Research by Design – but which design is right?

One of the tag lines I’ve seen used in the past by the NIHR Research Design Service is ‘research by design’. Appropriate design is obviously central to any research project and describing it vital to the success of any funding application. The involvement of relevant methodologists in your research team is also something on which your funding application will be judged. But, what design is the right one for your study?

One of the things I’ve found it important to remember as an RDS adviser is that there are a myriad of possible designs for researchers to consider when first putting together a study, each with its own advantages over another. Indeed, I often meet researchers who find it hard to decide how best to proceed with designing their study – and this difficulty inevitably leads me to ask to a larger, more basic, underlying question: what is your study really about?

In terms of applied health and social care research, your research study should begin with a problem. This problem could be about anything you encounter in your clinical practice – something to do with the treatments you deliver or the way in which you deliver them, it could be a way they could be delivered differently or to explore an intervention that you’re not delivering but that you could. The list goes on and the NIHR’s wide array of funding programmes offer funding for pretty much any of these kinds of questions. At the heart of it, any of these problems represent something that, once resolved, could benefit patients. It is this last – bringing about benefit to patients – in which many funders, including the NIHR, are interested. They are also problems which research can address, but where different designs are required.

So, when it comes to design, start with the problem you are trying to solve and from here the rest of the research should flow. From the problem, form the questions; from the questions, decide upon the outcomes that will answer them; from these outcomes, decide upon the design that will best produce them.

It is easy to get caught up in the pressure to apply for research funds and there is certainly a desire to immediately begin to fill in application forms. However, in my experience, you are far better served by holding back and considering what the research is really about. This understanding can often help illuminate other issues that will arise later on in the design and planning of the research. All of which will ultimately culminate right back where the research started – by solving the problem in such a way as to benefit patients.
So, yes, design is vital, but it is not where research starts, nor where it ends. It’s the bit in the middle and, although I’ve oversimplified things for the purposes of this blog, it is the bit with which the RDS can help.

If you’re an applied health or social care researcher applying for peer-reviewed funding in England, contact your local RDS and we can help you design your study.

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