anything else at the same time), and it’s nice to see the hours ticking off.




So how can you make this faster?

You need to set up your computer (or laptop) to be a professional transcribing station, where you can hear the audio, start and stop it easily, and type comfortably for a long period of time.


Even if you type really fast, you won’t be able to keep up with the speed that people speak, meaning you will have to frequently start and stop the audio to catch up. Most professionals will use a ‘foot-pedal’ to do this, so that they don’t have to stop typing, come out of the word processing software and pause an audio player. Even if you are playing audio from a dictaphone next to you, going away from the keyboard, stopping and starting the buttons on the dictaphone and coming back to type again quickly becomes tedious.


A foot-pedal lets you start and stop the audio by tapping with your foot (or toe) and often has additional buttons to rewind a little (very useful) or fast-forward through the audio. Now, these cost around £30/$40 or more, but can be a worthwhile investment. However, it’s also worth checking to see if you can borrow one from a colleague, or even if your department or library has one for hire.


But if you are a cheapskate like me, there are other ways to do this. Did you know that you can have two or more keyboards attached to a computer, and they will both work? An extra keyboard (with a USB connector) can cost as little as £10/$15 if you don’t already have a spare lying around, and can be plugged into a laptop as well. Put it on the floor, and you can set up one of the keys as a ‘global shortcut’ in an audio player like VLC. Here’s a forum detailing how to set up a certain key so that it will start and stop the audio even if you are typing in another programme. Put your second keyboard on the floor, and tap your chosen key with your toe to start and stop! Even if you only use one keyboard, you can set a shortcut in VCL (for example Alt+1), and every time you press that combination it will play or pause the audio, even if VLC player is hidden.


There’s another advantage to using VLC: it can slow down your recordings as they are played back! Once your audio is playing, click on the Playback menu item, then Speed. Change to Slower, and listen as your participants magically start talking like sleepy drunks! This helps me more than anything, because I can slow down the speech to a level that means I can type constantly without getting behind. This method does warp the speech, and having the setting too high can make it difficult to understand. However, the less you have to pause and stop the audio to catch up with your typing, the faster your transcription will go.


You can also do this with audio software like Audacity. Here, import your audio file, and click on Effect, and Change Tempo. Drag the slider to the left to slow down the speech (try 20% – 50%) without changing the ‘pitch’ so everyone doesn’t end up sounding like Barry White. You can then save the file with your desired speed, and the quality can be a little better than the live speed changes in VLC.


General tips for good typing can help too. Watch the screen as you type, not your fingers, so that you can quickly pick up on mistakes. Learn to use all your fingers to type, don’t just ‘hunt and peck’ - a quick typing tutorial might save you hours in the long run if you don’t do this already.


Last of all, consider your posture. I’m serious! If you are going to be hunched up and typing for days and days, bad posture is going to make you ache and get stressed. Make sure your desk and chair are the right height for you, try using a proper keyboard if working from a laptop (or at least prop up the laptop to a good angle). Make sure the lighting is good, there is no screen glare, and use a foot rest if this helps the position of your back. Scrunched up on a sofa with a laptop in your lap for 60 hours is a great way to get cramp, back-ache and RSI. Try and take a break at least every half an hour: get up and stretch, especially your hands and arms.


So, you have your beautiful and detailed transcripts? Now you can bring them into Quirkos to analyse them! Quirkos is ideal for students doing their first qualitative analysis project, as it makes coding and analysis of text visual, colourful and easy to learn. There’s a free trial on our website, and you can bring in data from lots of different sources to work with.


Designing a semi-structured interview guide for qualitative interviews

clipboard by wikidave


Interviews are a frequently used research method in qualitative studies. You will see dozens of papers that state something like “We conducted n in-depth semi-structured interviews with key informants”. But what exactly does this mean? What exactly counts as in-depth? How structured are semi-structured interviews?


The term “in-depth” is defined fairly vaguely in the literature: it generally means a one-to-one interview on one general topic, which is covered in detail. Usually these qualitative interviews last about an hour, although sometimes much longer. It sounds like two people having a discussion, but there are differences in the power dynamics, and end goal: for the classic sociologist Burgess (2002) these are “conversations with a purpose”.


