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Open Access Research article

Being a quantitative interviewer: qualitatively exploring interviewers' experiences in a longitudinal cohort study

Sarah Derrett* and Sarah Colhoun

Author Affiliations

Injury Prevention Research Unit, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2011, 11:165  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-165

Published: 13 December 2011

Abstract

Background

Many studies of health outcomes rely on data collected by interviewers administering highly-structured (quantitative) questionnaires to participants. Little appears to be known about the experiences of such interviewers. This paper explores interviewer experiences of working on a longitudinal study in New Zealand (the Prospective Outcomes of injury Study - POIS). Interviewers administer highly-structured questionnaires to participants, usually by telephone, and enter data into a secure computer program. The research team had expectations of interviewers including: consistent questionnaire administration, timeliness, proportions of potential participants recruited and an empathetic communication style. This paper presents results of a focus group to qualitatively explore with the team of interviewers their experiences, problems encountered, strategies, support systems used and training.

Methods

A focus group with interviewers involved in the POIS interviews was held; it was audio-recorded and transcribed. The analytical method was thematic, with output intended to be descriptive and interpretive.

Results

Nine interviewers participated in the focus group (average time in interviewer role was 31 months). Key themes were: 1) the positive aspects of the quantitative interviewer role (i.e. relationships and resilience, insights gained, and participants' feedback), 2) difficulties interviewers encountered and solutions identified (i.e. stories lost or incomplete, forgotten appointments, telling the stories, acknowledging distress, stories reflected and debriefing and support), and 3) meeting POIS researcher expectations (i.e. performance standards, time-keeping, dealing exclusively with the participant and maintaining privacy).

Conclusions

Interviewers demonstrated great skill in the way they negotiated research team expectations whilst managing the relationships with participants. Interviewers found it helpful to have a research protocol in place in the event of sensitive situations - this appeared to alleviate the pressure on interviewers to carry the burden of responsibility. Interviewers are employed to scientifically gather quantitative data, yet their effectiveness relies largely on their humanity. We propose that the personal connection generated between the interviewers and participants was important, and enabled successful follow-up rates for the study. The enjoyment of these relationships was crucial to interviewers and helped balance the negative aspects of their role. Our results suggest that experienced quantitative interviewers endeavour, as do many qualitative researchers, to carefully and respectfully negotiate the requirements of the interview within a relationship they form with participants: being sensitive to the needs of participants and respectful of their wishes - and establishing an ethical relationship.