In Praise of In-Person

Sitting across from a man I met less than an hour ago, my head is heavy with caffeine and concentration. As he talks me through the painful processes in his daily job, my hand aches from scribbling impressions, nuances and verbatim quotes in the experiences he describes. Right now, I couldn’t be happier. 

This was the first in-person research interview I’d conducted since the global pandemic hit more than six months ago. As with many activities we took for granted, the permission to re-engage in a ‘normal’ activity turned it into an unexpected pleasure – a temporary fresh lens on some well-established habits.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be ‘back out there’ just yet, but I want to capture a few observations before the freshness fades back into the everyday. In each observation below, I’ve added one or two practical ‘how can we…’ thought-starters to mull over as we consider the habits we’ll choose to keep, discard or perhaps re-discover on the road ahead. 

In Praise of Sharing Air (safely)

Journalist Jane Howard summarised it beautifully in her description of a return to live theatre performance in Adelaide recently:

“I’m not watching actors in stories filmed years ago or performances through the grainy lens of Zoom. I’m watching art being created in front of me. […] Performance is about shared space: with the performers but also with the audience. It’s about the breathing of the same air – an act that now feels illicit”

Has face-to-face interviewing become another act of rebellious defiance, an extreme sport, even? Perhaps not. But there is a quiet thrill in stepping out of the screen and into the sights, sounds and smells of a beautiful campus on a sunny Sydney morning.

Instead of checking my background for stray washing, wondering if the postie will call or whether the wifi will drop out at just the wrong time, I can focus fully on the present moment and the person I’m with. I can make real eye contact, pick up micro expressions and observe body language beyond the ‘head and shoulders’ rectangle. The silences are a little less awkward, and the whole experience more relaxed and natural.   

In Praise of Context

This year, technology linked me to locked-down cities in China, concept testing in Miami and college workshops in New Zealand. For all the convenience of reaching around the globe from the kitchen table, however, it’s still not the same as being there. In ‘Just Enough Research’, Erika Hall notes:

“For you to design and develop something that appeals to real people and reflects their priorities, you’ll need to talk with or observe representative users directly in their contexts – their physical environments, mental models, habits, and relationships.”

There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in someone’s life, work or hobby, and every qualitative researcher has their own favourite stories from ethnographic projects over the years. One of my strangest was sitting in a bathroom watching a woman wash her hair (fully clothed) as we spoke about her haircare routines and daily life – all in the name of observing and better understanding human behaviour.

In education, there are great contexts to explore too: classrooms, campus spaces, staffrooms and cafés are all rich environments to visit and soak it all in. Every college and university is unique, and the noticeboards, student waiting areas, reception chit-chat and even hearing how people greet each other gives us clues about culture and the student experience.

In Praise of Paper, and Whiteboards

Recent articles and extensive commentary on remote challenges like ‘Zoom fatigue’ have shown that where we meet matters, and can influence how we behave too:

“The physical environment acts as a cognitive scaffold — we attribute certain meanings to meeting rooms and this subtly changes our behaviour. This can include anchors to important topics such as creativity and problem solving.” (Libby Sander & Oliver Bauman, in The Conversation)

Humans express themselves in so many different ways, so relying on screens and conversation won’t always get you to the insights you’re looking for – even more so if English is a second or third language. The other day, it was a large whiteboard and some cut-out paper emojis that helped a participant open up as we explored digital journeys. The classroom setting and hands-on activity nudged the discussion into unexpected directions, and the experience brought real smiles (not emojis) to both our faces.

People are delighted to be taking a break from endless video conferencing and screen-time, too. With a chunky whiteboard pen in hand instead of fiddling with tiny squares on virtual whiteboards, a world of wobbly-lined imagination starts to emerge. I can then watch, listen and probe as they erase and re-draw, shaking their head, smiling to themselves, thinking aloud and showing me how they see the topic at hand, not what the screen will let them show.

In praise of making the most of it, wherever you are

There are lots of good reasons to run interviews and workshops remotely, even when you’re not managing the constraints of a global pandemic. Cost, travel-time, hard-to-reach participants and sensitive topics can all call for digital solutions that help us get to the insights we need.

For many around the world, getting back out there still isn’t an option, either. If you’re still grappling with ways to bring the humanity back into your screen, there’s are whole communities of generous minds out there sharing tips, ideas and solutions tested over the last six months. Whether you’re running workshops, product testing, trying to overcome classroom Zoom fatigue or just getting your head around the virtual classroom options, someone’s tried it and written it up for you!

However, when we do get the chance to be there in person and see the sights outside that tiny laptop window, why wouldn’t we make the most of it, now that we really understand what we’re missing? Why wouldn’t we hang on every word and gesture during the leisurely walk back to reception, even when the notepad is back in our bag and the audio recording long since switched off.

Next time you’re lucky enough to be there in-person, whether in the office, back in the classroom or out in the field, take a moment to breathe the same air (1.5m away, of course) and enjoy the humans again. I’d love to hear about it when you do. 

References:

  • Howard, J. (2020). ‘The play’s not the thing, the theatre is: returning to live performance is like returning to humanity’, The Guardian, 9 September. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/sep/09/the-plays-not-the-thing-the-theatre-is-returning-to-live-performance-is-like-returning-to-humanity
  • Hall, E. (2019), Just Enough Research. 2nd Ed. New York: A Book Apart.
  • Sander, L & Bauman, O. (2020). ‘5 reasons why Zoom meetings are so exhausting’, The Conversation, 6 May. Available at: https://theconversation.com/5-reasons-why-zoom-meetings-are-so-exhausting-137404