Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Advantages and disadvantages of online interviewing

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Open/close headingSavings of cost

Online interviews can provide great savings in costs. Firstly, there is no need for a travel budget as interviews can take place at the interviewee's computer terminal. Secondly, there is no need to pay for transcription costs as the online interview is transcribed as it is created. All the practical difficulties of data recording are avoided. This transcript can be converted in to a word document and easily manipulated at the analysis stage, though it is important to remember that some meaning-carrying cues such as particular spacing or the use of symbols and emoticons to express emotions may be lost when transcripts are imported into qualitative research software (Im and Chee, 2006). However, certain non-traditional costs may arise for the online interviewer and these are discussed under 'disadvantages'.


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Open/close headingLocation, geography and travel

Online interviews present opportunities to interview individuals and/or groups who are widely geographically distributed, without the traditional constraints of travel budgets and costs. An online interviewer based in the UK can interview participants based anywhere in the world without having to consider the costs of travel or arranging a suitable interview venue. It is not necessary to arrange transport or allow for travel time. This can be crucial to those participants who may be spatially restricted, such as the elderly, those with restricted mobility and parents of newborn babies (O'Connor and Madge 2001).


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Open/close headingEquipment

The online interviewer has no need for the traditional tools of interviewing such as tapes, tape recorders, batteries and transcribing machines. Any individual with computer and web access can participate without the need for additional equipment. However, the interviewer must be completely confident that the interview subjects have access to the relevant hardware and software. This may involve the interviewer ensuring that all participants have the necessary software available to use.


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Open/close headingFlexibility

Online interviews can provide great flexibility for the interviewer and participants. For example, email interviews allow the participants to respond at a time convenient to themselves – the need to arrange specific interview times and dates is removed.


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Open/close headingVenue

A traditional face-to-face interview requires the interviewer and participant to agree a venue for the interview to take place. Usually a venue which is both convenient and comfortable for the participant is selected and the interviewer must travel to the agreed site, usually the respondents' home or workplace. In the case of group interviews logistics are even more complex as the interviewer must identify and secure access to a venue convenient to all members of the group. This can generate extra costs associated with travel and venue hire. However, the online interviewer has no need to arrange a venue as each individual can take part wherever is convenient and the facilitation of the online interview requires only access to the internet. Therefore the virtual interview places fewer organisational demands upon the researcher who no longer needs to seek out a venue which meets the multiple recommended requirements (Morgan 1988 and Krueger 1994).

However, as Murray and Sixsmith (1998) argue, place remains significant even in a virtual setting. They suggest that respondents' answers to interview questions may be influenced by the setting in which they are taking part in the interview. For example, if a respondent is participating from a work-based computer they may be reluctant to answer certain questions in any depth for fear of being 'overheard' which in this case means a fear that someone else will read their computer screen. Conversely, if subjects are taking part from a computer located in their own home, then such fear is likely to be less relevant, though not necessarily eliminated.


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Open/close headingEngagement in the online interview

It has been suggested that in cyberspace there is a tendency to be more open with others, often complete strangers, than in real world communication (Joinson and Paine, 2007;Nguyen and Alexander 1996; Wellman and Gulia 1999). Poster (1995, 90) argues that 'Individuals appear to enjoy relating narratives to those they have never met and probably never will meet. The appeal is strong to tell one's tale to others, to many, many others'. He goes on to suggest that the lack of visual clues plays an important role in encouraging candid interchanges, stating that 'Without visual clues about gender, age, ethnicity and social status conversations open up in directions which otherwise might be avoided. Participants in these virtual communities often express themselves with little inhibition and dialogues flourish and develop quickly' (Poster 1995, 90).

Similarly, Kitchin (1998, 394) explains that: 'Individual representation in cyberspace is not based upon biology, birth, social circumstance or geography'. Nguyen and Alexander (1996, 104) argue that because of the visual barriers which exist, people '...can better control the presentation of self' and as a result are more sociable, friendly and open. Cyberspace, by its very nature '...provides social spaces that are purportedly free of the constraints of the body, (so) you are accepted on the basis of your written words, not what you look like or sound like or where you live' (Kitchin 1998, 387). Others suggest that participants in online interviews tend to be more direct in their answers and 'pertinent in their use of language' (Murray and Sixsmith 1998, 118).

