The Digital Story — Sensitive Interviewing Techniques

One of the deep research methods we’ve been working on is the ‘digital story’. In short — it is a way of understanding our complicated relationship with technology. Quite simply, you encourage people to talk about their feelings/emotions in relation to their usage of social media.

Something that quickly emerged from conducting these interviews is the sensitive nature of their content. By itself, this was an important insight. Our digital lives are messy, complicated and emotional. We don’t just use technology and social media to perform functional tasks.

Because of this, the digital story interview must be conceptualised as a sensitive subject. This begs the question — how do you get people to open-up and put into words things they have never spoken of before?

Luckily, there is a one researcher who can give us exceptional guidance…

Alfred Kinsey — sexologist

In 1948, Kinsey published a book called Sexual History of the Human Male. It was written in response to the fact that more is known about the sexual behaviour of farm animals than humans.

Imagine the challenge. He was to explore the most personal of topics in puritanical America — a place where sex was seldom discussed publicly except as a moral problem. And, as a scientist, he had to be rigorous, ensuring that the study captured data from all sections of society.

His method section in that book makes for compelling reading. With his team, he captured the sexual history of thousands of people and paved the way for the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies.

I’ll provide a summary of some of the key themes from that book, but first I want to point to one of the major insights from his study. It is an insight that inspires both the Digital Story method and the broader (dis)Connected Lives project that the method sits within: sheer variety.

He found that no two people were the same. This is a reflection that can still provide comfort to people who feel their sexual behaviours are weird or unusual. Everyone is unusual. I’ve been finding the same with Digital Stories — every person has a unique configuration of behaviours, attitudes and responses to social media platforms. Every person can tell you something new.

This makes sense when you pause to think about how many different platforms that we weave together. We no longer have a very small pool of media — magazines, TV, radio etc. Each new platform that enters the social world multiplies the differences between us.

And this can be dangerous. Much like sexual difference has been the cause of injustice, discrimination, and violence throughout history — so too can differences in digital media consumption.

We must approach this new digital world much like Kinsey approached the sexual world. We need to set the right conditions for this enquiry.

Inspiration from the Kinsey Method

There is no simple interview guide to follow here. A good digital story is created by being a good interviewer and by providing the right cues and prompts. It took one year of training for Kinsey’s students to become capable of capturing sexual histories, therefore we should see the Digital Story method as a continual work in progress.

A Digital Story is an opportunity for people to bring their inner experiences into the open, to discuss things they hadn’t thought about before. This is an empowering exercise for the participant — by vocalising and articulating inner experiences they make things solid. And that enables them to do something with them.

This requires the right conditions. We are seeking a communion between two individuals. True rapport. The participant must feel that the interviewer is anxious to hear what they have to say. To bear witness.

Then, with true rapport established, you can trust the consistency of the data you collect. And it will lead you on the path to transformative insights.

So here are some bullet-points:

  • As rapport is built over the course of an interview relationship, participants will test the ground, building on previous answers as more rapport is built. This means a cyclical approach to questioning is sometimes needed.
  • Offer no objection to anything that is said. No adverse reaction, surprise, disapproval, condemnation, cold-disinterest or social/moral evaluation
  • Ensure complete anonymity and explain how this is achieved
  • Understand that digital stories may contain hurt, frustration, pain, unsatisfied longings, disappointments, tragedy, catastrophe. So be empathetic and share in the participants hope for the future
  • Be aware of non-verbal aspects: small changes in facial expression, flicking of the eyes, changes in the voice, emphasising words, speaking faster/slower, hesitancy in questioning, choice of words used and so on
  • Realise that some people are more sensitive to non-verbal cues than others
  • Eye contact is essential to deep understanding. Don’t spend time scribbling notes
  • Different types of people will require different questions, and question order
  • Don’t ask people to name other people
  • Drop any line of questioning that causes embarrassment, and pick it up again later
  • Focus on the contrast between actual behaviour and attitudes to technology — expose and explore the psychic conflicts
  • Be severe with people that don’t take the research seriously — this will enhance respect by other people in the community
  • Ask one question at a time to avoid ambiguity
  • Ask questions as quickly as can be comprehended — this increases honesty and accuracy of recall
  • Use vernacular only if you are confident in your usage

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