Qualitative Study Design: A Comprehensive Guide

What is qualitative research design? What are the different types of qualitative study designs? What are the stages, tools, and examples of qualitative study designs? This article aims to provide answers to these questions.

Understanding the world from various perspectives and exploring the depth of human experiences necessitate an in-depth approach that goes beyond the limitation of numbers; this is where qualitative research takes its stand. In essence, qualitative research takes into account the rich, context-specific, and multilayered world of individuals, diving into the “why” and “how” of decision-making.

The journey through this essay will illuminate the conception, typologies, stages, and methodological traits of qualitative research, showcasing real-life examples to provide a better understanding and a practical view. It’s an enriching dive into the realm where meaning is elicited from words, growing knowledge, understanding human behavior, and exploring new frontiers of understanding.

The Concept of Qualitative Research

Qualitative Research Defined

Qualitative research is an exploratory type of research methodology that seeks to understand the ‘why‘ and ‘how‘ of behavior and decision making, rather than ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’. Thus, instead of looking for statistically significant numbers and percentiles, qualitative research seeks a deeper, more nuanced understanding of human behavior and the reasons behind it.

Qualitative research is an exploratory type of research methodology that seeks to understand the ‘why‘ and ‘how‘ of behavior and decision making, rather than ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’.

This type of research typically involves in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, observations, and other forms of data collection that involve direct interaction with individuals. The data gathered through qualitative research is descriptive and interpretative, often based on individuals’ experiences, perspectives, and insights.

Origin and Evolution of Qualitative Research

The recognition of qualitative research as a legitimate form of inquiry arose in the 20th century, notably with the advent of sociology and anthropology. These two disciplines placed a high import on understanding the human experience in its natural setting, considering the social, cultural, and political contexts in which they occur.

Over time, qualitative research integrated into various fields including education, social work, nursing, public health, and others. It has undergone various stages of evolution, with earlier forms emphasizing observation and description, while the more recent forms emphasize interpretation and understanding of complex social phenomena.

Qualitative vs Quantitative Research

Qualitative research significantly differs from quantitative research in multiple ways. While quantitative research seeks measurable data that can be converted into statistics, qualitative research seeks an in-depth understanding of subjects’ responses. Qualitative research is not focused on how many individuals choose a specific answer, but rather why they choose it.

Qualitative research seeks an in-depth understanding of subjects’ responses.

This contrast can be seen in the methods of data collection used. Quantitative research uses structured methods like surveys and questionnaires, while qualitative research utilizes semi-structured or unstructured methods like personal interviews and focus groups.

Furthermore, in terms of data analysis, quantitative research uses statistical methods whereas qualitative research employs methods such as thematic analysis or coding of data.

Qualitative Research in Practice

Universally applicable, qualitative research offers a real-world approach to gaining insightful data. It can be particularly useful in customer market research where focus groups and interviews are utilized to gauge consumers’ reactions to a product or service. Likewise, in healthcare, qualitative research plays a pivotal role in discerning patients’ experiences with an illness or treatment, attitudes towards healthcare providers, and health and illness beliefs.

To depict a real-life scenario, consider a government authority scrutinizing the public’s perception of a new policy. Rather than utilizing quantitative methods such as voting or payment systems, they may instead opt for qualitative measures like community meetings or in-person interviews to acquire an in-depth understanding of collective sentiment and perceived ideas.

Ultimately, qualitative research provides a wealth of insight that is instrumental when a thorough understanding of subjective experiences, personal perceptions, and motivation behind behavior is warranted.

qualitative study design

Types of Qualitative Study Design

1. Case Studies

A popular method within qualitative research is the use of case study designs. This approach is an in-depth exploration of a single entity, like an individual, group, or organization, within their regular, real-life context.

Case study designs represent a beneficial conduit for research questions aiming to dissect a single instance elaborately. They produce rich, comprehensive information allowing for the multidimensional exploration of complicated phenomena.

