Tips for conducting online interviews and focus groups for qualitative research

Tips for conducting online interviews and focus groups for qualitative research

Lockdowns and social distancing due to COVID-19 are currently changing the way that qualitative researchers collect data, and likely to do so for some time. The semi-structured (or unstructured) interview or focus group are two of the most popular qualitative methods, but are usually conducted in face-to-face settings. And while it is possible to move these meetings to virtual video or even telephone based interviews, these come with their own set of practical, technical and privacy challenges.

Use video chat when possible

Most qualitative research deals with difficult topics and questions, and gaining trust and rapport with interviewees is an important part of getting good data. It’s much easier to feel a human connection when you can see someone’s face, and it helps both of you read the situation and each other’s feelings. If it’s not possible to do this in person at the moment, strongly consider using video conferencing to do an interview. While you can do this over the telephone or using an online meeting with just audio, video will create a better connection with your participants, making the experience more personal and less like a tele-marketing call. It also allows you to control the flow of the interview better, as so much encouragement (or discouragement if someone is going off on a tangent) is non verbally communicated! But you do need to consider how this changes the context of the interview.

If someone is being (virtually) interviewed in their home, there may be distractions from children, pets, deliveries and anything else that might be happening. You should consider how much you can ask of your participant – are they able to have someone look after their children during the interview? This might be especially important if you are discussing something sensitive, but is difficult if childcare and school options are currently limited.

Also consider that you are sharing your home as well – the background of your video is part of the context you will be creating for the discussion. Is it a professional looking office with lots of textbooks? Or a comfy front room? This could subtly influence how the participants see you, and what they choose to share. Many tools let you change the background of your video (although these tend to be hit and miss), and might also make the experience more impersonal if you seem to have something to hide!

Lastly, just because video is an option, that doesn’t mean it must be on all the time. Give the participant the power to control if they want to share their webcam or not, and even to mute their microphone if they need to.

Choose your tools wisely

The most popular platforms for online video conferencing are probably Zoom and Skype, although both of these have privacy issues that undermine their use for confidential research. Zoom is not properly encrypted, and many people have been able to ‘ZoomBomb’ by intruding into private calls (if waiting rooms and passwords are not set). Skype also may use your calls for advertising or ‘manual reviews’ of data, so someone could be ‘listening in’. For these reasons, many universities and business have moved to professional services like BlueJeans which are supposed to be more secure, but are not free (or cheap).

The easiest way might seem to be something like Facetime, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. But consider that these probably share data with advertisers (and others), and may require you to share personal contact details with each other. Connecting through WhatsApp or similar will require a respondent’s personal phone number, and other contacts and personal details will be shared through this service. You don’t want to get suggestions to add participant’s family members as friends! If you have a dedicated phone number or account for work, this might be protect you, but your respondents will be lucky to have such a privilege. For me, all these social media services are usually inappropriate for research or data collection, and have huge privacy and confidentially issues that we should be concerned about as individuals as well. The requirements and oversight of ethics boards have not gone away during these times!

While any of these tools above allow group meetings for focus groups, there are also dedicated online platforms designed especially for facilitating focus group research, such as itracks or collabito. However, these can be expensive, and mostly geared to market research needs. But if you are based at an academic institution, you may have access to an online teaching platform like Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect. These can have a bit of learning curve, but most can be set up to allow ‘guest’ access and record sessions with large numbers of participants calling in, and if used by your organisation should have proper support and be designed to meet much better privacy standards.

Finally, there is a free and open-source solution called Jitsi which doesn’t require anything to be installed (except on iOS or Android) and runs straight in the browser. It’s free, securely encrypted for 1-2-1 meetings, and you can set up a free meeting in a second without any registration at this link. It does have some foibles and the quality isn’t quite as good as Zoom, but the better privacy and totally free service more than make up for that. Just choose a good meeting name (as this becomes the link) and set a password for the meeting that you share with your participant.

Quirkos now has our own secure Jitsi videoconferencing server, which is available to our trainers and customers and does not share data with us or any 3rd parties. Contact us for more details!

