Getting Started: More Online Qualitative Research Design Basics

Categories: Qualitative

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Janet Salmons

Janet Salmons

Designing and online qualitative study works best when a holistic approach is used. It is important to not only take into account overall coherence, as we would in any qualitative research design, but also to reflect on the implications of the specific tools or platforms we intend to use. This is true whether we are using information and communications technologies (ICTs) to access delve into databases, access archives, observe activities on social networking sites, or interview participants.

In a June 15 webinar on MethodSpace , I introduced decision-making considerations for three main areas: aligning the purpose of the study with technology, selecting the method(s), and choosing communication features to use when collecting data.

A number of questions were raised in the webinar, and I’ll try to answer a few of them in this post.

How does one ensure that the person/s you are eliciting information from are really who they say they are? Especially if one is using ICT to cover a vast geographical area…

Given the scope of a one-hour session, we didn’t have a chance to explore issues related to sampling and recruiting participants. This is an important area because most qualitative researchers need participants who have experience with the problem we are studying, and are willing to share it. We need people willing to tell their stories, or show us how they would react in certain situations. If we are recruiting participants online, we take the chance that we will inadvertently recruit individuals who do not really meet inclusion criteria, as well as minimum age. If “nobody knows you are a dog” on the Internet, we want to make sure we aren’t collecting data from dogs!

Here are two tips:

  • Use an existing sample frame. Instead of posting a recruitment message to a general online audience, work through an organization or group that focuses on the topic at hand, and perhaps has some membership conditions, you can more easily locate people who fit the inclusion criteria. Also, you have third-party verification that the individual does have the characteristics you have identified. For example, if you are studying teachers, try to post your recruitment messages through an educational association, if you are studying parents of toddlers, work through a day care center.
  • Use referrals. Another way to achieve third-party verification is through referrals. Do you know people with networks of individuals who meet your inclusion criteria? This approach has the advantage of the personal touch – people are more likely to respond to a recruitment message if it comes from someone they know.


I address this dilemma in detail in Chapter 7 of Qualitative Online Interviews. You can also review this handout on recruiting, this one on sampling, and this media piece about broader ethical issues.

Say that a researcher is investigating the processes used by members of a creative community. How can the researcher preserve protections for their creative products while researching their processes?

Speaking of ethics: another issue to consider is protection of data, particularly when we’re using visual methods. Respect for participants means we need to respect their intellectual property. This is essential in any study, but online, where we have access to photographs, media, and artwork, the line may not be easily drawn between what is public, and what is private. If people post images on social media are they public? Is it acceptable to use images that include personally identifiable information without permission or consent?

In some studies, where we are collecting extant data without interacting with participants, it might be appropriate to simply cite and reference the sources as we would other published materials. When we are interacting with participants, limits to our use of creative products and processes need to be negotiated as a part of the informed consent dialogue. Do participants agree that the researcher only can access and analyze these creative products? Or do participants agree that the researcher can include these creative products in reports or publications? Or must the researcher simply describe characteristics of the creative products in reports or publications, i.e. “beadwork using natural elements, including stains and shells” or, “graphics created collaboratively to represent relationships between minorities and the larger community.”

Some participants are comfortable when researchers include their materials in academic publications such as a dissertation or thesis, but are not comfortable if the researcher wants to include the same materials in a book or article with wider distribution. It is important to come to an agreement on both immediate and long-term preferences as a part of the consent process.

You might be interested in these chapters focused on ethics: Chapter 8 of Qualitative Online Interviews and Chapters 4 and 5 in Doing Qualitative Research Online. You can also review this handout on E-Research Ethics in interview studies, and this one about informed consent.

Another webinar attendee had a question about questionnaires and data analysis.

I plan on using online surveys in a qualitative study and discovered that Survey Monkey is not compatible with NVivo. Do you have any recommendations on this for me and survey software that would be compatible?

SurveyMonkey is compatible with NVivo. By integrating these tools, you are able to more easily analyze responses to narrative, open-ended questions.

See these resources:


Were your questions answered after you attended the webinar or viewed the recording? If not, post them here. If you have suggestions for future webinars and/or blog posts, feel free to share them. You can also join the Qualitative E-Research Group on MethodSpace and contribute your own ideas and experiences, or suggest resources.

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