Guidelines for Designing, Analyzing and Reporting Qualitative Research

Below we offer some guiding principles for designing and analyzing qualitative research.  These principles emerge from our own experience as well as our reading of the literature.  Supporting materials can be found by following the links we identify below. 

For grant writing purposes, the areas we highlight below are issues the research team will need to consider when designing a qualitative research study.

For those preparing a manuscript that reports on qualitative research, the areas we highlight are issues to be addressed and described, albeit briefly, in the report. 

We have identified two sets of guidelines that have been created for authors and reviewers of qualitative research. 

Click here for Crabtree and Miller's guidelines

Click here for Malterud's guidelines

Guidelines: It's about how others will evaluate your work

When considering how your work may be evaluated by others consistency is important.  For example, if you claim to be doing discourse analysis, then your research methods and analysis should be consistent with the methods, analytical approach, guidelines and criteria for discourse analysis.

Educate your reviewer.  Because of the wide range of approaches to qualitative research, it is unlikely you will have a reviewer that appreciates the unique contours of your approach and knows how to best evaluate it.  You need to assist your reviewer in this process.

You may also be interested in our discussion of Common Pitfalls. These pitfalls were identified by examining research manuscripts rejected from a primary care research journal.

Framing a Research Question

  • Identify and articulate a research question, demonstrate its importance or relevance as an area of inquiry.  Identifying and framing a research question is essential because the research question will guide subsequent methodological choices.
  • Articulating the research questions or aims in a grant is different than articulating the research question in a manuscript. 
    • When preparing a manuscript, typically the research has already been completed and the findings are being reported.  It is the authors job to provide a description and rationale for the research steps taken. 
    • For grants, the oppostie is true. Qualitative research is meant to proceed inductively, not deductively.  In other words, the researcher is not proposing to test hypotheses  (deductive).  Instead, the researcher is proposing an investigation from which understandings, theories and findings will emerge. 
    • To prepare a proposal for qualitative work one needs to develop a framework, using all of the available literature, that supports a qualitative study.  The proposal needs to maintain a tension between reviewing the literature and developing a framework and rationale for one's study while still proposing an inductive qualitative inquiry. 

In our review of the literature we found the following resources were highly cited by other authors and very useful.  The following articles can be found in an issues of Qualitative Health Research dedicated to this subject.

Penrod, J. (2003). "Getting funded: writing a successful small-project proposal." Qualitative Health Research 13(6), 821-832.

Sandelowski, M. & Barroso, J. (2003). "Writing the proposal for a qualitative research methodology project." Qualitative Health Research 13(6), 781-820.

Morse, JM. (2003). "A Review Committee's Guide to Evaluating Qualitative Proposal." Qualitative Health Research 13(6), 833-851.

Developing the Methods

Selecting the methods

As mentioned above, the methods selected for a qualitative study will follow from the research question.  In general:

  • Research questions designed to understand the beliefs, feelings, perceptions of a group of people generally require investigators to ask members of a group questions via an interview or focus group
  • Research questions designed to understand the behaviors of a group of people generally require some type of observational method.  
  • Research questions designed to understand the culture of a group may require a combination of observational and interviewing methods.  Researchers will also want to consider collecting material artifacts produced and used by members of a culture.

As you can see from this website, there are variety of approaches for interviewing and observing people.  The goals of the project will often shape the type of interviewing and/or observational method chosen.  There are, however, other important considerations (budget, time and access) that influence methods decisions.

Sampling and data collection

Sampling is an important consideration in qualitative studies. 

  • The sample selected must be one that will allow the researcher to address the research question posed.
  • Theoretical or purposeful sampling is generally the most highly regarded sampling method in qualitative research.  However, there are a range of methods for generating a qualitative sample.  For more information click here
  • Sample size considerations in qualitative research focus on achieving saturation.  For more on iterative sampling and saturation, click here.

There is fairly strong agreement among qualitative researchers in the healthcare field that good qualitative research should be evaluated in terms of its completeness, adequacy and trustworthiness.  In other words, another researcher should be able to understand and appreciate the account and feel it is trustworthy. 

For more on the evaluation of qualitative research please click here.

There are several techniques for verifying qualitative accounts.  It is recommended that qualitative researchers understand what these strategies entail, as well as the pros and cons of each in order to be able to decide if integrating one or more of these approaches when designing a qualitative study will be useful.  These techniques are:

Data Analysis

One of the common pitfalls in analyzing qualitative data is that the researchers fail to develop an indepth analysis of the data and interpret the meaning of the rich data they have collected. 

For more on data analysis please click here.

In general it is recommended that:

  • Sample generation and analysis co-occur or take place iteratively and continue until saturation is reached
  • Researchers immerse themselves in analyzing the details of the data, intermittently emerging from this process in order to identify and refine emergent themes
  • It is the job of analysts to get beyond what people say to understand the meaning behind participants' words.  A research report should not merely relay verbatim what is ascertained in an interview without adequate analysis and interpretation across cases
  • Researchers should take adequate steps to identify and analyze cases that disconfirm emergent understandings.  This lends strength to one's argument and can also lead to a more refined and developed understanding of a phenomenon
  • Researchers should describe, in adequate detail, the analytical steps taken (or to be taken) in a study.  This account should limit the use of jargon and explain the steps and the rationale for each step in plain language