Otter sitting on a rock, thinking about how to record calls for social science interviews

Social Science Phone Interview Software: Otter wins

If you are conducting research involving interviews conducted over the phone, you may be presented with a challenge: how do you capture the call, transcribe the call, and archive it?

Interview Software Comparison:

In this post I cover three interview software options and explain why I think Otter.ai is the best option for most research needs. If you have better solutions, please join the conversation!

Please note, I use an iPhone for phone interviews. Android may have options that are different or better than those covered in this post.

Get Consent

Before getting to the details of the recording options, be aware that recording calls should be done only after receiving consent from the other party. I handle this by reading the same script at the start of every call: “Before we get started with the interview, is it OK with you if I record this call?” If the other party agrees, I begin recording the call and say something like, “Ok, the call is now being recorded with your permission” so the recorded transcript has a record of the consent.

Google Voice

At some point, you may have signed up for Google Voice. This service allows you to make calls, receive messages, and have a unique phone number that can be directed to ring on existing phone lines or used virtually.

I’ll cut to the chase: Google Voice would be great but it requires that a call is incoming. This is not ideal for a number of reasons; if you are conducting research using interviews, chances are your interviewees are doing you a big favor by agreeing to talk. They are probably busy and need the process to be as easy as possible. Asking a potential interviewee to call me just doesn’t feel right.

In addition, the couple of times I did try having the interviewee call in to my Google Voice number, I couldn’t engage the record feature. That was probably my fault, but it contributes to my feeling that Google Voice is not the best option for researchers needing to record and transcribe calls.

TapeACall Pro

There are many applications for mobile devices that offer call recording features. After researching the options, I purchased TapeACall Pro and tested it on one or two interviews. I quickly realized that TapeACall Pro sacrificed quality for recording convenience.

The app is easy to use, but my primary qualm with applications like this (at least on the iPhone) is that Apple does not grant third-party applications access to the microphone so applications use a workaround to record the call. The workaround is to redirect the call to VoIP (voice over internet protocol). This has the effect of drastically reducing the call quality to the point where I had trouble understanding the interviewee, let alone being able to accurately transcribe the call.

Otter.ai

Otter is a free application with options for paid upgrades (I’ll get to these in a moment). Unlike other applications that use VoIP or your phone’s built-in microphone (for non iOS phones), Otter simply records whatever sound is in the room.

Using Otter.ai

To record a call, I load Otter onto a device other than my phone. For me, an iPad set up in a central, stable location on my desk works best.

Make sure the recording device microphone is pointed toward you and your iPhone. You can also record a call from Otter’s website using your computer’s microphone.

The next step is to use your phone, on speaker, to make the call.

Screenshot of using Otter.ai
To start recording, select the blue microphone icon.

Once you have gotten permission to record the call, select the blue microphone icon on the bottom of the application. You will see the recording begin immediately and Otter will begin transcribing what it hears in real-time.

Once the call is complete, Otter improves upon the real-time transcription. You simply wait for the application to transcribe the call. The application can notify you when the file is ready to download. You download a text file or an audio file of the recorded event from the mobile application or from the website interface.

In my experience, the transcription does not take long to render, however it does require some editing. Although the transcription is pretty decent, I spend an average of an hour cleaning the transcription of a 35 minute interview.

Some drawbacks to Otter

There are drawback to the Otter recording approach:

  • You need a quiet place to make the call and hopefully a door that can be closed so your colleagues (or cat ) don’t have to hear the call.
  • The transcription editing process can also be labor-intensive because you may need to listen back to the audio recording to accurately capture the transcription. If you have many calls to transcribe, this can double or triple the time required to conduct data collection.
  • The free version of Otter limits the speed at which you can playback the recording. Your choices are half (0.5x) speed or double (2x) speed. In my experience, half speed is way too slow and double speed is too fast. The Goldilocks speed is, you guessed it, a paid feature.

Upgrades

One of the challenges of using Otter is editing the transcription with the playback feature. It is either too slow or too fast to be efficient. However, you can pay for other playback speeds, which I recommend! I wasted many hours listening to every interview at 1x speed while cleaning the text transcription. I should have upgraded earlier.

If you need to make many recordings of long duration, you can also upgrade to a paid version that allows for more hours of recording. For the twenty-seven interviews I used Otter for, the free application included adequate storage.

Bottom Line:

“What software should I use for recording social science interviews?”

Given the options currently available, Otter.ai is the best phone interview recording and transcription option available for low or no cost. It is easy to use, runs on mobile or website, and provides decent transcription and file download options.

Do you have experience conducting research using phone interviews? Share your favorite software below!

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