However, the choice of interview medium may be of significance here. Whilst some researchers report that respondents felt more able to discuss sensitive issues in an online environment than in a face-to-face interview (Murray and Sixsmith 1998), Illingworth (2001) has suggested that the medium used to interview is of relevance. Amongst her respondents, who were users of infertility websites, there was an apparent reluctance to participate in interviews facilitated in a chat room. Interviewees expressed the view that the open format of a chat room environment would be an inappropriate space for the discussion of private and sensitive matters. As a consequence of this feedback, Illingworth (2001) conducted her interviews via email. Also, Joinson and Paine (2007) report that communication incorporating use of video tends to reduce the openness and self-disclosure that is commonly a feature of the relatively anonymous communication offered through text-based interaction. They also note that privacy concerns or a sense of lack of control over the uses of personal data may also serve to reduce openness, and indeed, that many of the measures taken to increase personalisation and trust in computer-mediated communication such as incorporating images or audio/video may also serve to reduce openess. This clearly has implications when considering the use of such methods.

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Open/close headingSpeed

Asynchronous communication has tended to be valued for its ability to slow down the communication process and allow time for respondents to compose substantial messages which can be drafted and edited. This, in combination with the explicit and permanent nature of asynchronous text, is said to promote deeper reflection (Paulus, 2007) which is considered to be a key advantage of email interviews (James and Busher, 2006; James, 2007; Hewson, 2007). On the other hand, however, this tendency to promote well-considered responses may also lead to the production of 'socially desirable' answers rather than the more spontaneous responses typical of synchronous interviews (both online and face-to-face) (Joinson, 2005). Delayed interaction may lead to a withdrawal of engagement and to a paucity of data caused by the lack of spontaneity and inability to direct the flow of conversation, and prompt and probe participants (Sanders, 2005).

In a virtual interview, the speed of typing dominates the interaction rather than the most vocal personality, which changes the rules of engagement and has the potential to disrupt traditional interviewer/interviewee power relations. This represents an important advantage of virtual interviews, particularly in the group context. Those individuals who are shy and reticent to speak in face-to-face group interactions may find the virtual environment a liberating one in which they can 'speak'. There are many people who, as Rheingold (1994, 23-24) suggests '...don't do well in spontaneous spoken conversation but turn out to have valuable contributions to make ...These people ...can find written communication more authentic that the face-to-face kind. Who is to say that this preference for one mode of communication - informal written text - is somehow less authentically human than audible speech?'. The speed of synchronous interviews may also serve to increase the honesty of responses through reducing the time available to consider the social desirability of utterances. (O'Connor et. al., 2008).

However, a difficulty may be that those with slower typing speeds, or participants who prefer more time to consider their replies may find themselves lagging behind, still preparing an answer to an earlier question and finding the main discussion has moved on. This may result in the loss of valuable interview data as the respondent deletes the reply and moves forward to join the continuing discussion. The speed and chaotic structure of text-based chat may also make relationships between different messages difficult to follow, especially where more than one discussion thread is taking place at the same time. This can lead to a tendency for participants to overlook or misunderstand messages, particularly where there are issues around typing speed or language proficiency (Osman and Herring, 2007). Of course, this is also likely to lead to transcripts that are equally chaotic and difficult to interpret (O'Connor et. al., 2008).

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Open/close headingDistracted participants

It is possible that during an online interview there may be reasons why the interviewee is not able to give their full attention to the interview. If the interview is being conducted by email this is not important because the respondent can reply at any time. However, in a live or synchronous interview this is a potential problem. It may be that distractions result in respondents not being fully engaged with the interview whilst dealing with interruptions of which the interviewer may not be aware. In the face-to-face setting the interviewer can respond immediately to external factors, perhaps by suspending the interview, whereas the virtual interviewer, unable to see what is happening, may carry on regardless, not aware that s/he does not have the full attention of the respondent. It is important for the researcher to build in strategies to deal with issues such as this. In this case it is likely that the subject will go 'silent' and the researcher must find ways of verifying the reason for such silences.

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Open/close headingParticipant interest and motivation

Chen and Hinton (1999) argue that participation in the virtual interview requires a far higher level of motivation and interest from the interviewee than would be the case in a conventional interview. The interviewee has to provide the relevant equipment (the computer), bear the financial costs of being online for the duration of the interview and be prepared to take part in a physically quite demanding interview involving typing and reading. There is a need to think, type, look at the screen, read the text and maintain a logical thread of answering. The same is true for the interviewers who also have to cover all relevant questions, probe unclear answers and ensure that everyone is still taking part, whilst under considerable time pressure to get a response on the screen.


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Open/close headingLanguage use

Regular users of online communication are often very familiar with specific online language which is often used to replace the visual and tactile communication which characterises much face-to-face communication. Paralinguistic expressions such as lol (laugh out loud) and emoticons can be used by the interviewees to replace facial expressions and voice quality. The online interviewer requires a certain level of competence in the use of paralinguistic expressions when conducting the interview and when analysing the transcript.

