GovX reflections on remote interviewing

The GovX team share their insights, challenges, and reflections on remote user research and interviews during COVID-19.

Woman sitting at her desk in front of computer screens
Caption: Hayley Prior from GovX undertaking remote research

We faced an ironic problem early in 2020. We started a great new project on the experience of people looking for work, focusing on COVID-19. For a compelling, emotive, and human-centred view of the problem space, we needed to get out and talk to people.

The crisis which led to the need for the project was the very thing preventing us from doing our usual face-to-face interviews. The challenge became — how would we gain true insight into people’s experiences? 

The answer was simple — virtual interviews. This approach allowed us to overcome new research challenges, build on our interviewing skills, and gain fresh insights.

Rapport building — easier and harder

Building rapport virtually is challenging. As researchers we use subtle body language techniques to help people feel comfortable. This body language improves participants’ experiences and helps us to get more from our time with them.

Techniques include anything from welcoming a person into a room with open arms — sometimes literally — to setting a comforting tone, and squaring our feet, hips, and shoulders toward them to show we are actively paying attention.

When interviewing virtually, much of this is not possible. It is also more difficult to read body language, which is usually a big cue for us to adjust our own verbal and non-verbal communication techniques.

We used video wherever possible to address these difficulties. This way we could build on the verbal cues — such as tone, volume, and pace — with non-verbal cues — such as gestures, body language, and eye contact. While some of these were still not obvious, such as the way someone’s feet were pointing, a great technique was to exaggerate our own cues, which encouraged participants to do the same.

Remote interviewing meant that many people felt instantly comfortable in their own home. They didn’t need the extra few minutes to orient themselves. This helped counteract some of the challenges of building rapport.

Virtual rather than physical spaces — beneficial and challenging

The most obvious challenge was using technology. For example, we helped people log into the video conferencing platform and troubleshot audio issues at our end. 

In addressing these problems, our preparation included:

  • providing clear instructions for participants
  • adding 10 minutes at the start of the interview to arrive early
  • providing a direct phone number for participants to call if they needed help
  • testing everything — meeting links, audio, video, the recording and the upload

These helped us to ‘fail fast’ and fix glitches before the real interviews began.

There were also administrative benefits. Writing notes outside of the screen view is much less distracting for participants. More diverse observers were easily able to join the research, meaning the benefits of shared learning were broader and quicker across the DTA and across government.

Range of participants — broader and narrower

Talking to people who represent the group you are researching is always a challenge. COVID-19 presented some new hurdles. As social media drove external recruitment, our sample didn’t include people with limited digital skills, connectivity, or confidence.

There are 2 ways to help meet this challenge. The first is simply taking the bias into account. Like all research, there are limitations we need to be aware of during synthesis and analysis. This means we look at our findings and acknowledge they may not apply to people with limited digital skills.

The second approach builds on the first — use other research techniques to fill the gap. In this case, paper surveys or phone interviews with people recruited through other networks provided potential options.

We also noted that virtual interviewing increased access to groups who are harder to reach face-to-face. The geographic diversity of participants relative to research time greatly increased. For example, across 4 days with only 2 researchers, we talked to people from every state and territory. This included people in metropolitan and regional areas. We also found it easier to reach people who would have found it difficult to travel to a physical location at a specific time, such as people with full-time caring responsibilities.

The value of being adaptable

The restrictions around COVID-19 gave us the opportunity to conduct interviews remotely. While our goal remained the same, we did need to adjust the way we achieved it. Using technology to conduct remote interviews certainly led to challenges, but also benefits. We are excited to continue to adapt to the new — and evolving — normal. The next step — virtual ideation.