OPINION16 April 2020

Alone together: Online qual with vulnerable people

Covid-19 Opinion UK

Research with vulnerable or seldom-heard groups is even more important during the Covid-19 outbreak. Marie-Claude Gervais shares her tips for inclusive online research.

Mobile phone and speech bubble graphics

People who are vulnerable – because of poverty, old age, poorer physical or mental health, impairment or minority ethnic status, for instance – are rarely heard in research. This is hard to justify at the best of times. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is plainly unacceptable. More than ever, research is needed to document their experiences and respond to their needs. 

So, here are some considerations when doing online research communities with vulnerable people. This is based on using the Together insight platform but it holds true for most other digital platforms.  

Digital exclusion
You should check the extent to which the target group is digitally excluded – and not rely on assumptions about who is and isn’t online. Too often, the fear of excluding research participants only serves to silence already marginalised groups, and it means that research remains conducted in a few geographical areas that do not necessarily reflect the experiences and needs outside of these areas.

It is true that older people are less likely to be online. So are disabled people, but this is because impairment is strongly correlated with age. Indeed, younger disabled people usually find that the internet provides a real lifeline to connect them to the rest of the world. The main ethnic minority groups are more likely to be online than White British people (Ofcom, 2013 ), largely because they have a younger age profile. The overwhelming majority of the UK population owns a mobile phone, even if they do not own a PC. So it is important, and possible, to include more vulnerable people in digital research. 

Vulnerable people are much less likely to be registered on panels. To construct a representative sample (in the loose sense of avoiding obvious biases), you will need to top up any panel recruitment with qualitative recruitment, using specialist agencies who have extensive networks in the target communities and deep connections with a range of third sector organisations. Depending on how small the total population is, you might also have to add an element of snowballing. 

More effort may need to be devoted to onboarding participants. Consider offering telephone support to guide participants through the first steps: logging onto the platform, completing their profile and accessing the first question. Once people have answered the first question, they have the confidence to keep going. In fact, the very act of taking part builds their IT skills and self-esteem.  

Working with carers
In some cases – such as when seeking to understand the needs of people with learning impairments – it can be appropriate to recruit (and incentivise) a carer to work alongside the target individual in order to document experiences on their behalf. This requires strict guidelines for the carer as well as for the participant to ensure that the target participant is given a proper voice.  

Creating research activities that reflect the capabilities of participants
Most people are proficient enough to use emails. When research participants have low IT literacy, simply use more blogs, group discussions and surveys, and rely less on research activities that require more advanced IT skills, such as documenting life in photos or reporting on internet searches about products and services. In some cases – such as when researching people who are blind or those with limited literacy -  it may be better to use videos than to require people to type out their answers. 

People who are vulnerable deserve to have a positive experience of research: to feel respected, heard and understood. Perhaps more than in other research projects, it is essential that researchers know the appropriate terminology to use, understand the likely challenges and struggles in the target population, and take time to listen, engage, personalise their responses and probe sensitively. 

Online qualitative research should not be considered a cheap shortcut used only because traditional face-to-face is no longer an option. It should be a positive choice because it overcomes many barriers to participation in research among vulnerable people and gives participants time to explore their experiences and formulate their needs, in their own words, and in their own time and place. 

In short, if proper care is given to inclusion, online qualitative research can be a richer experience for participants and yield better insights than interviews or focus groups.

Marie-Claude Gervais is co-founder and research & strategy director at Versiti