Step 3: Designing Your Study

Once you’ve developed your research question (Step 1) and reviewed the literature (Step 2) you’re ready to design your study and select your research methods.

Recalling the three types of research questions (prediction, intervention, exploration – Step 1), the same research idea can be approached differently leading to the selection of different research methods and resulting in different research outcomes. For example, if you’re interested in whether something works you’ll be more likely to select a quantitative method, but if you wanted to know why or how something works a qualitative approach would be more appropriate. Meanwhile, a mixed method study could enable you to both quantitatively explore whether something works followed by a qualitative investigation of why that is the case. By developing a well-designed study now you’ll already begin thinking about the type of data you’ll collect (Step 7) for your data analysis (Step 8).

When designing your study you’ll also want to think about service user involvement, sampling your study population, statistical analysis, data sharing, and intellectual property. Here are some resources to help you.

Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed-Methods Research

Qualitative research can be characterised as developing an understanding of your research topic which could potentially be transferred to another context. Your data could be anything from a short response to an open-ended questionnaire question to an hour-long transcribed interview or focus group.

Quantitative research can be characterised as using numbers to develop your understanding of your research topic. You may already be collecting routine statistics to monitor levels of service use.

Mixed-methods research can be characterised as collecting and analysing both qualitative and quantitative data within the same study.

Here are some resources to help you decide whether a qualitative, quantitative or mixed- methods approach is best for your project:

  • National Centre for Research Methods:
    • How to choose a research method: Provides a flowchart to help you decide on the best research method for your project
    • NCRM Online learning resources: All resources include a purposely-created video tutorials together with supporting materials including presentation slides, video transcripts along with related datasets, recommended readings, and links to related research publications and resources
  • Reference and User Services Association:


Good questionnaire design is important for securing high quality data to enable accurate data analysis. Questionnaires can include both open questions, which typically prompt qualitative data collection and analysis, and closed questions, which typically prompt quantitative data collection and analysis.

If you want to use a questionnaire to collect data it’s generally recommended that you use a tried and tested or pre-validated questionnaire as these will be have been evaluated to confirm they’re collecting or measuring what they’re intended to; you may have found examples of pre-validated questionnaires when you were reviewing the literature (Step 2). Alternatively, here are some sources to assist in developing your own questionnaire:

  • STATS New Zealand. (2019). A guide to good survey design (fifth edition): This guide highlights issues you might encounter when planning, undertaking, commissioning, managing, and processing a survey or survey data
  • Robinson, M. (2020). Questionnaire design: An open-source teaching resource from the University of Leeds on the designing and administering of questionnaires
  • Trochim, W. M. K. (2020). Survey research. In W. M. K. Trochim (Ed.), Research Methods Knowledge Base. An online textbook that includes an overview of survey types, selecting the best survey method for you and question design

Service Users

As discussed in Step 1: Turning Your Idea into a Research Question, involving service users is now common in all stages of research, not only as research participants but also as researchers. INVOLVE, the National Institute for Health Research funded initiative to support active public involvement in NHS research, provides detailed guides on how to involve users in your research.


Sampling is used when it’s not possible or practical to include the entire research population in your project. There are many types of sampling including: probability sampling, when you’re seeking a sample that is representative of the wider population; random sampling, when every person in the population has an equal chance of being selected; and purposive sampling, when you rely on your judgment when who will participate in your study. Here are some online guides to find out more about sampling:

  • National Audit Office. (2001). A practical guide to sampling. London: National Audit Office: An accessible online guide to sampling techniques
  • Trochim, W. M. K. (2020). Sampling. In W. M. K. Trochim (Ed.), Research Methods Knowledge Base: An overview of sampling including sampling terminology and distinguishing between types of sampling

Statistical Analysis

There are two basic types of statistical analysis, descriptive and inferential. Descriptive statistics can help you summarise and describe the results of your research, including basic frequency reporting, numerical calculations, graphs or tables. Inferential statistics make inferences or predictions based on the data you’ve collected. When it comes to statistical analysis, you might it can be helpful to get statistical advice as part of your research project. Alternatively, here are some resources to get you started with statistical analysis:

Data Sharing

Data sharing aims to facilitate maximum benefits of research data to the widest possible community. The aim behind data sharing is to make your data discoverable for potential reuse while respecting the confidentiality and privacy of research participants. Increasingly journals, publishers and funding bodies require data underpinning research to be deposited in an accessible repository. More information on data sharing can be found at:

  • British Library. (2020). DataCite: The British Library is a member of DataCite, a non-profit international organisation building a community around a common standard for identifying and sharing data
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). (2020). Research data policy: Primarily aimed at ESRC funded projects, this policy is a useful reference point for key issues related to research data including copyright, confidentiality, security and ethics
  • UK Research and Innovation. (2020). Common principles on data policy: Provides you with an overarching framework for data management and sharing

Intellectual Property

The NHS seeks to develop innovations that can lead to improved interventions and better services for health and social care; these innovations are covered by the term intellectual property and are likely to belong to your employer. For further information refer to:

  • NHS National Innovation Centre. (2014). NHS IP guidance: This guidance outlines the government and NHS strategy to capture and exploit innovations for the benefit of the UK economy

Other Useful Resources

  • National Centre for Research Methods: Research methods training courses and events. If you identify that you have a training need, this database provides a comprehensive list of forthcoming UK research training events

Suggested Reading

The following general research guides may be helpful:

Next Steps

Having identified the best method to answer your research question, you’re now ready for Step 4: Funding Your Research.