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Don’t come back until you’ve interviewed three lesbians and a zoo keeper

April 5, 2011
Penguins

In this clip from the TV series ‘The Office’, David Brent tries to administer a questionnaire-based appraisal to an unwilling Keith.

As David Brent shows, asking people questions isn’t as easy as it looks – especially when someone has imposed a questionnaire upon you and your respondent doesn’t want to play.

The way that the research industry is set up is that you have an ‘executive’ team of office-based consultants who plan research and design questionnaires on behalf of clients.  The plan is implemented via a huge nationwide network of interviewers who are given the questionnaires, shown which streets to target, and told not to come back until they have fulfilled their daily quota of completes.  These are the people you see in the streets with clipboards, or the ones who call you and ask you to take part in a survey.

Interviewers work long hours, asking the same questions over and over again in a format that is prescribed to them and cannot be deviated from.  They often work at a close to minimum wage, often in the rain or in a noisy call-centre environment, and they are often treated very rudely by members of the public who don’t want to participate in the survey.  They are not trying to sell anyone anything and they are not trying to ruin anyone’s day.  They are just doing their job, on behalf of the executives, who are in turn doing the job on behalf of a client.

As part of the graduate scheme at MORI we had to do a couple of days working as interviewers.  I remember distinctly sitting in the living room of a respondent and asking them if they could name any private healthcare companies.  At that very moment an advert for BUPA came on the TV.  They couldn’t come up with any brands.  “Really?” we asked in disbelief, but no they couldn’t think of any.   For me it was a repetitive, draining and dispiriting day but for others it was much worse – one colleague had their car broken into, and another conducted an interview in a house containing pigeons flying loose about the place. 

It was a great idea to make us do this – a bunch of jumped up graduates who the week before had been embraced with open arms by our new employer and told how special we were to have beaten the competition to get a place on the coveted graduate scheme.  It would be easy get a big head with our newfound ‘executive’ status and look down on the interviewers.  We could write boring questionnaires, plan unnecessarily complicated sampling frames (“don’t come back until you’ve interviewed three lesbians and a zoo keeper”), and give preachy interviewer briefings.  The poor interviewers would then have to take what we gave them and try to make something of them in the real world.  We could say “I need 1,000 completed interviews by Friday” and forget about it until the time came to shout at the field manager for only getting 997. 

From my point of view, my brief experience of interviewing has taught me to consider the interviewers and the respondents at every stage.  I hope this means that I write simpler and more interesting questionnaires which make it a bit more pleasant to be an interviewer or a respondent.

Having a go ourselves quickly brought us down to earth, and gave us a respect for the work that interviewers do.  Without us interviewers couldn’t do their jobs, but without them we could not do ours.  And that means no research, which means no evidence-based decisions, which means all sorts of money wasted by public and private sector organisations who don’t know what the public think and have no means to focus their activities.

So next time you see an interviewer, spare a thought for the tough but important job that they are doing.

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