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Research Trail Guide: Putting participants at ease

For the second instalment of our Research Trail Guide, here’s an overview of the techniques and principles we use to make sure our participants feel able to open up.

At Muir Wood & Co, we help product teams power-up their research skills and processes. Qualitative research lives and dies on the comfort of its participants. So, for the second instalment of our Research Trail Guide, here’s an overview of the principles and techniques we use to make sure our participants feel able to open up.

Putting the people you’re speaking to at ease is key to getting the data you need from them, while also making sure opening up is as enjoyable as possible for them.

Each interviewee brings their unique personality, perceptions of the topic, as well as the mood they’ve happened to find themselves in at that moment. There might even be a (subconscious) power dynamic between us that we need to consider. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but our process and principles will help you adapt to your participants and make sure comfort is a given.

The process 

Your participants will go on a journey with you - here’s what you can do to keep cortisol levels in check throughout.

1. The run up

Imagine you’re the tour guide for an adventure holiday with ever so slightly out of their depth clientele. From the moment we first interact with our participants we want to communicate that they’re safe with us. Let them know what you’ve got planned for them and also check they’re okay with it.

This means you’ve got to get your plan straight before you get anywhere near a participant. We explain all the nitty gritty of who's going to be involved, what sort of things they'll be talking about and what will happen to their data afterwards.

The key tools we use to make sure our participants feel informed and in control in the run up to research are: 

  • Our information sheet, which explains all the interview logistics: who, what, where, when, and how they’re going to be compensated.
  • Our consent form, which asks for permission to collect and use their data in a specific and granular way.

2. Setting the scene

When you’re doing qualitative research, whether you’re meeting in person or remotely, first impressions count. It’s up to us to set the tone and also do what we can to temper any power dynamic between us. 

It doesn’t matter if I’ve had to run like a banshee to be there, I’m going to glide in like a soft summer breeze. Warmth and serenity are essential. It’s worth thinking not just about your demeanour but what else you’re communicating too. My Zoom background isn’t always a neutral space and if it’s going to cause discomfort in my audience I’ll change it.

Before the interviewing begins, it’s quite possible there might be a touch of awkwardness in the air. It’s our job to waft that well away. Break out your brightest and most genuine small talk - compliment their kooky wallpaper, get the juicy details of their journey.

Once the ice has melted a little it’s time to segue seamlessly into your intro. Our article on The Perfect Interview Intro explains how and why it’s important to get off to the best possible start.

3. The main event

The more obvious hat we’re wearing during the interview is the detective’s. But the other key hat is that of the attentive and responsive listener. It’s up to you to notice how your interviewee is responding and give them just enough encouragement to keep them talking. 

We have to tailor our approach to the individual - speaking to a breezy CEO about their business goals is very different from talking about careers with a sullen student or asking an anxious asylum seeker about seeking support.

  • Eye contact is important and a warm neutral facial expression. Think, sitting on the bus listening to a song you love. 
  • Tiny nods of acknowledgement and quiet ‘mm’s, regardless of what’s being said, will help the trepidatious along. But we don’t want to bias our results by nodding too vigorously with approval at certain things.
  • Sometimes I chime in with a ‘Could you tell me a bit more about that?’ when it feels like my participant has run aground on the beach of silence prematurely.

If difficult topics come up it’s also up to us to navigate through them, making sure our own discomfort is never apparent. I won’t censor, but I also won’t probe unless it’s relevant. I’ll check whether they’re comfortable continuing, offer a break if they’re breaking down and show my respect by thanking them for sharing. 

4. Parting ways

When it’s time to say goodbye, we show our respect by doing it bang on time and always handle it with grace and style. Thanking your participant for their time and their openness is an obvious way to end things, being too grateful is a critique we’ll gladly take. 

Then it’s back to travel concierge mode. Reiterating any final steps of the process, like when and how incentives will be paid, is important. And then doing it! We don’t want our participants feeling like we’ve taken them to the metaphorical airport without their ticket home. 

The principles

These are our key principles to make sure everyone stays cool as a cucumber. 

1. Stick to the plan

We make sure to keep our participants in the know and we don’t go changing things without good reason. If you want a recruit in fight or flight mode by all means add in a surprise observer or two, but we wouldn’t recommend it.

2. Hand over the reigns

Wherever possible I try to give my participants control over the situation. Whether that’s double checking it’s okay to record the interview, or just asking where they’d like me to sit in their home.

3. Don’t forget your humanity

Our job is to get information, but people don’t really want to talk to data seeking droids. Being a human is key, it’s not a spoken survey. Making the conversation as easygoing and natural as possible helps our participants to be their full unfiltered selves.

Get in touch if you’d like us to give your team bespoke training, adapted to your customer and product. We can offer one-off workshops or ongoing coaching for your research projects. And keep an eye out for our next Research Trail Guide where Andrew will lift the lid on some of his most effective interview questions.

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