Computer-Mediated Communication to Facilitate Synchronous Online Focus Group Discussions: Feasibility Study for Qualitative HIV Research Among Transgender Women Across the United States

American Cohort To Study HIV Acquisition Among Transgender Women

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12 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: Novel, technology-based methods are rapidly increasing in popularity across multiple facets of quantitative research. Qualitative research, however, has been slower to integrate technology into research methodology. One method, computer-mediated communication (CMC), has been utilized to a limited extent for focus group discussions. OBJECTIVE: This study aimed to assess feasibility of an online video conferencing system to further adapt CMC to facilitate synchronous focus group discussions among transgender women living in six cities in eastern and southern United States. METHODS: Between August 2017 and January 2018, focus group discussions with adult transgender women were conducted in English and Spanish by research teams based in Boston, MA, and Baltimore, MD. Participants were sampled from six cities: Baltimore, MD; Boston, MA; New York, NY; Washington, DC; Atlanta, GA; and Miami, FL. This was formative research to inform a technology-enhanced cohort study to assess HIV acquisition among transgender women. This analysis focused on the methodologic use of CMC focus groups conducted synchronously using online software that enabled video or phone discussion. Findings were based on qualitative observations of attendance and study team debriefing on topics of individual, social, technical, and logistical challenges encountered. RESULTS: A total of 41 transgender women from all six cities participated in seven online focus group discussions-five English and two Spanish. There was equal racial distribution of black/African American (14/41, 34%) and white (14/41, 34%) attendees, with 29% (12/41) identifying as Hispanic/Latina ethnicity. Overall, 29 of 70 (41%) eligible and scheduled transgender women failed to attend the focus group discussions. The most common reason for nonattendance was forgetting or having a scheduling conflict (16/29, 55%). A total of 14% (4/29) reported technical challenges associated with accessing the CMC focus group discussion. CMC focus group discussions were found to facilitate geographic diversity; allow participants to control anonymity and privacy (eg, use of pseudonyms and option to use video); ease scheduling by eliminating challenges related to travel to a data collection site; and offer flexibility to join via a variety of devices. Challenges encountered were related to overlapping conversations; variable audio quality in cases where Internet or cellular connection was poor; and distribution of incentives (eg, cash versus gift cards). As with all focus group discussions, establishment of ground rules and employing both a skilled facilitator and a notetaker who could troubleshoot technology issues were critical to the success of CMC focus group discussions. CONCLUSIONS: Synchronous CMC focus group discussions provide a secure opportunity to convene participants across geographic space with minimal time burden and without losing the standardized approach that is expected of focus group discussions. This method may provide an optimal alternative to engaging hard-to-reach participants in focus group discussions. Participants with limited technological literacy or inconsistent access to a phone and/or cellular data or service, as well as circumstances necessitating immediate cash incentives may, however, require additional support and accommodation when participating in CMC focus group discussions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e12569
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 29 2019


  • formative research
  • qualitative research
  • technology
  • transgender

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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