Back in the Box: Qualitative Observations from In-Person Interviews in a Pandemic

Never take anything for granted.

– Benjamin Disraeli

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

4-Minute Read

Several years ago, I conducted well over 600 in-depth interviews, focus groups, clinics, and ethnographies; in just one year.

Annualized, that’s nearly two interviews per day. And it felt that way.

It was a herculean effort involving planes, trains, and automobiles. Exhausted, I began to wonder if I would ever want to conduct another interview.

Would I miss moderating? “No way,” I thought at the time.

Fast forward to 2021

But then the pandemic stole in-person interviewing.  But no more. After conducting virtual-only interviews during the past 18 months, I am back in a traditional focus group facility moderating room—affectionately referred to by us moderators as “the box.”

With a costly product launch looming, the client wanted to observe first-hand how respondents would react to stimulus. Would they lean in toward the stimulus indicating an affinity for it, or would they turn away? Would they show signs of disgust or contempt or true smiles? The box would reveal all.

Turns out, I missed the box. You see, my perspective pivoted in a way that may not have been possible were it not for the pandemic. Nothing compares to an invigorating and enlightening conversation with someone, simply communicating together at the most basic human level—face to face, unfiltered, unfettered, asynchronous and in real-time. I am grateful to be back in the box. And the box has an infrastructure. I was reunited with the focus group facility professionals who helped make the research successful. I missed them too.

But the box is not the same—and likely never will be. To conduct these interviews, we needed to ensure that our pandemic protocols were buttoned up.

Short of wearing a hazmat suit, we are working with facilities who have the most stringent safety standards. Here’s ten steps we took to ensure these interviews were conducted safely:

  1. The research facility followed state and county mandates/guidance regarding Covid-19 safety protocols.
  2. The facility required all research participants to be fully vaccinated and must present proof of said vaccination upon arrival at the facility.
  3. Front room personnel were typically limited to the moderator and respondent.
  4. I—the moderator—was seated at least 16 feet apart from the respondent with ventilation and hand sanitizer available.
  5. The study was designed to be “contactless”—that is, only the respondent touched the stimulus, which was sanitized after each session.
  6. I am vaccinated and so is my client who is attending this research.
  7. Like a journalism pool, only one client representative observes in person.
  8. Remote viewers will observe via live stream.
  9. The facility required masks for all front room staff and participants in open spaces.
  10. And, of course, there was no sharing of the M&Ms! Community snack bowls are gone for good.

During the pandemic and going forward, we will continue to utilize video heavily. Not every respondent, plague or otherwise, is available in person and so video is a powerful alternative for remote data collection when in-person is untenable. We are fortunate to live in a time where there is such a fruitful alternative to traditional qualitative research.  The remote methods available both kept research companies alive and ensured our clients didn’t fall behind in their business-critical insights efforts.

But as a moderator and nonverbal intelligence expert, I can tell you that in-person interviewing yields significantly more information than remote methods for those who can decipher the cues.

Indeed, how sweet it is to be back in the box!

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