# 02 Expanded from the original Twitter thread:
The Interview Hustle
The human ability to articulate our thoughts verbally has allowed us to develop a rich knowledge repository of experiences. Researchers often tap into this repository in the form of conversations to derive insights, critique, apprehensions, and emerging ideas that are not yet documented or may never be documented in written media.
A large portion of the second year of my Ph.D. research on urban planning under climate uncertainty involved conducting in-person interviews with senior planning practitioners on their perspectives on integrating climate into city planning. This second-year cheerlessly coincided with the year of 'work from home'- a.k.a. the Covid-19 pandemic.
Four days before our impending trip to India, was when the Netherlands announced its first lockdown and India shut its borders to everyone including its citizens)- effectively eliminating opportunities for in-person fieldwork for the next 18 months. This trip would have us organizing an international workshop that would kickstart a series of research interviews.
In this piece, I write down our key learnings as we switched to a Plan-B - transitioning all interviews online. This meant we not only had to conduct the interviews online but also had to network our way to finding the right experts online. Our objective was to interview around 40 practitioners across our two case studies: Amsterdam and Mumbai. The target interviewee would be seasoned experts in the cross-cutting domains of urban planning, climate change, infrastructure, resilience, and related areas like land use and policy-making. When translated to real-world positions, this would include municipal commissioners, strategic policy advisors, national spatial planning experts, climate advisors, sustainability specialists, and the likes.
Thus began a yearlong pursuit of emailing and calling and more emailing and calling to curate our list of interviewees, set up appointments, and conduct the interviews. We tapped into:
- Our networks (together with the Ph.D. supervisors)
- A public post on LinkedIn
Post on 3 semi-professional WhatsApp groups
- Classic cold emails
- Sliding into DMs on Twitter.
Recommendations from other interviewees
The illustration highlights the key figures of the interviewing process conducted between June 2020 to August 2021. This includes an approximate record of all online channels through which we identified our interviewees, methods of follow-ups, time allocated for preparatory calls, and the time spent on actual interviews. Thanks to my situation, I conducted the interviews while moving between four countries. Here are some lessons I learned along the way.
Lesson no. 1
Never take no for an answer.
In a pandemic year, volunteer research interviews were nobody's priority. Everyone was 'over screened and their personal lives were merging into a swirl of confusion as well. While I only had one person explicitly decline an invite (of the approximately 60 I sent out), most emails and messages would almost always be ignored.
Lesson no. 2
Follow up mercilessly.
I had only 5-6 interviewees who responded with appointment slots with the first email. For most, it took two rounds of following up on emails. For some, it takes a message every week on WhatsApp for six months to set up an appointment.
Lesson no. 3
Interrupting people on video calls almost always sounds rude.
Online conversations are at the end of the day - online. Sometimes the conversation flows in a completely different direction. In an in-person set up, they can gauge your non-verbal cues, also providing you the opportunity to interrupt conversations more fluidly. Interrupting online almost always sounds rude even when not intended that way. Be prepared for responses you did not ask for.
Lesson no. 4
Do not compromise on the quality of questions.
Most interviewees, who agreed to speak, were genuinely interested in the research and were more than happy to discuss complex questions in great detail over the call (and were open to follow-up calls).
Lesson no. 5
Ask stupid questions (sometimes).
Preparation is key. Should you be knowing about their background, past positions and general interests? Yes! But, it is ok to ask for someone to explain something better (or again), even though it may make you appear like a noob.
Lesson no. 6
Be available for conversations at any time of the day/night.
Many experts chose to not take interviews during their official work hours or are in a different time zone. This meant that interview timing could range from 5 am until 11 pm local time (for me). This also meant I was panic messaging my supervisors as I was too stressed to interview.
Lesson no. 7
Deeper insights can emerge only when there is trust between the speakers. The issue with online interviews is the additional level of unfamiliarity. Almost all of my interviewees were ‘seeing’ me on Zoom for the first time. 50% of them were also of a different nationality (non-Indian), which meant an additional cultural barrier.
The limitation of not being able to immediately establish trust was the biggest bane of a time-bound offline interviewing. It became hard to dive deeper into issues because it was difficult to form an emotional connection between me and the interviewee. Breaking the ice and finding common experiences is key. After two not-so-great conversations, I had to consciously prepare myself for better questions, but also common topical or personal connections I may have with the interviewee.
It may be remote, but try to not make it detached.
Lesson no. 8
India runs on WhatsApp now.
Almost 50% of the interview appointments for India were facilitated over WhatsApp chats/calls. One interview had to also be conducted over a WhatsApp voice call, but all others were setup on Zoom/ Teams.
