The role of note taking in depth interviews

Tuesday 4th July 2017

I subscribe to a US based website 'Research Design Review' which posts thoughts and views on qualitative and quantitative research design issues.  A recent article by Margaret Roller entitled 'The pivotal role of note taking in in-depth interview research' intrigued me but after reading it I was left feeling very concerned.

The article begins by stressing how important effective note taking is (no problem with that) but then goes on to say that an effective note taker is a more effective inteviewer beause it helps to focus the moderators attention on the participant's point of view and helps internalise what is being said which together enhance the participant-researcher relationship.  Notes can also be used to add context, serve as a reminder to follow up on a comment or flag important comments/ quotes.

In principle I have no problem with many of these comments - but my issue is when in the process they happen and the extent of the in-interview note taking itself.  All of my training as a moderator was about creating rapport with the respondent and, during the interview, being 'present' and 'in the moment' with them - those NLP sessions about eye contact, body langauge and mirroring.  I was taught that the respondent should emerge from the experience feeling like 'the hero' - they have made a real contribution to the process and have been listented to closely by someone who was genuininely interested in what they had to say.

Yet here we are introducing a barrier to that process - a pad of paper and pen.  Whilst business respondents may be used to this, consumers are not familiar with it and may feel uncomfotable at having someone note down their comments.  Surely this interrupts rapport and splits the moderator's attention - they are no longer purely focused on what is being said, but are frantically trying to capture what was said a few seconds ago.  It also potentially introduces unintentional bias into the interview ... 'oh they are writing that down so they must have thought that was interesting - I should say more things like that'.  As writing is a slower process than talking, the moderator is always lagging behind (and the respondent may pause and wait for them to catch up) - which disrupts the flow of the conversation.  Clearly the occassional key 'reminder' word scribbled down, or perhaps a 'check list' to ensure that all the main areas are covered off can be useful - but both are relatively discrete, quick and unintrusive - hardly 'note taking' in the sense described in the article. 

A good moderator should know the topic guide intimately, and be able (to a large extent) keep a mental note of what areas have/ have not been covered.  This is a natural part of every-day conversation - we listen and build upon what other people have said, refer back to previous comments and follow up on interesting asides.  As professional moderators we should have honed these skills further to allow us to do this more effectively and for longer.

But perhaps the most concerning aspect for me was the underlying implication that the notes should form the basis for the analysis (rather than supplementing it). 

Margaret suggests that the notes can be used firstly during the interview to flip back and forth and compare the participants comments - but if a moderator has been listening closely (after all we are talking about a depth interview here - typically one respondent for an hour or so) they should know and remember what the respondent said earlier in the interview (and flipping back and forth to find a 'note' can in itself be time consuming and disruptive).   

Secondly, she also advocates annotating the notes further at completion of the interview to aid analysis and entering this into an Excel spreadsheet that records each respondent's answer to every key research question.  The first part of this is certainly a good idea and I often send myself a quick email with my top of mind impressions from the interview.  Importantly I then incorporate these thoughts into my full analysis rather than using it to supplement any notes taken during the session.  But I have to admit that I shuddered at the thought of using Excel as an analysis tool - whilst I can see benefits for large studies or international projects, I find Excel mentally and physically limiting - give me good old content analysis anyday where I can add thoughts/ hypothesis and keep the 'colour' of each interview intact.

The article finishes by saying that 'note taking helps to maintain the all important participant-researcher relationship throughout data collection and analysis - a relationship that can be too easily lost when utilizing more mechanical processes such as the reliance on audio recordings'.

I suppose at this point that I need to admit that analysis is a bit of a hobby horse of mine.  Proper analysis is undervalued, often time pressured and not given the recognition it deserves.  I always listen to my recorndings - yes it is time consuming but they transport me back into the moment with all the nuances and tone of the conversation intact.  During analysis I have the mental time and space to wander and hypothesise about what was being said and what it could mean.  I can pause and relisten to the conversation as often as I want to in order to extract as much insight as possible.  I am often surprised at how rich the recording is and how much of it I have 'forgotten' - yes, I remember the key themes, but the detail and nuances are reinforced and serve to aid that deep understanding.

I would far rather rely on a small 'mechanical' recorder which can be set off at the beginning of the session, is discrete and soon forgotten about but that captures every single moment of the conversation than a note pad that is ever present throughout the interview, distracts the moderator's attention and where the notes made are themselves subject to unconcious bias from the moderator.

In my view, good moderation is a real skill and is very demanding - adding a further task for the moderator to complete is a step too far.  But perhaps I am just old fashioned...

Read the article for yourself and let us know what you think...