How to…interview across text-based messaging applications

Interviewing people in a space where they are familiar and feel comfortable is important. For many today, this means online platforms such as social media messaging applications (e.g. Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram). Using apps to conduct text-based interviews has had huge advantages during the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing researchers to engage with hard to reach populations, about sensitive topics, in remote fields and over extended periods of times. As part of our methods@manchester ‘How to…’ series Silje Anderdal Bakken (University of Copenhagen) shares her tips drawn from conducting app-based interviews with young people about online illegal drug sales.

What is app-based textual interviewing? 

Everyday text-based communication through various mobile phone applications has become commonplace for the majority of people. Interviewing via text-based apps has become a useful way of conversing with study participants in a flexible way that is not dependent on location or time of day. This challenges traditional face-to-face interviewing that has long been the gold-standard in qualitative research. 

Over the years, various technologies have been used for interviewing, for example emails and online chats. Differently from asynchronous conversations (email) or synchronous conversations (chat), app-based interviews combine the two by allowing both live conversations and spreading conversations across time. This creates both methodological advantages and challenges when planning app-based textual interviews. 

Why is app-based textual interviewing useful during the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Due to COVID 19, physical social interaction, including face-to-face interviewing, has been limited over a long period of time, which has been a setback to many research projects. A way to continue to collect data, despite not being able to meet physically, is to interview across mobile phone applications. In this way, researchers can connect with their target population and engage with a field setting. 

App-based interviewing is also a very flexible way to engage people in research, since participants can answer at times that are best suited for them. This works well with the varied everyday lives of people during the pandemic. It also allows researchers to collect data in other  countries without having to travel. 

Interviewing through apps is also a way to meet a large part of a population in a space where they are already most comfortable with communicating. Especially during the last couple of years, much communication with others has taken place through smartphones or computers. Reaching out to people and offering to talk via these same platforms is a way for us researchers to adapt to the field we are researching.
When to use app-based textual interviewing and when not to? 

In our project, we used a text-based encrypted mobile phone application, “Wickr”, to interview a hard-to-reach population about their participation in illegal drug sales on social media platforms. This was especially appropriate for the young population we were researching, who already used text-based apps to communicate. 

We chose to interview on the same encrypted app that the population already widely used to communicate about their illegal activities. This provided an anonymous space that the population perceived as safe. Not having to meet in person can be an advantage when the interview topic is about sensitive or taboo topics like crime.  

Another advantage with using app-based communication technology in our project was that the project was cross-national, meaning that we collected data across five countries. We had local students helping us to collect data in each of the countries.
Interviewing through apps might not work well with all populations, as interviewees need to know how to use the selected technology and to feel comfortable communicating that way. 

What this method also requires is a way of getting in touch with and recruiting from the target population. In our project this was solved by doing online ethnography and by reaching out through online forums.
In-person vs. text-based conversations 

Interviewing through text also result in shorter answers, which might not be suitable for all research questions or analytical methods. The high flexibility also makes it time-consuming and similar to fieldwork rather than conventional interviewing (at least when not structuring the interviews). 

Furthermore, body language is one example of an element from physical interaction that is not as apparent in textual conversations. It could be argued that a variation of body language is present through texting, which could be expressed by the use of emojis, capital letters or images - however, the emotions transmitted through text are not as spontaneous and sometimes rather carefully selected based on what is perceived as suitable or expected. The lack of body language might have several consequences, such as causing misunderstandings unaccounted for by the researcher - since there are no other hints of the meaning of the interviewee’s answers other than the text itself. 

Conversely, interviewing through text makes the language more clear, as it is written down, as opposed to oral transmission encompassing a mix of other communicative signs. It is also important to see the method as part of our highly digital age where most people communicate through text several times a day. This means that people are more used to expressing themselves textually, as well interpreting others’ textual communications.

Working safely with text-based interviewing

Although the project was approved by The Academic Ethics Committee of the University of Copenhagen, the ethical considerations were substantial. Amongst these, there were considerations relating to covert observations, written consent, verifying identity, and the protection of the participants - all in the context of inquiring about their illegal business. It was important for us that the participants kept their anonymity, and also that we, as researchers, did not store too much sensitive information.

During participant recruitment, all interviewees received information about the study, the name of the principal investigator and the study coordinator - this was done by using a set format for the initial recruitment message. Whilst we also referred to the official University project website, a few participants wanted to double check if we were genuine by sending a question to our official emails through the University website that we had to answer on Wickr. 

There were some challenges, such as verifying the participants’ age (as they were required to be old enough to consent to participation). Verification of age was done by simply asking for their age at the beginning, and by being attentive to hints of a lower age. 

We did not get any restrictions from the committee on what we could talk about through the app, but the question guide was carefully edited to ask questions in a suitable way (broad questions in the beginning, more sensitive questions towards the end). It is therefore important to note that interviewing at a distance also provides researcher protection, as well as security for the interviewee.

How to conduct app-based textual interviewing 

All the interviews were held individually, within the same application - the bulk of the interview was conducted through semi-structured approaches where the researchers used an interview guide for topics and questions that should be covered throughout the conversation. The phrasing of the questions were adjusted to the conversation, as in traditional semi-structured interviews, where our aim was to keep the discussion informal and adapted to the interviewee.


  • Know your population: How do they communicate in their daily lives? Are they familiar with using technology?
  • Create a comfortable and informal online setting that seems natural: Use emojis, make reactions (‘haha’, ‘wow’, ‘I see’).
  • Consider the conversational rhythm of the interviewee and copy it to the degree of getting a good conversation flow: long/short messages, one/many messages in one answer, answering quickly/slow, emojis, etc.
  • Consider how the use of technology impacts the interview (positively/negatively)
  • Be aware of what technology/app you use: Is it an ok platform to do research? E.g., does it store the data? Does the population feel safe enough to open up on this platform?
  • Remember that an important part of the interviewee’s interview context is their physical environment behind their screen: At work? With friends? At night? At a party? Drunk?
  • Do not push the interviewee to answer by nudging the person with several messages. Have patience, but send occasional friendly reminders. Rather inform the interviewee about your limited project time span, and set a time for when to talk.
  • Do not use sarcasm, irony or other expressions that might be easily misunderstood when not being face-to-face (at least not until there is a level of trust that allows it)
  • Do not conduct several interviews at the same time. If you do, take notes or transcribe the interviews right away so that you can separate them from each other and follow up on topics.
Any updates on this method? 
The COVID pandemic has forced several research projects to stop - or to go online. Therefore, app-based textual interviewing has become necessary. Many researchers started to interview uncritically through apps/online, often without considering the methodological and ethical questions that arise with this new context for interviews. It is important that we take advantage of new communication technologies within qualitative research methods, but we also need to take into account data quality implications, our role as researchers, and research ethics. 

You can learn more via the following video: Silje Bakken- 'Meeting  the  interviewees  at their  digital  “home-turf”'
 Further info: 
 More information about the current research, as well as further resources and related publications can be found in Silje’s research outputs.

Opportunities for mastering various research methods can be found within the methods@manchester Summer School 2022 website, offering a wide range of research methods training.

Author Bio:  Silje Anderdal Bakken is pursuing her PhD in sociology at the University of Copenhagen, researching the digitalization of illegal drug markets and the use of digital qualitative methods. Her current project focuses on online drug dealing, more specifically the use of social media and darknet to sell and buy illegal drugs. She is particularly interested in how market participants perform and perceive trust through visual images and self presentations in social media platforms profiles. The main methods used are digital ethnography and digital interviewing, alongside social network analysis and visual analysis.