Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the use of online video conferencing software has been revered for its capability of bringing people together. The widespread organising of pub quizzes, family catch-ups and work meetings has led video-conferencing host Zoom to become a household name. But can Zoom be used for social research? As an MA student researching the undergraduate student experience of food insecurity, the current context of pandemic caused me to refocus my data collection from face-to-face interviewing to online methods. Reflecting on my experiences of using Zoom, I highlight the pros, cons and necessary adjustments I’ve made to maintain data quality and ensure ethical standards.
Choice and Flexibility
The group of interviewees included 12 full-time undergraduate students studying at at ten UK universities, aged between 21-30, and identified as having ‘low’ or ‘very low’ food security. Inviting students experiencing food insecurity to participate in an online interview using Zoom was largely well received, with most of the participants being familiar with the software. The user-friendly design of the app made it simple to organise interviews and invite participants to the online meeting by email. However, it was important to offer alternate interview modes because of the requirement to download software to use the platform. This understandably may not be to some people’s preference due to security concerns, difficulty downloading without a stable wifi connection, the need to create yet another email-password account, or having limited memory space on mobile/tablet devices. One of eleven participants opted for a telephone interview as an alternative due to only having mobile internet which would cost them on a pay-as-you-go plan. Another participant opted for a Skype call because they had an existing account. Being able to adapt and switch software to accommodate participants’ preferences was important to build rapport and prioritise participants’ needs. Bearing in mind that prospective interviewees may not have access to a high quality internet connection, I hoped that participants felt at ease to choose their preference without pressure by offering these alternatives at the point of invitation, particularly important when arranging interviews with people who may not have easy access to a high-quality internet connection.
Whilst the quality of the connection was mostly very impressive, some technical barriers were inevitably encountered. For one interview, the connection was poor resulting in an inaudible line and broken video. I quickly sent the interviewee a message in the ‘chat’ section of the window apologising for the poor call quality and reiterating that I didn’t want to miss anything important, offering to give them a call on their mobile for a telephone interview instead. I feared that this may have affected rapport, but the incident actually made for a good ice-breaker before going ahead with the interview.
Like other online conference platforms, Zoom allows participants to converse with or without their camera being turned on. As the interviewer, I had my video switched on before interviewees joined the call to welcome them with a smile. Most participants quickly turned their cameras on, but two interviewees decided not to. I reassured them that this was perfectly okay and down to their own preference. Reflecting on the interview, this added layer of anonymity may have facilitated openness. It did not seem to hinder the rapport-building and it was still possible to pick up on the interviewees’ tone of voice to detect stress or nervousness without being able to observe their body language. I found this rapport was built more organically in this circumstance than during the telephone interviews, perhaps because I could use my own body language to show the interviewee that I was listening and taking notes. The quality of the audio on Zoom was also much better than the telephone interviews, so it was easier to detect when the interviewee had finished speaking.
Being able to record the Zoom interviews within the app really aided the transcription process. The call quality was very good. Of course, permission must be sought before recording commences! The impressive quality was in stark contrast to the Skype interview that whilst having similar functionality, did not lend itself to high quality audio or recording. The recording was saved as an M4a file which needs to be converted into Mp3 (or other) file in order to be imported to NVivo software.
One of the main benefits of the Zoom interview strategy was the enhanced ability to work around participants needs and schedules, being able to offer a time that suits interviewees to have a discussion within their own space where they feel comfortable. Interviewees were asked if they were in a private area to talk openly at the beginning of each interview, to which each interviewee responded affirmatively. It was also important to ensure privacy at the interviewer end of the line. I moved to a private space within my own home, in a well-lit area with a neutral background, and plugged in with headphones to put interviewees at ease and to make sure that the conversation would not be overheard. Privacy breaches on Zoom have been highlighted in the news recently, with ‘Zoom-bombers’ invading meetings during the pandemic. To ensure that this was not possible, a unique password for each interview was shared by email to each interviewee and the ‘waiting room’ was enabled so that new joiners had to be ‘admitted’ to the call rather than joining automatically.
Paying close attention to body language and verbal cues was of increased importance without the benefits of physical presence as in the traditional interview. Speaking about food insecurity, particularly at a time when this experience may be exacerbated due to the context of pandemic, can be a distressing subject. I found that most participants were very open and willing to speak about their experiences in detail, more so in the internet-mediated interviews, with or without video enabled, than the telephone interviews. David Robersthaw has reflected on his experience of participant openness, and the effect this has on the researcher-participant relationship, extensively. I would add that openness in this study may also have been facilitated by the reciprocal body language cues from the interviewer or the relative familiarity with video conferencing that some of the interviewees noted.
More Triumphs than Tribulations
The success of using internet-mediated research methods for this project is owed to the openness of the participants, who have shared their experiences during what is a challenging time. Students may be more familiar and comfortable using video software as this is perhaps a normalised strategy of communication. Nonetheless, their readiness to participate fully and coherently without incentive is a nod to the power of Zoom to create a neutral and private setting within which students can engage in research about a sensitive subject.
For this project, Zoom triumphed over other video-conferencing software and carried additional benefits to telephone interviewing. Research projects that wish to utilise this software for future qualitative research must be flexible to participants needs, open to adaptation, and take extra care to maintain security. Whilst internet-mediated research methods inevitably come with technical barriers, and not forgetting digital exclusion, for some internet-literate target groups they can be extremely useful during a time when face-to-face interviewing is not possible, and beyond...
Lilly Monk is a Social Research (Social Policy) MA student at the University of Birmingham with an interest in food security, children and young people, and wellbeing. You can find her on Twitter here.