However, case studies also pose a challenge; there exists a potential for bias as the researcher’s personal interpretation could inadvertently sway the data.

2. Phenomenology

Phenomenological design involves studying the lived experiences of individuals about a certain phenomenon. This approach is suitable for research questions aimed at understanding the essence or underlying meanings of human experiences. The main advantage is the depth of understanding obtained from personal narratives.

However, its interpretive nature could pose challenges as it requires extensive immersion in the data and sophisticated analytical skills to yield significant insights.

3. Ethnography

Ethnographic design focuses on cultural phenomena and involves extended observation of a group’s customary behaviors in its natural setting. Ideal for research questions that seek to understand the cultural dynamics and social structures of a particular group, ethnography provides a comprehensive, authentic account of people’s behavior.

The major challenges with ethnographic studies include cultural bias, as the researcher is an outsider to the culture being studied, and the time-consuming nature of the research.

4. Grounded Theory

Grounded Theory design involves the development of a theory derived from data collected in field research. This design is suitable for research questions seeking to discover theoretical explanations for certain behaviors or phenomena.

The advantage of grounded theory is that it results in a theory deeply rooted in empirical evidence. However, data gathering and analysis in grounded theory can be a complex, iterative process that might be difficult for novice researchers.

5. Narrative Research

Narrative research design explores the life experiences of individuals through their personal narratives or stories. This design is suitable for research questions that need an understanding of an individual’s life within a sociocultural context.

The potential advantage of narrative research is its emphasis on personal perspective and the temporal dimension, revealing how individuals make meaning of their experiences over time. However, the validity of narrative research can be challenging as memories may be subjective and can change over time.

6. Comparative Research

Comparative research design involves comparing two or more groups or cases to ascertain differences or similarities. It’s ideal for research questions centered on explaining variances or exploring relationships among variables in different settings (Shahrokh, 2019).

The primary advantage is it can provide robust, comparative data that unveils patterns and trends. However, the challenge lies in ensuring fair comparisons as variance in the contexts may affect the research outcomes.

7. Historical Research

Delving into historical research design, we find that it focuses on studying past events, using them to draw robust conclusions about present circumstances. This type of research offers a profound insight into the ways in which the past has shaped the current phenomena, providing a rich temporal context.

However, this design isn’t without its drawbacks – issues of source credibility and potential biases inherent in historical records can create challenges that need to be taken into account.

A collage of diverse individuals engaging in case study research, representing the different aspects of studying single entities in-depth in their real-world context.

Stages in Qualitative Study Design

1. Identify a Meaningful Research Topic

Moving along to the initial stage of a qualitative study design, we find ourselves at the conception of a research idea. It’s here where the identification of a meaningful, distinctive, and feasible research topic takes place. This crucial phase requires the researcher to be wholly invested and passionate about their research question due to the extent of time and effort it will entail.

Therefore, the conception stage is pivotal as it lays the groundwork for the entirety of the research study.

2. Formulate the Research Questions

Once the research idea has been conceived, the next step is to formulate the research questions. These questions guide the entire research process and determine the type of data that needs to be collected.

The formulation of research questions is a complex process that requires clear understanding of the research topic, critical thinking, and creativity. The research questions should be open-ended, relevant to the research goals, answerable, and specific.

3. Choose the Appropriate Study Design

The third stage involves choosing the appropriate study design based on the research questions and objectives. As mentioned in the previous section, there are various qualitative research designs to choose from including case studies, phenomenological studies, ethnographic studies, and narrative studies.

The chosen design should align with the nature of the research problem, the research questions, and the available resources. The resources available to the researcher almost always define the feasibility and extent of the research.

4. Choose the Appropriate Data Collection Method

Choosing the appropriate data collection method is the next step in the research process. The most common data collection methods in qualitative research include interviews, observations, and document analysis.

The method chosen should be able to provide rich, detailed and in-depth data that can answer the research questions. It is not uncommon for qualitative researchers to use a combination of methods to collect data.

