Making Remote Interviews Feel Less Remote
How a rocky start with VC interviews — and one bored and irritated respondent — led me to rethink my approach.
Back in early March, I was halfway through a series of in-home interviews in the greater Seattle area when Facebook’s moratorium on in-field research came into effect. After considering my options, switching my remaining sessions to VC seemed the best choice. Though it meant sacrificing the observational aspects of the study, I felt confident that I could gather the critical data remotely.
As a researcher, I fall on the far end of the qualitative scale: the methods I employ are mostly ethnographic and are almost always conducted in person. Based on my experience, I passionately believe that in-person studies can yield valuable data that can’t be gathered any other way. Maybe because I was so focused on rescheduling my respondents, I didn’t give much thought to the mechanics of the remote sessions. I assumed that my skills as an in-person researcher would mostly carry over to a remote setting.
I was wrong.
My first interview was terrible. More accurately, I was terrible. The session was supposed to last 90 minutes. Within 15 minutes, my respondent was visibly bored. After half an hour, she was outright irritated. At 40 minutes, I ended the session. Then I sat for a long time trying to figure out what had gone so wrong.
As more sessions came and went over the next few days, I reflected on what went well and what didn’t, modifying and refining my approach along the way. Fast forward four months and dozens more user interviews and remote sessions feel (almost) as natural as their in-person equivalent. Here are some key changes I made in those first weeks that helped me adapt my in-person approach to the remote setting.
One of my mantras for in-person research is to take things slowly. In my days as a college professor, I learned to be OK with moments of silence, because in most cases someone else will speak first. But in my first few remote interviews I kept jumping the gun, talking over my respondents mid-sentence or as they paused for breath.
On reflection, I realized that much of my success as an in-person researcher is built on a rapport that I was struggling to replicate remotely. Body language, physical presence, eye contact, humor: in person, I use all of these to create a safe and comfortable space for both myself and (especially) the respondent. VC’s effect on these tools, exacerbated by audiovisual lag, left me feeling anxious and unsure of myself.
To compensate, I slowed down and counted out a beat or two in my head before speaking. This led to fewer instances of talking over the respondent and, crucially, went some way toward reproducing the “space” I try to give respondents when I’m sitting across from them. As a happy bonus, it also gave me an extra second or two to finish up the notes I was taking.
Fewer jokes and anecdotes
Much of my rapport with respondents is based on humor. I also tend to be very open about myself, often drawing from stories in my own life to create common ground with respondents. Over VC, both of these techniques fell flat. I learned the hard way that humor is hard to convey over distance: there’s nothing like making (what I regarded as) a witty aside only to be met with visible confusion and/or boredom.
In my experience, VC sessions feel inherently more transactional than in-person interviews. The respondent is giving you a fixed amount of their time in exchange for an incentive and there’s none of the social pressure that comes with hosting someone in your home. With this in mind, I found my sessions to be more productive once I focused on moving steadily through the conversation guide rather than overtly trying to build rapport.
Take care with setup
This may seem obvious, but it’s important to take the time to create a VC setup that works for you. In my first session, for example, I used only my laptop, which made it difficult to share documents via my screen while also taking notes. For my second session I added an external monitor, but the two screens were configured to be side-by-side, which didn’t match my physical setup (in which the external monitor was above my laptop screen). Finally, in my third session, I configured the screens in a way that enabled me to share my screen while taking notes, and to rapidly cycle between the two.
My struggles with VC setup point to a broader issue: As researchers, we sometimes become too reliant on our standard processes and may overlook the importance of prepping, piloting, and/or practicing on different platforms. Now, more than ever, a flexible approach is key to delivering the data and insights on which our cross-functional partners rely.
Finally, I made sure to keep the self-view screen open so I could monitor how I was projecting myself to respondents. I don’t generally do this during other kinds of VC meetings, but over the course of 90+ minutes, it’s easy to lose track of how you’re presenting yourself, especially if you can’t easily see your respondent (when sharing documents, for example). Being able to see myself calmed any concerns about how I might be appearing to my respondents, allowing me to focus on the interview.
I hope these tips are of some help to other researchers who are learning to adjust to the new reality. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of remote user sessions or a fellow in-person diehard, I’d love to hear what other techniques and approaches you’ve found effective.