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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Designing online interviews

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Open/close headingIntroduction

Little has been written about the design of online interviews but it is becoming evident that the design of the online interview is central to its success or failure. It is important to consider the following points at the design stage of the process:
  1. Selection of software;
  2. Conducting the interview;
  3. Designing the interview script;
  4. Establishing respondent identity;
  5. Rapport;
  6. Language Use;
  7. The interview transcript.


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Open/close headingSelection of software

The use of email interviews is, in terms of technology, relatively straightforward. However, it is vital to ensure that all participants are confident users of email technology as problems can arise. Mann and Stewart (2000) reported difficulties arising in email interviews as a result of a lack of understanding of the use of the 'cc' option when sending email (Mann and Stewart 2000, 133).

The facilitation of synchronous interviews may require more forward planning as there is a need for the interviewer to select an appropriate and easily usable software package. This may be one reason why synchronous interviews have been less used by qualitative researchers than the email interview. When setting up a synchronous interview the interviewer needs to consider a range of factors, for example, the technical ability of participants.

First, will all participants be able to easily access and use the software you have chosen? Hewson et al. (2003) suggest that it is important for those planning to use online chat facilities as a forum for conducting online interviews to familiarise themselves with the method and ensure that participants are confident in the use of 'chat' as novice users can experience difficulties with the medium.

Second, is the software easily available and accessible to all (Hewson et al. 2003:62)? Many of the Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Blackboard, which are used by universities in the UK, may seem a logical choice for the conduct of a virtual interview but many will have access issues. It may be that only registered users are able to log on to the VLE and participate in the chat, therefore any interviewees who are not registered as either staff or students will not be able to participate. By contrast, use of the widely available chat room facilities offered by software companies, internet service providers and search engines will allow anyone to log on to the chat (Microsoft's MSN chat service was removed in the UK in 2003, although a number of other companies such as Yahoo and Wanadoo offer these services). However, in this case, the interviewer will not have control over who enters the chat and will not have the facility to 'remove' uninvited participants from the chat room and clearly the presence of others may disrupt the interview process. The use of an open chat room may also be problematic if the research question is of a sensitive nature. Illingworth (2001) for example, found that her participants were reluctant to discuss fertility issues in an online environment and expressed a preference for email interviews.

There is also a range of software available which can allow the researcher to set up text-based synchronous interviews in a controlled environment with invited participants only. This can range from free examples such as MSN Messenger to relatively expensive software designed for online business meetings or customer-support purposes. Often, a number of facilities which may be helpful to the researcher are offered, such as automatic transcripting and archiving, and use of multimedia or shared access to documents and files. Increasingly, audio and video options are also becoming available to researchers, though these are more dependent on the participants having access to suitable equipment to allow them to take part.

The 'Technical guide' section of this module explores software for online interviews in greater detail.


Open/close headingLearning activity: Software and services for online communication

[?] Familiarise yourself with online chat facilities and online meeting software. Explore sites such as those in the list below, and consider the possibilities of using the facility for conducting an online interview.

NB. Many of the services require registration before giving access to the service or offering a trial of the use of the software.

[i] The links will open in a new window, which you should close to return to this page.

Free online chat providers

[External Link - opens in a new window] http://chat.yahoo.com

[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.talkcity.com/

'Instant messaging' software and services

[External Link - opens in a new window] http://messenger.msn.com

[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.icq.com

Online meeting software

[External Link - opens in a new window] https://www.gotomeeting.com

Online customer support software

[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.boldchat.com

[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.liveperson.com/sb/sb_chat.asp


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Open/close headingConducting the interview

Traditional interview etiquette suggests that, in a face-to-face interview, the interviewer would begin by providing a brief introduction to the research project, an explanation of the interview procedure and perhaps a general overview of the questions included in the interview. In most cases the interviewer would have had prior contact with the interviewee, for example in making initial contact and arranging a suitable venue and interview time. During these interactions the research project would have been introduced and the interviewer's aims outlined. The virtual interviewer will often lack these early interactions and opportunities for the building of rapport, gleaning facts concerning profile data and ensuring that the participant feels as at ease are possibly missed. It is important then, for the virtual interviewer to develop strategies which compensate for the lack of face-to-face meetings. These strategies are discussed in more detail in the following section.


