How to build rapport with qualitative research interviewees

Jasmine offers tips on how to build rapport with qualitative research participants.

Illustration of two speech bubbles smiling at each other

Conducting interviews is one of the most versatile and useful research methodologies in qualitative research.

It can be adapted for different research objectives, be it for formative or summative research.

Their purpose ranges from an interview with a target user to uncover behaviours and motivations or validate how existing designs fare.

It could also be a session with a key business stakeholder to understand their vision and goals for the project you’re working to deliver.

Your interviewees' experiences, perspectives and preferences toward the research topic will build insights that inform design solutions and decisions.

The unspoken challenge for moderators is building rapport with participants to help them feel comfortable in sharing their honest thoughts and opinions with the stranger sitting in front of them.

What makes this even more difficult is that moderators have a limited time to warm up the participant since interviews are usually one-time encounters that last just an hour. 

At times, the sensitivity of the interview topic can also affect the rapport-building process, making it harder for the moderator to uncover genuine emotions and perspectives.

In my experience, it requires some effort to have a participant speak candidly about personal health and finance matters.

As a design researcher, building rapport and trust with the participant is more important than the set of questions written down on the discussion guide. The list of questions and objectives is meaningless if the participant feels self-conscious or apprehensive throughout the session.

After reflecting on my personal experience of moderating interviews and shadowing senior practitioners at Foolproof, I have noted down my tips on building strong rapport and trust with interviewees.

1. Manage expectations and address reservations

Half the battle around trust is won if participants are clear on what to expect before they attend the interview. Be upfront and transparent – this will ensure that participants understand what they are agreeing to – surprises mid-way through an interview will create disappointment and distrust that affects the overall quality of the session.

Inform respondents in a pre-interview call of the research topic - you should also use this time to clarify incentives and request permission to capture the session if recording is required.

Manage their expectations by providing a teaser of what will be happening during the interview (e.g. types of questions, interview environment, context), and address any of their concerns before they step into the session. This will prevent any unwanted surprises when participants arrive for the interview.

2. First impressions matter

First impressions do matter and they can influence the quality of the conversation later.

As a researcher, you need to be mindful of the first impression you give. I find it helpful to welcome the participants with a smile and start off by thanking them for taking time off to attend the interview. Let them know that we don’t bite, and the interview is not a nerve-wracking test.

Although it’s a casual conversation, it’s also crucial to establish credibility in the way you dress and the tone you use as a moderator. I introduce my role as Design Researcher at the start of every session to establish my credentials and build trust.

While some of us might feel nervous before the interview session, we should be careful to not let it show as it will affect the quality of the engagement. The participant might sense your anxiety and could end up mirroring your fears - meaning you lose some of the credibility you’ve established.

Often, our fears are also based on assumptions we hold that cause us to overthink. I remember feeling anxious before interviews with high net-worth individuals and senior stakeholders. However, after we started speaking, I realised that they are like-minded individuals who share the common goal of finding solutions to existing problems.

It’s okay to feel nervous, we all do – just be mindful of how you’re feeling and do not let it affect the quality of the interview. Take a deep breath before each session and put aside the assessments that make you feel anxious before you begin.

3. Create a safe and comfortable space

Privacy is crucial if you want honest responses.

To create a safe space for participants, clients should watch the interview in observation rooms or remotely. It is not recommended to have clients join you in the interview room as their presence will influence the authenticity of the responses.

If you are using cameras to record the session, keep them out of the participant’s view. Placing a camera right in front of participants is distracting and feels intrusive.

At the start of the interview make sure you mention how the recordings will be used and assure participants that their input will remain anonymous. It’s also beneficial to accentuate that the interview is not a test and their honest opinions are invaluable to what you’re trying to achieve.

Pay attention to your participants’ tone of voice as well as body language – it pays in kind. In fact, when I first started out, I spoke to one of my very first participants in a tone which was too formal and subsequently, inappropriate. As the interview progressed, a Senior Consultant noted that the participant was finding it difficult to match my tone as colloquial Singaporean English was their preference. From then on, I have always adjusted my tone accordingly.

4. Embrace awkward silences

In my first few experiences of moderating interviews, seconds of silence in between the conversation felt incredibly uncomfortable.

Initially, I thought I had to quickly break the silence and awkwardness by asking the next question. Quickly, I realised that awkward silences help to uncover the richest insights.

After asking a question, make sure that you give participants ample time to respond. They could answer with a short reply and end it there but hold the silence if you sense hesitation or the possibility of an elaboration. This happens often for questions that touch on emotions and personal opinions. 

Silence offers participants space to reflect on the question and encourages them to unpack their honest feelings and concerns.

Holding the silence is also a way to show participants that you are playing the role of the listener and that they own the space to offer their perspectives.

By encouraging silence, you empower your participants to step out of their comfort zone. What they share after those moments of silence are often the most insightful comments which later come to impact design decisions.

5. Take note of your participant’s engagement level

It is easy for moderators to end up mirroring the energy of the participants, e.g. when they yawn or take longer to respond, we start feeling tired or disinterested too. As such, the responses collected could be sparse or lacking in depth.

If you notice the energy dropping, a good tip is to consciously adjust your tone and body language to break the mirroring.

If you noticed that the participant is feeling weary, sit upright and use a brighter tone when speaking to uplift the mood of the conversation.

Similarly, if things get heated – i.e. if a participant is particularly animated by something – avoid reinforcing it by replying calmly. Make good use of your body language and tone to manage the energy of the room, this will make for a more productive session.

There’s no one size fits all 

While there’s no hard and fast rule on how to build rapport with your interviewees, I hope these tips are helpful and that you now know what Design Researchers need to be mindful of.

Impactful findings will be uncovered when interviewees feel comfortable sharing. As such, one of our most important responsibilities as moderators is to create a conducive space for them to participate.

Related articles