Maintaining the Life of Qualitative Research: Why Reporting Research Design Matters
April 15, 2013
“Keep it simple,” “keep it short,” and “make it fast.” These are the words that many qualitative researchers live by as they sit down to produce the final written report for their clients. The prevailing sense among some, particularly in the marketing research field, is that their all-too-busy clients don’t have the time, inclination, or research backgrounds to read lengthy reports detailing nuanced findings and method. Instead, clients want a brief summary of outcomes that are actionable in the short term. It is no wonder that PowerPoint reporting has become so popular. Who needs complete sentences when a key implication from the research can be reduced to a bullet list or an alluring infographic?
But what has become lost in the ever-increasingly-shrinking report is the discussion of research design. Where once at least cursory attention would be given to the basic design elements – this is what we did, this is when we did it, this is where we did it, and these are the demographics of the participants – in the first few pages of the report, this all-important information has been pushed to the back, sometimes to the appendix where it sits like frivolous or unwanted content begging to be ignored. Not only should the research design not be sequestered to the badlands of reporting but the discussion of research design in qualitative research should be expanded and enriched with details of the:
- qualitative method that was used (along with the rationale for using that method),
- target population,
- sample selection and composition of the participants,
- basis by which the interviewer’s/moderator’s guide was developed,
- reason that particular field sites and not others were chosen for the research,
- interviewer’s/moderator’s techniques for eliciting participants’ responses,
- measures that were taken to maximize the credibility and analyzability of the data, and
- coding and other analysis procedures that were used to arrive at the reported interpretations and implications from the outcomes.
The inclusion and elaboration of the research design in qualitative reports matters. It matters because qualitative research has a life, and it is only the researcher’s thick description of the paths and byways the research traveled that allows the life of qualitative research to thrive beyond the study period. This is what transferability is all about. It is about giving the reader of your research the opportunity to apply the research design used in one context to another analogous context. This is not about generalization or reproducibility (quantitative concepts) but rather the idea that all users/readers of the report should have enough design-related information to determine for themselves whether or how the study parameters can be applied to similar populations. With a rich description of the research design, the end-user client, for instance, should be able to conclude:
- how the current study is the same or different than previous research efforts with the target audience,
- why the results from this study are the same or different than earlier research,
- how the results from this study can be applied to future qualitative and quantitative work, and
- how a similar research design can be used with other target segments or category subjects.
All research, but particularly qualitative research, can’t live in a vacuum, unrelated to everything that has come before and will come after. Qualitative research has a life and needs to breathe. By expanding the depth and breadth of discussions devoted to research design in our reports, we give it the life it deserves.