qualitative research design

Unique Online & Mobile Capabilities in Qualitative Research

Unique attributes of qualitative research-Online and mobile

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 7-8).

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.

Online and mobile capabilities represent just one of the 10 unique attributes of qualitative research.

Contextual Analysis: A Fundamental Attribute of Qualitative Research

Unique attributes of qualitative research-Contextual analysis

One of the 10 unique or distinctive attributes of qualitative research is contextual, multilayered analysis. This is a fundamental aspect of qualitative research and, in fact, plays a central role in the unique attributes associated with data generation, i.e., the importance of context, the importance of meaning, the participant-researcher relationship, and researcher as instrument

“…the interconnections, inconsistencies, and sometimes seemingly illogical input reaped in qualitative research demand that researchers embrace the tangles of their data from many sources. There is no single source of analysis in qualitative research because any one research event consists of multiple variables that need consideration in the analysis phase. The analyzable data from an in-depth interview, for example, are more than just what was said in the interview; they also include a variety of other considerations, such as the context in which certain information was revealed and the interviewee–interviewer relationship.” (Roller & Lavrakas, pp. 7-8)

The ability — the opportunity — to contextually analyze qualitative data is also associated with basic components of research design, such as sample size and the risk of relying on saturation which “misguides the researcher towards prioritizing manifest content over the pursuit of contextual understanding derived from latent, less obvious data.” And the defining differentiator between a qualitative and quantitative approach, such as qualitative content analysis in which it is “the inductive strategy in search of latent content, the use of context, the back-and-forth flexibility throughout the analytical process, and the continual questioning of preliminary interpretations that set qualitative content analysis apart from the quantitative method.”

There are many ways that context is integrated into the qualitative data analysis process to ensure quality analytical outcomes and interpretations. Various articles in Research Design Review have discussed contextually grounded aspects of the process, such as the following (each header links to the corresponding RDR article).

Unit of Analysis

“Although there is no perfect prescription for every study, it is generally understood that researchers should strive for a unit of analysis that retains the context necessary to derive meaning from the data. For this reason, and if all other things are equal, the qualitative researcher should probably err on the side of using a broader, more contextually based unit of analysis rather than a narrowly focused level of analysis (e.g., sentences).”

Meaning of Words

“How we use our words provides the context that shapes what the receiver hears and the perceptions others associate with our words. Context pertains to apparent as well as unapparent influences that take the meaning of our words beyond their proximity to other words [or] their use in recognized terms or phrases…”

Categorical Buckets

“No one said that qualitative data analysis is simple or straightforward. A reason for this lies in the fact that an important ingredient to the process is maintaining participants’ context and potential multiple meanings of the data. By identifying and analyzing categorical buckets, the researcher respects this multi-faceted reality and ultimately reaps the reward of useful interpretations of the data.”

Use of Transcripts

“Although serving a utilitarian purpose, transcripts effectively convert the all-too-human research experience that defines qualitative inquiry to the relatively emotionless drab confines of black-on-white text. Gone is the profound mood swing that descended over the participant when the interviewer asked about his elderly mother. Yes, there is text in the transcript that conveys some aspect of this mood but only to the extent that the participant is able to articulate it.”

Use of Recordings

“Unlike the transcript, the recording reminds the researcher of how and when the atmosphere in the [focus] group environment shifted from being open and friendly to quiet and inhibited; and how the particular seating arrangement, coupled with incompatible personality types, inflamed the atmosphere and seriously colored participants’ words, engagement, and way of thinking.”



Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.






Built-in Quality in Qualitative Research: Flexibility of Design

Unique attributes of qualitative research-Flexibility

Many of the unique attributes associated with qualitative research have been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review, e.g., “Achieving Accuracy in the Absence of ‘Truth'” and “Mitigating Researcher-as-instrument Effects.” One of these 10 unique attributes of qualitative research is the flexibility of the research design. Accepting that flexibility is a central and important component that strengthens the qualitative research process will greatly benefit the researcher embarking on a qualitative approach.

There are a variety of ways that qualitative researchers demonstrate flexibility in their designs, data generation, and analysis and thereby strengthen their research. Here are a few:

  • Modifying and adapting the questions that are asked or the direction to take during fieldwork. For example,
    • A moderator may modify the focus group discussion guide after hearing unexpected-yet-relevant discussion points in the first of many scheduled focus groups.
    • In a case study, the researcher may decide to substitute cases or change methods, e.g., switching to in-depth interviews (IDIs) when experiencing unanticipated delays in scheduling focus group discussions.
    • An ethnographer may decide to switch observer roles as they consider new observation and participation strategies.
  • Use of the semi-structured and unstructured interview approach in IDIs and narrative research. This allows for
    • Flexibility in how, what, and when relevant content in the guide is discussed in the interview.
    • Back-and-forth dialogue and encourages each participant’s “voice” to be heard.
  • Asynchronous online modes give participants the flexibility to respond at a time and place of their choosing, making the asynchronous online approach participants’ preferred mode and raising the rate of participant cooperation. For example,
    • Gibson (2010) found that 55 out of 70 research participants opted for an email IDI rather than an in-person IDI, and Beck (2005) extended an email IDI study for 18 months which allowed the researcher to incorporate some complexity and “richness” into the interview.
    • Tates et al. (2009) conducted asynchronous online focus group discussions with pediatric cancer patients, parents, and survivors and found that participants “highly valued the flexibility and convenience of logging in at their own time and place to join the discussion” (p. 1).
  • Location of in-person IDIs can be flexible, allowing the participant to choose a convenient and comfortable location, which has a positive effect on the level of participant cooperation and interviewer-participant rapport.
    • For example, flexibility of location is critical to achieving quality outcomes when conducting an IDI study with building contractors who are constantly moving between projects or busy on construction sites. Depending on contractors’ preferences, the researcher may agree to conducting the interview at a construction site or a nearby coffee shop.
  • Qualitative research analysis is a back-and-forth process whereby the researcher is always questioning assumptions and interpretations of the data as they develop.
    • Verification is an important step in the qualitative data analysis process.

Gibson, L. (2010). Using email interviews (No. 09). Retrieved from http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1303/1/09-toolkit-email-interviews.pdf

Tates, K., Zwaanswijk, M., Otten, R., van Dulmen, S., Hoogerbrugge, P. M., Kamps, W. A., & Bensing, J. M. (2009). Online focus groups as a tool to collect data in hard-to-include populations: Examples from paediatric oncology. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 9(1), 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-9-15