research design

Built-in Quality in Qualitative Research: Flexibility of Design

QR: Flexibility of Design

Many of the unique attributes associated with qualitative research have been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review, e.g., “Achieving Accuracy in the Absence of ‘Truth'” and “Mitigating Researcher-as-instrument Effects.” One of these 10 unique attributes of qualitative research is the flexibility of the research design. Accepting that flexibility is a central and important component that strengthens the qualitative research process will greatly benefit the researcher embarking on a qualitative approach.

There are a variety of ways that qualitative researchers demonstrate flexibility in their designs, data generation, and analysis and thereby strengthen their research. Here are a few:

  • Modifying and adapting the questions that are asked or the direction to take during fieldwork. For example,
    • A moderator may modify the focus group discussion guide after hearing unexpected-yet-relevant discussion points in the first of many scheduled focus groups.
    • In a case study, the researcher may decide to substitute cases or change methods, e.g., switching to in-depth interviews (IDIs) when experiencing unanticipated delays in scheduling focus group discussions.
    • An ethnographer may decide to switch observer roles as they consider new observation and participation strategies.
  • Use of the semi-structured and unstructured interview approach in IDIs and narrative research. This allows for
    • Flexibility in how, what, and when relevant content in the guide is discussed in the interview.
    • Back-and-forth dialogue and encourages each participant’s “voice” to be heard.
  • Asynchronous online modes give participants the flexibility to respond at a time and place of their choosing, making the asynchronous online approach participants’ preferred mode and raising the rate of participant cooperation. For example,
    • Gibson (2010) found that 55 out of 70 research participants opted for an email IDI rather than an in-person IDI, and Beck (2005) extended an email IDI study for 18 months which allowed the researcher to incorporate some complexity and “richness” into the interview.
    • Tates et al. (2009) conducted asynchronous online focus group discussions with pediatric cancer patients, parents, and survivors and found that participants “highly valued the flexibility and convenience of logging in at their own time and place to join the discussion” (p. 1).
  • Location of in-person IDIs can be flexible, allowing the participant to choose a convenient and comfortable location, which has a positive effect on the level of participant cooperation and interviewer-participant rapport.
    • For example, flexibility of location is critical to achieving quality outcomes when conducting an IDI study with building contractors who are constantly moving between projects or busy on construction sites. Depending on contractors’ preferences, the researcher may agree to conducting the interview at a construction site or a nearby coffee shop.
  • Qualitative research analysis is a back-and-forth process whereby the researcher is always questioning assumptions and interpretations of the data as they develop.
    • Verification is an important step in the qualitative data analysis process.

Gibson, L. (2010). Using email interviews (No. 09). Retrieved from http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1303/1/09-toolkit-email-interviews.pdf

Tates, K., Zwaanswijk, M., Otten, R., van Dulmen, S., Hoogerbrugge, P. M., Kamps, W. A., & Bensing, J. M. (2009). Online focus groups as a tool to collect data in hard-to-include populations: Examples from paediatric oncology. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 9(1), 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-9-15

A TQF Approach to Choosing a Sample Design

The Total Quality Framework (TQF) offers qualitative researchers a way to think critically about their research Credibility TQF componentdesigns and helps to guide their decision making. The TQF consists of four components, with each component devoted to the critical thinking considerations associated with a phase in the research process. The first component of the TQF is Credibility which is focused on data collection; specifically, Scope and Data Gathering. One of the many considerations related to Scope has to do with the sample design.

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 25-26) on the different aspects of sampling that researchers might want to think about as they develop their qualitative research designs.


Once the researcher has identified the list (or lists) that will be used to select the sample, a decision must be made about which sampling approach will be used. If the decision is to gather data from each member of the population on the list (e.g., all 20 students enrolled in an honors science class), then there is nothing more for the researcher to consider. But for those studies where something less than the entire population will be chosen for study, additional Total Quality Framework (TQF) decisions need to be made about sampling.

Here, qualitative researchers may needlessly lessen the quality of their studies by not giving these decisions sufficient consideration. In fact, some qualitative researchers may think that how they create a sample of the population is unimportant. Qualitative researchers may proceed in this manner because they mistakenly believe that systematic sampling is too hard to carry out (i.e., too complex, too expensive, and too time-consuming) and that it is “too quantitative” a concern. Yet, in the vast majority of qualitative studies, systematic sampling is neither complex, expensive, nor time-consuming, and should not only be a quantitative issue. And by using an organized approach for choosing which members of their key population to study, as opposed to merely using a convenient and disorderly approach to sampling, qualitative researchers avoid a major threat to the credibility of the data they gather. That threat is the possibility that those from whom they gather data are not, in fact, representative (do not share defining characteristics) of the population being studied.

Take, for example, a focus group researcher that has a list of men and women who completed a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training class in the past year. The researcher can choose one of two basic approaches to selecting those who will be invited to participate in a group discussion. The often-used but misguided approach is to start at the top of the list and contact people, one after another, until the focus groups have been filled with ostensibly willing attendees. The rigorous and correct approach is to use an organized scheme to sample CPR class graduates from across the entire list (i.e., stratifying the list and taking an ‘nth’ name approach). The second approach is preferred because it avoids the possible problem that the names on the list are ordered in a way that is not representative of the entire population of CPR graduates that the researcher wants to study.

A final TQF issue related to choosing a sample applies to qualitative studies that utilize observations of naturally occurring human behavior to gather data, such as in ethnographic research. In these studies, sampling considerations need to be applied to the times and the locations during which the behaviors of interest will be observed. By systematically choosing which locations and which times to conduct the observations—among all possible locations and times in which the behaviors of interest will be taking place—the qualitative researcher is greatly raising the likelihood that the observations included in the study are a representative subset of all the possible behaviors of interest to the study.

Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.

Is It Good Research?

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