Qualitative Observations from the Virtual Trail
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. But phone and video remain powerful alternatives for quickly collecting many types of data—especially now.
But what if the reverse is true? What if virtual conversations are yielding all sorts of information that you would never see in a focus group facility and maybe only in an ethnographic interview?
“What?” the in-person qualitative purists cry? That’s right. On Zoom-based qualitative interviews we’re seeing the political, social, and religious aspirations of those with whom we’ve been talking. And much of this rich information we collected implicitly, not through direct questioning.
- One Southern preacher/business owner had political and religious posters displayed on his wall behind him. This seemed to match his persona and tracked with the answers he provided. He was genuine.
- While interviewing medical professionals about remote health care, we saw that doctors are very much human like the rest of us. They wear pajamas, sport unkempt hair in the morning, and shepherd pets and children around. Not exactly the white-smocked folks you typically see. Outside of the exam room and fluorescent lights and in the comfort of their home, we think our respondents were more relaxed and perhaps more candid.
- We interviewed a nationwide truck driver while he was parked in his cab who described his virtual mobile infrastructure that allowed him to scan documents on the road. For a manufacturer of mobile scanners this feedback was the reliability acid test.
- As we interviewed one respondent, her cat sauntered across the keyboard as though he owned it. He probably does. Why is this relevant? Not particularly, but it did help to provide some much-needed levity in a very serious conversation about the effects of Covid-19.
- Dogs get in on the act too. During another interview, a needy dog hopped up on the participant’s lap while another whined in the background. While this is certainly funny, our transcriber isn’t laughing…All this extraneous “noise” can play havoc on those involved. It’s important in these circumstances to gently make the participant aware of the need for their undivided attention, despite the attention demanded by our four-legged friends.
- Or Kids. We interviewed one design engineer mid-pandemic while he was working at home. We had to be patient with him. Sitting right next to him was his adorable five-year-old son who was participating in his first day of virtual school. We stopped and started the interview to allow him to gently guide his son through Zoom.
And my personal favorite? The parrot. I was interviewing a single, middle-aged retired woman who was traveling across the country in an RV with, as it turns out, a menagerie of pets. She stopped somewhere outside Reno to take my call. Toward the end of the interview the several parrots in tow began to caw. But one talented Parrot bellowed out—in a smooth, Barry White voice—“Who’s Your Daddy”? repeatedly during the interview. I’ve been moderating for nearly 40 years, but this situation took every fiber of my body to keep my composure and professionalism intact.
Apparently, the bird knows other phrases, but this one kind of summed up our experiences on the virtual trail.
So, the next time someone says you can’t learn much from virtual interviewing, send them this blog.