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February 11, 2021
When you can't do in-person, you can absolutely make the most of this next-best option.
We use a social science practice called grounded theory, which is based on listening to what people say, how they say it, and extrapolating patterns. We also use observational research to see how interviewees interact with website and product experiences. These methods only work if we are attentive and present. That means:
No matter how much pressure you’re under to answer “that urgent email,” it will absolutely be at the cost of being fully present and making the most out of every interview. Qualitative research is only effective when the researcher embraces his or her role as listener, observer, synthesizer, and analyzer.
A study from Princeton and UCLA found that students who handwrite their notes learn more than those who type on laptops. Take handwritten notes now and type them while organizing them by patterns etc after the fact.
One of the benefits of digital conferencing software is that it’s easy to record conversations—and inexpensive to transcribe them. Rather than taking notes, you can focus on the questions and answers you’re generating. You can have the flexibility and freedom to pursue conversation threads that you did not consider while planning.
If you can work with a colleague who can take notes for you, that’s even better!
When interviewing users remotely, be mindful that you aren’t in the same room with the other person. That’s why it’s even more important to ask open-ended questions that encourage your interviewees to tell a story. As a discussion facilitator, you should plan to be silent, while maintaining eye contact and appearing physically engaged, for the majority of your conversation.
In general we make sure that our researchers have a dedicated job: to uncover information in an objective, methodical way.
Even though our interviewees may not be in the same room as our research team, we focus on creating a “virtual space,” in the words of the research team at Nielsen Norman Group.
“It can be difficult to know when to ask a question in a remote study,”
~Amy Schade, former director of research at Nielsen Norman Group.
“Silence on the other end of the line may mean that the user is confused, immersed in content, looking around the page, or distracted. It can be difficult to find the balance between letting users know you are listening and interrupting them. Although the same is true in face-to-face studies, the problem can be magnified in remote studies.”
She recommends that researchers take the following steps to overcome this challenge—to construct a virtual space:
“The facilitator can gently budge a quiet participant to share more about what he is doing,” writes Schade.
One technique that she recommends is a process called the “think-aloud protocol,” which asks users to “talk through what they’re doing as they’re doing it.” To describe this method, Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group writes: “It serves as a window into the soul, letting you discover what users really think about your design.”
When a Storyhackers team member conducts a research interview, it can take 10-15 minutes for a participant to open up. We find that users are not accustomed to speaking their thoughts out loud. In these cases, we ask extensive follow-up questions. We ask users to share stories, with prompts like “tell me about a time that you…” or “walk me through your process for achieving goal X.”
Remote interviews are a flexible and fast way to get insights and feedback. While they do not provide all the benefits of in-person research, they make up for it many situations being they are so accessible to both researchers and participants. Just make sure to adapt your approach if you’re more accustomed to in-person research to make the most out of them.
Ritika is a writer, entrepreneur, and founder of Storyhackers. She has studied and practiced user research as part of her work for years and is excited to be diving into the topic here for User Interviews.