Qualitative interviews generally differ from quantitative survey based questions in that they are looking for a more detailed and nuanced response. They also acknowledge there is no ‘one-size fits all’, especially when asking someone to recall a personal narrative about their experiences. Instead of a fixed “research protocol” that asks the same question to each respondent, most interviewees adopt a more flexible approach. However there is still a need “ ensure that the same general areas of information are collected from each interviewee; this provides more focus than the conversational approach, but still allows a degree of freedom and adaptability in getting information from the interviewee” –MacNamara (2009).


Turner (2010) (who coincidentally shares the same name as me) describes three different types of qualitative interview; Informal Conversation, General Interview Guide, and Standardised Open-Ended. These can be seen as a scale from least to most structured, and we are going to focus on the ‘interview guide’ approach, which takes a middle ground.


An interview guide is like a cheat-sheet for the interviewer – it contains a list of questions and topic areas that should be covered in the interview. However, these are not to be read verbatim and in order, in fact they are more like an aide-mémoire. “Usually the interviewer will have a prepared set of questions but these are only used as a guide, and departures from the guidelines are not seen as a problem but are often encouraged” – Silverman (2013). That way, the interviewer can add extra questions about an unexpected but relevant area that emerges, and sections that don’t apply to the participant can be negated.


So what do these look like, and how does one go about writing a suitable semi-structured interview guide? Unfortunately, it is rare in journal articles for researchers to share the interview guide, and it’s difficult to find good examples on the internet. Basically they look like a list of short questions and follow-on prompts, grouped by topic. There will generally be about a dozen. I’ve written my fair share of interview guides for qualitative research projects over the years, either on my own or with the collaboration of colleagues, so I’m happy to share some tips.


Questions should answer your research questions
Your research project should have one or several main research questions, and these should be used to guide the topics covered in the interviews, and hopefully answer the research questions. However, you can’t just ask your respondents “Can the experience of male My Little Pony fans be described through the lens of Derridean deconstruction?”. You will need to break down your research into questions that have meaning for the participant and that they can engage with. The questions should be fairly informal and jargon free (unless that person is an expert in that field of jargon), open ended - so they can’t be easily answered with a yes or no, and non-leading so that respondents aren’t pushed down a certain interpretation.



Link to your proposed analytical approach
The questions on your guide should also be constructed in such a way that they will work well for your proposed method of analysis – which again you should already have decided. If you are doing narrative analysis, questions should be encouraging respondents to tell their story and history. In Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis you may want to ask more detail about people’s interpretations of their experiences. Think how you will want to analyse, compare and write up your research, and make sure that the questioning style fits your own approach.



Specific ‘Why’ and prompt questions
It is very rare in semi-structured interviews that you will ask one question, get a response, and then move on to the next topic. Firstly you will need to provide some structure for the participant, so they are not expected (or encouraged) to recite their whole life story. But on the other level, you will usually want to probe more about specific issues or conditions. That is where the flexible approach comes in. Someone might reveal something that you are interested in, and is relevant to the research project. So ask more! It’s often useful in the guide to list a series of prompt words that remind you of more areas of detail that might be covered. For example, the question “When did you first visit the doctor?” might be annotated with optional prompts such as “Why did you go then?”, “Were you afraid?” or “Did anyone go with you?”. Prompt words might reduce this to ‘Why THEN / afraid / with someone’.



Be flexible with order
Generally, an interview guide will be grouped into several topics, each with a few questions. One of the most difficult skills is how to segue from one topic or question to the next, while still seeming like a normal conversation. The best way to manage this is to make sure that you are always listening to the interviewee, and thinking at the same time about how what they are saying links to other discussion topics. If someone starts talking about how they felt isolated visiting the doctor, and one of your topics is about their experience with their doctor, you can ask ‘Did you doctor make you feel less isolated?’. You might then be asking about topic 4, when you are only on topic 1, but you now have a logical link to ask the more general written question ‘Did you feel the doctor supported you?’. The ability to flow from topic to topic as the conversation evolves (while still covering everything on the interview guide) is tricky, and requires you to:



Know your guide backwards - literally
I almost never went into an interview without a printed copy of the interview guide in front of me, but it was kind of like Dumbo’s magic feather: it made me feel safe, but I didn’t really need it. You should know everything on your interview guide off by heart, and in any sequence. Since things will crop up in unpredictable ways, you should be comfortable asking questions in different orders to help the conversational flow. Still, it’s always good to have the interview guide in front of you; it lets you tick off questions as they are asked (so you can see what hasn’t been covered), is space to write notes, and also can be less intimidating for the interviewee, as you can look at your notes occasionally rather than staring them in the eye all the time.


