Tips for recording interviews and focus groups

If you want accurate transcripts of interviews or focus groups, you need two things in addition to a set of relevant questions and willing participants : clear, audible audio recordings, and an accurate online transcriptionist.

How to record clearly audible interviews and focus groups

To produce a clear recording of an interview or focus group you need to:

  • record the session in a quiet place; no noisy air-conditioners, heaters, crowds, traffic or wind
  • make sure there are no papers placed over the recorder or papers being rustling next to the recorder
  • check that the recorder is working properly
  • if people are participating via Skype, telephone, videoconference or teleconference, try to establish a good connection. Any static background noise or interference will reduce audibility
  • make sure all participants are seated within four metres of the recorder or, if possible, within one metre
  • make sure people are facing the recorder (not turning their face away, side-on or downwards)
  • encourage people to speak clearly. If people are whispering, mumbling or speaking quietly, ask them to speak up so their comments are audible in the recording
  • make sure the ‘voice-activated record’ button on the recorder is switched off. If the voice-activated method of recording is used, sometimes the first part of people’s comments are missing from the recording
  • the aim of the recording is to record participants’ or interviewees’ comments, not the interviewer’s or facilitator’s comments. Whilst you may need to give some information and prompts, keep your comments minimal
  • Some voices may not be clearly audible. For example, they may have a very soft voice or strong accent, or are so emotional they cannot speak clearly. In that case, the interviewer or facilitator should reiterate or clarify what they have said to provide a clear record of those partially inaudible comments.

When recording focus groups you also need to…

  • explain to the group the importance of speaking one at a time so all their comments are audible in the recording and represented in the transcript.
  • identify yourself (as the facilitator) at the start of the recording so the transcriptionist is able to link your voice with your name, and identify yourself as the facilitator throughout the transcripts
  • if participants do not need to be identified in the transcript, they do not need to state their names in the recording
  • make sure each person that needs to be identified in the transcript identifies themselves the first time they speak. If some of the focus group participants have similar voices, unless someone has produced log notes* of the session the transcriptionist will not be able to identify everyone in the transcript.

* log notes can be scribed by a person present at the session. Log notes detail the name and first word or two of each person who speaks throughout most of the session. By referring to the log notes when transcribing the audio file, the audio transcriptionist is able to correctly identify the comments of each speaker throughout the transcript. If there are no log notes, and more than two or three speakers, they may not be able to be identified in the transcript.

What sort of recorder do you need?

Nowadays, an inexpensive digital audio recorder can produce
audio recordings of quite good quality. A good audio recorder costs
between $90 and $160 AUSD (depending on the brand and type). There are other higher quality, higher-cost audio recorders out there but if you
are recording interviews or focus groups,
you don’t need an expensive recorder.
I use a tiny
Sony recorder with a handy built-in USB; after recording interviews, I
simply plug it into my computer and click to import the audio files. Some people have sent me audio files recorded with an App on their iphone and the audio quality has been very
good. Some people record their interviews and focus groups in video
files and unusual formats which I then convert into a common audio file format (such as
MP3, WMA, WAV, DSS or AIFF) so I can import the files into my audio transcription software and transcribe them.

Whatever type of audio recorder you intend to use to record your interviews or focus groups, before you get started make sure you test the equipment so that you know how to record, save and import your audio files into a computer.

Image: Gavin Whittner,

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