Rapport & Reflection: The Pivotal Role of Note Taking in In-depth Interview Research

Note taking is fundamental to the in-depth interviewing process and an essential interviewer skill. And yet note taking – e.g., why note taking is Note taking in qualitative researchimportant, how to take notes, and how to use notes from a completed interview – does not get much attention. Note taking is important – actually, critical – to the in-depth interview method because it is about much more than jotting down a participant’s comments and responses to the interviewer’s questions.

In fact, an effective note taker is a more effective interviewer. This is because

  • Taking notes during an interview helps to focus the interviewer’s attention on the participant’s point of view and lived experience relevant to the research question.
  • Taking notes helps the interviewer internalize what is being said by the participant which in turn helps the interviewer identify seemingly contradictory statements and follow up on new, insightful topic areas that may not appear on the interview guide.
  • The interviewer’s heightened focused attention and internalization helps to build rapport and enhances the participant-researcher relationship.
  • The interviewer can add sidebar notations while taking notes that add context to what is being discussed or remind the interviewer to follow up on a particular comment.
  • Taking notes allows the interviewer to identify and flag important quotes made by the participant in the moment when the contextual import of participant’s statements can be fully appreciated and noted.

An effective note taker is also better equipped to conduct meaningful analyses of the data, leading to useful outcomes. This is because

  • The notes serve as an immediate resource for reflection: 1) during the interview – when the interviewer can flip back and forth to consider the participant’s earlier comments and ask for clarification as the need arises to fully comprehend and better analyze the participant’s point of view – and 2) at the completion of the interview – when the interviewer can quietly review the interview notes and add any informative annotations that will aid analysis.
  • The interviewer can use the notes from each interview to record the participant’s attitudes and behavior related to each primary and secondary research question. Ideally, this should be done within an hour of the interview completion and by way of Excel, where the columns consist of key research questions and the rows contain input from each participant. This format allows the researcher to quickly capture interview data when it is fresh on the mind as well as easily review and analyze the data within and across participants.

Importantly, the note taking discussed here pertains to notes written by hand (pen [or Echo smartpen] on paper) in contrast to taking notes with an electronic device. Research has shown that the use of laptops (for example) is great at creating large volumes of notes (with lots of verbatims) but it also encourages a “mindless” transcription rather than a meaningful engagement with the material. Indeed, as reported in this research, individuals who wrote their notes by hand demonstrated “a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material” compared to those who took notes with their laptops.

Handwritten note taking compels the interviewer to fully engage with the participant and fosters highly reflective behavior in the researcher. You might say that, in this way, 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 and data transcripts.

Image captured from: https://www.skipprichard.com/power-handwritten-note/

4 comments

  1. During interviews, I put a small box (check box) in front of anything I want to follow-up on at the end or after the interview, this has been super helpful. Since I am recording the interview, I also try to write down the time stamp at different times so I know where I was in the interview while writing. After a few interviews, the interactions can become fuzzy, so the notes can add more context to the interview transcript.

    1. Thank you, Fred, for sharing this. It sounds like an effective and useful way of benefiting from notetaking. I have similar “signals” in my notes that alert me to various aspects of the interview, including particularly important quotes.

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