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Open/close headingDesigning the interview script

Before commencing the interview, there is a need to decide how to inform participants about the interview procedure, e.g. a brief introduction to the aims of the interview, the estimated length of the interview and the types of question. It may also be necessary to remind participants how to contribute in an online discussion.

Open/close headingExample

This example illustrates the way in which O'Connor and Madge (2001) used chunks of prepared text to start the interview with general information and an explanation of the process:


We want the interview to flow as much as possible and for you to feel that you can contribute exactly what you want to the discussion – almost as if we were having a conversation. However, we think it might be worth mentioning a few guidelines prior to starting the discussion.

  1. As this is an 'interview' we do have some topics that we would like to cover and we will probably use these to guide the discussion. However, please feel free to ask questions yourselves and to raise any topics that you think are relevant that we have not mentioned- but do try and stick as much as possible to the theme of the internet and parenting;
  2. It may take a while for the response you send to appear on screen - a good technique to speed the process up is to press return frequently, i.e. send the text every few words - don't wait till you have a complete sentence. Because of this the discussion may get a bit 'jumbled'. If this happens we may need to intervene;
  3. This virtual interview is an 'experiment' and we anticipate there may be teething problems - we apologise for this in advance!

Do you have any questions before we start the discussion?


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This introduction was followed with another prepared piece of text which introduced the researchers by describing their gender, age, ethnicity and family and employment status. This was done with two specific aims in mind – in the absence of visual cues O'Connor and Madge (2001) wanted to create a text-based picture of themselves to facilitate rapport and to elicit profile data from the respondents which would have been visually apparent in a face-to-face interview. This method of establishing respondent identity is discussed in more detail below.

In the case of asynchronous interviews there are other issues of script design, such as question order and question 'delivery', which need to be considered. The email interviewer must decide the best way to introduce the interview, the interview process and the questions themselves. The email interviewer must decide how to deliver the interview questions; whether to send the interviewee all the interview questions in the first email or, alternatively, to ask only one or two questions in the first email and to stagger the other questions over time and over emails. The latter option may increase the opportunities for the researcher to take a flexible approach which draws on analysis of the initial questions and includes scope for participant involvement in the interpretative process (Hamilton and Bowers, 2006), but it also runs the risk of respondents dropping out an early stage and not responding to later questions and the former may be off-putting due to the initial number of questions (Bampton and Cowton 2002), and may reduce scope for flexibility and reflexivity..


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Open/close headingEstablishing respondent identity

In the virtual setting the interviewer cannot make any assessment of the socio-demographic information which may have an impact on the interview. Indeed, Ward (1999) found that, as a consequence of this, interviewees asked her questions about her own socio-demographic profile which changed the power relations of the interview and gave the interviewer less control. It is perhaps necessary, therefore, to find other ways of obtaining socio-demographic information and to adapt conventional techniques accordingly. O'Connor and Madge (2001) made use of carefully designed personal introductions to allow for the loss of face-to-face interaction and in the hope that participants would follow their 'model' and provide similar profile information, such as age, number and age of children and ethnicity. After cutting and pasting personal information, interviewees were invited to introduce themselves.

Whilst both O'Connor and Madge (2001) and Ward (1999) used 'covert' means of finding out more about their participants, Thurlow et al. (2004) suggest that this mechanism is unnecessary in the virtual world. They argue that questions which would be unacceptably direct in a face-to-face encounter are widely used and accepted in the online environment. They explain that more experienced online users have an established 'system', known as 'MORFing', which enables users to find out more about the individuals they are chatting to. 'MORFing' represents the question 'are you Male OR Female' and is much used in computer medicated communication as a means of finding out about others online. The abbreviation A/S/L is also used to find out the age, sex and location of those online (Thurlow et al. 2004, 53). Clearly then much face-to-face etiquette would appear to be unnecessary in the online world where netiquette enables users to be much more direct than in the real world, primarily because visual clues are lacking. However, it is important that other online users do not misconstrue the meaning of such direct questions and perceive them as offensive or as a 'flame'.

