Methodological and practical guidance for designing and conducting online qualitative surveys in public health

Online qualitative surveys—those surveys that prioritise qualitative questions and interpretivist values—have rich potential for researchers, particularly in new or emerging areas of public health. However, there is limited discussion about the practical development and methodological implications of such surveys, particularly for public health researchers. This poses challenges for researchers, funders, ethics committees, and peer reviewers in assessing the rigour and robustness of such research, and in deciding the appropriateness of the method for answering different research questions. Drawing and extending on the work of other researchers, as well as our own experiences of conducting online qualitative surveys with young people and adults, we describe the processes associated with developing and implementing online qualitative surveys and writing up online qualitative survey data. We provide practical examples and lessons learned about question development, the importance of rigorous piloting strategies, use of novel techniques to prompt detailed responses from participants, and decisions that are made about data preparation and interpretation. We consider reviewer comments, and some ethical considerations of this type of qualitative research for both participants and researchers. We provide a range of practical strategies to improve trustworthiness in decision-making and data interpretation—including the importance of using theory. Rigorous online qualitative surveys that are grounded in qualitative interpretivist values offer a range of unique benefits for public health researchers, knowledge users, and research participants.

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