Visual Methods in Online Interviews


Visual methods have long been used by social scientists to document people, events, or artifacts, or to enrich the communication between researchers and participants. Now that information and communications technologies have made cameras, drawing software, and other tools readily available, visual exchanges can be used to enhance online interviews. The author's Typology of Online Visual Interview Methods provides a framework for linking online communication styles with data collection activities. The case profiles a study conducted using visual communication, elicitation, and collaboration techniques in interviews conducted in a web-conferencing platform. The author offers suggestions for readers interested in designing such studies.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the case, you should

  • Understand essential principles necessary to design a study that collects visual data in the context of an online interview
  • Be able to explain the use of photographs, diagrams, visual artifacts, or media to generate discussion with interview participants
  • Have a better understanding of the use of web conferencing for interviews
  • Be able to plan an interview using visual online methods as a means to collect rich data

Collecting Visual Data in Online Interviews

When designing a study about collaborative e-learning, I noted a lack of empirical research from the point of view of online instructors. I decided to use a phenomenological approach to focus on instructors’ perceptions of the value of collaborative e-learning in the context of their coursework, their designs for such projects and learning activities, and their assessment of the outcomes. Prior to the study, I had developed a prototype model and wanted to use it as to elicit and organize participants’ responses. The question guiding this research was based on the perceptions of online educators: To what extent did the structure of their collaborative assignments correspond to the prototype Taxonomy of Collaborative E-Learning and what factors affect the design, facilitation, and outcomes of those activities?

The study was framed using Husserl's concepts of noema, the phenomenon that is experienced and noesis, the act of experiencing (Husserl, 1931). For the purpose of this study, examples of collaborative e-learning activities were defined as the phenomenon or noema, and the instructors’ experiences of preparing, facilitating and evaluating this kind of learning activity were defined as noesis.

I faced three challenges when determining how to carry out this study. First, I was interested in innovative approaches used in varied settings so the sampling criteria specified inclusion of online instructors in diverse international institutions. Second, the study aimed to solicit the perspectives of these instructors on a prototype model. The model was presented graphically. Additionally, since I asked participants to share their own learning activities, I wanted the capability to view them during the interview. The need for this kind of exchange meant neither an email nor audio-only telephone interview could generate appropriate data. The third constraint was financial: I did not have research funds necessary to facilitate on-site, live interviews with participants across the globe.

At the time, I was an active webinar presenter. One day, the proverbial light bulb went off: since the web conference platform allowed for sharing, creating, or annotating visuals as well as synchronous conversation with each participant, why not use it for interviews? That is what I did. The experience allowed for collection of rich data and inspired an ongoing exploration of the design, conduct, and analysis of visually rich online interviews. This phenomenological study about collaborative e-learning provides an exemplar for this ‘Method in Action Case Study’ about visual approaches in online interviews.

What Is Visual Research?

Visual research has traditionally been used by ethnographers, anthropologists, and other researchers interested in capturing meanings of the research phenomena that cannot be reduced to text. Such researchers collect visual data to give a deeper sense of the cultural or social milieu in organizational or international settings that may be unfamiliar to the reader.

Qualitative researchers want to get as close as possible to the phenomena they are investigating. When qualitative researchers observe a phenomenon and take field notes, data on the phenomenon is filtered through the researchers’ impressions and choices. What did the researcher choose to record—and what escaped notice or attention? When qualitative researchers interview participants who have experienced the phenomenon, researchers rely on the participants’ recall of their experiences and on what they choose to share about the experience. In such studies, the data collected are a step or two away from the actual phenomenon. By collecting and analyzing visual images of the event, setting, artifacts, and people, researchers are able to create ‘thicker’ descriptions of the phenomenon.

According to Banks (2001, 2007), visual researchers have used two broad approaches to collect data by mixing interviews and observations. First, they have used visual images including photographs, film, or drawings to capture observations in the field and document field data. Second, researchers have collected and studied images created by research participants or others in the participants’ culture. Based on a literature review aimed to determine visual researchers’ motivations, Helen Pain similarly described two categories: those principally related to enrichment of data collection or presentation and those concerning the relationship between participants and researchers (Pain, 2012, p. 304). She pointed out that visuals in research enhanced data collection by facilitating communication, enabling the expression of emotions and tacit knowledge, and encouraging reflection.