Try for natural conversation
Legard, Keegan and Ward (2003) note that “Although a good in-depth interview will appear naturalistic, it will bear little resemblance to an everyday conversation”. You will usually find that the most honest and rich responses come from relaxed, non-combative discussions. Make the first question easy, to ease the participant into the interview, and get them used to the question-answer format. But don’t let it feel like a tennis match, where you are always asking the questions. If they ask something of you, reply! Don’t sit in silence: nod, say ‘Yes’, or ‘Of course’ every now and then, to show you are listening and empathising like a normal human being. Yet do be careful about sharing your own potentially leading opinions, and making the discussion about yourself.



Discuss with your research team / supervisors
You should take the time to get feedback and suggestions from peers, be they other people on your research project, or your PhD supervisors. This means preparing the interview guide well in advance of your first interview, leaving time for discussion and revisions. Seasoned interviewers will have tips about wording and structuring questions, and even the most experienced researcher can benefit from a second opinion. Getting it right at this stage is very important, it’s no good discovering after you’ve done all your interviews that you didn’t ask about something important.



Adapting the guide
While these are semi-structured interviews, in general you will usually want to cover the same general areas every time you do an interview, no least so that there is some point of comparison. It’s also common to do a first few interviews and realise that you are not asking about a critical area, or that some new potential insight is emerging (especially if you are taking a grounded theory approach). In qualitative research, this need not be a disaster (if this flexibility is methodologically appropriate), and it is possible to revise your interview guide. However, if you do end up making significant revisions, make sure you keep both versions, and a note of which respondents were interviewed with each version of the guide.



Test the timing
Inevitably, you will not have exactly the same amount of time for each interview, and respondents will differ in how fast they talk and how often they go off-topic! Make sure you have enough questions to get the detail you need, but also have ‘lower priority’ questions you can drop if things are taking too long. Test the timing of your interview guide with a few participants, or even friends before you settle on it, and revise as necessary. Try and get your interview guide down to one side of paper at the most: it is a prompt, not an encyclopaedia!


Hopefully these points will help demystify qualitative interview guides, and help you craft a useful tool to shape your semi-structured interviews. I’d also caution that semi-structured interviewing is a very difficult process, and benefits majorly from practice. I have been with many new researchers who tend to fall back on the interview guide too much, and read it verbatim. This generally leads to closed-off responses, and missed opportunities to further explore interesting revelations. Treat your interview guide as a guide, not a gospel, and be flexible. It’s extra hard, because you have to juggle asking questions, listening, choosing the next question, keeping the research topic in your head and making sure everything is covered – but when you do it right, you’ll get rich research data that you will actually be excited to go home and analyse.



Don’t forget to check out some of the references above, as well as the myriad of excellent articles and textbooks on qualitative interviews. There’s also Quirkos itself, software to help you make the research process engaging and visual, with a free trial to download of this innovative tool. We also have a rapidly growing series of blog post articles on qualitative interviews. These now include 10 tips for qualitative interviewing, transcribing qualitative interviews and focus groups, and how to make sure you get good recordings. Our blog is updated with articles like this every week, and you can hear about it first by following our Twitter feed @quirkossoftware.



Recording good audio for qualitative interviews and focus groups


Last week’s blog post looked at the transcription process, and what’s involved in getting qualitative interview or focus-group data transcribed. This week, we are going to step back, and share a few tips from researchers into what makes for good quality audio that will be easy to hear and transcribe.


1. Phones aren’t good enough
While many smartphones can now be used in a ‘voice memo’ mode to record audio, you will quickly find the quality is poor. Consider how tiny the microphone is in a phone (the size of a pin head) and that it is designed only to pick up your voice when right next to your face. Using a proper Dictaphone or voice recorder is pretty much essential to pick up the voice of interviewer and respondent(s) clearly.


