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The Brave New World of Key Informant Interviews on Zoom

We’re all learning to do things differently under lockdown. One key thing has been doing key informant interviews over zoom. I have always found working via phone and skype a bit challenging in India – because there is a premium (rightly) placed on face to face communication and relationship building.

But lockdown has revealed sides of us we didn’t even know we had. I have already described here how to WFH like a pro. Similarly, conducting key informant interviews through video con call has actually worked pretty well (it’s great not having to worry about traffic and directions as you prepare for different interviews). But there are clear advantages and disadvantages we’ve had to adapt to. I debriefed with a number of colleagues to quickly gather lessons learned. Here is what we found:

What’s Easier

  • It’s much easier to manage time on a video con call compared to a face to face interview. In a face to face interview it’s rude to look at the clock frequently, but on a video call you have no choice – the clock is right there. This is an excellent advantage, it makes it easier to be respectful of respondents’ time, and keep the interview moving.

  • In a face to face interview it’s generally not accepted practice to type notes as you go, but this is completely do-able on a video-con call. This is a great time saver.

  • People are much more flexible with timings for interviews as everyone’s work day seems to have extended. Cancellations are much easier, it’s easier to continue your working day.

Tips to Adapt

  • On your email invitation or request, provide clear details before the call on a contingency plan in case of tech failure, then everyone can help get the call back on track if things go wrong with the connection. This is especially important in the case of multiple participants.

  • Share a summary of the questions you will ask before the call, so everyone is prepared. This way the dialogue can be pushed further.

  • Minimize the number of people on the call to the extent possible. More people increases the risk of tech problems, makes it more difficult to maintain a good flow and put respondents at ease.

  • Make sure everyone introduces themselves properly on the call (interviewer, note-takers, respondents). This takes time but it helps create a connection. Unsurprisingly, people really appreciate knowing who you are and where you’re from. This may seem obvious and you would do it naturally in a face to face meeting, but you need to be a little more intentional and structured around these processes on a call.

  • I have found respondents are a little more formal and less relaxed than they might be in a face to face interview – any reassurances you can give them about the confidentiality of their responses will help them relax and open up. Consider taking informed consent even if this is not required by an IRB….Other people think respondents are typically more relaxed, so this is an area where there isn’t consensus.

  • Make sure you compensate for the lack of eye contact and body language by occasionally summarizing back what people have told you so they know you are listening. I do this in face to face interviews as well, it’s just more important on a call.

  • One researcher suggests skip normal verbal listening cues like “mhmm” – if there are tech problems such as a delay it can interrupt the speaker. I personally think they are even more important, to make sure people feel listened to (as above). To reconcile – maybe just be aware of this and what’s working considering the quality of the call?

  • If the note-taker has questions, leave them to the end of the interview. It’s so much harder to maintain good interview flow on a con call, with voice delays and wonky lines – it’s better to avoid any disruptions through multiple people asking questions.

  • Obvious tech things: Switch off the video as soon as introductions are over. Turn on mute to block out background noise if you are taking notes.

Thanks to Linnea Stanhope (Vital Wave) and Rajnee Singh (PATH) for their inputs. It’s great to be part of an excellent community of professionals.

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