Updated February 2022
After the last mammoth VC article, I am returning as promised with Episode Two. This time, I aim to provide you with top tips and tricks to help you navigate the occasionally choppy waters of remote/online interviewing for qualitative data collection using VC platforms (you are probably coming to realise that I do love a good tip or trick!)
So, without further ado, here are my suggestions
Get familiar with your VC platform!
A no-brainer really.
Make sure you have played around and practiced with a peer/friend/family member/anyone who will give you the time.
If you are doing a ‘reverse interview’ where you pilot your schedule on yourself with the help of a willing peer researcher, this could be a good opportunity to have a ’dry run’. You will need to be able to solve tech issues on the fly in your actual interviews, so advanced familiarity with the VC will stand you in good stead.
Absolutely DO NOT leave it until your proper pilot or your real interviews – this could be a recipe for data (and confidence) loss.
Onboard participants thoroughly to pre-empt and minimise technical issues and start to develop a rapport
To do this you could set up a practice session to introduce yourself, build some initial rapport, check that everything is working correctly (e.g., audio volume, video/webcam etc), and that the participant can manage the VC platform (in my experience, entering a Zoom meeting room can still bewilder some people, despite all that has happened in 2020!).
Remember to include this in your ethics application if appropriate!
Doing a practice run-through can be extremely useful to avoid any unanticipated technical difficulties or problems with the setup and can offer participants (and you!) a valuable chance to familiarise themselves with the platform.
Send comprehensive information/instructions as to what to do/how to operate the VC ahead of time as this can be extremely helpful for all parties to prepare. For example:
- Basic instructions or a user guide for how to operate the VC and which devices they can employ
- A checklist of typical problems that might arise with troubleshooting tips (e.g., that their webcam is enabled, that they have switched on the video function, that they have checked their speakers, and how to do this)
- A request to minimise any disturbances such as closing SM and other applications (this could also help preserve bandwidth), putting their mobile phone to silent or off for the duration of the interview. NOTE: this also applies to you!
- Encourage them to find a private place so that they can speak freely and perhaps ask family etc to be mindful of this space for the duration of the interview. NOTE: this also applies to you!
Do bear in mind that you may need to tailor your strategy for onboarding to your participant group depending on their level of digital literacy and to support them in their use of the tech.
The upside of this:
Potentially – optimising the quality of your data and improving your participant’s experience.
Certainly – reducing the time spent dealing with technical and connection issues at the start of precious interview time and minimising stress and anxiety for both you and the participant around the interviews themselves.
It takes some time, effort, and planning, but could pay dividends.
Formulate a backup plan in case of serious problems
What will you do in the event of technical issues or internet connection failure that seriously limit your interview time or mean that you cannot connect at all?
Taking a pro-active approach by pre-planning an alternative strategy (e.g., phone interview or how you will contact them to reschedule) could be extremely useful and a ‘belt and braces’ mindset is definitely recommended.
Consent procedures at the start of the interview and debriefing at the end
Firstly, check your institutional requirements and/or guidance for how this should be obtained under these circumstances.
One advantage of many VC platforms is that you can employ screen sharing options to review documentation together such as the research information and consent forms that you will no doubt have sent the participant in advance. These can then be discussed, and you can invite the participant to ask any questions they may have to be sure they fully understand and can give informed consent.
Some VC platforms offer file sharing features, and this could save time and give you instant access to participants’ completed consent forms.
Alternatively, you could record the participant’s consent process separately from the interview itself, providing you with a record of the process that does not need to be shared with any third party (e.g., for transcription purposes etc).
However, as always, check what your institution has to say about this and always follow their guidance.
You could follow a similar pattern for the debriefing process at the end of the interview, and once again, be sure to check your institutional guidelines.
Building a rapport and dealing with participant distress
The jury seems to be out on whether it is easier, more difficult, or the same to build rapport in online interviews versus f-2-f. Given this, my advice is to give this aspect specific attention as it may help your participant be more forthcoming with their experiences, leading to better quality or richer data.
There are several parts to this: firstly, your natural ability to develop a rapport quickly, or otherwise, will come into play. This may be impacted by your confidence in using the tech and any anxieties that you have around the interview process. One way to get around this is to set up the practice session so that you can have a ‘dry run’ and start getting to know your participant and vice versa.
An alternative to a practice session, if this is not possible, could be an active email exchange with your participant before the interview in order to break the ice or contact by telephone to organise the details of the interview itself.
One concern for researchers may be handling participant distress, should it arise. The advantage of VC is that you can potentially pick up on any signs of this and attend to it empathically. As a counselling psychologist, dealing with distress is my bread and butter, and I personally feel comfortable around the possibility of such a situation arising. However, I am fully aware that students can worry about how to respond.
Your institution will almost certainly have a distress protocol that you can draw upon to help you prepare for this eventuality and you are advised to seek out this information. Indeed, you may have already addressed this in your ethics application, particularly if you are interviewing around sensitive topics.
Finally, as always, check your institutional guidance
Which VC platform is authorised for use by your institution?
Options I have seen in UK universities include Zoom, Google Meet, and MS Teams in Office 365.
What is their cloud storage policy?
It may be that you must store your raw interview data in your institution’s cloud-based research store to meet ethical approval and to maintain adequate security of raw data. Remember that raw interview data (audio or video or both) has the highest risk of identifying your participant prior to the process of transcription and anonymisation of all identifying details. Your institution’s cloud storage will likely be via one of the ‘big names’ like Google or MS (just as with many of our own personal cloud storage accounts), however, this service will be particular to business use, will have been fully vetted for security, and will be managed by your institutional IT department.
What about storing the data on your personal PC?
Check your institution’s policy on this – it may not be ethically acceptable for reasons of data security. If you are storing raw data on your PC, you will need to have it password protected and ensure it is NOT automatically backed up to your personal cloud storage. Once transcribed, and fully anonymised, data arguably poses much less of a security risk, but should nonetheless always be handled with the utmost ethical care and respect.
Always ensure adequate security for the meeting invitation and settings
In other words, always ensure that a password has been set and the waiting room enabled etc. Furthermore, ensure you have installed any updates for the platform to be sure you are using the latest version and security updates.
Backing up using a separate recording device
As part of a ‘belt and braces’ approach, you may consider having a separate voice recorder that you can place next to your PC speakers in case of any failure in the VC recording. However, this may not be advised by your institution and may also seem a bit paranoid to some.
Nonetheless, over the years of supervising qualitative research projects, I have multiple examples of epic data recording fails that have broken my students’ (and my) hearts and given rise to many tears. There really is nothing worse than having a wonderfully rich encounter in a research interview, only to realise that the machine did not actually record. Or that we ourselves have forgotten to press the record button! Please, please, please do not let this happen to you, ridiculous as it sounds!
What about transcription by someone else/a third party?
As always, we strongly advise that you check your institutional requirements around the ethics of sending transcription out to a third party.
Qualitative interviewing via VC platforms is likely here to stay, and there are many reasons for why that is a good thing, as outlined in Episode One. With attention to detail and a bit of practice, there is no reason why you should not be able to use them to their full advantage!
Until next time!
To your research success, Elena
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