Two women participating in a computer video call

Can you see me now? My experiences testing different modes of qualitative data collection

Over the course of my career, I’ve conducted more than 300 individual interviews and over 100 focus group discussions. It’s a favorite part of my job because it connects me with people I might never have met otherwise, and gives me license to ask all kinds of fascinating questions that I wouldn’t typically ask upon a first meeting – about anything from decision-making, fears and desires, to infertility, sex and drugs. It is astounding what people will tell you in the research context if you ask questions with a combination of purpose and genuine interest and then listen carefully, with curiosity and empathy. These are all elements of rapport – the social connection recognized as fundamental to qualitative research – that helps to put the respondent at ease and facilitate the sharing of authentic life experiences and honest opinions. We want to minimize the potential for social desirability bias (the tendency for respondents to say what they think we want to hear or what they perceive to be the “right” answer) by making it clear that we value each individual’s unique experiences and perspectives, regardless of whether they align or diverge from what “other people” might think.

Most qualitative interviewing and moderating I’ve done has been in person, in the same room with the person I’m talking to. But how important is that face-to-face setting, not just for establishing rapport, but in generating good qualitative data? Recently, colleagues and I completed some research about the research process to find out. We designed a study to compare the data generated by individual interviews and focus groups that were conducted in person (the traditional approach) and via three online platforms: video, text-based chat and message-board style posts. I’ll talk about how the collected data compared in a future post (or check out the article here). In this post I’d like to first introduce the topic by sharing some reflections from the perspective of an interviewer on what’s gained and lost between the modes of qualitative data collection – and how to get the most out of whichever medium you employ. I’ll briefly describe the modes of data collection we used in our study and highlight the strengths and challenges of each to facilitate consideration of which data collection approach may be most suitable for a given research project. In the matrices, I also include some tips and tricks.

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