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By Dr Melanie Pescud and Dr Belinda Townsend, Menzies Centre for Health Governance, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University
As COVID-19 disrupts our lives and our work, many qualitative researchers are rethinking how they might approach remote and online data collection. In this piece, RegNet scholars Dr Melanie Pescud and Dr Belinda Townsend reflect on their expertise with remote and online data collection and suggest twelve helpful tips for conducting digital qualitative interviews.
Tip #1 – Practice presence
Be extra present simply because you are not physically together in person. This is especially important if you are using the phone without video because it can be all too easy to drift away because you are not looking at someone. You might have noticed this yourself when you’re on the phone in general, sometimes it’s easy to be distracted, to check a message coming through, and then just like that you’ve not heard a key point. The person on the other end will know even without seeing you if you have stopped focusing on them. Act as if you are there in person with them. You must be disciplined and focus with intent and full presence. If you can be in a quite space in your house with your phone or other distractions turned off, this will help.
Tip #2 – Practice deep listening and active listening
This follows on from the practice of presence. When you are fully present with your interviewee, you will naturally be deeply listening to what they say, fully receptive, and curious about what they are sharing. You do not seek to judge; you simply listen with intent to understand. As part of this you ask questions from a place of curiosity free of judgement such as “Can you tell me a bit more about that?” and “How did that make you feel?”.
Active listening is a technique whereby, because you have been deeply listening, you can then repeat back to the person what they shared in a succinct form to confirm it is correct or to provide affirming statements. For example, “So what I’m hearing you say is how important building trust is for working in this way, is that the crux of what you’re saying?” You could even that add, “Is there anything more you were able to share about that with me?”. You can also add sincere affirming statements, which doesn’t have to mean you agree or disagree such as “That is such a great insight into X.” or “Wow, hearing you speak about this topic in this way has really got me thinking”.
Deep listening and active listening are also key for building rapport because the interviewee feels heard – your presence with them is affirmed and they feel comfortable to keep sharing deeper insights. We all know the difference between when someone is fully engaged and listening to us versus multitasking or drifting off within their own mind (refer back to tip #1 on presence).
Tip #3 – Silence is golden
When we’re taught to interview, one of the things we’re trained in is the art of being able to sit through those awkward pregnant pauses of silence. Learn to be okay with this over the phone and zoom. Don’t interrupt the pauses, just wait and let your interviewee fill the silence with some extra nuggets of information. Space and silence are your friends as an interviewer.
Tip #4 – Be yourself
Talking over the phone or on zoom can add an extra element of awkwardness for some that can make us act weirdly or uncomfortably. Just be you. The conversation will flow so much easier.
Tip #5 – Be gracious before, during, and after the interview
Always practice being humble and grateful to those who take the time to speak with you and share their insights. Pause at the beginning of the interview to thank them for their time and acknowledge anything within context prior to starting (e.g., covid-19, the weather, a piece of work you have read of theirs) – then quickly move on as you want to use most of the time for their fabulous insights. Always follow up after the interview (where appropriate) to thank the interviewee again. And, for that extra piece of icing on the cake, it can be beneficial to let them know one key take home point or insight that they gave you or how much you enjoyed speaking to them. Personalise it, especially in this world where an extra dose of kindness goes a long way.
Tip #6 – Handball the snowball
In this digital world it can be so easy to be ignored or forgotten amongst the endless stream of emails we all receive. When contacting potential study participants that you have no prior relationship with, it is extra important to find someone in common or in a position of authority who can vouch for you and recommend that someone speak to you. If you’re a PhD student or early career researcher in particular, asking your supervisor or mentor to introduce you if appropriate will help. Asking someone else who you have interviewed to introduce you and recommend that a potential participant speak with you is also a good approach. It works a treat!
Tip #7 – Soft furnishings
To ensure your recordings work well, it’s best to record in a room with soft furnishings like the loungeroom or if you have a groovy background in zoom you can sit on your bed. You get much better sound and recording quality, which is important especially if you must listen to your own recordings again and transcribe them or for the person who ends up transcribing them for you. Avoid tiled rooms like the kitchen and embrace areas with soft coverings like carpet, rugs, sofas, etc. For some expert tips on recording check out this great YouTube clip on recording podcasts.
Tip #8 – Check your background and check your hair
Always check your background (remembering you can use a photo behind you in zoom if your home set up isn’t ideal). Check yourself – you do not want to get on video and be trying to fix your hair, smooth your eyebrows, or fix the angle of the camera. Get that all sorted first. Your reputation matters, so ensure you are always presenting yourself in a professional manner and that means appearing neat and tidy and undistracted by flyaway hair or a ruffled eyebrow.
Tip #9 – Be prepared for a failure of platform
Sometimes phone or internet reception is bad or zoom and skype cut out. You need to be prepared with a backup – if you have a zoom call lined up and it doesn’t work, make sure you have the interviewee’s phone number handy if possible so you can quickly get a hold of them and or switch to phone for the interview. If the interviewee is outside Australia and you can’t get a phone number, suggest turning off video for a more stable internet connection. There is also a chance that a planned phone call doesn’t work, and you may need to go on video on zoom or skype – so always make sure you are showered, dressed properly, and have brushed your hair and checked your teeth. Basically, dress as if you were there in person – just in case! See tip #8 above.
Tip #10 – What are you recording?
When you’re using zoom you can of course record via that platform either with video plus voice or just voice. But, if you don’t record through zoom or for whatever reason it doesn’t work, you need to use your phone or have a digital recorder on hand as back up. Make sure you take your headphones out though as you may end up recording a one-way conversation if you’re not using the internal computer recording equipment.
Before you leave your desk, upload and save your recordings to two places for safe keeping. Being at home means you can be more distracted, so discipline yourself to upload it straight after and that way it will not be lost or forgotten or accidentally recorded over in a subsequent interview if you’re using a digital recorder.
Tip #11 – Ask for verbal consent and record it
Ask for verbal consent at the beginning of the interview and record it. When you’re not in person it can be easy to forget to get someone to sign a consent form (especially if they don’t have a printer at home), so if they don’t get it to you before the interview, just make sure you record them giving consent at the beginning of your interview. Follow all ethics instructions as you would in a face to face interview, such as ensuring the interviewee has read the consent form and information sheet. If you are amending your research to digital and remote due to COVID-19 it also very important to ensure you are meeting ethics guidelines, including ethics variations where appropriate.
Tip #12 – Look at your interviewee, not how your face is moving!
Finally, it can be tempting to just look at yourself, because let’s face it, it’s fascinating to see ourselves on video. But, don’t do this! You will distract yourself. Only focus on your interviewee and what they are saying and how they are expressing themselves. You will miss this if you fall into the trap of staring at your own reflection. See tip #1.