We’re just talking, what could possibly go wrong?!

Many researchers have had to pivot their research methods as a result of the pandemic.  In this post, Ciara Harris, who previously shared her tips for presenting online, shares her experience of conducting research interviews online.

I have completed a number of research interviews recently, and not all of them have gone smoothly.

Anyone starting to use research interviews for the first time will, I’m sure, have read plenty about them and talked to experienced colleagues and supervisors. One piece of advice that you are likely to come across – it’s certainly one I heard a lot – is: Be Prepared (like the Scouts!). I thought that I was reasonably well prepared when I started a recent round of virtual interviews for two projects I’m involved in. However, I still had a few issues that I’d like to share with you, along with some suggested solutions, in case you come across them in your own research.

A participant having a medical emergency and being unreachable

There have been a few times where participants have not turned up, and I couldn’t contact them. Having multiple means of contacting participants (e.g. email address and phone number) is very helpful, regardless of whether your interviews are in-person or virtual, but there will always be circumstances where people don’t turn up and you don’t know why. When you check if they can still join you for the interview, politely offer to rearrange the interview, and send a reminder to participants shortly before the interview is scheduled.

Participant being able to see but not hear me on Zoom

I recently conducted an interview where the participant and I could see each other via a silent video call, but hear each other via a telephone call. Silly as it might sound, I would advocate keeping the video link open if you face a similar situation – it makes understanding each other easier because you can lip read alongside listening, you can still see each other’s body language, and it’s easier to show that you are actively listening.

Poor phone signal or internet connection arising during the interview

This has happened a few times, either where the internet has cut out completely part-way through an interview, or where the phone signal is so bad that we can barely hear each other. Agree a plan with your participant about what to do if the video-conferencing software stops working (e.g. “try leaving the meeting and re-joining it, if that doesn’t work I will phone you”), but make sure you can implement your back-up plan quickly. Phone service varying during an interview is tricky to manage, because it may start out okay and then get worse. If at least one of you uses a landline that can help, as can knowing where you get the best phone signal.

Participant becoming distressed or expressing concerning thoughts during an interview

I advise talking to your supervisor before your interviews, and if you think this is a possibility, make a plan for how you will handle it, and write the plan down.

Realising after the interview that the recording device didn’t work

Luckily for me, it was my back-up recorder that didn’t work, not my main dictaphone, but it did remind me of the importance of having a back-up in place, and for them both to be charged up and tested before the interview starts.

Overall, my biggest piece of advice is to have back-up plans, and back-ups for your back-ups, which you can rapidly implement. For example, my back-up plan if zoom didn’t work was to call, which I did, but turning on the phone and locating the back-up dictaphone took time, and could have been avoided if they were both on my desk ready to go.

Finally, it seems like there will always be situations which we haven’t anticipated, especially when we’re new to this type of research, so I guess the best option is to take a breath and do our best to resolve the issue, accepting that it might not be optimal, but it is the best we can do under the circumstances.

What have your experiences with conducting online interviews been?  Are there any other research methods you have had to reinvent to make them work during the pandemic?

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Helen Kara

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