Sociological Research Online

Augmenting the Basic Online Interview Process

The use of computers to facilitate the online interview method allows for the use of additional software with the method outlined. Without discussing all possible future developments that may add value to the approach, three realistic additions are outlined below to provide some suggestions as to how the online interview method can be supplemented.

Using Ancillary Software in the Online Interview

Allowing the researcher to work from their desktop computer, the online interview is compatible with a number of ancillary software packages. This software could be used to manage questions and data, speeding up the interview process and the post-interview data analysis A number of examples are outlined, including databases and supporting software, CATI (CASI or CAPI), and qualitative data managing software.

The online method can be supported by multitasking software to assist the researcher. This can be achieved through the storage of questions or information, or the recording of notes during the interview. A wide range of software packages could be used for these purposes, from simple text editors (to record notes or hold prepared questions that can be simply "cut and pasted" into the interview conversation) to sophisticated databases containing multiple questions, facts, data or primary materials.

Telephone interviewing has used computers as a primary part of the interview process for some time. Computer-Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) allows for the conduct of a wide number of semi-structured interviews with prepared questions and a predetermined response frame to quickly analyse data and provide a number of subsidiary lines of questioning depending on the responses given. The presence of the researcher at their computer can allow the adoption of this form of technology to prepare highly structured interviewing free of interviewer errors (Neuman, 1994:252). While this technology is often used for online surveys (which tend to be automated using online forms and CGI scripts), it would be possible to adopt this technology where a wide number of interviews are required and there is extensive duplication of questioning. This would produce a "hybrid" approach, with initial prepared questioning (and automatic classification of responses) followed by semi- and unstructured follow-up questioning. The important difference between CATI and CASI / CAPI is the required presence of a human who can be instructed to provide limited assistance or field ancillary / follow-up questions.

Another option is the use of qualitative data management software for the storage and management of interview transcripts as an aid for the interrogation and analysis of detailed interviews. One example of this software is NUD*IST (Non-numerical, Unstructured, Data: Indexing, Searching and Theorising). This package allows the researcher to catalogue and index components of documents, search for key words or phrases and allows for the retrieval of indexed segments of multiple documents quickly and easily (Buston, 1997).

Should the researcher be considering the use of this type of analytical package, modifications may need to be made to the way interview transcripts are stored to prevent the requirement for substantial modification to the text at a later date. Thus, using Buston's example of NUD*IST, a number of technical requirements may need to be built into the transcription process: The insertion of hard carriage returns to delineate text units, the insertion of a header (details about the interviewee, the nature of the interview and interviewers comments) and the decision to place subheaders in the text. Depending on the detail required these additions to the transcript can be made automatically or through the addition of extra functions in the HTML document (such as the insertion of a CGI script to produce a self-reported header into the transcript or the inclusion of additional features in the interviews response frame to select questions to be marked as sub-headers. Obviously, the use of these types of analytical software needs to be evaluated prior to adoption by the researcher (Mimichiello, 1995), but their technical requirements can be built into the basic online interviewing script to assist in the transition of the raw text into the data management software.


The World Wide Web has the facility for simple translations to be accessed by any standard browser. Alta Vista provides a basic translation service for English, French, German and Spanish, however other desktop packages are becoming available.

The limitations of this software are obvious: as an example a sample passage was entered into the online form and converted into French before being converted back into English. Compare the differences:

English Original:

Doctor Smith, What would you say is the most likely cause of these changes to the political climate of Italy, given your understanding of macro-level political analysis?

French Translation:

Médecin Smith, que diriez-vous est-vous la cause le plus susceptible de ces changements au climat politique de l'Italie, donné votre compréhension d'analyse politique d'instruction-macro-niveau?

French Translation translated:

Smith doctor, whom would you say is you the most suitable cause for these changes to the political climate of Italy, given your comprehension of political analysis of instruction-macro-level?

From this example the literal translation offered provides limited utility to the researcher, especially where complex terminology, sentence structure, or jargon are required. Translation through the Alta Vista service would slow the process (depending on server speed and the usage of the service). Experimentation with the current software provides some clues to understanding how to produce clearer translations (the use of very simple sentences, avoidance of complex explanations), however the researcher would face a wide range of limitations interpreting any data provided from this method.

These limitations accepted, however, it is important to note that this service does provide some facility to interview French, Italian, Spanish or German speakers where this would not be otherwise possible (where financial and time pressures are paramount). When using data gained from this form of interview it would be important for the researcher must clearly articulate the form of the interview to the reader and identify the limitations of the software used. Cultural differences are highlighted in many basic texts on cross-cultural differences, and, while these would apply to any translated interview, can be exacerbated when non-verbal cues are removed from the interview process. Additionally, given that any researcher using this method would be unfamiliar with the language their words are being translated into, it would be possible to generate false results from the misinterpretation of a question or, given the social nature of the interview process, create some adverse response from the interviewee (due to an offensive mistranslation, for example).

Encryption and Privacy

Improvements in encryption technology could be applied to the basic method outlined in this paper. Issues of privacy are of increasing concern to Internet users, but have been of central concern to researchers for a long time. Issues such as ensuring of confidentiality and the ability of the researcher to ensure that their transcripts are secure have been discussed in detail elsewhere (see Dexter), however given perceptions of the Internet as an unsecure communication tool the provision of secure encryption of the interview could encourage otherwise reticent interviewees to engage in the interview. Currently there are a number of encryption programs available for use in encrypting messages, the most common being the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) form of public key encryption.

This software uses an encryption program and two "keys" a public key and a private key. Before the transmission of messages the sender uses the receivers public key to encrypt the data, which is decoded using the receivers private key (Pretty Good Privacy Inc, 1997:3-5). This method allows for the secure encryption of messages as well as the ability of both the interviewer and the recipient to verify the messages of the other person. This software adds a level of complexity, however, (both in terms of establishing the interview [the exchange of public keys], undertaking the interview [adding the encryption program between the interviewer/interviewee and the browser software], and the ability of both parties to use the technique [some degree of computer competence and understanding is required as the software and the concepts behind it are moderately complex]). Additionally, it is important to consider the legalities of transmitting encrypted messages. Some nations have outlawed the transmission of encrypted messages and signals, and the researcher must investigate the current legal status of this practice before engaging in encryption.