Skip main navigation

Online interviews and focus groups

This page provides information on potential research instruments for online social or participant-based research.
A researcher conducts an online focus group
© University of Hull

Online interviews and focus groups can be a great way to facilitate social research. Conducing your research online can also have advantages in that it may be used to preserve anonymity or engage participants that are geographically dispersed. Online interviews can sometimes be less intimidating for participants and may make them more open or honest. You will need to reflect on what that means for your research.

You will need to consider your participants, and if they will have the required technology and technical competency to engage in this way. You should also be mindful of any strain or stress participants may be experiencing due to the global pandemic and if your research remains appropriate. It is also important for you to discuss any ethical implications of this with your supervisor and/or ethics committee.

When conducting online interviews or focus groups you have several choices. You can facilitate this via text-only chat, by voice chat or through video chat. There are lots of tools you can use for this, but you will need to consider the data management of any tool you use. Just as you would with an in-person interview, don’t forget to record any sessions if you are connecting via video or audio chat.

The following headings consider some of the primary data collections modes in the online space:

Online interviews

Interviews are one research instrument that can potentially translate well to the online environment. A traditional interview is an interaction between a researcher and a participant which can easily be facilitated via video conference software and apps. For researchers, an online interview can be challenging to facilitate online and there are many more logistical concerns. Conversations are often not as fluid in an online interview due to lag and audio quality is heavily dependent on the equipment available for both researchers and participants.

Consent can be gained via email ahead of the interview and can be confirmed verbally at the start, offering participants opportunity to ask questions.

Advantages:

Closest replication of social dialogue, easy to record if chosen software allows, facilitates conversation and requires no travel.

Disadvantages:

Audio quality, internet speed, digital skills/access, security and confidentiality of the chosen software, recruitment and consent. Can be difficult to verify who participants are.

Online focus groups

A traditional focus group is an interaction between a researcher and multiple participants. Conversational focus groups can easily be facilitated via video conference software and apps. For researchers, an online focus group can be challenging to facilitate online. It requires the management of multiple speakers, ensuring all get the opportunity to participate without talking over each other.

Conversations are often not as fluid in an online interview due to lag and audio quality is heavily dependent on the equipment available for both researchers and participants. However, focus groups may afford alternative approaches to conversation-based discussions. You can facilitate interactive or artefactual focus groups in an online space. Tools like Google Docs and Microsoft OneNote allow real-time collaboration online. This can allow people to collaborate on something, generating meaningful data. Such approaches may work for interviews also.

Consent can be gained via email ahead of the focus groups and can be confirmed verbally at the start, offering participants the opportunity to ask questions. This may be timely if there are lots of participants.

Advantages:

Closest replication of social dialogue, easy to record if chosen software allows, facilitates conversation and requires no travel.

Disadvantages:

Can be hard to manage multiple participants, audio quality, internet speed, digital skills/access, security and confidentiality of the chosen software, recruitment and consent. Can be difficult to verify who participants are.

Online surveys

Online surveys or questionnaires are a popular way to collect data for research and are often chosen over paper-based surveys. Surveys pose a list of questions to participants to access thoughts, options and feelings. The biggest challenge with a survey relates to question choice as there is no ability to clarify questions with participants. Without conversation, questions must target the precise issue a researcher is investigating. Researchers must also strike a balance around the number of questions asked, avoiding the temptation to ask too many questions which can impact participant completion. Closed questions are generally considered quantitative data and open questions are qualitative data. Surveys can use adaptive patterns to serve different questions depending on earlier responses.

Consent can be gained through the start of the survey, using a compulsory question for participants to agree.

Advantages:

No need to digitise paper surveys, participants make take more time considering responses than with an online question and easy to administer to lots of participants with no researcher time.

Disadvantages:

Participants are more likely to partially complete or drop out. Your survey may receive fake responses (often from bots). Participants may complete your survey without full attention while watching television or talking to people.

Telephone or VOIP

While not technically a form of IMR, it’s important to consider telephone interviews or surveys as an option. If you are working with participants that do not have access to the internet or have a poor connection, a telephone interview or survey can be a valuable way to gain their participation. For both surveys and interviews, a researcher is able to ask questions of their participants over the phone. Surveys may require answer options to be verbally explained also. For surveys, it allows clarification of questions if appropriate for your method.

Consent can be gained via email ahead of the interview or through a postal consent form. At the start of the conversation, consent can be verbally confirmed at the start, offering participants the opportunity to ask questions.

Advantages:

Facilitates interviews and surveys at a distance, allows engagement even where participants do not have internet access.

Disadvantages:

Can be challenging to record without additional hardware if using a landline phone. As a verbal-only conversation, telephone interviews offer no ability to account for body language and visual cues. Can be more difficult to verify who participants are. Would be challenging to facilitate focus groups or multi-participant interviews.

© University of Hull
This article is from the free online

Being a Digital Researcher: Digital Skills for Effective Research

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education