Time to embrace IM?

Taryn Talbott reflects on using Instant Messaging to conduct qualitative research remotely.

It has become increasingly common for psychologists to recruit participants via the internet. Many quantitative researchers use specialist software such as Survey Monkey or Qualtrics to enable the completion of questionnaires remotely. However, qualitative researchers are limited to completing interviews by telephone if they wish to conduct their studies remotely (although video calling is becoming increasingly common). The current coronavirus pandemic is limiting non-essential contact which means qualitative researchers are having to consider different ways of conducting interviews with participants. 

The younger cohort of nearly- and newly- qualified clinical psychologists are likely to be members of a generation familiar with using technology and the internet to communicate with others, and may be able to offer innovative ideas about alternative methods for conducting research interviews remotely. Here, I offer some reflections on the use of one alternative method of completing remote qualitative research interviews.

A flexible method

I completed my thesis at Staffordshire University last year, predominantly using Instant Messaging (IM) e.g. WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, to complete the research interviews. I was initially unsure about using this method, and this was echoed by concerns raised by the university research ethics committee about the quality and richness of data that could be generated using this method. However, I received positive feedback from the participants about the process and feel the data generated was comparable to that generated during a telephone interview (also used in this project).

In this project participants were offered the option of completing interviews face to face, via telephone, video calling, or using IM. All but one chose to complete the research interview using IM. Participants commented that the use of IM encouraged them to participate as they did not feel comfortable using the other methods, and reported finding it easier to type rather than talk to people about difficult feelings. Interestingly, all these participants were aged 30 or below, possibly suggesting a generational effect.

IM is a flexible method of communication which is often accessed using a smartphone, enabling participants to complete interviews from the comfort of their own homes. If the researcher can be flexible around when interviews are completed, this can offer people who may not be able to participate during the traditional working week increased opportunities to participate in research. This method may also increase research opportunities for those with certain sensory impairments or communication difficulties for whom telephone interviews would be difficult or impossible. In addition, the use of IM enables the sharing of other information, such as photographs, meaning the participant is not restricted to verbal communication as they may be with other remote methods. 

A major benefit to researchers of using IM to complete interviews is the reduction of time needed to transcribe the interviews, which can be a considerable commitment in qualitative research. The research interview is transcribed ‘live’ as it is completed and can then be copied and saved into a word processing document, reducing transcription errors. The time for transcription is not reduced entirely to zero, as some time is still needed for editing into a suitable format for analysis… but it is substantially reduced. 

Ethical considerations 

As with all remote methods of completing research, consideration must be given to ethical issues and the management of potential risk. All the participants in this project completed consent forms electronically, often taking a screenshot of the consent form and using the ‘edit’ feature on their smartphone to add their signature indicating their consent to participate. Due to the flexibility of locations that could be used to complete the interviews I felt it was important to provide the participants with some information about my location and assurance that my screen was not visible to other people to offer reassurance around confidentiality.

I based my risk management strategy on the protocol develop by Elaine Kasket (2009) to manage participant distress when completing interviews by telephone or video calling. Some of the signs she mentions that may indicate distress, such as sounds of crying, are not relevant in IM conversations. However, other signs are available including the use of emoticons or emojis by the participant to express their emotional state. Due to the instant nature of IM, the researcher has information about how quickly the participant is responding to the conversation. Long pauses between responses can be a cause for concern, but many IM platforms have some indication that the other party is typing, which offers some reassurance that the participant is engaged with the conversation. Another potential indication of distress may be a change in the participant’s writing style e.g. from long answers to one-word responses. 

Consideration should also be given to the researcher’s personal safety as some IM platforms reveal the telephone number of each party to the other. This raises the potential for unwanted contact which may cause distress. This can be managed by using a ‘public’ telephone number, for example a work telephone.

To the future

This method of completing interviews would not be suitable for all qualitative analysis methods, as it does not provide the level of detail needed. It also excludes some people, such as those on lower incomes or the elderly, from participating – it requires access to a smartphone. Participants should be made aware that interviews completed using this method take longer to complete than those using other methods.

Researchers should be encouraged to consider this innovative method of completing research interviews if it is appropriate to their target population. In clinical practice, information governance services are being more flexible around the use of technology to deliver services during the coronavirus pandemic. I am hopeful that this increased flexibility will be maintained after the pandemic, and that research ethics committees will be willing to embrace the use of newer technologies for conducting psychological research remotely.

Dr Taryn Talbott

Seicolegydd Clinigol                                                      Clinical Psychologist

Gwasanaeth adsefydlu niwrolegol cymunedol                Community Neurological Rehabilitation Service 

Bwrdd Iechyd Prifysgol Aneurin Bevan                           Aneurin Bevan University Health Board 


Kasket, E. (2009). Protocol for responding to participant distress: Adapted version for telephone or Skype. London Metropolitan University. Available from: [email protected].

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