Notes from the ‘Field’: Reflections from Our Participant-Centered Remote Qualitative Research During the Pandemic

Pulse Lab Jakarta
Jan 29, 2021 · 8 min read

The pandemic has transformed how we conduct qualitative research. We used to go into communities, meet and speak with the participants, and listen to their stories. With remote research becoming more common these days, various organizations have shared their comprehensive guide, tips and toolkits, and assessed the advantages and pitfalls of remote research. However, we noticed that what’s missing from the current discourse is how remote research, with its flexibility, allows researchers to conduct participant-centered research and to integrate ethics in all phases of the research, particularly during data collection.

The Social Systems team at the Lab had an opportunity to collaborate with Empatika in a four-week learning network series to further discuss this topic, and we later applied our lessons in our most recent research project with UN Women. Supported by the Indonesian National Council for Financial Inclusion, we examined the different coping strategies employed by women and men owned micro and small business (MSBs) throughout the pandemic, as well as their use of digital platforms. As the study has wrapped up, we reflect on how we went about putting principles on participant-centered remote qualitative research into action.

Ethics and participant-centered remote research

Our commitment to ethical remote research during the pandemic is best described by two guiding principles: i) prioritising the participants’ well-being during the pandemic, and ii) designing accessible research tools to allow us to better reach participants. Our learning network with Empatika discussed several challenges and practical steps to put these principles into action, which we’ve summarized into the following guide:

Click here to download the guide

Whilst the guide helped us in designing a participant-centered remote qualitative research, we actually learned more about which actions mattered the most to participants during the implementation of our joint research with UN Women and Gojek on how MSBs in Indonesia are coping during the pandemic. The sections that follow here are centered on this research.

Going the extra mile for rapport building

When it comes to remote research, people tend to think it is time and cost efficient, because researchers get to sit within their own comfort and have virtual, one-off interviews with participants. However, to build a strong rapport between researchers and participants, we should put more effort in forging the interaction to have a quality interview. As part of the qualitative aspect of the research, we spoke with 40 participants across Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi. We split our interview into two sessions — the first being a casual conversation and the second a more structured interview. The first session allowed us to connect with the participants on a more personal level. We also invited them to reach out to us outside the research schedule should they have questions or concerns regarding their participation or the study.

The informal conversation was crucial as it serves as a way to learn more about each participant’s communication style and pay extra attention to vocal tones, such as pauses, spontaneous reaction, and emotional cues. The session was helpful for us, because we could identify which questions should be asked first to each participant and adjust our interview techniques in the following session. This was also how we built meaningful, informed consent, because the initial informal conversation allowed us to better explain the objectives of the research and how participants would be involved in the research.

We also tailored our consent form to participants’ digital capabilities, by designing versions that could be completed via WhatsApp and Google Form. The participants would decide which platform they felt more comfortable using. If they preferred WhatsApp, we shared an image containing information about their research participation and the objectives of the study. They would just need to reply “YES” to indicate if they were interested in participating, or “NO” if otherwise.

After we received their consent, we conducted digital observation to allow us to better understand their business contexts. There were some women-MSBs that were very active on social media not only to promote their products and services, but also to engage with customers. But there were other women operating MSBs who were more introverted and not as active on social media. This allowed us to get a better sense of what interview techniques we should employ. For instance, for research participants who were more introverted, we kept the conversation going by bringing up new topics related to results from our prior digital observation, such as the variant of their products, store locations, and the extent of their digital marketing strategies. Our participants thus felt more appreciated and were more open and engaged in the conversation.

The second session we designed for the interview required at least an hour. We understood that this could be a monotonous and exhausting experience for participants, especially as it was not being done in person. For this reason, it was important to make the interview as convenient as possible for them. Instead of trying to get through all the questions in one go, we introduced an ice-breaker in between the conversation, and in doing so, our participants felt more comfortable and relaxed about answering the full list of questions.

