Creating human connectedness in a digital space

Natalie Jones reflects on her experience of conducting research into digital home visits for Occupational Therapy, redesigning her doctoral research due to the COVID-19 crisis, and provides tips for creating human connectedness during online interviews. 

Starting a clinical doctoral research fellowship in a pandemic was always going to be a different experience to what I had envisioned. My original research plan focused on co-producing research with service users and health professionals which usually requires in-person human contact. To develop a new research plan and take my research online I attended the SRA course on conducting qualitative research online. Here are my 10 tips for online interviews:

Tip 1: 3 P’s - Prior, Planning and Preparation

Enter your session early so you are prepared and relaxed before the conversation starts.  You can also check camera positions and set-up backgrounds relevant to your research. Participants might have different concerns about being interviewed online so these could be addressed in a pre-research appointment and remember you can always offer the session with ‘camera off’ if the participant is uncomfortable with video conferencing. 

Create a user friendly ‘playbook’ for the research online - this is a booklet which guides the participant through how to prepare for the session, what to do if technical issues arise, the agenda, the questions you will be asking, tips on using the technology and tips to put them at ease. 

Think about whether you will record the session, there is free online software which can support transcription of video calls such as OTTER and Sonocent. Participants like you to be transparent about the session, ie where recordings are stored, who has access, confidentiality, and the process for sharing of any content. These aspects could be included in the playbook. 

Tip 2: Building rapport & connectedness.


Online it can be more difficult to read verbal and non-verbal language; it can be clunky, and flow can be disrupted so building a sense of connectedness is important. Consider using technology features which can build rapport and engagement such as ‘hands-up, chat box, annotate functions or Google jamboards’. Instructions and illustrations detailing how to operate the platform features and functions could be included in the playbook. 


Tip 3: A smile is the best form of introduction.


People can read your non-verbals through video and they can see and hear you smile. Eye contact can be important for building connectedness and part of a healthy conversation (although remember that eye contact can be difficult for some people). Attempt a sense of ‘normal’ such as sharing a cup of tea together to engage, build rapport and connection.

Ask open questions and listen deeply to understand; ‘Seek first to understand then to be understood’ is principle five in Covey's 7 habits of highly effective people. Try not to be distracted by what you intend to say next and fully focus on what the participant is saying.
Interview with curiosity and compassion. 

One of the most useful tips I’ve used is having a book stand for materials at the side of the laptop (see image below). This reduces the number of head bobbing movements as you can look straight forward at the screen whilst checking on your questions. I have made use of a recipe book stand from my kitchen which perfectly does the trick!


Tip 4: Noisy 3 P’s - removing the noise so you don’t miss signals.

Physical noise can interfere with communication. Use mute buttons if necessary and provide advice in the playbook for the participant on creating the conditions for an effective interview. Minimise distractions if you can, such as deliveries at the door, pets, and phone notifications. 
Physiological noise such as mumbling, articulation issues and tone of voice can create a barrier. Be aware of the need to speak louder and articulate more clearly online. Think about the pace and tone of your voice and using your voice to convey meaning. Use pauses, silences and breathing to create space for the participant to reply. Avoid using jargon, acronyms and keep language simple.

Psychological noise
such as wandering thoughts can distract you from the conversation. It’s easier to get distracted by what’s going on in your environment and your own internal thoughts when you’re working from home. Be aware of making assumptions and judgements, or when you think you already know what the participant is going to say. This can interfere with ‘listening deeply to understand’. 

Tip 5:  The power of nunchi 

Nunchi is the Korean concept signifying the subtle art of listening and gauging other people’s moods or emotional intelligence. Literally it translates as “to eye-measure”, gauging people’s thoughts and feelings to build trust, harmony, and connection.  

In nunchi you would see the participant in relation to their environment, talk about what's on show, use environmental cues. However, it could be uncomfortable for the participant to have someone looking into their home, this needs to be handled sensitively by reading the situation and perhaps could be covered in the playbook e.g., include a how-to guide for blurring your home background. 

Listen to the verbal cues, pick them out and reframe them. Be aware of the ‘feelings’ created by interference or technical issues which can elicit a sense frustration through lack of control.

Tip 6: Active listening

Listen for contextual meaning and observe body language. Listen for openings in conversation and give positive reinforcement. Think about how you will manage a situation if someone becomes upset and you are not in the room able to comfort them. Set some ground rules with the participants which cover what to do if they feel upset and include this in your playbook. 

Tip 7: Technology is terrific but sometimes it fails!

It is important to be prepared by having some tech ‘know how’ and be able to manage bandwidth issues at your end and theirs. Always have a backup plan. It could be helpful to have a co-pilot for the sessions, someone to help with technical issues, support participants and take notes. Be prepared to reschedule or switch to the telephone if technology fails. 

Tip 8: We don’t learn by doing, we learn by reflecting on what we have done.

Take time to reflect after the interview. 

  • Think about selection bias - how will you interview those that do not have access to technology?  
  • Think about what was said and what was not said.
  • Think about where you needed to prompt and where you didn’t. 
  • Think about whether the online interview may have impacted differently.
Tip 9: Research online: not just second best

There is a tendency to think online interviews are a second-best method, however there are many advantages. Firstly, our ‘new normal’ is going to be with us for a while so we will need to look for methodologies that protect the vulnerable and offer opportunities for those who cannot engage in ‘same room’ appointments. Secondly, some people may prefer this option so you could consider offering the choice of online interviews as well as the traditional same room method. The online method gives a degree of separation between interviewer and interviewee which can help put the interviewee at ease with sensitive topics.  

There are many more methods to explore: consider using creative online methods such as Helen Kara's creative research methods, email, social media, online surveys, testimonies, photos, video. 


Tip 10 Healthy Remote Working

Think about your own health and wellbeing, take regular breaks. Interviews online are more tiring and require a lot of multi-tasking. Do not be tempted to stack them up, you still need a gap in between. Take comfort breaks and factor in breaks for the participant, especially if your interview is likely to last more than an hour. Make sure you move around in between interviews, stretching your neck and shoulders.

So, give online research methods some consideration and keep sharing your top tips with the research community!

AUTHOR BIO: Natalie is a National Institute for Health Research/ Health Education England Clinical Academic Doctoral Fellow at the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Her study aims to explore the feasibility of improving patient outcomes in stroke rehabilitation by providing intensive interventions for eating and drinking difficulties in social dinning groups.