2. Choosing a Dictaphone
Even if you want to buy one, a cheap £20 ($30) voice recorder will be a vast improvement over a phone. Most researchers won’t need one with a lot of memory: just 2GB of storage will usually record for more than 30 hours at the highest setting. There is usually little benefit in spending a lot more money, unless your ethics review board states that you need one that will securely encrypt your data as it records. These might cost closer to £250 ($400). However, you can often borrow one from your library or department.

A recorder should always be digital. There is no real advantage to a tape one – they are expensive, have less capacity, use batteries faster, are larger, and are much more prone to losing your data with erased, overwritten or mangled tape. This is one part where the advanced technology wins hands down! The format they record in doesn’t really matter, as long as your computer and transcriber can play it back. MP3 is the most compatible, note that some of the older Olympus ones use their own DSS format which is a pain to convert or play back on a computers. Digital recorders will have various settings for recording quality, you will usually want to choose the high or highest setting for clear audio. Test before you do a full interview!


2. Carry spare batteries!
I’ve definitely got caught out here before, make sure you have a fresh (or recharged) pair of batteries in the Dictaphone, and a spare set in your bag! Every few minutes during the interview, have a quick look to make sure the recording is still running, and before you start, check you have enough time left on the device.


3. Choose a quiet location if possible
While cafés can be convenient, relaxed and neutral places to meet respondents for a one-on-one, they tend to be noisy. You will pick up background music, other conversations, clattering plates and especially noisy coffee machines that make the audio difficult to transcribe. A quiet office location works much better, but if you do need to meet at a café, try and do a bit of reconnaissance first: choose one that is quiet, don’t go at lunchtime or other busy times, choose a part of the café away from the kitchen and coffee grinders, and ask them to turn off any music.


4. Position the Dictaphone
Usually you will want the Dictaphone to point towards the respondent, since they will be doing most of the talking. But don’t put the Dictaphone directly on a table, especially if you are having tea/coffee. You will pick up loud THUD noises every time someone puts down their mug, or taps the table with their hand. Just putting the recorder on a napkin or coaster will help isolate the sound.


5. Prevent stage fright!
Some people will get nervous as soon as the recording starts, and the conversation will dry up. To prevent this, you can cover the scary red recording light with a bit of tape or Blu-Tack. However, it can also help to start the recorder half-way through the casual introductions, so there isn’t a sudden ‘We’re Live!’ moment. You don’t need to transcribe all the initial banter, but it helps the conversation seamlessly shift into the research questions. Also, try and ignore the Dictaphone as much as possible, so that you both forget about it and have a natural discussion.


6. Watch your confirmation noises!
Speaking of natural conversation, it is rare while listening for the interviewer not to make ‘confirmation sounds’ like ‘Yes’, ‘Uh-ha’, ‘Mmm’ etc. Yet these are a pain for qualitative transcription (as most people will want to keep the researchers comments, especially for discourse analysis) and it also breaks up the flow of the transcript. Obviously, just staring silently at your participant while they talk can be disconcerting to say the least! It takes a little practice, but you can communicate and encourage the flow of the conversation just with periodic eye contact, nodding and positive body language. If someone makes a request for confirmation such as: ‘So of course that’s what I did, right?’ Rather than actually verbally responding, you can nod, turn your palms up and shrug, and roll your eyes. This way, it shows you are listening and engaging with the conversation, without constantly interrupting the flow of the narrative.


7. Use a boundary mic for group discussions
For focus groups or table discussions, use a cheap ‘boundary’ microphone so that it will pick up all the voices: ideally stereo ones that give some sense of direction to help identify who-said-what during transcription. Again, these don’t need to be expensive: I’ve used a cheap £20 ($30) button-battery powered one with great results. It’s something you can spend a lot of money on for high-end equipment, so again look for opportunities to borrow. 


8. Get a group to introduce themselves
For qualitative group sessions, you will almost always want to be able to assign contributions to individual participants. If you are doing the transcription and know the people very well, this can be easy. However, it is surprisingly difficult to differentiate a group of voices that you don’t know just with a recording. For voices to be identified, make sure you start the recording by getting everyone to go round the table and introduce themselves with a few sentences for context (not just their name).


9. Backup immediately!
Got your recording? Great! Now back it up! All the time it exists only on your Dictaphone, it can be lost, stolen or dropped in a puddle, losing your data for ever. As soon as you can, get it back to a computer or laptop and copy it to another location. Make sure that your data storage procedure matches your data protection and ethics requirements, and try not to carry around your interview recordings longer than you need to.