Access to communication platforms was also an important element to consider, so we tried to be flexible in using various digital platforms that the participants had access to. For initial conversations with our participants, we utilized a social messaging platform with features such as WhatsApp as our main communication tool. Afterwhich, we gave participants the autonomy to decide which platform they felt was most convenient for the interview. Some of the options included Google Meet, Zoom Meeting, WhatsApp Video Call, among other platforms they proposed.

Being as conversational and informal as possible

To foster an empathetic and respectful interview experience, we reminded ourselves of several issues that typically come up during in-depth interviews, such as being too formal and power imbalance between researchers and participants. Power imbalance between researchers and participants tends to occur when researchers are perceived as overly knowledgeable, thus intimidating the participants or making them feel inferior.

We tried addressing these issues through several approaches. Throughout the interview, we reminded the participants that they should not hesitate to ask us back clarifying questions and/or decline answering any research questions that they feel uncomfortable with. We used simple and clear language that was easy for the participants to understand, especially connected to their social contexts. We observed that they were more comfortable using local slang, which seemed to translate their experience better. Here, we learned that it was important to directly note their meanings and record them in the ‘download notes’ right away. We also learned from our early interviews to focus less on the interview guide and more on the responses coming from the participants to have a more fluid conversation.

In terms of how we ran the interviews, allowing some degree of flexibility was the best approach. As our respondents were women and men-owned MSBs, we informed them at the start that, should they receive an order in the middle of the interview, they should feel free to take the needed time to complete it. We made clear the option of pausing the interview and resuming afterwards. In some of our interview sessions, there were participants who were surprised that the interview could be very flexible; this was by design as we did not want our presence to disrupt their business routines.

Relying on the internet, technical glitches were among the challenges we entered. For instance in locations where participants might have had a low internet connection, we allowed a few seconds to pass as a buffer between responding to their comments and asking further questions. Whenever there was a network failure or a technical issue with the video calling platforms, we contacted participants immediately through WhatsApp or by text message to check in and find out if they preferred to continue the interview on the same day using a different platform, or resume at a later date.

Keeping the participants in the loop

With our sincere appreciation, the participants were the ones who made our research possible. They spared the time to speak with us and provide useful insights. As researchers, it was important for us to genuinely show how much we appreciated their participation. After the interview ended, some participants asked further questions about the study, such as how and why they were selected as the participants, what we would do with the data collected, and how the study might inform the Government about challenges faced by MSBs. Some of them were even enthusiastic about keeping abreast with the progress of the research, asking when they could read the final report and how it could be accessed. Perhaps most surprising for us were the questions about how their contribution to this research could make an impact for social good. We told them that we would still keep in touch as the research progresses, and share the results and overall insights from the research.

Keeping our word, we shared the report once it was launched in December 2020. We believe this last step was pivotal for transparency, and more importantly, because the participants have the right to know how the data they shared with us were used and presented. Whilst the research results were published in both Bahasa Indonesia and English, we decided to share the report in Bahasa Indonesia so our participants could make sense of the insights we gleaned from speaking with them, in their own language.

In retrospect, we realise that conducting participant-centered remote research will always come with challenges. And particularly during this period, this is true as researchers and participants are still adjusting to changes brought on by the pandemic. Moreover, our greater reliance on technologies can be a double-edged sword; on one end because of the many advantages, but on another due to technological failures that could happen at any given time and impede research activities. As the pandemic seems to be here for the long haul, we expect that we may have to do more of this type of research going forward. This means finding more strategic ways to craft the experience in order to be more thoughtful, considerate and inclusive for our research participants, especially those who do not always have access to technology and/or may have limited digital capabilities. If you happen to have conducted remote research recently, feel free to comment and share your experience with us!

Authors: Kiana Puti Aisha (Research Assistant) and Siti Rizqi Ashfina Rahmaddina (Research Assistant)

This blog is drawn from our most recent research on Leveraging Digitalization to Cope with COVID-19 with UN Women, as well as from our Learning Network sessions with Empatika. It has been reviewed and edited by Maesy Angelina (Social Systems Lead) and Dwayne Carruthers (Communication Manager).