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Section 2

Overview of Descriptive Design

A descriptive design is a flexible, exploratory approach to qualitative research. Descriptive design is referred to in the literature by other labels including generic, general, basic, traditional, interpretive, and pragmatic. Descriptive design as an acceptable research design for dissertation and other robust scholarly research has received varying degrees of acceptance within the academic community. However, descriptive design has been gaining momentum since the early 2000’s as a suitable design for studies that do not fall into the more mainstream genres of qualitative research (ie. Case study, phenomenology, ethnography, narrative inquiry and grounded theory). In contrast to other qualitative designs, descriptive design is not aligned to specific methods (for example, bracketing in phenomenology, bounded systems in case study, or constant comparative analysis in grounded theory). Rather, descriptive design “borrows” methods appropriate to the proposed study from other designs. 

Arguments supporting the flexible nature of descriptive designs describe it as being preferable to forcing a research approach into a design that is not quite appropriate for the nature of the intended study. However, descriptive design has also been criticized for this mixing of methods as well as for the limited literature describing it. The descriptive design can be the foundation for a rigorous study within the ADE program. Because of the flexibility of the methods used, a descriptive design provides the researcher with the opportunity to choose methods best suited to a practice-based research purpose.   

Overview of Descriptive Design
The type of research questions best suited to descriptive design are about the practical consequences and useful applications about an issue or problem. The purpose of descriptive design is to answer exploratory qualitative questions that do not fit into the framework of a more traditional design Data sources can draw on any type of qualitative source including personal accounts (ie. Interviews), documents, or artifacts. Also described in the literature as generic, general, basic, traditional, interpretive, or pragmatic designs.
Benefits Cautions

A practical design appropriate for practitioners in the field

Examines participants’ perceptions or experiences related to a practice problem

Appropriate when the purpose of the research does not require intense to sustained interactions with participants

Since it draws on or “borrows” methods from other designs, it is a flexible design that is malleable to a variety of research situations.

More than one data source may be needed for triangulation

Deep or intense understandings of life experiences or complex phenomenon may suggest an alternative design such as phenomenology or narrative inquiry

Without specific, aligned methods, descriptive design novice researchers can unintentionally introduce “method slurring” and produce a study not based in a rigorous philosophical paradigm as are more traditional designs.


Sources of Data

Sources of Data in Descriptive Design

Because of the exploratory nature of descriptive design, the triangulation of multiple sources of data are often used for additional insight into the phenomenon. Sources of data that can be used in descriptive studies are similar to those that may be used in other qualitative designs and include interviews, focus groups, documents, artifacts, and observations.

The following video provides additional considerations for triangulation in qualitative designs including descriptive design: Triangulation: Pairing Thematic and Content Analysis