Establishing trust with research participants is always critical regardless of what type of research you’re doing. However, there are specific challenges to building and maintaining trust while conducting research remotely. As the coronavirus pandemic has forced researchers to move from in-person interviews to remote interviews, many of you are encountering these challenges for the first time.
Tetra Insights has always favored remote qualitative research, and we have developed strategies to ensure researchers can build and maintain trust with their participants when working with them remotely. Here are seven key ways you can build trust and rapport while conducting remote research:
1. Express Your Gratitude
Communicating your gratitude to the subject for taking the time for the interview is always important, but it’s even more essential now. While it’s surely part of your process to thank the participant verbally and/or via email, it is now prudent to acknowledge the unusual circumstances of the pandemic and to intensify your level of thanks. For example, you can say that you recognize the participants are probably juggling many priorities and you are especially grateful for their time.
2. Prevent Uncertainty Around Incentives, and Follow Through
In-person research allows you to physically distribute your incentives to participants before or after the research session—obviously not an option with remote research. It’s absolutely critical that you communicate expectations around when and how the participant will receive their incentive to ensure trust is established. And then, of course, follow through on your word! If you tell a participant you will be sending them their incentive via email within a week, make sure you do. Interacting with strangers over the internet can be an uncertain and strange experience, and it’s important to reduce that uncertainty and build trust with your participants throughout the entire experience.
3. Let Participants Know that Mistakes and Interruptions Are OK
Under normal circumstances, research subjects can feel afraid of making a mistake. This is even more true of remote video interviews, as the addition of technology can heighten fears—especially if you’re using a platform the participant is unfamiliar with. Additionally, with everyone currently cooped up at home, the noise or presence of children, pets, and other interruptions are common during video meetings. Be sure to reassure your subjects that if they have any technical difficulties or unexpected noise or visitors, it is fine and you will adapt, restart, or reschedule as needed.
4. Show Your Own Humanity
This is as vital as ever during the pandemic. Everyone is looking for more human connection right now, so this is a great opportunity to bond with your interviewee over the current situation. Be open to sharing a personal story about pandemic life, but keep in mind that the participant’s experience or outlook might be very different than your own. Therefore, it’s better to stick to near-universal truths such as missing out on the usual summer activities. By showing participants that you are human, too, you can help even out the inherent power imbalance between researcher and subject.
5. Allow for “Dead Air”
People are often uncomfortable during silences in conversations. This is true in everyday life as well as in interviews, and it’s particularly prevalent during phone and video interviews. Researchers in general tend to be empathic and thus have an urge to finish people’s thoughts for them if there is a pause. It’s crucial to hold back that impulse and allow your subjects time to think and flesh out ideas. Remember that depending on your line of questioning, your respondents might be thinking through brand-new circumstances due to the pandemic. You’re much more likely to get interesting details by allowing for dead air. Make these silences less awkward by smiling, making eye contact, and exuding patience with calm facial expressions.
6. Pay Close Attention to Nonverbal Communication
According to research, 55% of communication is done through facial expressions. You can catch most of your participants’ facial expressions via video—especially re-watching recordings—although the quality of the participant’s camera could be an issue to consider. Of course, you will miss other body language such as a nervously bouncing knee, so pay close attention to everything you can see and to vocal inflections.
7. Repeat After Your Research Participants
While repeating what your interviewees say is a useful tool for making participants feel heard during in-person research, it serves an additional purpose during remote research by preventing misinterpretation. Computer microphone quality varies, video calls can occasionally cut out, and people can misspeak. By repeating or rephrasing the interviewees’ words, you are making them feel heard as well as making sure you understood them correctly and giving them a chance to more accurately phrase their thoughts and feelings.
While conducting remote research can present unique challenges for creating trust between researchers and participants, there are specific techniques you can use to overcome them. At Tetra, we believe the future of research is remote and that learning and practicing these trust-building techniques now will benefit all researchers moving forward.
Read our Definitive Guide to Remote Research