These techniques used alone can be interpreted as ‘intrinsically anti-participatory, historically placing the disempowered human subject under the colonially charged gaze of the researcher’ (Literat, 2013). To avoid this unbalanced power dynamic, participatory visual research methods have emerged to ‘give participants a voice’ (Harley, 2012, p. 322). Participatory visual approaches allow researchers to build relationships and rapport by ‘acknowledging participants as experts in their own lives, facilitating empowerment, valuing collaboration, and effecting change in the participant or community’ (Pain, 2012, p. 321). Photovoice uses such an approach because it invites participants to create photographic records of environments or experiences, which can become the basis for an interview discussion (Guell & Ogilvie, 2013). Alternatively, the ‘collaborative image’ approach allows social researchers and the subjects to work together to add to pre-existing images or create new images (Banks, 2007, p. 7).

Another participatory approach uses visuals to elicit responses and stimulate discussion about images or graphics. Diagrams, maps (for graphic elicitation), or photographic images (for photo elicitation) can be generated by the researcher or the participant before or during the interview. These approaches can be fruitfully combined; responses elicited by the images can be conveyed using collaborative images. Pink (2007, 2013) suggests that rather than simply drawing out responses to the image or media, by using collaborative and elicitation techniques, the researcher and participant can create a ‘bridge’ between their different experiences of reality.

What ‘reality’ do we want to comprehend in a given study? Prykel (2003) suggested that the character of research questions raises profound issues for researchers about the kind of knowledge they want to generate and how. Prykel asked whether all questions have to be made in words and I would expand that query to ask: Must questions be posed with words? Must answers be given with words? Can questions be posed with pictures? Can answers be given in pictures? As visual researchers have demonstrated, it is possible to raise questions for discussion with participants by sharing photographs, media, or diagrams to show the conceptual or contextual nature of the research phenomenon. Photographic images can represent details of the phenomenon such as relationships, setting, and context that would take a great deal of time to describe verbally. Graphic images such as diagrams, ‘mind maps’, or geographic maps may depict subject matter ranging from the conceptual to the physical by adopting various degrees of abstraction (Crilly, Blackwell, & John Clarkson, 2006, p. 283).

It is possible for participants to answer researchers’ questions visually. They can generate or select and share the images that represent their experience of the phenomenon, offering a view of people or settings in their homes, offices, or communities otherwise unavailable to the researcher. They can draw or diagram a response by either elaborating on an existing image or creating one. Based on their research using participant-produced drawings, Kearney and Hyle (2004) point out that ‘the cognitive process required to draw leads to a more succinct presentation of the key elements of participants’ experiences’ but that ‘the personal experience depicted by participant produced drawings could only be considered complete with additional interpretation of the drawing by the participant’ (p. 176). This ‘additional interpretation’ given verbally by the participant can stimulate conversation during the interview and serve as a springboard for additional questions.

With the availability of digital cameras and geographic information systems (GIS), drawing and mapping software, and the Internet, such exchanges can now be incorporated into online interviews. As a result, a more nuanced, multifaceted representation of the participant's reality can emerge, offering an opportunity for a rich interview exchange and a deeper understanding of the research phenomena.

What Are Online Interviews?

The term online interviews refers to any dialogue conducted using an information and communications technology (ICT) and carried out for the purpose of data collection. An online interview may be highly structured and delivered via a questionnaire or email, or it may take the form of a completely unstructured conversation by text message or by videoconference. The researcher and participant(s) may communicate online using a computer, laptop, or mobile device. An online interview can occur synchronously, that is, with researcher and participant(s) online at the same time or asynchronously, that is, the researcher and participant(s) are not online at the same time and time may elapse between question, answer, and follow-up. Technologies available to the online interview researcher can be organized into five main categories:

  • Text-based communication. Short notes exchanged synchronously or asynchronously using messaging, chat programs, or social media sites. Other text-based communication includes email, posts to blogs, forums, or social media sites. Most text message platforms allow for use of small digital images called emoticons as a visual shorthand. Images or links to media can also be shared.
  • Videoconference (also known as video chat or video call). Synchronous exchanges that include both audio and visual communications when using a webcam (also known as video chat or video call).
  • Multi-channel web conference space. Synchronous exchanges that can include text communication, videoconferencing, live webcam, shared whiteboard that allows for use of slides, diagrams, media, and live illustration, as well as shared applications.
  • Immersive virtual environment. Using a graphic avatar to represent the user, communication in a virtual world or game may occur using audio or text. Slides, graphics, and media can be shown; in addition, the environment may be designed to simulate the research phenomenon.
  • Locative and map technologies. By utilizing ICTs such as global positioning systems (GPS), and GIS software in conjunction with other communications technologies, the location for the interview can become part of the data and maps become part of the reports.

