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Remote Research – Keep calm and call your customers

Remote interviews are a useful part of our research toolkit, especially right now. In this article, we share the principles and techniques we use to make them successful and encourage you to use this downtime to learn more about your customers.

“Hello, hi, I was going to say, oh sorry, I was going to say, no you go. OK I’ll go."

Who else finds it difficult to communicate effectively in a remote meeting? Many of us have been abruptly dropped into this way of collaborating and are finding it hard to have discussions that flow as smoothly as face to face. This is why we often steer clear of remote qualitative research interviews, because we’re worried about that online awkwardness getting in the way of good answers.

However, there are benefits to conducting research remotely. There are communities you can reach and questions you can ask that aren’t so easy face to face. The recent global disruption has forced many of us to rethink how we work. Some of the changes that we make now will end up being permanent. Your customers, beneficiaries, or users are also thinking about what’s really important to them and how they are going to adapt to these conditions now and in the future. Many of them are also at home with time on their hands, so why not call them and learn about what they need?

Let’s now explore the challenges of remote interviewing, then share the principles and techniques that we’ve found useful in our recent remote projects.

What happens when we make the participant’s life easier?

As a qualitative research consultancy focusing on discovery, we are definitely guilty of defaulting to face-to-face research because it makes our lives easier. The participant often comes to our location: a studio or research facility, or we’ll travel to fairly central households or offices in a small number of cities. We’ve been trained to build trust and rapport quickly using our voice, open body language and reassuring nods. If the mood starts to deteriorate, we can sense it and find a way to fix it when we’re in the room, along with any technical issues from cameras and prototypes.

But when we remove this in-person requirement, we can create broader learning opportunities. We can access a more diverse population: people in remote locations or even just people beyond the metropolitan bubble; people on low incomes or with dependants or mobility issues, to name just a few. We’ve even found that for some situations and topics, people open up more on a call than in person. Andrew once had an incredible phone call with a participant who loved books so much that she wept with joy! This probably wouldn’t have happened over video or face to face. Video calling is also more ubiquitous than ever, Maia’s granny is a Facetime fanatic!

However, as a researcher, you definitely need to work harder to make remote research successful. The logistics are more complex and it’s tougher to build rapport quickly with participants. Through our remote research practice we've developed ways to overcome these problems and here Maia will walk you through how we address the biggest areas of concern.

Challenge 1. Making a digital connection

It’s 2020 and we still haven’t nailed video calling for business (or printing, but that’s another article), so add in the everyday technical problems of the average consumer and having issues connecting is inevitable. Wifi can be wobbly, webcams don’t work, things rarely go as planned, so expect the unexpected. Andrew once tried to do a video call with a Chinese participant, but found that every calling tool was blocked by the Great Firewall!

Working with the participant to connect

It takes two to tango and it also takes two to manage to make a video call work. It’s important that connecting is a collaborative effort, between us and the participant, from the outset.

  • We have a plan A and also a plan B for how we’ll talk, we share these with the participant in advance and are prepared to meet them where they are technologically
  • We make the participant feel comfortable to let us know what works for them and safe to admit if things aren’t going as planned
  • As all great philosophers know, you can’t control other people’s actions, only your own, so we do whatever we can to make sure we’re not the cause of any connection catastrophes
  • Choose trusted software to connect with, we like Zoom, but this isn’t the most familiar to the wider public, so we’re always ready to compromise

How we respond when things go wrong

The only thing that we can be certain of is that things will go wrong. It’s not about whether this happens but how we deal with it when it does.

  • We try to be flexible, there is an ideal scenario and then there are other scenarios that still mean that you get to talk. If a video call via a laptop isn’t working out, move to mobile, if there isn’t the bandwidth for video on a mobile, have a voice call
  • If things go wrong mid call, stay calm, remember you expected this. We communicate with the participant through whatever means we have to let them know what we should both do next

Challenge 2. Making an emotional connection

Building an emotional connection with people remotely is harder than in real life, but not impossible. Building rapport is important to help people open up, so don’t neglect it just because you’re not in the same room. And whilst putting people at ease is important, sometimes the inherent distance of a remote connection can actually make people open up more.

The connection starts before the call

The start of any human interaction is key to setting the tone and there is no difference when we’re connecting remotely. This starts days before the interview - we make ourselves feel familiar to the participant when the time comes to talk.


  • Email ahead with details and set a warm friendly tone in writing, not a list of demands
  • Give them a headstart on the broad types of questions they might be asked and how they can answer in the most helpful way
  • A brief pre-interview call can be a way to establish who we are and confirm any logistics

During the interview:

  • Don’t jump straight in, we start the interview with a little lighthearted conversation, establish ourselves as friendly humans not just annoyingly curious researchers
  • We take time to explain clearly and calmly what's going to happen in the interview and answer any questions. This is a great opportunity to make the participant feel safe

Keep that engagement going on the call

Once we’ve made that connection, the next challenge is to keep that going whilst we work through our questions. We don’t have all the same powers to signal attentiveness via video or phone, so we need to find other ways.

  • When body language is limited to just our face, we need to use it to look interested and to smile (but not too much, like a maniac!)
  • We position the participant's video close to the camera on our screen to give the best impression of eye contact
  • Headphones mean that they can’t hear us clattering the keyboard each time they say something interesting
  • On the phone tiny cues like ‘mm’ and ‘ah’ let the person on the other end know we’re still listening

Challenge 3. Earning and honouring trust

It’s already a little unnerving to be asked about your life by a stranger, but there’s an extra level of odd to overcome when we’re conducting research remotely. This means that whilst our data protection needs to be as tight as ever, we need to go the extra mile to make sure that our participants are reassured about this.

The consent form can do more to build trust

Consent forms are often seen as just a check-box in the research process. We see them as an important representation of our learning goals and ethical standards, we try to make them human-readable and informative.

Before the interview:

  • We give our participants plenty of time to digest all the important information about their data and privacy. We send them their consent form in advance, tell them to let us know if they have any questions or concerns, and ask them to sign it digitally once they’re happy (we like SignNow)
  • In the consent form we explain everything which might make someone feel nervous. If we’re recording or if there will be extra people listening in, we explain not just whether this is happening but why
  • We use the consent form to describe what our roles are professionally and what they are not - don’t assume that this is obvious

Participants have agency over their data

Participants aren’t just data-spouting machines. During the interview we constantly try to make sure that they are comfortable with what they are sharing and permitted to let us know when they aren’t.

During the interview:

  • We make sure that the expectations that we’ve set up in the consent form and other communications are met by reality. We don’t spring anything new on our participants at the last minute
  • The beginning of the interview can be used to reiterate the key points from the consent form, nothing like a little repetition to soothe those pre-interview nerves
  • We make sure that participants know that they’re in control - they don’t have to answer questions they’re not comfortable with, hell, they could start quizzing us right back if they wanted to!

All clear? Good. Now call your customers!

At Muir Wood, we are focusing our efforts on how to make our remote participants’ lives easier at every stage of the research process, because ultimately that’s going to give us and our clients better learning outcomes. If you are considering remote research over the next few months, give us a shout at hello@muirwood.co.uk. We are happy to chat through your goals, challenges and approach. In addition to doing end-to-end research projects for clients, we also run remote short workshops on planning, script writing, interview technique and analysis.

More resources?

Some of the angles on remote research that we like:

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