10. Finally, listen and engage!
Try not to worry about the technical aspects during the interview, shift into researcher and facilitator mode. Take notes if you feel comfortable doing so: even though you are getting a recording, some brief notes can make a good summary and helps concentration. Tick off your qualitative research/interview questions as you go, and write a few notes about how the interview went and the key points immediately afterwards.


If you need more advice, you can also read our top 10 tips for qualitative interviews, to make sure things go smoothly on the day. Hopefully, following these steps will help you get great audio recordings for your research project, that will make transcription and listening to your data easier.



Once you’ve got it transcribed, you'll find that Quirkos is the most intuitative and visual software for qualitative analysis of text data. You can download a free trial for a month, and see an overview of the features here…



10 tips for semi-structured qualitative interviewing

Many qualitative researchers spend a lot of time interviewing participants, so here are some quick tips to make interviews go as smooth as possible: before, during and after!


1. Let your participants choose the location

If you want your interviewees to be comfortable in sharing sometimes personal or sensitive information, make sure they can do it in a comfortable location. For some people, this might be their own house, or a neutral territory like a local cafe. Giving them the choice can help build trust, and gives the right impression: that you are accomodating them. However, make sure you make it clear that you need a relatively quiet location free from interruptions: a pub that plays loud music will not only stop you hearing each other, but usually makes recordings unusable!


2. Remember that they are helping you

Be polite and curtious, and be grateful to them for sharing their time and experiences. This always gets interviews off on the right foot. Also, try and think about participants motivations for taking part. Do they want the research to help others? Are they looking for a theraputic discussion? Do they just like a chat? Understanding this will help you guide the interview, and make sure you meet their expectations.


3. A conversation, not an interregation!

Interviews work best when they are a friendly dialogue: don't be afraid to start with some small talk, even when the tape is running. It turns a weird situation into a much more normal human experience, and starting with some easy 'starter for 10' questions helps people open up. Even a chatty "How did you hear about the project?" can gives you useful information.


4. Memorise the topic guide, but keep it to hand

Knowing all the questions in the topic guide can really help, so group them thematically, and memorise them as much as you can. It will really help the flow of information if you can segue seamlessly from one question to another relevant one. However, it's always useful to keep a print-out in front of you, not just for if you forget something, but also to make you seem more human, with a specific role. Joking about remembering all the questions is a great icebreaker, and it gives you something to look at other than the participant, to stop the session turning into a staring match!


5. Use open body language and encouraging cues

Face the participant in a friendly way, and nod or look sympathetic at the right times. Sometimes it's tempting for the interviewer to keep quiet during the responses, and not put in any normal encouraging noises like "Yeah", "Hmm" or "Right" knowing how odd these read in a transcript. But these are important cues that people use to know when to keep talking, so if you are going to drop them, make sure you make positive eye contact, and nod at the right times instead!


Quirkos - simple qualitative analysis software


6. Write notes, even if you don't use them

It always helps me to scribble down some one-word notes on the topic guide when you are doing an interview: first of all it helps focus my thoughts, and remind me about interesting things that the participant mentioned that I want to go back to. But it also helps show you are listening, and makes sure if the recording goes wrong, there is something to fall back on.


7. Write-up the interivew as soon as you finish

Just take 15 minutes after each interview to reflect: the main points that came up, how open the respondent was, any context or distractions that might have impared the flow. This helps you think about things to do better in the next interview, and will help you later to remember each interview.


8. Return to difficult issues

If a particular topic is clearly a difficult question (either emotionally, or just because someone can't remember) don't be afraid to leave the topic and come back to it later, asking in a different way. It can really help recall to have a break talking about something easier, and then approach the issue sideways later on.


9. Ask stupid questions

Don't assume you know anything. In these kinds of interviews, it's usually not about getting the right answer, but getting the respondent's view or opinion. Asking 'What do you mean by family?' is really useful if you discover someone has adopted children, step-sisters and a beloved family dog that all share the house. Don't make any assumptions, let people tell you what they mean. Even if you have to ask something that makes you sound ignorant on a specialist subject, you could discover that someone didn't know the difference between their chemotherapy and radiotherapy.


