Email interviews

[Note: these notes are in addition to the more general advice for planning and undertaking interviews.]

Types of email interviews

There are two approaches to using email technology for interviews:-

Synchronous email interviews, take place in real-time. The interviewer and interviewee use an email ‘chat’ tool to communicate.

Asynchronous email interviews are those that rely on standard email messages and responses.

Why use email interviews?


  • When it is difficult to arrange a face-to face interview, because interviewees are geographically distributed and/or unavailable at the same time as the interviewer.


  • To remove visual identity cues, for example about gender, ethnicity, age, dress or grooming that may cause the interviewer or interviewee to form preconceived ideas about each other.


  • To help interviewers and interviewees communicate if one or both of them are not communicating in their native or first preferred language. Asynchronous email allows more time for composing and interpreting communication.


  • To allow interviewees time to reflective on questions and their responses.


  • To save on travel and transcription costs.


Strengths


  • Asynchronous dialogue allows more time for developing understanding and reflection.


  • Small batches of questions appear more manageable for busy interviewees with lots of demands on their time.


  • A written record of the interactions is automatically generated, so that recording and transcription is not required, saving both time and money, and guaranteeing accuracy of what is said by the interviewer and interviewee.


  • Because of the written record, interviewees and interviewers can remind themselves of what was said earlier in the discussion.


  • Providing the technology is already in place, the method is cheap compared to face-to-face interviewing, since travel costs and transcription costs are eliminated.


  • Scheduling the interviews may also be easier, because things such as travel time and room bookings do not need to be considered. In the case of asynchronous interviews, the whole interview does not need to be conducted in a single time slot, and the interviewee and interviewer do not need to be available at the same time.


Limitations


  • A suitable and reliable technological environment is needed which is accessible by interviewer and all the interviewees.


  • Synchronous connections may not be reliable in some locations.


  • Asynchronous dialogue can be difficult to motivate.


  • Collecting data for an asynchronous interview can take time. In addition to the time delays between questions and responses, the interviewer may have to spend lot of time re-reading through previous messages as a reminder of what has already been discussed and what needs to be followed up.


  • Building a rapport with interviewees that you have had no previous connection with may be more difficult, both because of the lack of visual and auditory cues, but also because of the time delays between communications in asynchronous interviews, which interrupts the flow of discussion.


  • Asynchronous interviews conducted over a long period of time may result in interviewees becoming disengaged with the process. It is quite easy for interviewees to be selective about which questions they answer, or to just drop out of the interview at any stage, by choosing not to respond at all.


  • The opportunity to reflect makes answers less spontaneous.


Practicalities


  • You will need to establish interviewees are confident in using the email tools you are intending to utilise.


  • Developing the question guide for the for asynchronous interviews will also involve deciding how to divide the interview between the different messages.



    • Will each message comprise a different question?

    • Will each message comprise several questions covering a particular sub-topic?

    • Will the initial message consist of a few opening questions about topics of key importance, with subsequent questions being dependent on the responses to these?

    • Is a combination of these approaches needed, depending on the depth of response expected of the questions?


  • Information for interviewees will additionally need to include how the process will work and the timescale anticipated for completing the interview. For asynchronous interviews this includes the average time lapses expected between each message, and the number of exchanges that are anticipated. This will give the potential interviewee a good idea of what they are committing to in terms of their time and availability.


  • If you have not met the interviewee before then some personal introductions at the start of the email interview are appropriate to enable the interviewee and interviewer to form a mental picture of the person with whom they are communicating.


  • Web cams can be used during synchronous email so that interviewer and interviewee can see each other.


  • Because there are no visual cues to what is happening at the other end of the connection long pauses in synchronous email interviews may cause the interviewer or interviewees to become uncertain about whether communication is expected from them. As an interviewer you could alleviate some of these problems by expressing verbally that you are thinking about what has been said. You may follow up more than would be normal in a face-to-face situation with clarifying questions, statements about particularly interesting points made, or comments indicating you understand or identify with what has been said. Long statements could be broken up by punctuation that implies continuation (…..).


  • In synchronous email interviews, keeping your interview guide open on your desktop will enable you to quickly cut and paste questions into the chat tool. The chat tool can also be set up to save the interview as a text file to your local file storage. Saving it periodically during the interview minimises the risk of valuable data being lost if there is a poor connection.


  • In asynchronous email interviews, responding promptly to the interviewees' messages or warning them if you will be unable to respond promptly will help to keep them engaged.


  • Continued engagement can also be encouraged with positive feedback about the usefulness of the information provided, and reminders about the value of the interviewee’s contribution to the evaluation.


Further reading

Bryman, A. (2004) Social Research Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Available from University Main Library] See Chapter on E-Research.

Mann, C. and Stewart, F. (2003) “Internet Interviewing” in Gubrium, J.F. and Holstein, J.A. Eds. (2003) Postmodern Interviewing, Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage Publications, pp81-105.