Each of the five categories of ICTs allows for visual exchange. A number of commercial and open-source platforms as well as social media sites offer some or all of these communication features. As a result, online interview researchers have many communications media options to choose from for researcher–participant dialogue. Since most of these features can now be accessed with mobile devices, online interviews can occur anywhere, including settings directly related to the research phenomena.

How Can Visual Methods Be Used in Online Interviews?

The Typology of Online Visual Interview Methods shows how these exchanges can be used to create and collect data (Salmons, 2010, 2012, 2014). This typology synthesizes visual approaches used in various academic fields into one coherent framework that aligns the computer-mediated form of visual exchange with the research purpose (see Table 1).

Table 1. The typology of online visual interview methods.


Researchers or participants can easily transmit visual images that represent some aspect of the research problem, population, or setting. Images can be sent as preparation for the interview, or during the interview. Or participants can be invited to create visual diaries to document a daily or weekly transmission of the pictures snapped of their experiences or environments. Researchers and participants can view these visual representations of phenomena together as part of the interview, or in preparation for it. Researchers and participants can navigate in visually rich environments. By navigating the online world, they can observe and experience websites, software applications, or virtual environments. Using locative software, they can navigate to and participate in interviews from specific geographic locations. Finally, they can generate visual images to depict relationships between key concepts during the interview or to document emerging understandings of the research phenomenon. As summarized in Table 1, these types of visual exchanges can be used for three participatory purposes during the online interview: visual communication, elicitation, or collaboration. The left column points to options of various ICTs that allow researchers and participants to send images back and forth; view them together synchronously or asynchronously; navigate virtual worlds, games, or other software applications; and/or to create new images. These features allow researchers to use visual communication, elicitation, or collaboration within the interview.

Method in Action: Collecting Data with Visual Online Interviews

The study discussed here was designed to generate a new model for online collaboration in team projects. Visual research approaches are the focus for this case, with contextual information offered as needed to understand the study as a whole.

Eliciting Participants’ Help in Creating a New Taxonomy

The term taxonomy originated in the natural sciences where it is used to describe a system of categories or classifications. Benjamin Bloom adopted the term to describe system of categories for six levels of thinking, from knowledge through evaluation. This Taxonomy of Educational Objectives came to be known as Bloom's Taxonomy. Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, and Krathwohl (1956) observed that beyond just classifying observations, a taxonomy should clarify the relationships among classes of phenomena. To show these classifications and relationships, educators have illustrated Bloom's Taxonomy as a pyramid or mind map, a circle, a hexagon, or a flowchart. The wide use and creative interpretations of Bloom's Taxonomy by educators in diverse settings indicates that such conceptual frameworks are useful to those who plan and design educational offerings.

When determining how to convey the complex and related elements of online collaboration, a taxonomy seemed the appropriate means. For the first step, I developed a prototype Taxonomy of Collaborative E-Learning based on the literature and my own experiences working with student and workplace teams. The prototype distinguished Levels of Collaboration, a sequence of five stages of development for online collaborative activities. The prototype also related a Trust Continuum, suggesting a relationship between trust and the level of collaboration: as collaboration increases, so does the need for trust. The elements of the prototype were used to visually communicate stages of the collaborative process. This prototype Taxonomy became the basis for semi-structured interview questions designed to encourage participants to dissect the elements of collaboration in their own experiences.

Preparation Is Essential for the Successful Online Visual Interview

In advance of the interview, I developed a core set of interview questions that were aligned to each level of the Taxonomy. I created a set of PowerPoint™ slides to help structure the interview, with one question and related graphic element of the Taxonomy on each slide. I prepared the web-conferencing meeting space; slides were uploaded in advance of the interviews. In addition to a space for slides, the web meeting space allowed for with dialogue through VoIP two-way audio, text chat, and shared whiteboard. I was familiar with this particular platform but still took time to rehearse the interview procedure so I could focus on participants, not buttons. Each full interview was recorded, including audio and visual exchanges.

Participants with expertise in designing collaborative projects were recruited from across the globe. The first stage of interaction with consenting participants began via email. Since inclusion criteria specified experience in e-learning, it could be assumed that the sample population had computers, Internet access, and comfort with communicating online.