Non-verbal communication, so important in face-to-face interviews, is largely absent from online interaction. It is not possible, for example, to use a period of silence to encourage a respondent to expand upon an interesting point. Similarly it is not possible to encourage the respondent to continue speaking by means of a nod or smile at the appropriate point. Instead the probes and 'silences' must be much more active and verbal in nature - the interviewer has to probe through the use of direct questioning.


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Open/close headingTechnological competence

In order to facilitate a successful online interview it is important that both the interviewer and interviewees have a sufficient level of technological expertise with the technology adopted for the process. Conducting an email interview is likely to be straightforward and self-explanatory for regular email users but taking part in a synchronous interview using either a chat room and/or conferencing software is likely to be a more complex process for potential participants who may only have basic technological expertise.

The use of even the most basic software packages can make the online interview process more complicated. For example, Illingworth (2001) reported that some of her relatively IT literate respondents had significant difficulties in opening, completing, saving and returning a word document attached to an email. She also encountered difficulties with participants having either out of date, incompatible or in some cases more up to date software than she was using. Similarly O'Connor and Madge (2001) found that some interviewees had difficulties installing the software which had been selected to conduct their synchronous online interviews. In these cases they arranged for an IT support officer to trouble shoot by telephone. In such cases the researcher is highly dependent on the goodwill of the respondent to solve the technological difficulties and ensure that they can take part in the research process. Even where a participant has the skill and equipment to participate in a synchronous interview, problems can occur related to access from work computer or from behind a firewall (Gaiser, 2008) or to lost connections which interrupt the flow of an interview or make it necessary to reschedule (Fox et. al., 2008). The technology involved in any online interviews can potentially lead to the systematic denial of participation to particular groups, either through the need for particular equipment or expertise, or through the accessibility needs of groups with particular disabilities (Schmidt, 2007). The use of audio or video also immediately increases the likelihood of technical problems and, unless provision is made to ensure that participants have access to the appropriate technology, restricts the sample that can be obtained for the research (Hewson, 2007).


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Open/close headingAccess

The issue of access to online communities and website providers is crucial when conducting online research. Whilst some researchers have accessed online communities for research purposes without revealing their research interest (Paccagnella 1997), this raises a whole set of ethical issues around online research (see 'Ethics' module for details). Online research is likely to be far more productive if the researcher has the support (or at least the agreement) of the site providers before attempting to recruit a sample of users. As Gaiser (1997) has argued, the traditional interviewer would not usually approach employees of a case study company and arrange interviews with them without first agreeing access with the company owner or director. Online research demands the same attention to research protocol.

In addition, securing the support of website owners or list moderators will probably result in more responses to the researcher's call for participants. For example, if the researcher posted a message to a bulletin board advertising for respondents, there is a good chance the board users would be irritated by the unsolicited nature of the posting. Such postings are increasingly seen as 'spamming' and are likely to be ignored or even deleted by the site providers. By contrast, a message posted by the moderator on the researcher's behalf has a good chance of effectively recruiting participants.


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Open/close headingIdentity verification

Online research does not enable the researcher to verify the identity of the participants and the online researcher must be aware of this issue in both email and synchronous interviews. Whilst the researcher's inability to verify the identity of respondents does not make the research invalid, it is important to be aware of the impact of respondents' anonymity on the research and to acknowledge this limitation. In many cases the anonymity of participants can play a positive role in the research process, reducing researcher bias and being particularly useful for embarrassing and sensitive topics (Hewson et al. 2003).


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Open/close headingAbsence of visual cues

In the online interview, all the subtle visual, non-verbal clues which can help to contextualise the interviewee in a face-to-face scenario are lost. While, as discussed above, this may have positive impact in terms of openness and self-disclosure, it also represents a significant challenge to the online interviewer, given that the traditional textbook guides to interviewing rely heavily on the use of visual and physical clues and pointers in order to build rapport and gain the trust of the interviewee. For example, Robson (1993, 236) recommends smiling and dressing '...in a similar way to those you will be interviewing' whilst Glesne and Peshkin (1992, 95) advise that 'Your appearance, speech, and behaviour must be acceptable to your research participants'.

Visual pointers may reveal differences or similarities in class, ethnic origin, gender, age and status which can all affect rapport, with shared characteristics likely to contribute to a greater immediate feeling of rapport (Robson 1993, 237). It is important then for the online interviewer to design the interview schedule and conduct the interview in such a way as to minimize the impact of this absence of visual cues. For a more detailed discussion of this see the 'Designing online interviews' section.


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