5. Analyze the Data

After gathering the data, the next stage is to analyze the data. This process involves organizing the data, coding the data into themes, and interpreting the data.

There are various data analysis methods that could be adopted such as thematic analysis, content analysis, and conceptual analysis. The chosen method should be able to sufficiently address the research questions and objectives.

Ethical Considerations

Ethical considerations play a pivotal role in qualitative research design. Researchers need to ensure that the rights, dignity, and wellbeing of the research participants are protected. This may involve obtaining informed consent, ensuring privacy and confidentiality, and avoiding harm. Researchers are also required to adhere to ethical guidelines and standards when conducting research.

Overcoming Obstacles in Qualitative Research

Thoroughly conducting a qualitative research is often met with a variety of obstacles. The research may encounter issues such as gaining access to participants, effectively collecting and analyzing data, as well as avoiding bias in interpretation.

Furthermore, due to its nature, qualitative research is often quite time-consuming and necessitates significant reflexivity on the part of the researcher. It’s important for researchers to anticipate these potential obstacles, devising successful strategies in order to ensure that the research process concludes smoothly.

Image depicting a person brainstorming and conceptualizing an idea with arrows and lightbulbs for visimpaired users.

Tools and Techniques used in Qualitative Study Design

Qualitative study design represents a broad spectrum of research methods that are geared towards collecting non-numerical data. The intent of this data is to gain insights into concepts, opinions, or experiences.

Techniques such as interviews, observations, and document analysis are commonly utilized in these studies. Each of these different methods uses unique tools and techniques which aid in data gathering and effective interpretation. The success of a qualitative study is heavily dependent on these methods as well as on the relevance and utility of the final analysis.

Let us discuss these tools and techniques in more detail in the next sections.

Data Collection Methods

1. Interview

Interviews are a common and crucial data gathering technique in qualitative study design. They can be structured as open-ended queries or semi-structured with targeted questions. Researchers often record these interviews for accurate data capture. Interviews allow the gathering of in-depth responses, and enable researchers to further probe into the ideas, perceptions, and experiences of the participants.

2. Observation

Observation is another key tool. In this method, researchers immerse themselves in the relevant environment to observe and document behaviors, interactions, and events. This technique provides rich contextual and environmental insights that aren’t usually obtained through other methods.

3. Document analysis

Document analysis involves reviewing and interpreting documents to give voice and meaning to the study. These documents may be public records, personal documents, or even media documents. The choice of documents is guided by the research question and the type of information required.

Data Interpretation and Coding

After data collection comes data interpretation and analysis. The data from interviews, observations, or documents becomes meaningful only if properly coded and interpreted. Coding is broadly the process of labelling and categorizing the raw data. It simplifies the data and groups it into identifiable themes and patterns.

Manual coding involves reading through the data and applying relevant codes or labels. For large datasets, or more complex research, software tools such as NVivo, Atlas.ti, or MAXQDA can be used. These software not only help in efficient coding, but also make it easier to visualize data patterns.

Thematic analysis is a commonly used method for interpreting data. This involves identifying common themes across the data set and analyzing how those themes help answer the research question.

Qualitative Research Software in Study Design

Qualitative research software is a key tool in managing and organizing data. These software tools help researchers store, code, retrieve, compare, and analyze qualitative data. Using a qualitative data analysis software allows researchers to focus on interpreting the data, rather than managing the data.

Understanding the interconnected and iterative nature of the tools and techniques in a qualitative study design is crucial. They work in harmony, frequently needing to be reinvoked as the study evolves. Depending on the research question at hand, the range of the study, and the data type required to address the question, the choice of tools and methods will vary.

An image showing researchers engaging in interviews, observations, and document analysis for a qualitative study design.

Real-world Examples of Qualitative Study Design

Illustration of Ethnographic Study Design

One preeminent example of a qualitative study design is ethnography. This method immerses the researchers within the natural setting of a group to study their social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions.