10. Say thank you

And follow up: send a nice card after the interview, don't be like a date they never hear from again! Also, try and make sure they get a summary of the findings of the study they took part in. It's not just about being nice, but to make sure people have a good experience as a research subject, and will want to be involved in the next project that comes along, which might be yours or mine!


I hope these tips have been hopeful, don't forget Qurikos makes your transcribed interviews easy to analyse, as well as a visual and engaging process. Find out more and download a free trial from our website. Our blog is updated with articles like this every week, and you can hear about it first by following our Twitter feed @quirkossoftware.



An overview of qualitative methods

There are a lot of different ways to collect qualitative data, and this article just provides a brief summary of some of the main methods used in qualitative research. Each one is an art in its own right, with various different techniques, definitions, approaches and proponents.

More on each one will follow in later articles, and it’s worth remembering that these need to be paired with the right questions, sampling, and analysis to get good results.


Possibly the richest, and most powerful tool: talking to someone directly. The classic definition is “conversations with a purpose“, the idea being that there is something you are interested in, you ask questions about it, and someone gives useful responses.

There are many different styles for example how structured your questions are (this paper has a wonderful and succinct overview in the introduction). These can range from a rigid script where you ask the same questions every time, or completely open discussion, where the researcher and respondent have freedom to shape the conversation. A common middle ground are semi-structured interviews, which often have a topic guide, listing particualar issues to discuss, but will allow questions for clarification, or to follow up on an interesting tangent.

Participant Observation

Often the remit of ethnography or sociology, participant observation usually involves watching, living or even participating in the daily life of research subjects. However, it can also involve just watching people in a certain setting, such as a work meeting, or using a supermarket.

This is probably the most time intensive and potentially problematic method, as it can involve weeks or even years of placement for a researcher, often on their own. However, it does produce some of the richest data, as well as a level of depth that can really help explain complex issues. This chapter is a fine starting point.

Focus groups

A common method used in market research, where a researcher leads a group discussion on a particular topic. However, it is also a powerful tool for social researchers, especially when looking at group dynamics, or the reactions of particular groups of people. It’s obviously important to consider who is chosen for the group, and how the interactions of people in the group affect the outcome (although this might be what you are looking for).

It’s usually a quicker and cheaper way of gauging many reactions and opinions, but requires some skill in the facilitator to make sure everyone’s voice is being heard, and that people stay on track. Also a headache for any transcribers who have to identify different voices from muffled audio recordings!

Participant Diaries

Getting people to write a diary for a research project is a very useful tool, and is commonly used in looking at taboo behaviours such as drug use or sexuality, not just because researchers don’t have to ask difficult questions face-to-face, but that data can be collected over a long period of time. If you are trying to find out how often a particular behaviour occurs, a daily or weekly record is likely to be more accurate than asking someone in a single interview (as in the studies above).

There are other benefits to the diary method: not least that the participant is in control. They can share as much or as little as they like, and only on topics they wish to. It can also be theraputic for some people, and is more time flexible. Diaries can be paper based, electronic, or even on a voice recorder if there are literacy concerns. However, researchers will probably need to talk to people at the beginning and end of the process, and give regular reminders.


Probably one of the most common qualitative methods are the open ended questions on surveys, usually by post, on-line, or ‘guided’ by someone with a clipboard. Common challenges here are

  • Encouraging people to write more than one word, but less than an essay
  • Setting questions carefully so they are clear, but not leading
  • Getting a good response rate and
  • Knowing who has and hasn’t responded

The final challenge is to make sure the responses are useful, and integrating them with the rest of the project, especially quantitative data.

Field notes

Sometimes the most overlooked, but most vaulable source of information can be the notes and field diaries of researchers themselves. These can include not just where and when people did interviews or observations, but crucial context, like the people who refused to take part, and whether a interviewee was nervous. It need not just be for ethnographers doing long field work, it can be very helpful in organising thoughts and work in smaller projects with multiple researchers.

As part of a reflexive method, it might contain comments and thoughts from the researcher, so there can be a risk of autobiographical overindulgence. It is also not easy to integrate ‘data’ from a research diary with other sources of information when writing up a project for a particular output.


This is just a whistle-stop introduction, but more on each of these to follow…