5 Benefits of Interviewing Users Remotely

Alex Denniston
Mar 17, 2020 · 5 min read

We all know how important it is to make sure you get out of the building and talk to the users you’re building a product for. After all, unless you’re building the product for yourself and your team, you won’t know what people want or need until you actually ask them.

Source: Tom Fishburne, Talking to Humans

But, what if you can’t actually get out of the building and talk to them? Whether your users live in a different area than you, your budget doesn’t allow for travel, or because you’re quarantined in your home due to a global health pandemic there are any number of reasons why you might not be able to have in-person conversations with your users.

The good news is that not only is it possible to have great conversations with users remotely, in some cases there are even some benefits over in person interviews. Over the years, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews over the phone for projects ranging from the nursery of the future for new moms to cloud computing dashboards for system administrators.

While there are number of things that are the same between remote and in-person interviews that I won’t go into detail in this article (e.g. identifying the correct people to talk to, building a discussion guide, asking open-ended questions, etc.) there are a few benefits to doing remote interviews that are worth calling out (telephone pun intended.)

The Benefits of Remote Qualitative Research

1. Efficiency

When I travel to do in-person interviews it’s often hard to do more than a few each day, simply because of the logistics of getting from location to location. Obviously when you remove the requirement of being in the same room, you can significantly increase your number of interviews each day. When conducting interviews via phone or video-conference, you can theoretically stack up your interviews back to back, accomplishing 2–3 times the number of interviews each day. Not to mention everyone’s schedule is far more flexible to finding times to do a phone call than to do an in person sit down. A popular option for people to fit interviews into their busy day could be during their commute. (Psst, I’ve also done a number of interviews in my pajamas and I’m sure I’ve talked to a number of interviewees in theirs, but who’s asking.)

2. Easier to source interviews

When you don’t have to find users all in the same physical location, your potential pool of interviewees goes up exponentially. This is especially valuable when you have a highly specific user group you need to talk to. In our world, we might need to interview lawyers with highly specific expertise but there might only be a few (if any) in our immediate area. If we can interview them remotely, suddenly we have access to any expert around the world. Additionally, not only is it easier to find people to talk to, they’re more likely to talk to you if they can just do it remotely vs. having to meet with you in-person at a particular place.

3. Easier note taking

While I prefer to conduct interviews with a partner who can take notes while I focus on the discussion, the reality is more often than not I need to conduct them solo, making me both interviewer and note-taker. I find it much harder to take good notes in person, because in order to build trust and practice good active listening I have to be more physically present and attentive. I’m also a significantly faster typist than I am with handwritten notes, but I personally feel typing on a laptop while interviewing someone in person just feels clinical and impersonal, so I choose to hand write my notes. I saw this value recently when interviewing specialists in tax credit syndication, a topic I know almost nothing about. The ability to capture terms and acronyms to look up later was invaluable in continuing the flow of the interview without losing potentially critical details. Finally, if you start note-taking digitally it’s easier to share notes to other members of your team or transfer notes to other software for synthesis.

4. The phone as a confessional booth

One of the keys of any good interview is to make the interviewee feel secure and free to share their true feelings. This is especially true when the subject matter is more personal in nature. I’ve done projects in which people are sharing very vulnerable details about their health and their fears (and failures) of the healthcare system. These are hard topics to talk about, even with friends and family, but especially with a stranger. However, I’ve found there’s actually some benefit from phone conversations due to the sense of anonymity and distance from their interviewer. You still have to be just as thoughtful in how you ask questions and how you respond to build a rapport as you would as if you were in person, but for many people I’ve found it’s easier to share those details when you’re not staring at them across the table. I liken it to how long car rides tend to be the catalyst for deep personal conversations, perhaps due to the fact that you’re both staring ahead, not looking at every minute facial expression to gauge how your listener is reacting to what you’ve said. Much to my surprise, phone conversations can be just as intimate as in person and often even more so.

5. Silence is forgiven

One of my favorite follow-up questions for any sort of one-on-one interview, remote or in-person, is simply... silence. Especially when someone is finishing explaining something complex, personal, or maybe something they haven’t really ever thought that deeply about, rather than immediately responding when they finish or trail off, I’ll be silent for a few seconds, up to 5 even. More times than not they’ll seek to fill that silence with additional thoughts — often clearer or more insightful than the ones they just shared. Unfortunately, staring in silence at one another for 5 seconds when you’re in the same room can be incredibly awkward, for both interviewer and interviewee alike. However, when you’re interviewing on the phone and can’t see the other person’s face, silence is much more normal and forgiven. The ability to give pauses to the conversation can give you a beat to collect your thoughts and ask better follow-up questions, as well as often give space for the interviewee to collect and reframe their thoughts as well.

Keeping business moving even if we can’t

As we begin an undetermined amount of time living with social distancing, we’re all looking for ways to keep business moving even if we physically can’t. Luckily, research doesn’t have to stop just because we can’t leave our homes, not to mention people probably are more willing for some conversations with someone who isn’t their dog!

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