Moving to Virtual Interviews During COVID-19

Darby Steiger discusses adapting qualitative research to a virtual methodology.

When COVID-19 brought in-person qualitative research to an abrupt halt, Westat’s Darby Steiger, a senior survey methodologist, and her team immediately began tackling the problem. With upcoming needs for both cognitive interviewing and usability testing, she knew they would have to adapt quickly to a virtual methodology, and this meant thinking creatively.

“We faced several challenges in going virtual,” says Ms. Steiger. “First, we had to find a platform that most people would feel comfortable using—where they could easily use video chats and share their screens and wouldn’t have to download complicated software.” For most of her projects, Zoom worked well.

Second, Ms. Steiger and her team had to consider how to encourage participants to find a quiet setting for the interviews: “Particularly for sensitive topics, we want to make sure that participants are in a private space without distractions. This is especially challenging with so many people working and schooling at home during the pandemic.”

Determining how best to recruit different populations during a pandemic has been another challenge. “For example, to recruit participants who speak only Spanish for an upcoming study, we are posting fliers in local Spanish markets,” she notes. “Because of the pandemic, we are not putting the hang-tag contact information on the fliers, like we might typically do. Instead, people are encouraged to take a picture of the flier with their smartphones.”

Conducting qualitative interviews with youth has also posed new challenges, Ms. Steiger explains: “For in-person interviews, we always invite the parent into the meeting room at the start to get parental consent, but we’ve had to adapt our procedures. Now, we email the parental consent information in advance, then ask the parent to join the Zoom session with their child so that we can get their consent. Once they’ve given permission, we politely ask them to leave the room so that the youth can participate in private.”

Benefits of Virtual Platform Survey Testing

The challenges are clear, but what are the benefits of virtual platform usability and cognitive survey testing? Ms. Steiger says the benefits are many:

  • Both travel and its associated costs are eliminated.
  • Rental fees for qualitative research facilities are eliminated.
  • In a virtual usability test, the interviewer has a better ability to concurrently observe participants’ facial expressions and their navigation of the survey. “This is an unexpected improvement,” says Ms. Steiger, “since interviewers no longer have to awkwardly look over the participant’s shoulder to watch their screen or shift their gaze to the participant’s face to check for non-verbal reactions.”
  • Recruiting a geographically diverse sample is simplified and less expensive.
  • Participants benefit, too, by not having to leave home and being able to receive their monetary incentive immediately with an electronic gift card.

“The unexpected advantages of using a virtual platform for qualitative one-on-one interviews are numerous, and we’ll undoubtedly continue to use virtual interviewing along with in-person interviews when we emerge from COVID,” Ms. Steiger concludes. “The flexibility we gain will help us improve qualitative research logistics and research quality.”

The flexibility we gain will help us improve qualitative research logistics and research quality.

- Darby Steiger, Senior Survey Methodologist, Social Policy & Economics Research

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