The complete guide to online interviewing for your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) or other qualitative research study: episode one

Updated February 2022

I know that I have already written a brief article about my musings on data collection in the time of coronavirus. This was not an extensive post, mind you. This article is the first of two instalments looking at online interviewing for your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) research study in much more detail.

Considering online interviews as an option for your IPA during social distancing and beyond

While preparing my Supercharge Your Semi-Structured Interviewing workshop I found myself reflecting more deeply on the advice and guidance that qualitative research students, and particularly those doing an IPA (my personal favourite qual methodology), may want or need to consider if they gather their interview data online.

If you are in the early stages of your research journey, the likelihood is that you are at the point of developing your proposal or research plan and applying for ethical approval. You may be facing the need to plan around virtual interviews given the uncertainty around the lifting of social distancing measures across the globe.

Always check your intuitional guidance as the first port of call

I know that I sound like a broken record on this; however, your first port of call should always be your institution and their requirements and guidance on how to go about remote data collection.

Nonetheless, I will explore using videoconferencing (VC) platforms for virtual interviewing in detail across two exciting episodes!

(I know, I’m spoiling you… 😆)

In episode one, I will consider the opportunities and benefits that video conferencing platforms offer to qualitative data collection, along with the downsides or disadvantages.

In episode two, I will deliver some tips and tricks to help you navigate remote data collection via teleconferenced interviews.

SIDE NOTE: these episodes will focus on Zoom as an example, but please be aware that other VC platforms are available!

What are the potential advantages of doing qualitative interviews online?

Logistical issues become redundant giving rise to increased reach, accessibility, ease, and flexibility:

Internet access has vastly improved for much of the global population and there is increased use of a range of electronic devices. This means that participants are much more comfortable and familiar with communicating via VC as digital literacy in this area has improved for obvious reasons over the course of the pandemic.

​Conducting your interviewing online via VC can improve the ease, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness of the whole exercise for both the researcher and the participant, particularly when resources are limited.

For example:

  • There is no need to travel (thus saving both time and money)
  • There is no need to find and book a suitable interview space (potentially reducing costs)
  • There is no need to worry about personal safety (for you or the participant)
  • Rescheduling under these circumstances does not incur a cost or significant inconvenience

In addition, respondents that are ‘shut-in’ under the present circumstances may have more time and inclination to participate. The caveat here being, of course, that the reverse may also be true – think homeschooling while also juggling a job, stress, and other family commitments…

​You can therefore massively improve your geographical reach and interview participants that you would never have a hope of accessing face-to-face as they are located too far away from you or even in a different country or on another continent (time zone differences notwithstanding, obvs). In other words, interviewing over the internet, you can access wider and more diverse participant groups that may have been previously inaccessible.

Many features of a face-to-face encounter can be preserved:

Conducting interviews via VC can preserve visual and/or non-verbal cues and communication (such as gestures, for example) that may be lost in a telephone interview. It may also be easier to pick up on, and attend to, participant distress with visual cues via VC.

Ease of use, security, and data management:

‘Zoom bombing’ and similar security issues are really a thing of the past as Zoom has tightened up security due to the massive upsurge in the use of their platform at the start of the pandemic. This is also the case for most alternative VC platforms – they have all got on the security bandwagon following negative publicity around Zoom’s issues.

​Bear in mind that the educational license your institution may have for Zoom has enhanced security in comparison to a free account. If you can use a VC platform through your institution, you are advised to do so for these reasons.

Nonetheless, in either situation, ensure you are installing any updates for the platform, that you have reviewed the account settings to ensure privacy and security (e.g., that waiting rooms have been enabled, that a password has been set, that participant screen sharing is not enabled initially etc etc blah blah)

What about storing recordings on the cloud and transcription etc?

We will address these issues in episode two… (of course, I had to leave you with some sort of cliff-hanger to encourage you to read it!)

What are the potential disadvantages of doing qualitative interviews online?

As with anything in life, however, there are disadvantages to using VC platforms and there are certainly elements of this approach that require careful consideration:

Are interviews conducted on a VC platform of the same quality as face-to-face?

