Qualitative research design (and planning)

When many people think of ‘research design’, they think of choosing methods or a methodology. But the design for a qualitative project should also consider existing research, epistemology, how you are going to recruit, and analyse the data from the methods you choose.

Qualitative research design (and planning)

When many people think of ‘research design’, they think of choosing methods or a methodology. But the design for a qualitative project should also consider existing research, epistemology, how you are going to recruit, and analyse the data from the methods you choose. This guide will take you step by step though all the different parts you should consider.

First of all, you didn’t decide to do qualitative research before considering the question right? That’s the wrong way round. The research question, what you want to find out, should always choose the methodology, not the other way around. However, sometimes an assignment tells you to use qualitative methods – that’s a good exception!

Your methods and research design also need to be practical for the resource limitations of the project. What’s your budget, and how much time do you have to complete it? Can you afford to fly across the world to interview people in every continent? Do you have years to do a situated ethnography? It’s OK to have an initial aspirational plan that you would do with unlimited time and money, but make sure your final design is something you can achieve. Set aside time for things to go wrong (recruitment always takes longer than you think) and also for time to analyse and write up findings. A lot of people plan to keep doing data collection going until a week before the project is due, and then panic when they realise how little time is left. I get a lot of emails from people who say ‘I have one day to finish my analysis’ which is just never enough time.

1. Epistemology

You first need to think and write about your epistemology: this is how you understand knowledge, research, science and what can be understood about the world. Are you a positivist, structural realist or post-positivist? All of these things are important to understand, and in most qualitative research it is necessary to situate your identity as a researcher within one (or more) of these philosophical turns. From this should stem the research questions you have, how you can answer them, the methods you choose, and your interpretation and application of data, be it qualitative or otherwise. Thus it is a key kernel of what will grow into your research design, and how it all flows from your theoretical underpinnings.

Part of this might be a reflexivity and positionality statement, which lays out your  background and potential biases. It’s also something ethics boards, journals and funders are increasingly looking for.

2. Literature review (and secondary data scoping)

Before you even begin to design a qualitative study, you need to do at least a basic literature review. This should aim to find out:

How much is already known about this topic?

Has this been done before?

You might find that something similar has been done, possibly in a different population group, or with a different focus. But you might have a good reason to suspect that something would be different in a different population, or with an in-depth qualitative approach there might be something more complicated underneath that you could investigate to explain other findings.

A good literature review should start by looking at both qualitative and quantitative research, because a large quantitative study might be really good context for a follow-on qualitative study that can explain trends or questions and unexpected findings in the research.

Fortunately qualitative software is a great tool for doing literature reviews! You can bring in PDF files of your textbook chapters or journal articles, and not only create a bibliography, but also code important themes and discoveries across them. It makes it easy to compare across papers, and when you come to write up, you can quickly find all the quotes from the literature you will want to quote (and be able to see where they come from). There’s a whole video tutorial on using software for systematic and literature reviews here.

Now, you might be thinking you are going to collect your own data, but secondary data analysis is also a good option to consider. There are lots of choices, including social media, qualitative data archives, documents and sources of data from to colleagues. So have a quick search for other data sources that you can analyse first, it might be these will do most of the work for you, or you can complement them with some smaller primary qualitative research. Our post on using secondary qualitative data can help you find some sources, and notes some issues to be aware of.

3. Sampling and recruitment

Once you have a good idea of what is out there, and what your unique question will be, NOW you can start thinking about methods. But really, you should consider recruitment and sampling first. That is – who do I need to talk to so I can answer these questions? How can I approach these people? Will they be willing to talk to me, or will I have to get access through gatekeepers? Will I be able to meet these people face to face - especially if they live abroad, or are senior people?

Often sampling (which is choosing which people and how many) and recruitment (actually getting them to take part) is overlooked, but it can really make or break good research, and thinking about your potential respondents is important before choosing an appropriate method. If you want to talk to a bunch of murderers held in different prisons, a focus group is going to be difficult (and potentially dangerous) to pull off! We’ve got blog post articles on both sampling and recruitment that will give you a lot more information.

It’s also this process that ethics/instiutional review boards (aka IRBs or ethics committees) will be particularity interested in. You’ll usually need to go through a process like this before your university will allow you to start collecting data. Part of the research design process should be planning for this and creating consent forms that explain your project and what you will do with the data.