To illustrate, Holmes (2006) conducted an ethnographic study of the social context of migrant health in the United States. The study reveals that farm working and housing conditions are organized according to ethnicity and citizenship. This categorization defines the differences in health conditions of the migrant workers.

Historical Research Study Example

Historical research is another form of qualitative study design which focuses on studying past events to draw conclusions about the present.

In the field of education, an exemplary historical research case would be Larry Cuban’s (2023) study on the use of technology in classrooms. His research explored the various reasons why despite the innovation and prolific introduction of technology in schools, classroom instruction remains largely unchanged.

By studying the historical trend, Cuban argued that teachers were not resistant to technology, but that the instructional practices had deep institutional roots and a sole focus on technology without considering these factors would not revolutionize classroom instruction.

Case Study Design Example

Case study design is commonly used in business and law. This qualitative study design investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context.

In business research, a brilliant example of a case study is the turnaround of the company IBM under the leadership of CEO Louis V. Gerstner. Researchers probed into the management strategies implemented by Gerstner, by conducting interviews and examining company archives (Gerstner, 2002).

The findings gave them deep insights into how Gerstner led IBM out of its downfall into becoming a leading computer technology company again.

Similarly, in legal research, a famous U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown vs. the Board of Education used qualitative methods to build a robust argument around the negative psychological impact of racial segregation.

Grounded Theory Study Design

Grounded theory is a qualitative study design used extensively in social sciences. It involves generating theory from data collected and analyzed during the research process. For instance, a seminal study by Glaser and Strauss (1965) on the social and psychological processes that terminally ill patients undergo. Their in-depth interviews with patients and staff led to the development of the “awareness of dying” theory, which has been instrumental in improving end-of-life care. This exemplifies how qualitative research can contribute to theory development in healthcare research.


In the field of psychology, phenomenology can provide profound insights. A prime example of this is a study conducted by researchers at Boston College, who used this design to examine the lived experiences of people with severe mental illness (Carswell, 2022). Through a series of in-depth interviews with both patients and healthcare providers, they explored the challenges faced by these individuals and identified several themes surrounding stigma, social isolation, and treatment experience. Such information is essential for developing more patient-centered approaches in mental health care.

Illustration of researchers conducting an ethnographic study, observing and participating in the natural setting of the research subjects' environment.

Having traversed the comprehensive aspects of qualitative study design, one can see that it serves as a medium for exploration that seeks depth of understanding and detail. Through its various subcategories including case studies, phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory and narrative research, it uncovers layers of reality often overlooked by purely quantitative approaches.

The tools and techniques used in qualitative research such as interviews, observations, and document analysis provide rich, nuanced insights that open the door to understanding complex social phenomena in context. The exposition of real-world examples serves to illustrate the practical application and effectiveness of these methodologies in various fields. The essence of this exploration is to emphasize the unique value and critical role that qualitative research plays in expanding our understanding of the multifaceted human experience.


Carswell, C., Brown, J. V. E., Lister, J., Ajjan, R. A., Alderson, S. L., Balogun-Katung, A., … & DIAMONDS Research Team. (2022). The lived experience of severe mental illness and long-term conditions: a qualitative exploration of service user, carer, and healthcare professional perspectives on self-managing co-existing mental and physical conditions. BMC psychiatry, 22(1), 479.

Cuban, L. (2023). The Enduring Classroom: Teaching Then and Now. University of Chicago Press.

Gerstner, L. V. (2002). Who says elephants can’t dance? Inside IBM’s historic turnaround. HarperCollins Publishers.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1965). Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage. American Journal of Sociology, 71(1), 48-59.

Holmes, S. M. (2006). An ethnographic study of the social context of migrant health in the United States. PLoS medicine, 3(10), e448.

Shahrokh, Z. D., & Miri, S. M. (2019). A short introduction to comparative research. Allameh Tabataba’i Unversity, 6.