Table 2

Challenges, mitigations and lessons learned amid remote, qualitative data collection across four settings

Challenges exacerbated by remote approachesHow we mitigated these in our studiesLessons learned
Research phase: data collector training
  •  All research team members need to know how to use the remote technology: Internet, break-out room creation, etc.

  •  Greater need to train research team members on how to navigate and prioritize sections of interview guides to allow for unplanned, abbreviated dialogues (if electricity or internet drops) and to reduce silences that aren't linked to probing (reducing the time that an interviewer might shuffle through papers)

  •  Active listening, concentration, and attentiveness become even more important when language is the only tool to communicate

  •  Do special, opt-in pretraining on online learning prior to the start of formal training for those who are less tech savvy

  •  Embrace (and openly recognize) that some team members have strengths that others lack; urge openness and patience with tech challenges

  •  Facilitate interviewer familiarity and practice with interview guides in advance of implementation

  •  Spend time revisiting interviewing techniques

  •  More time is needed for staff to practice using online platforms and to pilot interview guides

  •  Build an “experiential” practice team to create a win-win situation (a dyad of a low-tech and high-tech person)

  •  Have a stand-by ‘go-to’ person to help troubleshoot concerns (someone from information technology or someone who is relatively more tech-capable in the team)

  •  Provide timely and targeted feedback on remote interviewing techniques during practice or pilot interviews, even for experienced interviewers

Research phase: respondent recruitment
  •  Getting permission from local authorities and regulatory bodies

  •  Identifying and electronically coordinating with gatekeepers (healthcare providers or village health teams for facility-based recruitment; community groups, and community health workers for neighbourhood recruitment; city councils for established community groups; state or district health/medical associations for private health providers)

  •  National regulations on use of communication technology and use of phone numbers to reach a wider audience

  •  Participants may not be prepared or feel comfortable to undertake interviews at the time of recruitment, particularly when cold called. They may feel suspicious about how you got their contact information and why you are contacting them

  •  Communicate via multiple, official pathways (email addresses and letters via official channels such as couriers and phone calls)

  •  Develop a phone script for the remote recruitment process to ensure you have reached the right person before inviting them to participate in the study

  •  Place special focus on introducing yourself and your organisation as well as explaining how you got the respondent’s phone number. Give a chance to the participant to verify that the person doing recruitment is not an impersonator

  •  Allow participants to pick the date and time of the interview and reinforce they should schedule the interview for when they can be in a private, quiet place, and have their phone charged (for phone-based interviews), and can be prepared to write down important contact details (when using verbal consent)

  •  Have the same person doing recruitment be a part of data collection, where possible.

  •  Establish a good working relationship with the respective secretaries or focal persons of the local authorities to ensure study follows highest ethical and legal standards

  •  Via phone or live video (not recorded to ensure data privacy), partner with gatekeepers and stakeholders in selecting study participants based on your inclusion and exclusion criteria

  •  Call potential participants to set-up phone-call meetings; and, any follow-up communication to clarify the research and any pending permissions, review or approvals

  •  The recruitment process provides an opportunity to prepare participants for the differences between in-person and remote interviews and to build initial rapport

  •  At recruitment, emphasize to participants the need to fully charge phone batteries and or access a reliable phone

Research phase: consent
  •  Getting consents correctly and privately

  •  Ensuring ongoing consent both throughout the interview, and at each interaction if conducting longitudinal and iterative interviews

  • Develop a standard operating procedure to ensure that elements of a good informed consent process can be achieved (e.g. give complete but shortened information followed by 2–3 questions to confirm comprehension)

  • If written consent is required, send copies of information sheet and consent forms days prior to the discussion via email, text message (e.g. WhatsApp, Viber) or courier

  • Use verbal consent procedures and audio-record confirmation of comprehension and consent

  • Provide reminders to respondents to return signed consent forms in advance of interviews by email or text message (e.g. WhatsApp)

  •  Partner with community health workers to help distribute information sheets and consent forms; and collection of signed informed consents

  •  Work closely with local ethical boards to ensure that your electronic procedures align with good health and research practices

