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The lifecycle of a qualitative research project

Traditionally research or insight departments in client companies or planners in advertising, design or media companies were the first line commissioners of a qualitative research study. These commissioners would be researchers themselves or be familiar with the discipline. This is still often the case, however, marketing, finance or procurement departments within large consumer-facing businesses may also be the commissioners. In these cases the commissioners may be less familiar with research as a discipline.

As a recruiter you have no responsibility for designing project methodologies, although occasionally a researcher may ask an experienced recruiter’s advice on recruitment challenges, incentive levels, the timing of groups, timescales needed for recruitment or ideas on venues. However, the lifecycle of qualitative projects begins well before recruitment and goes on after it. Within this module are the steps involved in setting up a qualitative research project from the researcher’s perspective showing the overall timelines of a project which, depending on the scale, can span six weeks through to a year.

Step 1: 

Research suppliers tender for projects by writing proposals in response to a research brief issued by a research commissioner. A typical brief will set out a business challenge which needs to be answered by research. For example:

Brand A has lost 10% of customers in the last year and needs to understand why.

Brand B is launching a new product and wishes to understand whether the product is attractive to its current customer base plus its competitor’s customers.

Brand C has launched a new website and needs to understand how the new site is being used, and to enhance user satisfaction by improving usability and accessibility.

Research suppliers will create proposals, responding to these challenges, suggesting a programme of research using a variety of techniques aimed at addressing the objectives of the research, including the costs. Typically the proposal writing phase can take up to a week but can be longer for larger or complex projects e.g. multi-country or multi-phase research.

Step 2:

Once a project has been commissioned there will be a briefing or set-up meeting between the commissioner and the selected research supplier. This usually takes place as close as possible to the beginning of a commission and is an opportunity for research suppliers to speak directly to end client commissioners (including relevant stakeholders) and ask for further background.

It will be during this stage that participant requirements will be discussed - this is called the research universe and the research sample. This could include for example social and geodemographic information such as age, sex, location or marital status of the required participants. The sample is often determined by what information end clients already know about their target or desired audience, often from data they already have. It is at this stage where all project dates and timings are decided – they are typically based on researcher availability (and fitting in with any other projects that they may also be working on) plus the end client’s availability if they wish to attend and/or observe the research.

Step 3:

Following the set up meeting, recruitment screeners and schedules are created by researchers or they may appoint a fieldwork agency to do this, which may also include booking the venues, participant recruitment and organising the incentives.

The purpose of a screener is to ensure that the right people are invited to take part in any given research project. Before screeners are sent to the recruiters they must be approved by end clients so that everyone is in agreement on the type of participants end clients wish to engage with. It usually takes a few days for screeners to be circulated within client organisations and for sign off to be agreed.

Step 4:

Once screeners are signed off recruitment can begin. The length of time allocated for recruitment varies and can be anything from a few days to a few weeks. The time allocated should reflect the difficulty of finding participants but will also be dictated by the already agreed fieldwork dates or when clients require projects to be completed. One or two weeks are typical for recruitment.

Whilst participants are being recruited researchers will be working on creating Pre-tasks, if there are any, and developing Discussion Guides to focus discussions during qualitative research sessions. Whilst not a prescriptive list, generally Discussion Guides outline the overall narrative flow for any qualitative session and the specific questions that researchers wish to ask. Again, any Pre-tasks and Discussion Guides require sign off by end clients.

Step 5:

Once participants are recruited, if there are Pre-tasks to complete it is the responsibility of recruiters to ensure that participants receive these with sufficient time to complete tasks ahead of any research sessions. Participants are usually given about a week to complete a Pre-task and they can take many forms including shopping for products, keeping a diary or using a particular product.

Fieldwork can take place in more than one geographical location and can often be in multiple locations. On an international project, fieldwork will take place in multiple countries (and multiple cities in each country) either in parallel or one after the other. For this reason the length of time for fieldwork can vary but on a UK only project it would usually be completed in one to two weeks.

Step 6:

Once all fieldwork is complete researchers will begin conducting analysis e.g. listening back to any audio recordings and analysing any Pre- or Post-tasks before coming together as a team (often there are multiple researchers working on a project) for review sessions. This is where researchers will discuss any themes, ideas and insights and come to conclusions about key findings. Each researcher will feed in their experiences and as a group researchers will agree the findings.  

Once findings are agreed, research teams will write up client reports and prepare presentations for clients. Again, if a project has involved multiple countries then this will take longer. One or two weeks are usually allocated for the analysis and reporting stage of research projects.

Step 7:

The final stage is research debriefs with clients. This is usually a face to face presentation but can be a teleconference/Skype/Google Hangout etc. At debriefs research teams will deliver the findings of research projects to end clients. If there is a quantitative phase of research this typically starts immediately after qualitative client de-briefs, using learnings from any qualitative research to inform subsequent quantitative data collection.