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Virtual Moderated Interviews Have Overlooked the Participant Experience

Paige Guge

Design Research Associate

Prior to the world-wide pandemic in which leaving our homes now means limitations, restrictions, and increased health risks, Vidlet has been acquiring qualitative data virtually using the visual power and convenience of mobile-video. From the comfort of their homes, the upwards of 20,000 members of the Vidlet panel have been sharing insights. Now, in a world in which “WFH” has just become “work”, researchers have had to rely exclusively on virtual qualitative data-collection methods. The days of bringing participants into the office, lab, or research facility for a moderated interview or a focus group are behind us for the foreseeable future.

While we believe Vidlet’s unmoderated mobile video studies eradicates many of the biases and hassles that often come with moderated interviews, some research projects -- particularly those with design solutions in the very early stages that are still understanding the problem -- benefit from flexible and reactive conversations with participants. To meet the needs of the new digital research landscape, we have added virtual moderated interviews as a feature we offer. Often serving as a first touch point with participants that help to establish more refined research questions that are then assessed in a follow-up unmoderated mobile video study. Over the past five months, we have spent countless hours conducting long-form ethnographic interviews via Zoom -- and we have certainly learned a lot along the way.

Unfortunately, one of the most outstanding things we have observed in virtual moderated interviews, is the neglect of participant comfortability. From the researcher side, virtual interviews have made it much more convenient to have all team members on the call to get aligned in real-time. It’s great, we can turn our cameras off, our microphones off and just soak in those insights while in the comfort of our own homes and sweatpants. Maybe you were even able to get some other work done while you listened. Plus, it eliminates the need to catch teammates up later on what you heard – a major time-saver. From the participant side, they are joining a video call with a crowd of insight-hungry researchers where they are the star of the show. This uncommon and often intimidating participant point of view becomes easy to disregard in the more passive environment of the virtual meeting room.

To illustrate further, I invite you to imagine the following real-world scenario. Let’s say you have been asked to be interviewed in a paid research study because you are a customer of a specific banking institution. You arrive at the corporate office and go up to the interview room. When you arrive at the room it is filled with seven business professionals from the company that is interviewing you. One of the professionals introduces themselves as the moderator. That person begins asking you questions, asking you to talk about your life, your past experiences with that particular bank, elaborate on how those experiences have made you feel, and what you dislike about the banking experiences you have had in the past. While you are being interviewed, the other 6 strangers in the room are sitting in the background. One person is piping in randomly with their own questions. Another is walking in and out of the room to ask their questions. The others are just sitting there listening, observing you, saying nothing. You know nothing about these people aside from that they are there for the sole purpose to hear what you have to say. How comfortable would you be?

Due to basic manners and ethics, it is unlikely the above scenario would happen in an in-person qualitative interview – so why is it happening in virtual interviews? In this new normalization of virtual research it is crucial that we prioritize participant comfortability over our own professional convenience.

Below we present four best practice tips for fostering a comfortable participant environment in a virtual moderated interview setting that will allow for a happy participant and happy researchers with compelling insights – everyone wins!

1. Establish a rapport with the participant

The most insight-fruitful qualitative interviews are those in which the participant and moderator have established a strong rapport. The least-fruitful are the ones where the participant feels like an insight-machine. Here are three tips for establishing a humanistic and rewarding interview environment:

  1. Don’t skip or breeze through the introductions - Time is always of the essence and it is often tempting to skip the “fluff stuff” and get right to asking the questions that get you your insights. But, those insights are much tougher to pull out of someone when the participant feels unappreciated. If you are about to talk to someone for an hour or two, you can take a few minutes to get to know them as a person.

  2. Don’t be afraid to abandon your study guide - Interviews become unnatural and clunky when a moderator sticks too rigidly to predetermined questions. Let the conversation naturally guide the interview. Ask inquisitive follow-up questions and return back to your study guide at the end. If the conversation flowed well, participants will have no problem answering your more technical questions.

  3. Let the participant finish their sentence - Don’t cut them off, even if they go on a bit too long. Nothing is worse than when they realize that you are fishing for quotes and otherwise don’t care about their experience.

2. The less people in the session, the better

It is hard to establish a one-on-one connection with a participant when there are too many people in the session. We’ve seen this scenario often -- moderators will have other teammates in the background with their cameras and microphones off. Seems harmless but these “silent background listeners” often don’t introduce themselves and it can start to feel like a crowd. From the participant view it is strange to see that an audience of face-less (your professional headshot as your Zoom photo does not count) and voice-less people are just there to listen, watch, and observe you. If you absolutely need to be a “silent background listener” for at the very least introduce yourself and state your purpose for being in the session (e.g., taking notes).

The most ideal virtual moderated session would consist of: (1) the participant, (2) a main moderator (from Vidlet or from your own company) and (3) an additional Vidlet moderator to record the interview, take notes, and assist if there are any technical difficulties. It is okay to add one other person to help moderate, but we would strongly advise against having more than 3 non-participants to the session.

3. Have a “closed-door” session – no popping in and out.

Irritating a participant should be a researcher’s biggest fear. A guaranteed way to make a participant feel like an insight-machine is when an interviewer is popping in and out to ask questions with no personable introduction. There are two main ways we’ve seen this scenario playout:

  1. “Silent background listeners” will pipe in with questions and the participant has absolutely no introduction as to who they are.

  2. Moderators will join the session to ask questions and then leave the session and then rejoin later to ask another question.

Consequently, we’ve seen participants become offended and shut down all together. Imagine a stranger coming in and out of the door for an in-person interview solely to ask you for your data. It would be extremely distracting and off putting. We should assume it is equally as distracting and off putting for virtual interviews.

4. Use Vidlet for your moderated interviews

Vidlet has a team of experienced researchers who have been trained in interview moderation. We have moderated interviews with consumers related to shopping, insurance, and banking as well as with industry executives in technical fields such as engineering and investments.

In the event that you and your team would like to moderate the interviews yourselves, we always ensure to have a Vidlet researcher in the interview to record, take notes, upload recordings to the secure and unique project platform, and provide individual insight summaries by highlighting important themes and quotes. There are multiple benefits to this structure:

  1. Vidlet researchers are the ones setting up the interviews with participants. We serve as the first recognizable person participants see on the call. It is no longer a room full of complete strangers.

  2. This avoids having too many cooks in the kitchen. We will moderate, record and upload full-length interviews to the secure Vidlet site that is unique to your project. This way you and your teammates can review the interviews later.

  3. You can use our insight summaries to systematically synthesize insights and also to align more efficiently with teammates if they don’t have the time or desire to watch all of the interviews later.

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