An advantage on online interviews is that although profile data can be gleaned by direct questioning of users or by more covert means there is, in fact, no need for any of the participants to divulge personal information. This represents an advantage because it can help to minimize interviewer bias. It can also be valuable when discussing sensitive topics with respondents who do not want to be identifiable in any way. Online interviews, particularly those which are carried out in a chat room, can be conducted on an anonymous basis. Participants interviewed by email can retain anonymity, for example, by setting up an email account which does not identify the user's real name. However, the corollary of this is that participants may not always be what they seem, as it is possible in an online environment to hide or invent personas. While a great deal of research has been carried out into deception and its detection in face-to-face contexts, there has been little exploration of deception in online contexts (Hancock, 2007). Certainly, the lack of visual cues may increase opportunities for deception and may make detection more difficult. Hewson et al. (2003) argue that researchers cannot ever be certain of respondent identity in an online situation because there is always the possibility of users inventing an online personality or at least not being entirely truthful in describing themselves.

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Open/close headingRapport

Building rapport online, without the usual visual cues used in a face-to-face interview, can be a challenge for the online interviewer. The traditional researcher relies quite heavily on visual cues and such cues can be helpful in building rapport. For example, traditional text books recommend dressing appropriately, smiling and making eye contact at the outset. It is also suggested that non-verbal cues and prompts such as smiles and nods are used to facilitate the interview. In the disembodied online interview, both the interviewer and interviewee are relying on the written word as a means of building rapport. Orgad (2005, 55) has argued that 'there is a real challenge in building rapport online. Trust, a fragile commodity … seems ever more fragile in a disembodied, anonymous and textual setting'. As such, Orgad (2005, 55) suggests a number of ways in which to overcome the lack of visual pointers and, for example, she suggests that researchers should think carefully about the implication of the email address used in the research. It may be that for researchers based in universities it is wise to utilise a university email address to add credibility to the study. However, Orgad (2005) argues that a university email address could have hindered her research because it identified her as a 'stranger' to regular users of a health-related online discussion group.

Kivits (2005) explains that in facilitating the early stages of her 'long time' email interviews she consciously used the technique of sharing personal information. So, for example, her emails which included interview questions, usually began or ended with exchanges of more general personal information such as holidays, family life and work. This technique helped to maintain a certain level of rapport and also made it easier for Kivits to develop an online relationship which enabled her to ask questions of a more sensitive nature.

Finally, O'Connor and Madge (2001) in interviews with new parents, attempted to build rapport based not only on textual exchanges but also through the use of photographs. Respondents were directed to a project website, which included information about the project and photographs of the researchers, to find out more about the research. Thus, once the respondents 'arrived' at the interview, they had an idea of what the interviewers looked like in real life. Like Kivits (2005), O'Connor and Madge (2001) also argue that the exchange of personal information via emails, in this case used to arrange interview times and dates, also facilitated the creation of rapport.


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Open/close headingLanguage use, netlingo, netspeak and emoticons

Experienced users of online technology often use a specific shorthand or internet language which Thurlow et al. 2004, 53 refer to as 'netlingo' and 'netspeak' to communicate, in the form of 'emoticons' such as :-) (representing smiles) or electronic paralinguistic expressions such as lol meaning 'laugh(ing) out loud' or rofl (rolling on the floor laughing). For the novice user of online applications the use of these symbols can be problematic. For example, an interview respondent may be more competent in the use of emoticons than the interviewer and this could lead to misunderstanding during the interview. However, amongst many online communities the use of visual and paralinguistic expressions is central to the style of online communication. Indeed, Walther and D'Addario (2001) argue that it is the use of emoticons such as the smiley face which often serves to enhance users' sense of connection with other online participants. In the absence of visual pointers such as body language and facial expressions, emoticons play an important role in conveying the 'tone' of a posting, email or interview response.

Below a series of the most widely used emoticons and their meanings are listed:

:-) or :) A smiling face used to indicate humour or sometimes irony.

:-( or :( An unhappy face used to express sadness or disappointment.

;-) A winking smiley face suggesting that the 'speaker is not being serious, and that the comment should be taken with 'a pinch of salt'.

Other techniques are used to convey meaning in text-based interactions. For example, capital letters can be used to denote emphasis or even 'shouting' in online communication, e.g. WHAT DO YOU MEAN?. This would be widely understood by experienced users to show that the 'speaker' is using emphasis or shouting.

