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Online Interviewing Tips for Researchers

Nina Vindum Rasmussen

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to carry out qualitative interviews online. In my PhD project, I’ve used both in-person and online interviews. I’ve been surprised to learn that online interviews can produce equally rich and sometimes superior data. They can be cost-effective, convenient, and quick. But there are also specific challenges to consider: How do you build rapport with your interviewee through a screen, overcome tech glitches, and generate rich data? In this article and the accompanying video, Stella Toonen and I cover the dos and don’ts of conducting qualitative interviews online. 

1. Get the details down

Obtain informed consent. When you have made initial contact with the interviewee, send through additional information about your project written in layman’s terms. How will you secure their confidentiality and handle personal data? Include your consent form and let them know how they can sign it. They may need a printer or specific software to sign it electronically.

Choose a platform. Ask the interviewee if they have a preference. Do also check which platform your institution suggests, as there might be specific requirements due to data privacy issues. Make sure you have the latest version installed. If you’re unfamiliar with the platform, play around with it beforehand.

Get it in the diary. Try to accommodate your interviewee’s schedule. However, it’s also worth thinking about your own wellbeing and just how flexible you can be. Meeting at 3 am in the night will probably not make for a productive interview (unless you’re a night owl). Send a gentle reminder the day before the interview. 

Check the time difference. I use a time zone converter to be 100 per cent sure I know what time it is in whatever country my interviewee is based. Let’s just say this comes from learning it the hard way.

2. Set the scene

Design your image. You only have a 2D image to work with, but you are still communicating a lot within the tiny camera frame. First of all, your face should be well-lit, as low light results in a grainy image. Sit in front of or next to a window if possible. Next, move any distracting items or clutter out of camera shot. Perhaps it’s better to opt for a simple, clean backdrop. 

Get crisp audio. Make sure your microphone produces clear and crisp sound. If your laptop mic does not deliver, get your hands on an external one. It does not have to be the Rolls Royce of microphones. In fact, a headset with a small mic close to your mouth can work wonders.

Manage your environment. Find a quiet space, let potential flatmates know that you’re doing an interview, and ensure that there are no distractions. This is also key to ensure that the interviewee’s confidentiality is maintained. 

3. Generate rich data

Don’t cut the chit chat. When you interview someone in person, small talk comes naturally: You greet each other, exchange pleasantries, maybe get a cup of coffee. Transferring those social rituals to a video call can feel awkward. But do make sure to kick off the interview with some informal conversation. Have a go-to subject. It helps you to break the ice and ease into the conversation.

Ask open-ended questions. Encourage the interviewee to share their experience freely and openly. You want to avoid leading questions and fishing for certain responses. Ask for clarification if something is unclear.

Make eye contact. One of the drawbacks of online interviews is the lack of eye contact. However, you can replicate it somewhat by looking into the camera every now and then, especially when you’re speaking. Consider resizing the window and move it closer to the webcam. You can also put a sticker next to the web cam to remind yourself to look into it every once in a while. 

Listen actively. Nodding signals that you are paying close attention to what the interviewee is saying. Sometimes they may also need verbal confirmation. Amplify your expressions slightly online, even though you may feel like a cartoon character. 

Don’t be afraid of silences. Avoid filling in the blanks, even when it gets slightly uncomfortable. Silent moments allow for ongoing reflection, and they can prompt the interviewee to elaborate on an answer. Take a beat before you answer, also because there is the technical detail that you otherwise risk cutting off the interviewee’s mic. 

Get creative. Explore creative modes of getting personal accounts from participants. Employing some kind of artefact or activity can spice up the interview experience. It’s also a way of combatting video conferencing fatigue and engaging with a more material reality.

4. Deal with glitchy tech

Overcome bad Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi might be having a bad day. This can mean significant time-lags and choppy video or audio. Sometimes you have to ask the interviewee to repeat specific points. However, I find that this is a balancing act: You can’t do that repeatedly, because it will break the flow of the interview. At times, I prefer to lose a few words here and there. 

Have a plan B. Technology can fail or crash, either on your end or on the interviewee’s end. In that case, you might have to arrange another time to talk. Perhaps you can do the rest of the interview via chat, email, or phone. Fingers crossed the tech behaves, though. 

5. Round off 

Debrief. Thank the interviewee for taking the time to contribute their experience. Remind the interviewee how you’re using their input and when they can expect to hear about your results. 

Capture your experience. Skim through your notes from the interview and record your immediate impressions in some kind of memo (e.g. a written document or voice memo). Note down those more ephemeral aspects: How was your experience? What was the general mood and connection like? What would you do differently next time?For more tips, take a look at our video: