Using an iPad for Research – Tips Q&A

Last week, I received an email featuring questions about how to use an iPad to support qualitative research fieldwork. I have explored many facets of using an iPad, but thinking about the device in relation to research pulls together some of the most useful functions into a neat contextual package which you can tap-into (pun intended!). Essentially for new users, research can be a gateway to get more out of your device and for established users…research can also be a gateway to get more out of your device! I owe a debt of gratitude to the person who sent me such good questions; as not only have they inspired this blog post, but they have also laid the trail for today’s #appswap.

Please note: much of the tips below also apply to newer iPhones and there are some good apps for recording on Android devices as well. Android devices sometimes produce audio file types which require conversion, iTunes can be used as a quick and free converter for many audio file types (instruction video). Much of the information covered in this post pertains to 3rd party hardware and apps, these are currently classed as emerging technologies and are not supported by Information Services.

Q: Can I use the iPad to record the interviews and focus groups?

Absolutely, iPads have a good amount of internal memory and it is easier to manage your recordings and associated notes (and metadata) using the graphical touchscreen display.

Q: Which apps do you recommend using?

For recording and notes only I can recommend Recordium and SoundNote.

Having tested both of these apps I have come out firmly in favour of Recordium (iPhone/iPad) in tandem with Dictapad (iPad only – see transcription below). At £7.99 Recordium doesn’t come cheap, but it has bags of functionality which is intuitive and useful such as: editing the audio; highlighting sections of audio; adding tags to sections of the audio; placing notes and photos throughout the audio; recording levels and quality adjustment options. This is made all the more compelling by the ability to use the “open in” option to backup your files to the staffcentral app, Evernote and Dropbox (University privileged information and research needs to be backed up using the staffcentral app).

If you want your recordings and transcribed notes in the same app, SoundNote is an option. I have tested this and I felt that although it is alright I felt that then recording quality was not as good as Recordium and also you couldn’t slow down the playback for ease of transcription, as you can in Dictapad (described below).

 Q: Should I get an external mic for the iPad for conducting interviews?

The internal microphone in an iPad or iPhone is actually very good. I recommend testing the internal mic in a situation similar to your final interview setting and see how well it picks up voices in the room.

There are however a large number of iPad/iPhone compatible external microphones. For iPads specifically I would avoid mics which are attachment specific (such as 30 pin or lightning i.e. your power charger attachment on the device) as when you upgrade your device the mic may be incompatible. I recommend seeking out a USB mic and connecting it to the iPad using the Lightning to USB Camera Adapter* (£25.00 rrp Apple – cheaper generic versions for this adapter type can be unreliable or are unsupported). There are a number of USB microphones recommended for use with iPads, the main thing to bear in mind is that you want an microphone with its own power supply or batteries, otherwise connecting it will rapidly drain your device battery. Essentially if you are going to buy a microphone, you want to go for a good quality option in order for it to exceed the performance of the built-in mic. I recommend Blue’s range including the Snowball and the Yeti microphones as a brand with a good track record (Blue Snowball – £39-50 Amazon). Having run tests, some of the audio quality aspects are contingent on which app you use, certain free apps which have a paid version (e.g. AudioMemos) seemed to have a much lower recording quality, this may be intentional so that you upgrade your app but the difference was quite pronounced between Recordium and other apps.

*USB adaptor for older iPads

Q: What about speech-to-text apps  for transcribing the interviews?

Sadly there are not automagical apps which will take audio from an interview situation and transcribe it for you. There are apps like Dragon Dictate (free – iPad/iPhone) which have speech-to-text functionality, but they tend to be very dependent on the user speaking in a clearly enunciated way and would not be able to handle multiple people speaking with possible overlaps. I have been working with an app called Dictapad which allows you to slow down an existing audio file for ease of typing your own text transcription. At £3.99 it is an affordable app and has a very helpful instruction video when you first use the app. Also using the the “open in” option from within Recordium to bring your audio into Dictapad for transcription, seems like a good workflow.

Increasingly there are apps which offer low cost human transcription services directly from within the app. There are data protection considerations around interview materials with regard to these services; I advise against their use at this time.

All of the apps covered in this post allow you to save/export your audio files, so you can choose to work with the files on your computer (emailing to yourself or saving to staffcentral app). Transcribe web application is an option which you can try on a computer, it offers some similar functionality to Dictapad with more added features:

Transcribe can be used without an Internet connection (Google Chrome web browser installed). The application has $20 per year subscription fee; a free trial is available

Q: What keyboard/case should I get?

A colleague, who is very happy with her iPad keyboard, passed on this recommendation: the Inateck Ultra Slim (Amazon £18). Dictapad has keyboard shortcut options for scrubbing/navigating through audio so an external keyboard may speed up your typing and your transcription.

Q: What about tripods and attachments for video interviews?

 Tripod attachments for iPads and iPhones are available, however then you also need to buy a tripod and they are usually a minimum of £50 (e.g. Grifiti Nootle iPad mount). A table mount may be easier to use in an interview situation (e.g. PureMounts range, which offers different attachment types for different types of iPad to go with their table and wall mounts).

Q: I want to take my dongle further afield where there is no Wifi. Are there any particular ‘pay as you go’ USB dongles I should use for mobile Wifi?

For use with a Wifi-only iPad (as you can get mobile contract iPads) you will need a Mifi device (e.g. E5330 3G)  rather rather than a dongle, as standard dongles will not be compatible with an iPad. Earlier in this post I talked about the USB adapter for iPad; sadly the adapter will not allow you to use a USB dongle with an iPad it is a question of the software on the dongle – anything that you use with the USB adapter needs to be ‘plug and play’ – meaning that it is not dependent on any software. As this would most likely be a personal expense, you may want to check with your mobile carrier about what they offer in terms of contracts for mobile Wifi. Also check with your provider that the Mifi device is iPad compatible prior to purchase. It is possible to use an iPhone to tether a 3G/4G connection, but you will want to check your data contract allowances before you do that.

I have been working in the Educational Technology field within Higher Education for eleven years. A big part of my job is finding new and innovative ways of integrating technology into current teaching and learning methodology. This can include assisting academic staff with Virtual Learning Environments/Learning Management Systems (Blackboard), implementing specific software packages, maximising current technologies and championing new ones. I find this profession both riveting and rewarding. I really enjoy life on the cutting edge, but I also enjoy being able to help staff achieve small and meaningful efficiencies; sometimes that makes all the difference.