This post is a reflection on the implementation of our remote COVID-19 insights in Indonesia study based on reflections with the team of researchers (13 researchers including 8 Empatika core team members).
Conducting remote research over nine months and experimenting with new tools was a great opportunity for us and our researchers. However, it was not without challenges. As many of the study families live in rural or even remote areas, technical issues such as phone or internet signal were constant challenges. These challenges also made using some of the tools like photo sharing more difficult, and made it harder for researchers to find good times for contacting families. Using remote approaches also made it more difficult to maintain consistent contact with families and other community members, particularly as many people could be quite busy with their own activities throughout the day. As many researchers were interacting with multiple families during the study, often from different communities, this sometimes made scheduling and maintaining consistent contact all the more difficult.
We were also learning as we went along about the best communication strategies for staying engaged with families throughout the study period. While strategies like texting almost everyday worked well with some families, with other families this contributed to them getting tired with some of the discussion. We also found that some families got tired talking about some of the more specific study issues such as health, especially if they didn’t consider these issues to be priorities in their day-to-day lives. Some family members would say things like, ‘You’re asking about this again?’ We needed to continue to adapt and adjust based on the situation (not so different from being in the field). Still, some researchers were able to get even closer to their families through this study process. And for families that researchers hadn’t been in touch with recently (before the study started), all appreciated getting to reconnect.
Certainly one of the lessons for us as researchers was that it was important to be flexible with our communication style, strategies, and timing. We learned that due to the challenges of scheduling, this meant that we needed to be ready to have conversations with families, or to be contacted by them, at almost any time of the day. This could be quite tiring (for example, receiving phone calls late in the evening, or while cooking dinner), and so we also had to learn how to manage our own stamina and energy throughout the study process. And although we did make it to the end of the study, there is certainly still much for us to learn on managing remote research processes.
Although phone signal and internal availability did present challenges with many families, compared to just a few years ago this has greatly improved and most of the participating families now have at least one smartphone. Utilizing tools such as photo and video sharing, screenshots, group chats, and video calls enabled both researchers and participants to be more creative in exploring and sharing stories. Around 33 of the 45 families involved in the study shared photos with their researcher! A mother in Lombok Timur was inspired by one of the prompt exercises and sent the researcher over 10 videos of her talking with children and other mothers about different topics related to the study. Not only did this mother feel that topics like education and health were important, she thought that making the videos was a fun thing to do. Some researchers were able to create WhatsApp groups with university students, while one researcher, after gaining consent, was able to join an existing WhatsApp group of parents and hear about their experiences with distance learning. New approaches like these inspired other researchers and reiterate the need for us to be creative and constantly innovating.
Still, what many of our researchers really wanted after finishing this study was an opportunity to get back to doing some face-to-face research! Up until the pandemic, our work has focused primarily on immersion research, and so many of us are at heart field researchers. Doing fieldwork is how we get refreshed and re-motivated, so we hope that the pandemic situation will continue to improve. There’s just no substitute for an in-person experience (this is one reason why you may have noticed that we have continued to try to include some fieldwork on current studies), although we know that we have to be flexible, especially now. We also want to keep experimenting with other research tools since, for example, some of the tools we used remotely for this study could also complement in-person approaches to research.
When doing immersions, often one of the best but also bittersweet moments is when we are leaving and have to ‘pamit’ and say goodbye. Families often ask us, ‘When will you come visit again’? During this remote study, we also faced this difficult question, and just like in-person, all we could do is say that although we don’t know when, we hope to have a chance to visit again sometime. If we’re able to get through this pandemic and actually have this opportunity with any of these families, it will probably now be an even sweeter experience.
We are very thankful for the relationships with the participating families and appreciate all of the time families gave as part of this study. We are also grateful for the opportunity to conduct this study and to be able to share these families’ perspectives and experiences during this pandemic.