The diary of a face-to-face interviewer 

In this post an anonymous face-to-face researcher discusses their experiences of conducting research in peoples’ homes, the impact of Covid-19 on their role, and their concerns for the research landscape in the future.

I show up, unannounced, and knock on people’s doors for a living. No, I’m not selling anything! I am a full time face-to-face Interviewer for one of the UK’s largest research companies and I absolutely love it. It’s not the career that I imagined myself in when I graduated from a Russell Group university with a first class degree but I have been with the same company for over three years now and I’ve never looked back. I’m going to give you a bit of an insight into the life of a face-to-face Interviewer and you might be surprised by what I tell you.
Many people imagine that the job comes with a plethora of verbal abuse and rejection. Well, I say have a little faith in the Great British public and their infamous polite nature. When I knock on a door, it’s true that I can see some people’s faces sink, but once they have the chance to listen their expression soon changes. They understand that I am not there to flog them a new gas and electric package, nor am I there to pull on their heart strings so they sign up for a direct debit to save the pandas. In fact, I don’t want their money at all, just their opinions.
The research we do makes real change and gives people the opportunity to have their voice heard when they otherwise might be ignored. We ask questions so both public and private sector organisations better understand the people who use their services, which is a worthy enterprise and one reason why I take such pride in my work. Of course, there are people who don’t want to take part and the majority of those politely decline rather than hurl abuse, but the ones who do say yes make this job so enjoyable and interesting – it’s fair to say that I’m never short of a story or two.
I am sent to a different area every week to ensure that we speak to a cross section of the population. Some days I’ll be interviewing in social housing tower blocks and other days I’ll be walking along streets with mansions and huge gates restricting access to their drives. Both these types of property involve pressing buzzers, a nightmare for interviewers! It is so much easier to speak to someone face-to-face than over an intercom. There are a lot of households that don’t have intercoms - although smart doorbells (where the householder can see you through a camera when you press the bell) are becoming increasingly popular, meaning people don’t have to worry about saying no to your face.
Despite these barriers, my working days are nearly always fruitful meaning I get to spend a lot of my time chatting to people in their homes. A common misconception about my job is that I ask questions on people’s doorsteps. Most surveys are conducted in respondents’ homes because it is more private and easier for them to see the screen as we interview using tablets. I always ask if I can pop in and most people are incredibly welcoming. Being offered a cup of tea is almost guaranteed and becoming best friends with their cat or dog is definitely a perk of the job. I feel so privileged to be invited into people’s abodes. Seeing the way the British public live behind closed doors is fascinating, humbling and eye opening.
I have interviewed on canal boats, in a home where pet ducks were free to roam the house, in a living room set up with a hospital bed and equipment for an ill family member. I have interviewed barristers, circus performers, ex-convicts… Speaking to these people and hearing their opinions makes me feel so lucky to have such an interesting, enjoyable and varied job.
However, like all jobs, there are some negative aspects. Safety is a concern for some of my friends and family as they know I enter strangers’ homes alone. They are even more worried during the winter months when I mostly work in the hours of darkness. We are however provided with personal alarms that make a loud sound when activated but they aren’t equipped with location sharing. Thankfully I’ve never had to use mine and I don’t know anybody who has had to either.
The company I work for asked interviewers if they would like a device that allows the office to see their location, however the majority voted against it so it didn’t go ahead. A lot of my colleagues have been interviewing for 20 years plus and have never felt threatened so a GPS device seemed unnecessary.
In my opinion there are much more profound challenges than safety. As interviewers we face new obstacles in a rapidly changing world. People are more cautious than ever about their data and seem to be on hyper alert for scammers, meaning even when people recognise the reputable company name, they sometimes question if you really are working for them or if your survey is a ruse. People are bombarded with cold callers on the phone, junk mail through the post and copious marketing emails meaning their patience is already wearing thin. Staying resilient when faced with this door after door is an essential skill for any interviewer, and being optimistic that someone will eventually help is paramount to success in this line of work.
Another challenge we now face as interviewers and as a global community is the coronavirus crisis. I am currently on furlough due to the situation and I am waiting in anticipation to get back to work but worry what the interviewing landscape will look like after all this. Can things truly go back to normal? Can we expect strangers to invite us into their homes? Can we ask them to sit next to us so we can both see the tablet screen? Can we hand them showcards touched by hundreds of people before them? These are new obstacles that never crossed my mind before and yet I feel even after the crisis this kind of contact will be fraught with anxiety.
For the usual difficulties we face as interviewers, I comfort myself in the fact that the good days far outweigh the bad but I cannot tell myself that everything will be fine when we get back out there. As we speak, our clients are likely thinking of ways that they can collect data that isn’t via face-to-face interviewing. Maybe they’ll continue using those methods in the months after the crisis is over. If so, could that be the beginning of the end for face-to-face interviewing? I sincerely hope not. 

This type of interviewing is the gold standard in research as the data gathered is such high quality: people are more likely to tell the truth as it is difficult to lie about things such as age, ethnicity and gender when speaking to someone face-to-face compared to filling in an online survey. Interviewers are also able to gauge when a participant may be losing interest and can use techniques to re-engage them, for example by commenting how lovely the painting above the fireplace is! Persuading someone to take part when you are speaking to them in person is much easier than over the telephone. I have faith that there will continue to be a great demand for this method of collecting data.
Our industry must be innovative and the public supportive if we are to survive in the aftermath of this public health emergency. Who knows, maybe people will be so desperate for human contact that they’ll be more willing to help with research and we can spring back into action! I would be devastated if I had to change careers. This job has done wonders for my wellbeing. Not only am I lucky enough to get paid to chat to people but I also have a routine that I am so grateful for.  I am eager to return to this way of life and to see what the future holds.
AUTHOR: Anonymous