Online and mobile technology offer unique enhancements to qualitative research designs. In many instances, these technologies have shifted the balance of power from the researcher to the online or mobile participant, who is given greater control of the research process by way of increased flexibility, convenience, and varied ways to respond in greater detail and depth to the researcher’s inquiries. For example, a participant in an email in-depth interview study can thoughtfully reflect on a researcher’s question before answering and can delay response until the participant is at a location where they can take the time to write a thoughtful reply. The opportunity to select the time and place for participation empowers online and mobile participants beyond that afforded participants of conventional, more restrictive modes that dictate a specific interview schedule or date and place for a group discussion or observation.
Asynchronous online and mobile technologies have also ushered in a richer, deeper qualitative research experience. Not only do participants have the chance to write more thoughtful responses to interview questions compared to more time-limiting modes (e.g., telephone and face-to-face), but online and mobile participants can also enrich their text responses by attaching files, images (photographs, graphics), links to websites, as well as add a voice response via VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) or the mobile phone device. This possibility for multimedia communication can be particularly effective, for example, when capturing in-the-moment experiences or observations via the participant’s smartphone, which may include a text message describing the event, photographs of the event, a short video of the event, and a voice message to the researcher elaborating on specific aspects of the event.
In 2020, there were 14 articles published in Research Design Review. These articles include those pertaining to broad issues in qualitative research design, such as sample size, as well as more narrow topics concerning specific qualitative methods – focus groups, ethnography, in-depth interviews, and case study research – and the online mode. A compilation of these articles is now available here for download.
In addition to these 14 articles, six compilations of earlier RDR articles were released in 2020 for download. These include:
Back in 2018, Research Design Review posted an article titled “Five Tech Solutions to Qualitative Data Collection: What Strengthens or Weakens Data Quality?” The focus of this article is on a presentation given in May 2018 concerning technological alternatives to qualitative research data collection. Importantly, the aim of the presentation was, not to simply identify different approaches to data collection beyond the in-person and telephone modes but rather, to examine the strengths and limitations of these technological solutions from a data quality – specifically, Credibility – standpoint.
Broadly speaking, technological approaches to qualitative research data gathering offer clear advantages over in-person methods, particularly in the areas of:
Representation, e.g., geographic coverage, potential access to hard-to-reach population segments;
Cooperation, e.g., convenience and flexibility of time and place for participants, appropriateness for certain demographic segments (18-49 year olds*);
Validity associated with data accuracy, e.g., research capturing in-the-moment experiences do not rely on memory recall;
Validity associated with the depth of data, e.g., capturing multiple contextual dimensions through text, video, and images;
Validity associated with data accuracy and depth allowing for the triangulation of data;
Researcher effects, e.g., mitigated by the opportunity for greater reflection and consistency across research events;
Participant effects, e.g., mitigated by the multiple ways to express thoughts, willingness to discuss sensitive issues, and (possibly) a lower tendency for social desirability responding; and
Efficient use of resources (i.e., time, money, and staff).
There are also potential drawbacks to any technological solution, including those associated with:
Uneven Internet access and comfort with technology among certain demographic groups (e.g., sampling favors “tech savvy” individuals), hard-to-reach and marginalized segments of the population;
Difficulty in managingengagement, including the unique researcher skills and allocation of time required;
Potential participant burnout from researcher’s requests for multiple input activities and/or days of engagement. This is a type of participant effect that negatively impacts validity;
Nonresponse due to mode, e.g., unwillingness or inability to participate to a mostly text-based discussion;
Data accuracy, e.g., participant alters behavior in a study observing in-home meal preparation;
Missing important visual &/or verbal cues which may interfere with rapport building and an in-depth exploration of responses;
Difficulty managing analysis due to lots and lots of data (in volume & formats);
Fraud, misrepresentation – “Identity is fluid and potentially multiple on the Internet” (James and Bushner, 2009, p. 35) and people may not share certain images or video that reveal something “embarrassing” about themselves**; and
Security, confidentiality, anonymity (e.g., data storage, de-identification).