Overcoming remote research challenges: How to ask questions to get better data

July 22, 2020

For remote sessions, be prepared for technical difficulties, distractions, and a lack of communication when asking questions.

As researchers, we know the importance and power of asking a good question. When the question is good, the answer you receive is more specific, detailed, and insightful. When the question is not the best, participants tend to ramble, answer vaguely, or completely miss the question’s intent. Remote research, in particular, is where this delineation is more visible.

In person, a moderator can gauge the willingness and openness of a participant. We can ask a question and see that a participant is engaged and understands the question. We can see confusion, reluctance, or when someone is thinking. Additionally, in a usability lab, researchers can control what the participant sees or hears; if there needs to be distractions or no distractions. For remote sessions, however, we do not have this level of communication or control. When conducting remote interviews, researchers must be mindful of these difficulties and work to overcome them:

• Be prepared to apologize and ask the question again. There may be times where you or your participant(s) have difficulty hearing each other or the internet glitches and you miss an important answer. Chances are if you didn’t hear a participant’s response, other observers did not hear it and you likely did not capture it on the recording. Don’t be shy about politely asking the question again.

• Take the time to refocus participants after distractions. There may be instances during an interview when the participant’s doorbell rings, a child interrupts, or a phone starts ringing. When any of these distractions occur, refresh your participant and re-ask the question. This may cut into the allotted time, but it allows your participant to regain their focus on the interview instead of jumping into the next question.

• Clarify your question. Depending on the complexity of the question, your question length, or the nuances of a question, your participant may not comprehend what was asked. When this happens, try to re-phrase the question more succinctly, use their terminology, break the question into parts (if it makes sense to), or have the participant explain the question in their own words before answering to ensure comprehension.

• Be okay with silence. In remote interviews, it is more difficult to sense when a participant is thinking or needs more time before answering a question. With remote interview platforms, the cadence of a conversation tends to be a bit choppy and people end up talking over one another more so than when in person. If a researcher jumps in too quickly to repeat or rephrase a question, the participant may become frustrated or less willing to talk. When you think a participant is finished speaking, a good rule of thumb is to pause for a count of three before continuing.

By approaching remote interviews with a game plan, patience, and the ability to anticipate difficulties, the information you receive will be more valuable and the struggles you encounter will be far easier to overcome.


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