Researchers need to be cautious about using netlingo as it can be misunderstood and can suggest naivety.

Open/close headingLearning activity: Netlingo, netspeak and emoticons

Part 1

[?] Analyse 10 emails which you have recently received from different sources (personal communication, business communication, promotions and offers, spam) and identify any 'netspeak' and/or 'netlingo' and consider the way in which this differs from formal written communication.

Part 2

[?] Check your knowledge of 'emoticons' by matching the following examples to their meanings. A text-only alternative is provided below if required.

Open/close headingText-only alternative

[?]Match the following 'emoticons' (1-10) with their meaning (a-j), by adding them to the correct text boxes.

  1. %-\
  2. &-|
  3. |-0
  4. :-{
  5. :-!
  6. :-?
  7. :->
  8. 8-0
  9. :-/
  10. :0
a. Shocked b. Yawning c. Surprised
d. Bored e. Tired f. Angry g. Skeptical
h. Pensive i. Tearful j. Sarcastic


Open/close headingAnswers

a. Shocked = 8-0
b. Yawning = |-0
c. Surprised = :0
d. Bored = :-!
e. Tired = %-\
f. Angry = :-{
g. Skeptical = :-/
h. Pensive = :-?
i. Tearful = &-|
j. Sarcastic = :->


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Familiarise yourself with variations on the 'smiley' emoticon by looking at the link below.

[i] The link will open in a new window, which you should close to return to this page.



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Open/close headingFlaming

In addition to language use online, it is also important to be aware of the issue of flaming. Flames are hostile and aggressive interactions online. This can include vicious verbal attacks and derogatory, obscene and inappropriate language. Verbal disagreement can escalate to mutual abuse, threats of violence and 'flame wars'. According to Thompsen and Foulger (1996), a message becomes a flame when a clear tension is detected. Overall O'Sullivan and Flanigan (2003) suggest that flaming is extremely complex because the expectations and experiences about what is acceptable and normal behaviour varies between individuals, culture, geographic location and with time. They argue for the need to contextualize flames and suggest a typology of flaming ranging from a newbie flame, a failed flame, a missed flame and a true flame. Trolls are individuals who deliberately post provocative messages intending to incite a reaction from the readers of the message. According to O'Dochartaigh (2002, 83) it is best to ignore such messages. There is varied opinion as to whether online interactions exhibit more flaming than face-to-face interactions. According to Siegal et al. (1986) this is the case but Walther (1992) only found this to be so when participants were under time pressure. Group forums are more prone to flaming than emails (Thurlow et al. 2004, 71).

[Open/close heading]Learning activity: Types of flaming

[?] Use the table below to try and identify the features of a newbie flame, a failed flame, a missed flame and a true flame.

The types of flames are shown in the different columns. Decide whether the statements indicating the perspective of the sender, the recipient and the onlooker are true or false for each type of flame. Select 'true' or 'false' to select your answer and click again if you would like to change it. A text-only alternative has been provided below if required.


Open/close headingText-only alternative

[?] Read the descriptions of each of the following types of flame, and answer the questions that follow.


Newbie flame

Both recipient and onlooker see the message as inappropriate, but the sender doesn't.
May result from insensitivity to group norms or ignorance of these norms, perhaps because the sender is new to the group.

Failed flame

The sender intended the message to be aggressive or rude, but it was not received as such.
As with newbie flames, the sender may be new to the group or incompetent.

Missed flame

Only the intended recipient does not see the message as a flame. This may also result from inexperience on the part of the recipient.

True flame

All parties regard the message as a deliberate attempt to be aggressive or rude.


1. In which types of flame does the sender intend the message to be aggressive or rude?

2. In which types of flame does the recipient interpret the message as aggressive or rude?

3. In which types of flame does the onlooker interpret the message as aggressive or rude?


[Open/close heading]Answers

1. Failed flame, missed flame, true flame.

2. Newbie flame, true flame.

3. Newbie flame, missed flame, true flame.


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Open/close headingThe interview transcript

A clear advantage of interviewing online is that all the practical difficulties of data recording are avoided. There is no need for researchers to be concerned about the difficulties associated with the use of a tape recorder or the cost of transcription. The transcript is automatically created as the interview progresses and can be converted in to a word document and easily manipulated at the analysis stage. The final transcript is likely to have the same weaknesses as a traditionally transcribed interview in that responses to questions are not always formatted in complete sentences; there is likely to be as many interruptions and unfinished sentences in an online interview as in a traditional interview.