In the end, you should probably choose the most accessible option for your participant, and that might mean having a few different options. Remember that they might not have the luxury of a laptop or desktop with webcam and microphone, so provide options that let them use a smartphone.

Recording online sessions

Most researchers will want to get transcripts of their data, and this would require at least an audio recording. However, you may also want to record the video, as this can provide more nuance to the data and a better understanding of how respondents are expressing something. Make sure that you really will use this though, as storing and analysing video data can require quite a lot of storage space and a reasonably powerful computer (and software like Transana). Recoding on smartphones quickly becomes problematic – even with the right app (and many are scams) storing and transferring recordings, as well as security of the files quickly become issues.

To record sessions on Zoom, make sure you use Local Recording, so that the files are stored on your computer, and not on the Zoom cloud. Click Record (or the … More button) once the session has started and then ‘Record on this computer’. When the meeting ends, the recording will be saved (which might take a few minutes) and then the location of the saved file will be opened (usually in My Documents/Zoom).

There are other tools you can use for recording on your computer, OBS is free open source software for Windows, Mac or Linux that lets you record your screen, and will record video sessions on your computer if you don’t want to rely on the recording system in your conference software. It’s a little fiddly to set up, (right click in sources, choose Add, then Display Capture, then you should be able to use the start recording button) however is very powerful, and gives you lots of control over what you record from the screen or from different sources of audio.

If you just want to record the audio of an interview through your computer, you can do this with the Voice Recorder app built into Windows. If you want more control, the free and open source Audacity software is also available for Windows, Mac or Linux. If using Audacity, just note that once your recording is finished, you should click File then Export (either to MP3 or OGG) to save an audio file: the default Audacity file format can’t be easily opened elsewhere. On MacOS Mojave or later, you can just press Shift-Command (⌘)-5 on your keyboard, and dedicated screen recording software will start. You can also use QuickTime Player on older versions of MacOS.

While there are tools that will automatically transcribe audio for you, note their accuracy isn’t always great, and not yet a substitute for professional transcription. In fact, if you have a Google account and use Chrome, you can use the very competent voice transcription built into Google Docs. This is unlimited and free.

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There are a lot of technical and practical challenges here, so make sure you test whatever system you want to use before trying it out on participants. Things might not work perfectly first time, but there is good help and advice from the research community and colleagues at this time.

You should still do all the things that make you a good qualitative researcher: be prompt with start times, make the appointment well in advance, say thank you afterwards, and consider sending them a transcript of their interview, or any reports or publications based on or quoting their data. You’ll probably still need an interview guide and all our general tips on focus groups and semi-structured interviews still apply. Try and make the process as welcoming as possible, plan to share a tea or coffee together virtually, even if you can’t do it in a café!

You might also consider using different methods that work better without face-to-face contact, such as e-mail interviews or participant diaries.

Once you have transcripts of interviews or focus groups from your online data collection, a qualitative data analysis software package like Quirkos can be a really useful tool to help wade through and make sense of your data. If you want to collaborate with the analysis of your data, our Quirkos Cloud service allows for simple project sharing and live collaboration with chat, so it’s the next best thing to working in a room with someone!

Give the full version a trial by downloading it for free at

Further reading

Almujili, Ghada; Alrabah, Rola; Al-Ghosen, Abdulmajeed; Munshi, Fadi (2022) Conducting Virtual Focus Groups During the COVID-19 Epidemic Utilizing Videoconferencing Technology: A Feasibility Study. Cureus. 14 (3) DOI: 10.7759/cureus.23540  (Commons Attribution License CC-BY 4.0.,)

Halliday, Matthew; Mill, Deanna; Johnson, Jacinta; Lee, Kenneth. (2021) Let's talk virtual! Online focus group facilitation for the modern researcher. Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy. Dec. 2021. Vol 17. Issue 12. Pages 2145-2150.

Tips for running effective focus groups
In the last blog article I looked at some of the justifications for choosing focus groups as a method in qualitative research. This week, we will focus on some practical tips to make sure that focus groups run smoothly, and to ensure you get good engagement from your participants