Touch-base with participants in advance to ease relationship building at distance, during remote research
When conducting research remotely, immersion is hard, sometimes almost impossible. It could be difficult to establish an emotional connection with participants in a 60-90 minutes call, when you are not in the context, nor surrounded by elements of their daily life/routine that could inspire your questions. At the same time it could be hard for participants, sometimes immersed and overwhelmed by notifications as much as us, to focus on the research topics among all the info and tasks they have in mind.
Reach out to research participants in a preparatory phase while scheduling / organizing the interview by sending them a very short questionnaire (1-5 questions maximum - 1-2 min time to complete) helps break the ice and warm-up for the activity, giving them the possibility to easily introduce themselves and quickly share some information about the topic / themes the interview session is about. It could be a link that you share together with logistics information in the confirmation email, or in a separated document, as part of the preparatory activities they are suggested to complete before the interview session. The questionnaire could contain quick warm-up questions (multiple selection or short answers), as well as the possibility to upload pictures. Inn a recent project about travelling, for example, we asked them to share a photo that could be representative of the way they travel: in this way we could collect evidence of their experiences even if we were not with them.
Remember to ask participants to complete the short form at least a day before the interview, so that you have time to process their answers and refer to them during the conversation.
In this way, the light survey works as a sort of asynchronous ice-breaking. It’s an opportunity for researchers to start exploring participants’ perspectives, think about possible questions to ask and how to approach the session. On the participants side, it becomes an opportunity to focus on the session, and start reflecting on the topic.
Try to adopt a light / fun / easy-going tone of voice while asking questions (eg: use emoji, images…) so that it becomes entertaining and not demanding for your participants. Collecting answers is also a good signal of the participants' engagement (last minute drops were more frequent among those who didn’t complete the activity prior to the interview).
This kind of light survey could be shared not only for an interview session, but also for workshops or before a class, to get the feeling of who is gonna be in the room, their expectations and mood.