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Design Decisions in Research

3. The Conceptual Phase

The conceptual phase is the initial phase of research and involves the intellectual process of developing a research idea into a realistic and appropriate research design.  This phase can be time-consuming, depending on the level of expertise of the investigator.  During this phase, time is spent critiquing the literature on the topic of interest, continually refining and narrowing down the topic until a succinct research problem and purpose have been determined. 

A thorough review of the literature needs to be conducted to fully understand:

  • The scope and significance of the problem;
  • The state of the science; and
  • Gaps in the literature. 

The existing research on the topic of interest should be critically evaluated for strengths and limitations.  Often it is helpful to discuss research ideas with experts in the field too.  Reviewing the literature and discussing research ideas with experts will help guide the design of the study.  If very little is known about the topic, a descriptive study (qualitative or quantitative) will need to be undertaken.

Example 1


For example, little is know about African American women’s beliefs about mental illness.  Therefore, a qualitative study to identify African American women’s beliefs, coping behaviors, and barriers to seeking mental health services was conducted (Ward, Clark, & Heidrich, 2009).  Results of this study have the potential to inform clinical assessment or development of an intervention to address identified barriers.