In addition the online interview transcript, although text based from the outset, will be littered with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and common features of 'netlingo' (Thurlow et al. 2004) such as abbreviations and acronyms. Thurlow et al. (2004, 125) describe both synchronous and asynchronous online interactions as being 'a hybrid of speech and writing' because of the way in which computer mediated communication has developed. Online interaction tends to be characterised by a certain way of communicating which stresses friendly and immediate exchanges and fast responses, which are very oral in nature. This has meant that text based interactions tend to be informal and often inaccurate in the use of English, as the nature and meaning of the conversation takes precedence over the correctly written word, and this will be evident in the final transcript of the interview. As such, the online interview transcript very much resembles a 'written conversation' (O'Connor and Madge 2001). It is often important to preserve the formating and contents of the original text exactly to avoid losing meaning-carrying cues such as particular spacing or the use of symbols and emoticons to express emotions, and to remember that these may be lost if transcripts are imported into qualitative research software (Im and Chee, 2006).


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Open/close headingLearning activity: Tips for synchronous interviewing


[?] Below, you will find a summary of some typical advice that is given for people undertaking face to face interviews and focus groups. Consider how this kind of advice translates into the online environment by attempting to come up with similar lists for online interviewing and focus groups.

You can make notes in the boxes below, before comparing your answers to the suggested answer.


Interviews Focus groups

Try to dress in a similar way to the people you are interviewing.

Develop a clear question schedule before you start

Make it clear why you are undertaking the interview at the start of the interview

Start with a neutral question to facilitate free flow of information

Use open-ended questions

If you have not understood something ask for more information/explanation

Smile and be encouraging during the interview

Think carefully about how you are going to record, store and retrieve your data 

Plan your focus group carefully 

Manage the recruitment process to be sure you get the right people in your group

Confirm attendance before your focus group takes place

Don't make assumptions about your participants based on their clothes or accent

You are not expected to be an expert. Ask questions to clarify things that you don't understand.

Try to create an atmosphere where it is OK for different group members to disagree.

Encourage participants with non-verbal gestures

Be prepared to intervene if one person is dominating the group.


Online interviews Online focus groups


Open/close headingSuggested answer


Clearly appropriate tips depend, to a large extent, on whether the online interviews and focus groups are carried out through text-only or through the use of video and audio communication. In most cases, it should be possible to come up with an online equivalent for the advice - the issues are frequently the same, but they may manifest themselves somewhat differently online. For example, the advice to dress in a similar way in order to establish a sense of commonality may be replaced by presenting information or images prior to the interview. Just as it is important not to make assumptions based on physical appearance or accent in a face-to-face situation, so it is equally important not to make assumptions based on spelling, grammar or formality in written form in textual interviews online. The creation of an atmosphere in which participants can disagree, a range of opinions is sought, and all are encouraged to contribute may be equally challenging in both cases, and in the online situation may require more explicit intervention to elicit ideas and prompt further elaboration or debate, or through the explicit use of encouraging prompts or descriptions of reactions and requests for further details. In all cases preparation is vital and will increase the chances of a successful outcome. You should:

  • Pilot the interview script with colleagues to ensure the questions are clear
  • Test the online environment, invite participants to enter the online interview room prior to the interview to ensure that the technology works and that they will feel confident on the day of the interview
  • Prepare participants for the interview / focus groups beforehand by sending information about the purpose of the interview/focus group and clear details of the interview / focus group time and online venue.

NB. The list of tips presented above is necessarily reductive. However we have drawn it from the following places as well as from experience.

[External Link - opens in a new window] 10 Tips for Running Effective Focus Groups

[External Link - opens in a new window] Focus Group Tips for Beginners 1

[External Link - opens in a new window] How to get beneath the surface in focus groups

[External Link - opens in a new window] Interviews

[External Link - opens in a new window] Tips for effective research interviews


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