Map Your Research Design

Categories: Data Collection, Online Research, Other, Research, Research Design

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In the first quarter of 2021 we explored design steps, starting with a January focus on Finding the Question. We learned more about the design stage in February by focusing on Choosing Methodology and MethodsThe March focus was on Designing an Ethical Study. In the second quarter our focus will move from the design stage to the data collection stage. Our focus for April is on Collecting Data from & with Participants.


I am a visual communicator. If you’ve read any of my books you have noticed that I create lots of visual models in an effort to explain complex and abstract ideas. As a graduate student at Cornell University I had the good fortune to study with Joe Novak, who championed the concept map. The difference between a concept map and other kinds of visual maps is the emphasis on depicting and labeling the relationships between concepts. This approach resonated with me, and Novak’s classic book, Learning How to Learn, is still on my bookshelf! (See The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them, which includes a download of the free Cmap tools.)

A challenge for researchers is that we need to not only design studies, we also must be able to explain our rationale to others. Is the design coherent? Is the purpose evident? These are two questions reviewers want to answer when they are trying to decide whether to approve or fund a proposal. Can you show and tell them how the pieces of your design fit, and why they make sense? Maybe a concept map can help?

This month we are focusing on research with participants. We need to be able to inform them in a meaningful way about what we want to do and why, and what role we would like them to take. This explanation should be in clear, jargon-free terms. The clearer we are about the study, the easier it will be to share essential points with others. Maybe a concept map can help?

Map Your Research Design

An underlying principle for the approaches described in Doing Qualitative Research Online is the need for alignment of research purpose, theories, methods and methodologies in the effort to create new knowledge.  Such alignment is not unique to online research, however, a clear depiction of the design can strengthen the rationale for using online methods.

Four inter-related facets of research designed are simply defined as:

  • Epistemology refers to the study of the nature of knowledge, beliefs about knowledge, or the study of how knowledge is justified;
  • Theory refers to an explanation that is internally consistent, supportive of other theories, and gives new insights. Qualitative studies may be structured using theoretical frameworks, used to explore and build on existing theories, or to develop theory. Quantitative studies may be designed to test theories.
  • Methodology refers to the study of, and justification for the methods used to conduct the research.
  • Method refers to the practical steps used to conduct the study.  Interviews or observations, surveys or questionnaires are data collection methods.

This visual map shows relationships of these components in a research design. You can see at-a-glance how the pieces fit together.

A research design concept map illustrates important relationships, not only what, but why each decision fits with the overall approach. This exercise is helpful, when you are trying to decide what methods to use with participants, and how their contributions will help you build new knowledge about the research problem. Use this handout to map your study, or download the free Cmap software and make your own!

Doing Qualitative Research Online.

Learn more and access Doing Qualitative Research Online.

Use this code, MSPACE20, for a 20% discount when you order the book from SAGE Publishing.

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