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How to run great remote user research interviews

Phone and headset

As nice as it would be to perform all qualitative research sat opposite the end user participants, it isn’t always possible or necessary.

Lagom’s user researchers have conducted dozens of remote user interviews over the phone or Skype in the last year, mainly for these reasons:

  • interviewees are geographically spread around the country (and not feasible for them or us to travel)
  • interviewees are too busy to travel
  • difficult for the interviewees to commit to a specific time slot
  • interviewees have asked to be interviewed by phone

So we have increasingly included a mix of phone (and Skype) interviews with face-to-face interviews and learned some great lessons along the way…

PHONE INTERVIEWS: THE BENEFITS

  • you can speak to anyone, anywhere (rather than being limited to a geographical area)
  • you can be much more flexible with interview slots (rather than trying to fit everyone into a single day of interviews in a single location)
  • eliminates travel time (for the researcher and the interviewees)
  • less of an issue if a participant cancels last minute (as the researcher has not travelled anywhere)
  • stretches the budget further – there’s no need to book a dedicated space or to reimburse the travel expenses of the researcher or interviewee

We find that is it much easier to book in professionals for phone interviews as they can understandably find it difficult to get away from their work in the middle of the day for several hours. A 40 minute phone call in and around their normal work is much more agreeable.

PHONE INTERVIEWS: THE NEGATIVES

  • the interviewee is more likely to be distracted if he or she is in their own environment, especially if they are sitting in front of their computer (and tempted to check emails)
  • the success of the interview is dependant on good phone signal or broadband for Skype
  • potentially harder to build a strong rapport with the interviewee*

We have found that with a bit of practice that this is not an issue if we follow our own advice in the next list.

GET THE USER INTERVIEW BASICS RIGHT

With a remote interview it is even more important to get the basics of a good research interview right:

  • be very clear who you are and why you are calling – don’t assume they know what the call is about as your research project will probably be a secondary concern to them
  • prepare and ask questions that are clearly relevant to the interviewee (don’t stick to a script if it isn’t relevant)
  • stay comfortable and in control of the situation so they are assured everything is going well
  • actively listen and express how valuable your find their input throughout
  • don’t disagree, correct or argue with the interviewee (even if they are actually wrong about something) – it is a valuable insight to see a user that is mistaken
  • thank them at the beginning and end for their time
  • explain what will happen next with the research (and what will happen with their input)

When we do these things we and the interviewee (usually) have a productive, insightful and positive experiences.

SPECIFIC TIPS FOR PHONE INTERVIEWS

  • check with the interviewee if they have a preference for phone, Skype, Google hangout, etc, and go with their preference
  • get a second number if possible, e.g. mobile and a work landline (for when they don’t pick up the first one)
  • ask them in advance to have an appropriate (and quiet) space to take the call
  • set prior expectation of how long the interview will be and what it will cover
  • be clear that you will call them at the agreed time (so they aren’t left wondering if they should call you)
  • send them a reminder email or text half a day before so it doesn’t slip their memory
  • be very clear who you are when they answer the call – it can often take an interviewee a little time to make the connection and lower their guard

TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE EACH OTHER?

There is obviously the opportunity with Skype and co. to fire up the web cam and see each other. When this works well it obviously helps with the quality of the interaction between researcher and interviewee.

But it is also perfectly ok, and often more appropriate, to stick to voice.

From our experience we don’t recommend doing video unless the interviewee is a) very comfortable with it, and b) already got everything setup for video calling, inc the broadband speeds for a reliable call.

Nothing kills the momentum of an interview more than spending the first 10 minutes trying to assist the interviewee how to activate video, or being interrupted by a lagging screen.

So with a little bit of thought phone interviews are an incredibly effective and valuable option in the qualitative research toolbox.

They are a more flexible and cost effective alternative to face-to-face interviews and nicely complement face-to-face user research activities.


Related Case Studies

User research about national library services for Health Education England

Our research helped HEE consider options to better support NHS staff to find and use information.

Ongoing user research about social care workforce data for Skills for Care

We were the research partner for the development phase of the leading source for adult social care workforce information in England.

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