Skip to main content


Visual Timeline Interviews Over The Telephone: Findings From The STAR Family Study

8 July 2020


My passion and enthusiasm lies in relevant and impactful public health and qualitative research. Leaving university with a degree in Psychology, I worked closely with vulnerable groups in various mental health settings before training as an independent domestic violence advocate with Women’s Aid. These experiences, although fulfilling and rewarding, highlighted the importance and impact of evidence-based research, igniting a desire and aspiration to contribute to the evidence base and pursue a career in research. 

STAR Family Study

I have since strived to build my portfolio of experience in research, enhancing and refining my skills as a research associate within CTR and DECIPHer. My enthusiasm for qualitative research and general tenacity to acquire opportunities led to my involvement in ‘The STAR Family Study’ led by Dr Rhiannon Phillips, a study exploring the needs of women with Autoimmune Rheumatic Disease (ARD) throughout their journey to motherhood. 

Woman-Centred Approach

We expected women’s stories to be personal, sensitive and evocative and adopted a woman-centred approach and ethos for the study. With this in mind, we chose to use timeline-facilitated interviews; a qualitative data collection method usually used with vulnerable or marginalised groups to help redistribute some of the power imbalance that can occur in standard semi-structured interviews. Additionally visual timelines encourage participants to create a visual representation of their chronological journey and share their lived experiences in their own way, providing some aspect of ownership over their narratives – features considered of high importance in The STAR Family Study. 

Novel Ways of Using Visual Timelines

Timeline-facilitated interviews typically take place face-to-face; but the population of interest in The STAR Family Study was a potentially hard-to-reach group, geographically dispersed across the UK, resulting in some interviews taking place over the telephone. There was no extant literature reflecting on the feasibility of using visual timelines over the telephone, so with support from Dr Rhiannon Phillips, Dr Aimee Grant and Dr Denitza Williams I sought to address this gap, ultimately leading to the following research questions:

  1. How were the visual timelines used by women and researchers in the telephone interviews (e.g., what visual form did they take, who was involved in generating the timelines, were the timelines shared with the researcher and if so when)?
  2. What impact did their use have on the generation of data in terms of the interviewee-interviewer dynamic and formation and sharing of women’s narratives?
  3. What impact did visual timelines have on the quality of data produced in telephone interviews in terms of narrative length, detail, and coverage of sensitive and emotive topics?

Our Findings

Bethan Pell presenting on the novel qualitative research methods used in the STAR Family study.

Findings indicated that timeline-facilitated interviews over the telephone worked effectively in The STAR Family Study; generating rich and detailed narratives of women’s personal lived experiences and encouraging ownership and autonomy over interview direction. By reflecting on data generation and quality; methodological data analysis elicited six themes;

  1. Participants use and adaptation of the timeline tool
  2. Timeline exchange at the end of the interview (returning completed timelines to the interviewer)
  3. Framing the interview: emphasizing that women are in control
  4. Jumping straight into narratives
  5. Taking a lead (on interview direction)
  6. Disclosing personal and sensitive experiences. 

Timeline Return

Timeline exchange was an interesting and unexpected finding – where non-return of the timeline meant visual data could not be used to prompt or query during the interview, or analysis. However, within our women’s centred approach, participants’ autonomy and control was prioritised over mandating timeline return, which ultimately altered an aspect of the data generation process. Understanding and balancing these implications is important when considering the use of timelines in the context of a different study.    

Implications of Study Results

Implications of this methodological approach have become more apparent during the current COVID-19 pandemic, where social distancing restrictions have necessitated remote interviewing alternatives (i.e. telephone, zoom, WhatsApp, Skype). This paper emphasises that visual timelines were effective over the telephone, highlighting that other visual methods need to be explored within other contexts and settings. For those of you thinking about qualitative methods during the pandemic, this could be an opportunity to get creative – which visual methods could be adapted to work remotely and for whom? Building an evidence-based for how we can still generate rich, detailed narratives whilst working remotely could have a significant impact on how we think about generating qualitative data in the future, particularly while we navigate our way through conducting research during a pandemic.