The prototype Taxonomy, with an explanation, was sent to each consenting participant in advance to allow for the graphic elicitation process to begin before the interview. Participants were also invited to prepare for the interview by thinking about an example of a successful collaborative project they could analyze using the Taxonomy.

Conducting the Online Visual Interview

Research participants were provided with a link to the web-conferencing platform; they simply logged in to the private interview space. Each interview opened with transmission of my image by webcam to welcome the interviewee and to establish rapport. I felt that by sharing my face, I somehow righted the balance since I was asking participants to share so much of their own creative thinking. Since it was each participant's first time for an online interview, I tried to create a warm, conversational milieu.

Images of each of the five levels of the Taxonomy were sequentially viewed together, and meanings of each respective level within the larger context of the online collaborative process was discussed. Then, research participants used shared whiteboard tools to draw on the screen, charting steps, categorizing, and mapping stages of collaboration based on their own experiences. This entailed generating visual depictions of relationships between concepts and steps described in the Taxonomy. Participants also were given the opportunity to suggest or illustrate adaptations to the five levels of collaboration described by the prototype or to generate images depicting new levels or approaches.

Determining Results

The verbal aspects of the recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim and scrutinized using phenomenological content analysis. The diagrams were re-drawn and shared with participants via email to complete the member-checking stage. With their permission, the widely varied examples ( were also distributed among participants, which generated informal follow-up discussions.

In the interviews or the follow-up dialogue, none of the participants chose to add to or to revise existing levels in the Taxonomy. They collectively felt that the stages of collaboration were adequately represented in the prototype. However, a number of changes were made. One change related to ways shared outcomes were reached, acknowledging that more than one ‘level’ of the collaborative process might be used within one project. Another change related to the addition of an icon to represent individual preparations for collaborative efforts or the reflective, solitary dimension (such as journaling about the project) of individuals. The single arrow and star icon ( is now used in the model to describe individual processes and outcomes that take place in the context of the collaborative project.

Interviews utilized almost all of the Typology of Online Visual Interview Methods: transmitting images, viewing images together, and participants’ generating images. The interviews used visual communication, elicitation, and collaboration (see Table 2.)

Table 2. The typology of online visual interview methods used in development of the taxonomy of online collaboration.

Given the nature of the research, visual communication was essential to achieving the purpose of the study. The visual data collected during synchronous interviews and asynchronous email exchanges after the interviews allowed me to collect both individual inputs from each respective participant as well as collective responses from participants to each other's interpretations. The verbal data collected in the interviews were analyzed in parallel with the visual data. Visual data were presented visually, which is to say it was not simply translated into text descriptions. Based on the results, I refined the Taxonomy and created an updated model that reflected the input of participants. The model was initially described as the Taxonomy of Collaborative E-Learning; after the study, it was renamed the Taxonomy of Online Collaboration ( to suggest broader applicability to other settings where people collaborate.

Conclusion: Visual Interviews in a Multi-Media World

Early examples of online interview research described exchanges using text-only communications. Researchers posed questions via email or in chat rooms using written words. Just as personal and social communications have changed to include pictures and media, the potential has increased for visually rich online research exchanges. Such interviews are appropriate when the research topic is complex or abstract.

Researchers with laptops or mobile devices and Internet connections can conduct visual research previously available only to those who could afford film or video cameras, photographers, or graphic artists. The example described in this case demonstrates that a visually oriented study can be conducted with simple technology tools: graphics software to create the diagrams, a web-conferencing suite with recording capabilities, and a webcam.

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • Think of a time when someone successfully used visual approaches (graphics, images, media) to communicate with you. Identify the steps and approaches used, and explain why the message got through to you by a visual means.
  • Select a published study that was conducted with verbal interview methods. Develop an online visual research alternative. How would the visual approaches change the purpose of the study? The participants and settings? The steps for conducting the study? The results?
  • Create a planning checklist for visual interview preparation. What new skills will you need in order to carry out a visual online interview?
  • Conduct a practice online interview using visual research methods with a peer:
    • Using the same interview questions, experiment with different combinations: verbal stimulus/verbal response, verbal stimulus/visual response, visual stimulus/verbal response, and visual stimulus/visual response.
    • Again, using the same interview questions, experiment with using different technologies to conduct the interview with your peer.
    • Compare and contrast the ways you communicated and the kinds of results you obtained.
    • Based on your experience, what kinds of questions elicit the richest responses?
    • What is your peer's assessment of the different interview styles? What was most comfortable? What was uncomfortable?

Web Resources


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