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“The representativeness of telephone interviews is being challenged” / Elaine Fowler, EasyInsites

Elaine Fowler, EasyInsites writes ..  Recently, a discussion within our office regarding our various experiences with telephone interviews motivated me to think further about this topic and to reflect on my own first hand experience and knowledge.

I also recently took part in a telephone interview, partly out of curiosity, but also because of a shared empathy with the interviewer having worked in this capacity part-time while still in university.

In participating in this recent telephone interview, I was interested to experience it as a respondent to see if the issues I had been concerned about when I was on the other side of the phone were universal.

In my experience in conducting these telephone interviews, the balance between fulfilling the highest quality interview by diligently reading a script and yet coming across as a ‘real human being’ can be quite challenging, especially as the script continues to become more and more familiar over time. Achieving a natural exchange whilst collecting the required information can frustrate both the participant and interviewer. An example of this occurring is when a question has to be repeated, as the respondent has offered an answer before a question has been posed, leading to unnatural ‘conversations’, such as “I know you’ve already told me, but I have to ask…”

The telephone interview I completed as a respondent was very cognitively demanding as the scales were extremely lengthy and difficult to remember, even with the interviewer repeating them throughout the questionnaire. Furthermore the interviewer often prompted me to cut them off when I knew my response to save them from having to repeat the scale numerous times. Although this may be a means of reducing interview length, it could be argued that it encourages the ‘primacy effect’* and also satisficing**. Questions with many response options may be better understood with the aid of visual prompts, such as show cards or within online surveys, allowing the respondent time to comprehend the question and select the correct response.

Unhappy on the phone

During my experience conducting interviews I found that respondents had an expectation that the interviewer would interpret the meaning of their answers; for example when reading a scale question the respondent would reply “strongly” in an upbeat tone and therefore presume that the answer ‘strongly agree’ would be recorded. However this could introduce interviewer bias, so the exact answer would be required before continuing with the interview which was annoying for the participant.

Although some respondents may get frustrated by limited options within an online survey, it is easier for them to comprehend that they must make a selection from the supplied responses in order to continue. Likewise, open verbatim can be extremely difficult to record during telephone interviews due to issues regarding the respondent talking too fast, or using language that is not easily understood. Consequently enabling the respondent to record their own answer decreases the risk of the response being edited by the interviewer — be it consciously or otherwise.

Having recently completed my masters in survey methodology, I have studied the complexities of conducting research with any given mode. With the rising trend of mobile only households and the development of online and mobile optimised surveys, it seems questionable as to how long telephone interviews will remain to be utilised in the current format. Especially with social behaviours and technology evolving, the representativeness of telephone interviews is being challenged. Personally, I believe that for improving research for clients, and correct decision making, a move away from telephone interviews is going to have to occur – I am sure it is only a matter of time!

Posted by: Elaine Fowler

*The ‘primacy effect’ is a cognitive bias whereby a participant would be more likely recall information provided earlier rather than later. For example, a subject who is read a sufficiently long scale is more likely to remember options toward the beginning than those in the middle.

**Satisficing is when a subject provides an answer that they perceive the interviewer will approve, or deem acceptable. In this example, the respondent selects an answer quickly to save the interviewer repeating all the options.


Further reading:

Press Releases: As demand for mobile surveys grows, EasyInsites and Cint identify problems when these devices are used
Products: EasyMobile
Products: EasyPanel
Press Releases: EasyInsites Launches EasyMobile for Fast
Blog: EasyInsites present at 2012 CASRO Technology Conference

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