  •  Audio/video record the signing or statement of consent

  •  Accept local preferences if they align with local ethics review boards (e.g. in one setting, we found that respondents prefer ‘selfie’ consents so we adopted it)

  •  If printing, signing and sharing written consent forms is not possible (due to lack of access to printer, fax machine, etc.), consider an electronic/digital signature as an endorsement of consent

Research phase: preparing for the interview
  •  Ensuring a stable internet connection

  •  Finding a private and quiet space, conducive for interviews for researchers and participants

  •  Building sufficient trust to allow sensitive discussions

  •  Ensuring dedicated, charged mobile phones with sufficient talk time for researchers and participants

  •  Identifying ways to reimburse participants for their time

  •  Provide free mobile data packages or access to phones to participants and data collectors

  •  Empower participants to choose any online platform they like

  •  Reinforce that the study can provide technical assistance to participants and data collectors in setting up online platforms to alleviate fear of technology

  •  Arrange mobile money set-up to supply remote participant reimbursement

  •  Prepare to invest much more time in this phase as a means to build rapport

  •  Exchange more dialogue in whichever preferred mechanism the respondent suggests (emails, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, phone calls, etc.)

  •  Be transparent. Let participants know if someone is with you during the interview session (i.e., presence of a note taker or observer); introduce this person and let the other person say their pleasantries

  •  Prepare for additional follow-up to ensure respondents have received reimbursements (e.g. via mobile banking or airtime incentives)

Research phase: conducting the interview
  •  Difficulty following the flow in a natural way due to outside (or technology related) distractions

  •  Participant suspicion around why interviewer is calling, who they are and how their number was obtained

  •  Needing to confirm to whom interviewer is speaking while avoiding possible disclosure of sensitive information (e.g. HIV status)

  •  Participants requesting call-backs at later times when phone available to them or when they are not busy

  •  Possibility of phone cutting due to network or charging issues.

  •  Being prepared with latest information and national guidance for possible questions related to COVID-19 (even if this is not the focus of the study)

  •  Confirm that participants have private, quiet place to engage in interview

  •  Have a clear opening/interview introduction, explaining interviewer identity, how participant’s phone number was obtained and, if possible, association with clinic or institution (as a means to lend credence)

  •  Ask for intended participant by name, be prepared to provide a benign reason for calling that can be given if the intended person does not answer the phone so as not to raise suspicions about health issues

  •  Clarify among the research team what is allowable for participants based on study protocol and nature of interviews (e.g. can another person be present in the interview)

  •  Be flexible in terms of timing (conducting interviews in the morning/evening before respondents begin their workday)

  •  Prioritize most important questions first, probe sub-themes if time permits

  •  Give data collectors scripts regarding COVID-19 and phone numbers to refer people with additional questions

  •  Invest in good lighting devices to facilitate facial expressions and eye contact when video calling

  •  Wear identifying material if that seems appropriate (ID card, etc., to affirm your research role)

  •  Wear a headset to minimise background noise

  •  Set up downloadable video- and audio recording tools (e.g. Audacity, Movavi Screen Captures, and QuickTime)

  •  Practice the recording formats and ways of computer transfer in advance

  •  Use parallel audio recorders as back ups

  •  Prepare for the reality that many interviews will last the full, planned time period (or even longer) despite being over the phone

  •  While not everyone owns a phone, respondents will often guide researchers to a workaround (a phone in a health facility, a shared communal or family phone)

Research phase: debriefing teams post interview
  •  Difficulty gathering all team members since interviews happen at very different times and teams are in disparate locations

  • Schedule debriefings at a time in the evening rather than immediately after data is collected

  • Practice Zoom—and Zoom breakout rooms—for those who require a refresher

  • Provide a structured debrief form for data collectors to fill out after data collection (and send via email or sync to a shared file) to capture immediate postinterview reflections

  • Make sure data collectors get into a rhythm in relation to a debriefing timeline

  • For those who are less tech savvy, if they speak less in a debriefing, draw out their insights more pointedly and make sure the tech supporter (see text above) is on hand