January 2016 – by Dr. Chris McKillop, PhD

Designing qualitative research requires considerable understanding of the research design process and a significant number of decisions related to the design. Each decision made can have implications for another part of the research, and both critical and reflective thinking are necessary throughout the process. The following are 4 key questions to consider when embarking on your qualitative research journey.

1. Why are we doing this research?

Before starting a qualitative research study, we should have a good understanding of why we are doing the research. Many perspectives can be taken on a research area and each perspective can influence the research plan and how the data will be gathered.

Thinking in terms of what we want to learn from the study, and how we plan to use the information collected, helps to develop our perspective on the research area. We may wish to understand patients’ experiences, but what are we actually going to do with that information?  Do we plan to write an article to contribute to the understanding of the patient experience; or use the information to provide guidelines to inform policy?  The form in which our conclusions are presented can also influence how we plan our qualitative research. We can write a journal paper, a report, a poster, give a presentation, build a web page, build an app, put on an exhibition, or use graphics/images, video, tweets, etc.

2. How are we going to conduct this research?

There are so many methods available to us in our qualitative researchers’ toolkit that choosing a method can seem quite daunting. We can use surveys, interviews, focus groups, observation, arts-based methods such as drawing, images, photovoice, film, dance, performance, song, music, etc. The list is almost as long as our imagination and each method comes with its own benefits, trade-offs, and value.

We need to determine the best method to gather the information required, and to also understand our reasons for this choice. For example, we may initially think that an interview would be a great way to gain insight into the experiences of a patient. However, we may be able to enrich our understanding of the patient’s experiences by also asking them to draw their experiences, or to take photos representing their experiences. Different methods can tap into different perspectives. For example, Guillemin (2004) found emotional symbolism in the drawings people did of their experiences of heart disease and menopause. Drawings can reveal emotional aspects of the patient experience that are often difficult to convey with words.

There can be many reasons for choosing methods. A method can be chosen for its convenience: interviewing the patient when they attend a clinic. It can be chosen because we wish to explore how well a method works: using drawings to see what this method may reveal about a patient’s experience. We may choose photovoice with a group that feels underrepresented in healthcare and who wish to use a method that enables their experiences and their voices to be heard.

3. Who are the participants?

Just because we work in healthcare does not mean we are only interested in patients’ perspectives. We may also wish to investigate the experiences of healthcare workers, administrative and support staff, family and friends, and to compare these experiences with the perspectives of policy makers.

It is worth considering the pros and cons of our chosen participant population at an early stage of our research. Sometimes pragmatic decisions need to be taken regarding sample size and where/how participants are recruited. Of course, we may decide not to recruit participants and instead choose to analyze existing social media interactions or other online sites or sources of qualitative data.

Our participant population, and what we are hoping to gain from them, is fundamental to the topic areas, questions, or tasks we ask of them.

4. How are we going to analyze the data?

Although this is one of the later tasks completed in qualitative research, we should be thinking about data analysis when planning the research. Our approach to the research influences how we perceive and analyze the data.

We can take an outsider’s approach to analyzing the data, where we look at it from the researcher’s perspective. In this case, we would use existing theories and coding frameworks and apply them to the data. This is a very common approach to data, especially when analyzing quantitative data.

However, when taking an insider’s perspective, we approach the data from the participants’ perspectives. We use participants’ own words to build up coding frameworks to help us identify patterns and categories in the data. This enables our coding frameworks to be true to the participants’ perspective and to avoid bringing in too many of our own biases.

And yes, we have software to help us manage the process (e.g. NVivo), but ultimately it comes down to us, the researchers, immersing ourselves in understanding the world of our participants and to thoughtfully represent that in our codes.

Qualitative research requires considerable critical and reflective thinking and is a complex, but powerful research method. If you would like to find out more about how qualitative methods can enhance your research, please contact us at hubresearch@smh.ca.

References and Further Reading:

  1. Guillemin, M. (2004). Understanding Illness: Using Drawings as a Research Method. Qual Health Res. 14(2): 272-289.
  2. NVivo qualitative data analysis software; QSR International Pty Ltd. http://www.qsrinternational.com/NVivo-Products
  3. Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  4. Sandelowski, M. (2000). “Whatever Happened to Qualitative Description?” Research in Nursing & Health. 23: 334-340.
  5. Silverman, D., Ed. (2004). Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice. London: Sage Publications.