Online or telephone interviews and focus groups
Research involving humans and Covid-19
26 August 2021
Researchers should consider using online or remote methods if possible. Any in-person face-to-face research or research involving travel must be permissible, safe, and ethical.
For more information on research involving humans, Covid-19, and the ethical review process, see the interim guidance for research involving humans.
If you research involves the NHS see the Guidance for research involving the NHS.
Researchers must check the University coronavirus information pages and travel and fieldwork guidance frequently and before commencing any activity to ensure they are complying with current requirements:
This section provides guidance for those considering conducting research interviews or focus groups remotely or online. Researchers should also consult the social media guidance page if they are using social media to recruit or interact with participants.
Researchers should conduct interviews or focus groups online using Skype or Microsoft Teams, which can be accessed via Office365 using your University credentials. Check the IT Support page on audio and video conferencing for more information. This page also includes guidance on Zoom (another popular videoconferencing service) and why it is not suitable for University use.
If participants are unable to use these methods, researchers should use a telephone and an audio-recording device such as a dictaphone which is then connected to the phone.
If it is not possible unable to use these methods and researchers wish to use a third party application for conducting or recording interactions with participants, they may need to consult with Data Protection (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or IT Services (email@example.com) as to whether there are adequate safeguards in place for the data to be secure.
If researchers are using their own personal phone they should consider setting up ‘outbound number blocking’ – this means that the call will show up as a ‘withheld number’ on the recipients’ phone. If doing this, researchers should make sure the participant knows what time they will be calling at, as many people will not answer unsolicited anonymous phone calls.
Researchers, particularly students, should also keep in mind the costs involved in using personal phones or devices and check what is covered by their telephone or internet plan. Using audio only calls will use less data than a video call. Be aware too that costs can be higher to both caller and recipient when using a phone to call a number located in a different country.
Participants must always be informed and give their consent for an interaction to be recorded.
If solely using online methods to interact with participants it may be more challenging to obtain written consent, as this is traditionally done by having the participant physically sign a consent form.
It is important that consent is always fully informed. Therefore it is important that the participant always receives a participant information sheet (PIS) (Word)in a format that they can keep indefinitely. This will most likely mean emailing a copy to the participant, placing the file online (i.e. on OneDrive) for the participant to download, or possibly posting them a copy in the mail.
Once the participant has received the PIS and had time to consider whether to take part, their consent should be obtained and recorded.
More information on consent and obtaining consent using online and remote methods can be found on the Consent to participate guidance page.
When interacting with participants online or by phone, researchers should ensure they are in a private and quiet place with as little background noise as possible (if using audio/video) and where they will not be disturbed.
Is there a risk of being overheard/seen?
Researchers should ensure that their participants confidentiality is maintained. This means ensuring that during the interaction they will not be overheard (if using audio only) or seen (if using video or instant messaging).
Researchers should use a quiet, private location where their screen cannot be seen by others. Researchers may also wish to use headphones rather than their computer speakers and take care as their interactions progress to ensure they are not verbalising confidential information (if there is a risk of being overheard).
Researchers should also take time to ensure their participants have considered the above and that they are also somewhere suitable. This is additionally important for an online focus group, as one person not adhering to this may impact the confidentiality of all the other participants.
There may be challenges for both researchers and participants who are sharing limited accommodation or office space with others. In these circumstances researchers must consider the sensitivity of the research or topics for discussion and, if privacy cannot be guaranteed, whether it is appropriate to continue and if so, only continue with participants explicit consent.
For online focus groups, it is recommended that researchers formulate a basic set of 'ground rules' for the meeting that include the above and some basic etiquette, such as not talking over others.
One of the advantages of online methods is that often software is capable of recording the interaction, for example in Skype it is possible to record and download the audio or video file. Instant message conversations can also be copy and pasted or saved as a chat transcript.
If researchers are going to record the call or chat, participants must be informed in the PIS and it also worth reminding them at the start of the interaction that is being recorded.
Data recorded from remote or online interactions with participants should be transferred as soon as possible from the recording device/location to a password protected folder in the researchers University Home Drive. If you are off-site you may need to use the VPN to access this.
Researchers conducting focus groups should note that participants withdrawing data may adversely impact the integrity of the data for the entire focus group i.e. by removing context behind other participants’ responses. Researchers are therefore encouraged to consider this when forming their ‘right to withdraw’ periods in their Participant Information Sheet.
Conducting qualitative research remotely can have an impact on the research interaction - this can include challenges around the removal of behavioural or visual cues, building rapport and trust, and issues with accessibility. However, there may also be advantages to using this method, as many individuals may be more comfortable with online, rather than face-to-face, interactions.
Researchers are encouraged to consult resources relevant to their discipline for more on the methodological considerations relating to their specific field of research.
Researchers should consult with research methodology, ethics and professional guidelines and resources appropriate to their discipline.
However, here are some suggestions for external resources that may be useful when thinking about online or remote interviews or focus groups:
Disciplinary and funder guidance on internet-mediated research
Krouwel, M., Jolly, K. & Greenfield, S. Comparing Skype (video calling) and in-person qualitative interview modes in a study of people with irritable bowel syndrome – an exploratory comparative analysis. BMC Med Res Methodol 19, 219 (2019).
Markham, A. (2011). Internet research. In D. Silverman (Ed.), Qualitative research: Issues of theory, method, and practice (pp. 111-128). 3rd edition. London: Sage
Tiidenberg K. (2018) Research Ethics, Vulnerability, and Trust on the Internet. In: Hunsinger J., Klastrup L., Allen M. (eds) Second International Handbook of Internet Research. Springer, Dordrecht