CS 4472/6470: Design of Online Communities

Interviewing equipment guide

Many times you may wish to audio-record your interviews with members of online communities. Doing this requires various types of equipment, depending on which general setup you choose. Each setup has its own particular advantages and drawbacks. The four we'll discuss here are:

  1. Landline phone
  2. Cell phone
  3. Internet
  4. Face-to-face

We also provide brief step-by-step instructions on your pre-interview setup at the end of this guide.

This guide focuses on the technical, equipment, and setup aspects of audio-recording your interviews. For advice on conducting the interview itself, you'll want to consult a different resource, such as Irving Seidman's book, Interviewing as Qualitative Research.

Landline phone

Landline phones work well because (1) setup is straightforward, (2) reliability is high, and (3) audio quality is high.

The setup we recommend for landline phones requires the following equipment:

The recording dongle we use is sold at RadioShack (both locally and online). It's called a "mini recorder control" and it costs about $20. Buy one and share within your group or try to borrow one from us in the ELC Lab (we have a few to loan out, but they go quickly ). The dongle goes between the handset and the base of your landline phone, allowing you to attach an audio recording device to the phone and record the conversation.

If possible, plug your audio recorder into an outlet. If not, make sure the batteries are relatively fresh and you have extra backup batteries with you. If the batteries are starting to fade, you may lose sound quality but not find out 'til you listen to your tape.

Setup works like this:

  1. Make sure your audio recording device has enough power and blank tape to record a full hour of conversation. If possible, allow for two hours; it's no fun having to cut short a great interview because your battery is running out of juice.
  2. Plug the recorder dongle into the microphone input jack of your audio recording device. Make sure the switch on the dongle is set to "rec" (record).
  3. Detach the handset from the base of the landline phone.
  4. Plug the handset into the dongle. On our dongles, this is a female RJ11 socket labeled "handset".
  5. Plug the dongle into the base of the landline phone, where the handset used to be plugged in before you detached it.
  6. Always make a test call first to test your setup before calling your interviewee.

Cell phone

Avoid if possible.

Cell phones are convenient, but we don't recommend recording calls with them for two reasons. First, cell phones tend to be less reliable than other methods. Batteries die, reception cuts out, signals get lost, etc. Second, there aren't many good (and cheap) solutions out there for recording cell phone calls. Most cell phones don't allow recording, and because every cell phone is different, there aren't many general-purpose third party applications that you can load onto your cell phone to do recording . There are some web-based options that use call rerouting (e.g., Google Voice).

Note that your participants may want to receive calls on their cell phones, but many of these same drawbacks apply. Ask if they have easy access to a landline phone instead. If not, a cell phone may be good enough.


In recent years, students have increasingly had success conducting interviews with VoIP (phone calls over the Internet) software. Some advantages of interviewing in this manner include: (1) audio quality is high, (2) calls can be cheap or even free, an d (3) interviewees may feel more comfortable. This last point is especially true when interviewing members of online communities. Because they're already at their computers to do the interview, they can also readily navigate the online community in questi on.

A lot of folks conduct these types of interviews using Skype, a popular VoIP software application. It's free for Skype users to call each other, but if you want to call a cell phone or landline phone, you have to pay by the minute. Rates depend on the location of the call recipient and can be found here.

Skype comes bundled with Pamela Call Recorder, which works well but is limited to 15-minute recordings. Rather than trying to make that work, we recommend Pamela, a more fully featured plug-in for Skype. It comes with a 30-day free trial, so choose carefully when you install it. You might also explore Audio Highjack Pro, which is very nice software and applies to more apps than just Skype, but costs money for more than 10 minutes of audio.

Both programs have lots of documentation posted online, so we won't rehash the instructions on how to use them here.


If you're researching a very popular online community (or a locally oriented one), you may be lucky enough to conduct face-to-face interviews with participants.

You will need:

For face-to-face interviews, microphone type and placement is the difference between an easy-to-understand interview and one that makes you want to bang your head against the wall. The other options listed above all require the interviewee to speak dir ectly into a microphone, greatly increasing your chances of getting a decent recording. With face-to-face interviews, however, you'll need to think a bit more about microphones or you'll burn many unnecessary hours straining your ears to understand what y our interviewee is saying in a faint recording.

Most handheld digital or analog audio recorders come with built-in microphones, but avoid these at all costs. They are generally designed for personal-use situations where the user is holding the recorder close to his/her mouth (think journalist or med ical examiner). They have a very short ideal range. Unless you're planning to stick your recorder in your interviewee's face for a full hour, you'll need something else.

When we do face-to-face interviews, we use an omnidirectional boundary microphone (similar to this or this). The ELC Lab has a few of these to lend out, but as with recorder dongles, they go quickly. The nice part about a boundary mic is that it can sit between you and your interviewee and record both of you quite competently without having to be reposi tioned. It's especially important that you conduct the interview in a quiet environment, such as a private meeting room, so that the boundary mic doesn't pick up lots of noise.

In general, avoid unidirectional (shotgun) mics for face-to-face interviews, such as those typically mounted on video cameras or bundled with karaoke machines. They'll pick up your interviewee's voice very clearly, but yours will be an incoherent whisp er. The same problem also applies to lavalier mics (the kind you see clipped to people's shirts on TV shows). Both of these types of mics are generally best suited for multi-mic setups and require a sound mixer to integrate multiple audio sources.

Also, as mentioned above, plug your audio recorder into an outlet if possible. If not, make sure the batteries are relatively fresh and you have extra backup batteries with you. If the batteries are starting to fade, you may lose sound quality but not find out 'til you listen to your tape.

Recording your interview

To make and record a call:

  1. Don't start recording until you have asked the interviewee for permission while on the phone with him/her. Even if the interviewee already signed the consent form agreeing to a recorded interview, ask again anyway.
  2. Double-check the time and date you scheduled with your interviewee. Double-check the time zone, too. Call exactly when you said you would.
  3. Double-check your setup using the checklists above and make a test call.
  4. Call your interviewee. Use a phone card if necessary.
  5. After you've made contact with your interviewee, introduced yourself, reminded him/her about the study, etc., ask if you may record the conversation.
  6. If the interviewee agrees, turn on your audio recording device and start recording. Ask your interviewee again if you may record the conversation, so that you have his/her agreement on record.
  7. Record a few seconds of "testing, testing" with the voice of both parties. Play it back to check that it's audible.
  8. At this point, we like to say the time, date, and name of the interviewee so that it's part of the recording and easier to organize later on. For example, "The time is 2 o'clock p.m. on January 19 and I'm interviewing John Smith about Facebook. Let's get started."
  9. Start the interview.

That's about it! Feel free to contact us with any questions. We'll be glad to show you how to set up any of this equipment. (Remember, the time to figure things out is not five minutes before your first interview is scheduled.)