There is not a great deal of research into the use of online methods and specific technology like VC to gather qualitative data. On researching this topic, I have noticed an uptick in publications over 2020, although it has been pretty scant prior to this. I suspect that we will see much more research attention on this area going forward; necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and there will be a great deal more evidence to examine as we continue to navigate the pandemic and its aftermath.

​The research that has been conducted tends to report that interview quality is not affected and often cites participants as being more willing to participate, more engaged, and more expressive. If you are interested or need to argue the toss, a list of relevant references can be found at the bottom of the post.

This leads me neatly onto the next point…

Building rapport and dealing with distress may be quite different from in-person interviews:

Both of these aspects of an interview may look somewhat different to f-2-f interviews and may be more challenging to manage as a result. We will go into this in more detail, and will present some guidance, in episode two…

There are certain unavoidable requirements for conducting successful online interviews:

Using VC to conduct interviews does mean that both you and your sample will require a certain level of digital/technical skill, the necessary equipment, and an internet connection to participate. Any digital device or PC used must have functional speakers, a microphone, and a camera. The speed/strength of either party’s internet connection can be a limiting factor for the quality of the session and technical difficulties can present a hazard to a successful VC interview.

More on how to manage these issues will follow (you guessed it) in episode two.

​Participants may need to download software in advance, although many platforms like Zoom do not require this extra step. These are important considerations when recruiting and you will need to establish these requirements can be met before arranging the interview.

​It is also vital that participants can find a quiet and private space to minimise interruptions and environmental distractions or disturbances. Confidentiality for participants who are doing their interview at home or in any other context where they may be overheard is something that deserves due consideration at the point of recruitment and should be discussed with your respondent.

You may not have a choice in which VC platform you employ:

You may have a personal favourite that you got to grips with over the pandemic and therefore have a good level of familiarity with its features and skill in using it. However, your institutional requirements may dictate the use of an unfamiliar VC platform and, of course, you must then learn how to use it proficiently in order to successfully conduct your interviews and minimise technical difficulties.

Participant concerns:

Participants may have concerns about the security of the platform and how their data is handled. These are ethical considerations that ideally you will have already tackled in your ethics application and as you plan your research. You will need to outline how participant data is handled in the information you provide as part of the consent process.

More innovative and creative data collection methods like the use of drawing incorporated into an interview may be more difficult to manage:

While this type of creative approach may be more difficult to manage, it is not entirely impossible to navigate given the screen-sharing facility that most VC platforms now offer.

Conclusions:

It is clear that using a VC platform for socially distanced interviewing has multiple advantages and also some caveats.

The main consideration here, however, is that we can still interview! And potentially we may have a wider pool of more willing participants to draw from given that VC interviewing releases us from the logistics of face-to-face.

As with any need to pivot due to adverse circumstances such as the pandemic, what matters most is giving due consideration to the most effective and ethical way to go about it.

Primary sources for this post plus recommended reading:

For a useful and up-to-date review of some available VC options, an extremely useful review of ethical issues, plus a bucket load of tips and best practices, see:

Lobe, B., Morgan, D. & Hoffman, K.A. (2020). Qualitative data collection in an era of social distancing. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 19, 1-8.

For a decent review of the literature around VC interviewing, and also the current state of play when employing Zoom, plus helpful tips for managing your online interviews, see:

Gray, L.M., Wong-Wylie, G., Rempel, G.R., & Cook, K. (2020). Expanding qualitative research interviewing strategies: Zoom Video Communications. The Qualitative Report, 25(5), 1292-1301 Retrieved from https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol25/iss5/9 (open access)

This qualitative study focuses on Zoom and explores the feasibility and acceptability of VC interviews in a sample of Australian practice nurses. They usefully explore the perceived benefits and drawbacks of using Zoom from the viewpoint of both the participants and the researchers. In addition, they make useful recommendations for optimising your interviews:

Archibald, M.M., Ambagtsheer, R.C., Casey, M.G., & Lawless, M., (2019). Using Zoom videoconferencing for qualitative data collection: Perceptions and experiences of researchers and participants. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, 1-8.

And finally…

Take a look at episode two and remember to hit me up with any requests – let me know if you would like me to cover any real-time research dilemma that you are experiencing.

Until next time!

To your research success, Elena

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