How can we expect to have a productive conversation, whether in a UX environment or exploratory research for Service Design, and get good insights from it when the subject of our research is sensitive by nature? The likelihood of being misinterpreted rises when we fail to analyse and adjust to the signals that the person is expressing. The body tells stories, even when we do not want it to. This is one of the trump cards of sensitive interviews, but there is more.
Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is a sensitive interview? Is it the respondent, or the subject matter? In fact, it can be both of them.
The banking system has rankings to determine whether a customer has high or low risk. In other words, in practical terms, whether there will be more or less exposure to default on a potential debt by that customer. Here, we can also predict when an interview may be sensitive, and make note of several warning signs.
Some interviews start with the respondent in a defensive position, or they may take on this position over the course of the interview. Part of the researcher’s work is to put the person at ease, so that he or she does not have the feeling of being evaluated, or to keep from assuming any form of authority. Before the collection of “warm-up” questions, we should explain what our role is at the organisation and the boundaries of our work, in order to put the respondent more at ease. It is also important to clarify that our role is not to judge anyone, and that there are no right or wrong answers. This will help to avoid answers that are biased or dishonest, or answers that people believe are the ones we want to hear.
What exactly is it, then, that may be sensitive? Some cases have already been mentioned a priori: illness, trauma (physical or psychological), money (or the lack thereof), family, crimes and even some issues that cannot be anticipated.
Some years ago, while doing ethnographic research at the house of a respondent, a conversation about habits, friendships and social relationships that started out simple ended up revealing psychological abuse on the part of a family member. This was my first contact with the respondent, and the “five whys” technique led to this discovery. At the time, I left my role of researcher behind and continued as a person, feeling that the other simply needed a hug. This was the moment that transformed all of my ensuing research with that person, allowing a more in-depth investigation compared to any other respondent. The key point for this respondent was the need to talk and to be heard, which was expressed in an emotional manner.
When faced with a sensitive interview, we should also reflect on what makes the subject matter or question particularly sensitive for that respondent. What is it that triggers and gives importance to a given subject to the detriment of another? Could this very same question have been a need that previous respondents failed to express? By delving deeper into this field, we can get valuable insights. The ability to explore questions about what is “uncomfortable”, without making the interview more uncomfortable, distinguishes a good interview from a very good one…
Tips: How should one handle a sensitive interview?
1 – Scripts
The types of scripts we prepare can make the propensity of adapting to an interview more or less easy. A structured script with strict questions, unless we deviate from it, does not give us the necessary ability to adapt to many questions that at the outset may, without investigation, submerge without being addressed. (This type of script can be useful when managing a team of several interviewers). A semi-structured script, in which questions can take the form of discussion topics, gives us the flexibility to compare the answers of several respondents, as well as adapting ourselves to situations that may arise, as is often the case in more sensitive interviews.
2 – Think out loud
I often use this technique during interviews. It allows the respondents to be engaged in my question and the reason or “why” behind wanting to explore it further. It is not a simple “why” (or five of them repeated), but the context of the “why”. When we say that empathy is very important in interviews, this is true, but it goes both ways: from us to the respondent and from the respondent back to us. By thinking out loud about my question, I let the person join me in my rationale in the same way that I do for them as they answer questions.
3 – Rephrase the question
Let us imagine this scenario: we have arrived at the ten million dollar question. The most important one of all. We ask the question we had planned. And the answer is a swing and a miss, causing discomfort, and the respondent dodges the issue. Unlike a game show, we can always ask the question in another way or even separate the question into several:
we keep its essence, and rephrase the question. Imagine we want to find out how to improve doctor/patient communication. We can ask “What types of alternatives can we use to explain diagnosis and intervention?”, or we can use ourselves as an example: “I can never quite understand what the doctor says to me, it always seems like something is missing, but I’m afraid to ask because I don’t want to sound dumb. Does this ever happen to you? I don’t know what to do…”
. we can ask “lighter” questions to win back the respondent, then go back to half of the initial question to reapply the same technique and get back into the comfort zone, to finally ask the rest. The advantage of this technique is that, when properly done, it allows us to keep the interview at a “comfortable” register.
4 – Body observation
Body observation should also take the interview’s setting into account. If, from the outset, it is at a location where the respondent feels “awkward”, this will have an effect on behaviour. The golden rule is to avoid sitting face-to-face with the respondent. This will seem more like a confrontation than a conversation.
One trick for winning the person’s confidence is to mimic certain gestures. Not necessarily at the same time, but the fact that both people can crack their knuckles, adjust their glasses or “talk with their hands” will generate empathy in the other and naturally break down any barriers that may exist.
It is also important for us to look for signs of a defensive stance, such as restlessness while sitting, crossed arms, looking away or taking a long time to answer any question. At this time, we can choose to ask “lighter” questions to get back into the comfort zone.
5 – Risking conflict
While empathy can be the researcher’s greatest trump card, sometimes we have to stand our ground, not aggressively, but assertively. Respectfully and directly, by insisting on the question. Despite the potential of some initial discomfort, this approach can boost the trust and respect of the respondent in our work and the importance of doing it.
The advantage of confronting or exploring the reason for the conflict is that it can provide new insights, and potentially open a new line of questions.
In summary, have a prepared structure of questions that is flexible enough to adapt, pay attention to details, engage the respondent in your logical thinking and be assertive.
In the end, it is important to wrap up the interview on a positive note, and even give some information on the next steps, since this moment may have been sensitive for the respondent, and for us as well.
Any feeling of tension cannot continue into the rest of the research work, nor affect the next respondents. When this does happen, it is essential to have some time to recover emotionally.