4. Methods

Now you know what to ask which people, you can think about how. This is usually when qualitative methods are chosen – the conditions above are right, and a qualitative study is suitable! And there are many to choose from, interviews, focus groups, ethnography, diaries, and we have blog posts on all of these (and more) that will help you choose the right tools to investigate your research question. But there are many more methods beyond these basic ones, so try and consider one of these 10 alternative creative methods! They can be fun, and also more revealing than the standard focus group / interview combo.

You can also do ‘mixed methods’. This technically means using more than one type of method, even if they are all qualitative. However, the term is often used to mean combining qualitative and quantitative methods. This can be very powerful because it gives you the combination of a statistically significant finding which might apply to a large population, and a detailed deep understanding of the reasons behind that finding from the qualitative data. However, combining these different types of answers in a meaningful way is a serious challenge, and if you are planning any type of mixed methods study, you will want to consider how to triangulate the results.

5. Analysis

Qualitative analysis takes a long time. It obviously depends greatly on the type and amount of data, but you should schedule weeks and probably months for this task. You should also consider if you are going to transcribe your data from audio recordings. This can take weeks itself if you are doing it yourself, or you might consider sending to a professional to transcribe. Even automated transcription can look like it will save a lot of time, but always has errors, and you need to read through these carefully and fix mis-hearings. You should also set aside time before analysing your data to read it slowly and carefully so you have a good idea what is across the whole data set.

You also need to think about what type of analysis you are going to do. Approaches like grounded theory or IPA are often seen as just an analytic technique, but they affect the data collection approach and methodology too. With grounded theory, you should probably be collecting and analysing data as you go, rather than waiting till the end. It’s a prime example of how why you should consider all aspects of the research process (even the analysis) before you start.

Qualitative analysis is also not a linear process. This means that many researchers will try multiple types of analysis, look at the data in different ways, and hit dead ends when an approach doesn’t work. So having a very tight deadline for analysis can not only be stressful, but not leave enough time for the flexibility and moments of insight which can make qualitative research so rewarding.

Of course, qualitative analysis software (like Quirkos) can help with the analysis process, it doesn’t take any of the mental work or creative process away, but can help keep things in order and make it easier to find things when writing up. We have many blog post articles on different ways that CAQDAS software can help analysis, but this one on why it’s a good idea to think about what software you will use before you start collecting data is a great fit with putting together a qualitative research plan.

6. Writing up

This is another classic stage that people don’t leave enough time for, writing up can be a very time consuming and laborious process, but can be speeded up immensely by a good research plan. If you’ve done a good literature review, this will help write the introduction and first few chapters. If you’ve got a good practical plan because you had everything in place for your IRB, had realistic expectations for recruitment and gave yourself plenty of time for analysis, you will have all the components to need to plug together and write up. If you’ve used qualitative analysis software, this can also greatly speed up the writing process, because it makes it so quick to find and collate quotes on different themes.

Regardless of whether you are writing a journal article, monograph or thesis, there are some basic tips to improve the quality of written academic material, which this blog post goes into more detail. But the basic take-home message is: consider your audience. Who is reading the paper, for what purpose, what do they know already, and what do they want to know. The final point is always ‘what makes this research unique’ or ‘what does it add to the literature’? Again, a good research design and planning process makes it easy to explain why you’ve chosen a research question, and show that no-one else has done it before.


Hopefully, this blog post has made a good case for considering holistic research design when planning a qualitative project, but what should this look like? Generally it will be a working document, either on paper or a word-processor document, with at least the key headings above, and some basic information under each section. This can get filled in as you go through the process, and although your institution may have a template or guideline for a similar document, most of the key points above should still be considered.

Finally, if you are applying for funding at any time, be it for a masters/PhD studentship, placement, grant, scholarship or award, you will almost certainly need to share some kind of research plan or proposal, and considering all the aspects of design here will make that a lot easier.

If you are considering what qualitative analysis tool to consider in your research design, and to help with your qualitative research, why not give Quirkos a try? It’s visual and intuitive, inexpensive and easy to learn, and has helped thousands of researchers across the world with their qualitative research. You can download a free trial here, or get a quick guide and overview from some of our free tutorial videos.