Lesson no. 9
It wasn't a great year. Of my two case studies, Mumbai saw the worst two waves of infections with several people even in my immediate circle who were sick or knew someone seriously. The general aura of sadness and anxiety would not lend well to ideation.
Lesson no. 10
When things look hopeless, lean on the enthusiasm of the few experts who went out of their way to not just accommodate the interview but also give excellent insights and share my excitement for the project. Three interviewees spoke with me while being in-home quarantine after having tested positive. Enough said.
While this exercise of interviewing will remain one of my richer Ph.D. and life experiences, I will also remember it as something that was a test of sheer patience and sometimes disappointments.However, I had the opportunity to chat with some of the best minds on the subject and be inspired for future work. There was no room for reflective silences, but only awkward silences due to bad WiFi. Not all conversations went as planned or had the outcomes I expected. While working from home has enabled access to talent across the globe, forming meaningful connections is harder and the recall/ retention value are both lower. While electronic communication has been a great enabler, it may be a good time to reflect on how different this may have been as in-person conversations, in a world without the pandemic. However, given that my research aims to build resilient cities, there couldn’t have been a better learning curve.
The Remote Interview Checklist
This checklist is designed for remote meetings / presentations / job interviews in a post-COVID19 world. Please feel free to reuse and send comments to email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before the Interview:
- Setup your desk so your face is well-lit.
- Make sure the background is not too cluttered.
- Make space for food, water, stationery and any reference material you may need.
- Have slides backed up and ready to go on another machine.
- ︎Choose a LAN cable over Wifi. If you have multiple WiFi connections, connect to the right one.
- ︎Connect to multiple external displays, if available.
- ︎Check camera + microphone + speaker quality. Disable microphones you will not use (Control Panel> Sound)
- ︎Check that the monitor displays the entire presentation without cutting anything off.
- ︎Log out of other communication apps + Disable notifications.
- Keep smartphone away or on ‘Do Not Disturb’. Microphone may pick up interference if your phone is around.
- ︎For group meetings / interviews, have a designated person monitor chats/ questions.
- ︎If you plan to record the meeting, take explicit permission from everyone attending.
- ︎If using Zoom, enable the optimize for videos option when sharing screen.
- ︎Adjust the position you want to be seen in [Example].
- Postpone Windows updates!
- Optimize slide colors for video. Use bright colors / big fonts (24+ if teaching using a big display).
- Minimise animations. Check if existing animations work as expected.
- Check the pointer. Do not dance with the pointer on the screen.
- Proof-read more than usual!
- Use the primary display to call.
- Place the camera slightly above the primary display. Other callers must be visible on the primary display.
- Slide notes on secondary display.
- Optional: Presentation on a tertiary display (if not, then presentation on secondary and notes on primary).
- Consider using a TV as a backdrop display (You get to point and gesture).
During the Interview:
- Alternate between looking at your audience, and your notes.
- Swivel your chair around, stay active or stand up.
- Blurring backgrounds consumes bandwidth and looks unnatural. Hide unsavoury things with plants/books.
- Jokes may fall flat. Accept, laugh at yourself and move on.
- You may lose track of what to say. Keep a notebook handy and make notes before you have to respond .
- Connections may get interrupted. Take a mental note and restart from the slide/sentence you were cut off,
- A bad connection is a safe opportunity to buy some time to think.
- If you teach/train online extensively, consider investing in a DSLR camera +collar microphone.
When not speaking, turn off speaker.
Example Setup 1:
If you are lucky to have plenty of space at home, convert a section of the living room into a mini-office. This one is set in the living room of Srinath with a beefy machine that could simultaneously run 3 displays.
This is a mini-office and a talk setup. The TV and bookshelf on the left make the backdrop for the presentation. You stand next to the small bookshelf when presenting/teaching and sit on the chair for interviews/meetings. You stand on the right and project slides on the TV. (We used the TV’s speakers throughout the interview since the quality was great). If you sit facing the two displays, you see callers on the right display and notes on the left. The camera and microphone are located above and to the left of the displays respectively.
Example Setup 2:
If you do not have the luxury to setup a dedicated office, use your console, dining chair and garden furniture to setup a temporary speaking desk.
A modest makeshift setup using furniture from around the house, 2 displays and an optional TV display. The table was aligned diagonally to make use of the sunlight. The callers and slide notes are projected on the laptop and the monitor is used to share slides. Since, there was no LAN connection, this was the closest location to the WiFi router and TV.
Some items in this checklist were adapted from various folks who shared their experience on Twitter and the Computer Science Research and Practice channel on Slack