Our lessons from running interviews remotely during COVID-19

Authors: Calvin Chong, Sarah Mourney and Nicholas Orr

Government decision-making is better when we place the voice of people at its centre.
At Commissioning NSW, our approach to commissioning emphasises on the value of understanding the lived experiences of people who access government services. In each system, it is important to understand how the “commissioner” (e.g. government) interacts with service providers, customers and frontline staff to deliver good outcomes. As we go about understanding a system, we often draw on systems thinking and human-centred design mindsets and methodologies.


Decorative infographic

We used the Double Diamond model to structure our approach.

Challenge of COVID-19

For some of our recent projects, we planned ‘discovery phases’ that involved travel to regional NSW and spending time in communities to learn about the impacts and effectiveness of specific programs. These plans were suddenly derailed by travel and social distancing restrictions. 

Like nearly every aspect of work, COVID-19 presented a huge challenge to ensuring we continued to put peoples’ voices at the heart of our projects. Despite this hurdle, we knew we still wanted our work to have strong input from people and communities, so we set our minds to restructure and run our fieldwork remotely. 

Here is a summary of what we learned – in collaboration with one of our main project partners, the Innovation and System Design team at the NSW Department of Education.

Our 7 key lessons running interviews remotely

Decorative 1.    Building rapport is (even more) important

The lack of face-to-face interviews means it’s more important than ever to ensure you work actively to build rapport. Spending a bit of time upfront to get to know your participants helps you to start build a level of trust that can lead to more honest and meaningful conversations.

Decorative 2.    Build in time to debrief with teammates after each interview

After a remote interview, it’s easy to end a session and go on with your next meeting or task. So build it in to your calendar by scheduling some time immediately after the interview with your research teammates to discuss key takeaways and share impressions while they’re fresh.

Decorative 3.    Be mindful about number of interviewees in a session

It’s all too easy to add more interviewees into a video call. However, having more participants opens you up to possibly shallow conversations as people naturally want to agree and build on each other’s comments. So be careful how you facilitate those discussions. To try to minimise the copycat effect, ask your participants to write down their answers first before they share with the group. 

Decorative 4.    Use chat tools with your teammates to clarify or propose follow-up questions

When you’re in the same space with your research teammates, you can share verbal cues or jump in to ask follow-up questions more easily. You can consider using chat tools to pass those questions to the lead interviewer, minimising possible disruptions.

Decorative 5.    Have a back-up technology solution in every scenario

Although you’ll get richer conversations with video calls, make sure to have a backup phone line ready when you need it -- you never know when a research participant's computer, video conferencing tool or internet access will stop working.

Decorative 6.    Supplement with surveys

Our team was concerned that we were not getting the same level of depth over video that we would have achieved with in-person conversations. We decided to go broader and supplement our interviews with some online surveys. These not only gave us good insights, but also connected us to other interviewees who had unique experiences and perspectives to contribute to our work.

Decorative 7.    Don’t forget to get consent

We initially planned to send a single-page research consent document to our research participants ahead of our interviews with them. However, we soon realised it was easier to share it on screen in a single slide at the start of the session and get a verbal “yes” from participants before we hit record. 

Outcome of our research

Despite the challenges (and occasional awkwardness) of talking to strangers online and trying to dig deep into their lived experiences, we have completed a couple of discovery phases knowing that future decision-making will be better informed thanks to these interviews. Performance data and perceptions by program managers are valuable, but they should always be triangulated with actual experiences of the customer, student, patient, teacher, social worker (and so on) on the ground. Their insights are where the magic happens.

Although we found our approach to remote research valuable, we missed out on extra layers of detail and connections one can make with in-person research. There is great value in the informal post-interview chat in a corridor, or by directly observing someone's work in action, instead of instead of just hearing about it.

While this project has helped us gain new skills and strengthened our research arsenal, we can’t wait to be able to run interviews in-person soon.