Why I’d choose face-to-face over telephone interviews

Shirley Magilton argues that face-to-face interviews encourage people to talk more openly

It’s not unusual, when you’re on your way to a qualitative face-to-face interview, to wonder if it could have just been done by phone.

Two people being interviewedTelephone interviews are certainly a crucial qualitative method.

    • They can be conducted safely from a warm office without wearing out your shoe leather.
    • From a resource perspective, they’re cheaper and can be planned around other tasks.
    • And, if an interviewee doesn’t answer the phone, the time can be usefully apportioned to something else.

It may sound like phone interviews win hands down.

But qualitative interviews are about exploring the experience of the interviewee and an interviewer has just an hour (or less) to gather vital information.

I’ve spent over a decade undertaking face-to-face and phone interviews, and want to share my thoughts on why wearing out that shoe leather can be so valuable.

As I joined the NSPCC recently, these reflections are based on my work with other organisations.


Establishing a connection

In my career, I’ve found you improve your chances of getting interviewees to talk if a connection is established early in the interview. This connection enables the interviewee to feel listened to, understood and connected with.

The possibility of this happening is increased in face-to-face settings.

It might sound therapy-ish, but I’ve found the following 4 factors help to establish a connection.

1. Experiencing the environment

The walk to the interview site tells us a lot: is it full of life, shops, cafes and a sense of community? Or are the surrounding streets depressing, intimidating?

A phone interview may refer to the interview site as “an area of deprivation” but by the time I’m sitting with the interviewee, I understand much more about their experience. If I’m interviewing a service user, I’m more likely to “get it” when they talk about their lack of aspiration.

This immersion into the environment may assist in semi-structured interviews where there’s an opportunity to add prompts. During a staff interview, we sat in an office with walls of peeling paint beside a bucket catching drips from a hole in the ceiling… and the interviewee talked about low morale.

Sitting together in her office helped her articulate her despondency and I knew this was not a good environment to spend 8-hours a day in.

2. Speedy engagement

If our aim is to gather qualitative data about someone’s experience, a degree of “workable trust” must be established within the boundaries of safe practice.

This is hard on a phone, especially with service users. The interviewee has little to go on but an email or letter explaining the evaluation, encouragement from a service to take part and the interviewer’s voice.

Why should they open up and be honest? Why should they take time to reflect and explain issues that may not be easy to say? The challenge is on us to be clear, conveying warmth and interest.

Interviewing in person creates more chances for speedy engagement. In my experience, body language, eye contact, pose and smile – without overstepping the objectivity line – helps to quickly develop a workable trust. Over the phone, we might perceive that an interviewee is sitting back in their chair and relaxing, but it sure is a help to see it. And with only an hour or so, every minute is precious.

Some interviewees might be managers holding the reins of a struggling service. We need to find out what’s going on behind the quantitative data, but this may not be an easy conversation for them. Being there in person can lighten the mood. Engaging with them helps to communicate that even if the data isn’t great, it’s still of interest and value to hear why they think this has happened.

3. Additional interviewees

Here’s a surprisingly common scenario: after trying to get service staff and users to sign up to be interviewed for weeks, we only just get enough participants and are running low on a “robust” sample.

When I arrive at the service, and complete the first 2 interviews, I wander into the staff room for a cup of tea. I get chatting and a couple of staff say they’d like to be interviewed too. Then they say they have a service user who would be great to talk to.

In this scenario, I became a known and visible quantity: the first 2 interviewees spread the news that I’m OK and, because I’m there in person, we’re on a roll.

I once sat in a substance misuse treatment service waiting for the one service user who had agreed to be interviewed. I didn’t know he was the “king pin” of the waiting room. No sooner had we finished our interview, he insisted the other service users got “signed up for a chat”. The sample of 1 turned into a queue of 7!

4. Future participation

In the space of 1 day on site, not only have I absorbed the environment, engaged quickly to facilitate trust and gained additional interviewees, I’ve markedly increased the chances of gaining a cohort of interviewees for the next round of interviews at this service.

As we all know, evaluation sometimes has 1 round of interviews but it commonly requires these to take place at intervals, especially if it’s looking at an implementation process.

Capturing valuable experiences

Face-to-face interviews aren’t always perfect. Sometimes, no one turns up. The manager was ill, the social worker had a safeguarding crisis or the service user bolted.

Such experiences are fed into an appraisal of the methodology; was this really the best way to spend evaluation resources?

But this experience rarely happens – and evaluation really needs to use a selection of interview methodology.

It’s true that some individuals only feel safe on the end of a phone. But my experiences have convinced me that the time-consuming and shoe leather-intensive world of face-to-face interviewing often results in hearing the very valuable experiences of individuals that other methods might miss. So do consider the value of face-to-face interviews next time you’re planning an evaluation.

What is your experience of face-to-face interviews?

If you’ve conducted interviews before let us know what you think the benefits or drawbacks are. Or if you’re new to interviewing ask us a question.

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