To Skype or not to Zoom? Qualitative data gathering under lockdown

By Natasha Stonebridge, PhD student with Psych Sciences – @Proper_Natter

I had thought that my ability to be super-agile had been popped to the back of my skills wardrobe when I moved from the corporate sector to academia.  But no, it’s been dusted off and prepped in light of COVID-19 and the realisation that original data gathering plans had to be re-worked, and quickly. 

I had been due to facilitate a series of focus groups beginning the third week of March.  Participants were recovering patients who had gone through a nature-based social prescribing intervention.  They would be interviewed as they had participated in the intervention, as a group.  However with the COVID-19 lockdown looking imminent and the health of the group a priority, taking the meeting online was the only option to 1) ensure everyone’s safety and 2) that feedback was a close to the intervention as possible. 

The feedback from the group was that they wanted to participate; some had Skype, some Zoom, some had no technology, only a landline.  Data gathering went from two days to a two-week period of scheduled video calls with groups of 3 to 4 and back-to-back 121 telephone calls.  The interview schedule was changed to reflect the revised format.  I went from facilitator to interviewer and where relevant adopted an elicitation technique, taking verbal responses from other recorded sessions and using them as prompts with new participants to stimulate discussions. 

There were some practical insights that came out of a change of approach.  I learnt that you can’t record more than two participants on video setting, but many on audio (unless you upgrade your account).  I learnt that both Skype and Zoom offer a recording facility that is fully encrypted.  I learnt that you can also successfully record the conversation with a voice recorder aimed at your screen.  I learnt that there are a lot of cameras pointed mostly at people’s ceilings.

But I also learnt that people wanted to talk much more than the time I’d allocated.  They talked around the subject, their candid feelings of lockdown and of isolation (sadly not part of this study).  They asked to be contacted again, “was there anything else they could help with?”. They needed to be part of something, to contribute, to connect and so did I.  It was a strange beginning to my own lockdown experience but one that gave me structure and an excuse to engage.   With respect to the data collected, there is now a heady mix of group and individual responses; the interaction of the group is recorded as well as some deeper insights which may not have come from a group discussion. 

There are other less friendly observations regards increased online data gathering; it is incredibly exhausting.  I found I had to schedule buffer time between calls to decompress.  Plus there is none of the energy you get from actual engaged people in a room (if you’re someone who sparks off people that is).  So it was important for me to speak to someone in confidence, such as my supervisor, to download some of the more upsetting content shared.

Lockdown restrictions may have presented time critical challenges such as above, but now we’re further on in, I’m seeing some exciting ways to data gather given we’ve had a few weeks to stretch our agile muscles.  For example, I spoke to a researcher who’s project was due to run four workshops and a touring exhibition to encourage discussion and raise awareness of the area under investigation.  Like many others, the physical outreach element of the study has been put on pause, however a call to participate has been made via social media channels.  Contributions requested include short stories, poems, sketches, photos, videos or soundscapes, and it is hoped these can be feed into the workshops and exhibitions later on; making way for a much richer and diverse set of data.

If gathering data under lockdown presents us with challenges, it also presents us with the age-old opportunity of time; to explore richer insights and new ways of working that were there anyway, we just needed to turn toward them.

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