Qualitative research design can be thought of as a rough sketch to be filled in by the researcher as the study proceeds.
(Devers & Frankel, 2000, p.264)

Research hinges on a clear research design. ‘Study design’ is the arrangement of essential connected components that direct how you implement a study from start to finish. There are lots of choices for you to make.

‘Qualitative research’ sometimes sounds like a single approach or method. However, one of the fun things about being a qualitative researcher is that everyone has their own perspective and almost everything is up for discussion!

Topic, Goals, Rationale What is your topic? Why is this topic important to you and others? Validity What processes will you use to help ensure that your study is as valid as possible? Research Questions What questions are you hoping to answer? Piloting and Refining Research Design and Methods How will you pilot (or test) your study, questions, and/or methods? Theoretical Framework What theories and empirical studies inform your research? Site and Participant Selection Where will the research take place? Who will be involved in the research? Determining & Sequencing Research Methods What methods will help you to answer your research questions?

Your study design will need to take account of a number of considerations:

  • What is the primary purpose of your research? Do you want to advance our understanding of a concrete problem in the real world? Do you want to develop a new theory or critique someone else’s theory? Do you want to test a possible intervention or evaluate current practice?
  • Who is your audience? Are you going to share your research primarily with people who are familiar with qualitative research methods? Is your audience familiar with the subject matter? Is your audience familiar with the communities involved in the study?
  • How focused do you want your study to be? Do you need to have the tools to study just a few cases or are you addressing big societal questions?

Qualitative research theory divides study designs into different types, including ‘case studies’, ‘ethnography’ and ‘action research’. No matter what type of study you want to undertake, the process of study design follows a number of key steps:

  1. The aim of your study. From the start, you need to be clear about the aim of your study. Study aims are important to justify your study and they help you guide your other design decisions.
  2. Your sample and unit of analysis. Sampling suggests who or what you are interested in collecting information from. In other words, it refers to your selection of settings, participants, times and places of data collection, and other data sources, such as documents.
  3. Your data collection method. This tells you how to gather the information you need, whether through one-to-one interviews, observations, focus groups, etc.
  4. Your data analysis method. This means you know what to do with the information you collect from your participants so that you can draw reasonable conclusions about their experiences, opinions or whatever interests you.
  5. The practical implications of your study. You must make sure you have considered the ethical demands that your research will bring in practice and that you have informed all the relevant people and institutions.

(Bengtsson, 2016)

Specific qualitative study design components are discussed in greater detail in the Qualitative Research Methods section of this Research Methods Toolkit.

(Author: Jonathan (Jonny) Adams)

What is it?

Videos:

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Qualitative research design: More than methods! by Quirkos (2020)

This short video explains how your choice of methods is not the only element of research design. It explains how they must fit in with your epistemology, recruitment strategy and methods of analysis. It also takes you through some of the main considerations within the research design process.

(Academic reference: Quirkos -Simple Qualitative Analysis Software (2020, November 17). Qualitative research design: More than methods!  [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Udp9-A2cIOw) 

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Qualitative research designs by Molly Ott (2016)

This longer video is primarily focused on education research but also explores some general philosophical debates and perspectives in qualitative research design, as well as explaining ethnography, case studies and more as major traditions in research design, illustrating each one with an example of a published research project.

(Academic reference: Ott, M. (2016). Qualitative research designs [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gESfZGSd2t8) 

Blogs:

Research design in qualitative research by Sharon Ravitch (n.d.)

This blog post explains the process of developing a qualitative research design and includes a useful diagram that highlights important questions about your rationale, overall framework, research methods and more within the design process.

(Academic reference: Ravitch, S. (n.d.). Research design in qualitative research. Methodspace. https://www.methodspace.com/blog/research-design-in-qualitative-research)

Articles:

Qualitative study by Steven Tenny et al. (2021)

This article introduces the nature of qualitative research design, explains some of the main qualitative research approaches (ethnography, grounded theory, phenomenology and narrative research), and gives an extended hypothetical example of qualitative design in health research.

(Academic reference: Tenny, S., Brannan, G.D., Brannan, J. M., & Sharts-Hopko, N.C. (2021). Qualitative study. National Library of Medicine.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470395/)

Planning qualitative research: Design and decision making for new researchers by Lesley Eleanor Tomaszewski, Jill Zarestky and Elsa Gonzalez (2020)

This article, aimed at those new to qualitative research, links four qualitative approaches (case study, ethnography, narrative and phenomenology) to different kinds of data collection and analysis using example research contexts from education and organisational research.

(Academic reference: Tomaszewski, L.E., Zarestky, J. & Gonzalez, E. (2020). Planning qualitative research: design and decision making for new researchers. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1609406920967174)

How is it done?

Videos:

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How to create a strong research design: 2-minute summary by Scribbr (2021)

This video takes you through steps you need to follow to produce a strong research design, which include defining your aims, deciding on a specific type of research design and determining how you will collect and analyse data from your participants.

(Academic reference: Scribbr (2021). How to create a strong research design: 2-minute summary | Scribbr [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwRIhMstINg&t)

Websites:

Research design | step-by-step guide with examples by Scribbr (2022)

This webpage accompanies the video “How to Create a Strong Research Design: 2-minute Summary” and explains in more detail how you can consider your aims and approach, choose a type of research design, collect your data and more.

(Academic reference: Scribbr. (2022). Research design | Step-by-step guide with examples. https://www.scribbr.co.uk/research-methods/research-design/)

Articles:

The reason and rhyme of qualitative research: why, when, and how to use qualitative methods in the study of adolescent health by Michael Rich and Kenneth R. Ginsburg (1999)

This article, which is focused on researching adolescent health, distinguishes qualitative from quantitative approaches, discusses methods for qualitative data collection and analysis, and reflects on the issues of bias, reliability and validity in qualitative research.

(Academic reference: Rich, M. & Ginsburg, K.R. (1999). The reason and rhyme of qualitative research: why, when, and how to use qualitative methods in the study of adolescent health. Journal of Adolescent Health, 25(6), pp.371–378.)

Books:

Chapter 3: Designing a qualitative study by John W. Creswell (2007)

This chapter defines what is distinctive about qualitative research and the research problems it can target, as well as detailing the process involved in designing a qualitative study and offering general outlines for research design.

(Academic reference: Creswell, J.W. (2007). Designing a qualitative study. In: Qualitative inquiry and research design: choosing among five traditions. 2nd ed, pp 44-68. Sage Publications.)

Chapter 7: Designing a qualitative study by Joseph A. Maxwell (1998)

This chapter understands research design as an ongoing process operating throughout data collection, analysis and theory development, and clarifies the meaning of ‘design’ in a qualitative research context. It also takes you through the goals, conceptual frameworks, forms of research question and methods that you could incorporate into your research project.

(Academic reference: Maxwell, J. A. (1998). Chapter 7: Designing a qualitative study. In L. Bickman & D. J. Rog (Eds.), Handbook of applied social research methods (pp 69–100). Sage Publications.)

Method in action

Articles:

The practice of designing qualitative research on educational leadership: Notes for emerging scholars and practitioner-scholars by Michael S. Knapp (2016)

This article explores how qualitative research designs are developed in practice, with a focus on how practitioners and scholars new to qualitative inquiry can understand the typical development of a viable design for qualitative research.

(Academic reference: Knapp, M.S. (2016). The practice of designing qualitative research on educational leadership: notes for emerging scholars and practitioner-scholars. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 12(1), pp.26–50.)