An introduction to rapid qualitative evaluation

Dr Cecilia Vindrola-Padros co-directs the Rapid Research, Evaluation and Appraisal Lab (RREAL) at University College London (UCL) with Dr Ginger Johnson. RREAL aims to improve the quality and impact of rapid research used to evaluate clinical and health service models and interventions for time-sensitive contexts. The lab leads a series of rapid qualitative studies (including recent research on the COVID-19 pandemic), advises on rapid research led by other teams and delivers intensive training for researchers and practitioners interested in developing their own rapid studies. In this blog, Cecilia presents the field of rapid qualitative research, discussing the rationale for the use of these approaches, the most common types of rapid study design, the challenges of carrying out rapid research and the future development of the field. 

The rationale for doing qualitative research rapidly

An increase in the interest in applied research fields and rapidly changing social and political landscapes have motivated many qualitative researchers to search for ways to deliver research findings in time to inform decision-making processes. Qualitative research is often characterised as an approach requiring long-term fieldwork, but for many of us working in healthcare, education, industry, among other sectors, timeliness is a key component of our daily practice. 

We have opted for rapid qualitative research designs when developing studies with the following aims:

Rapid qualitative research designs have helped us to be responsive and adapt to changes in context while a study is ongoing. Due to the focus on delivering findings in a timely way, many rapid qualitative research approaches are also collaborative. Stakeholders need to be actively involved in the design and implementation of the study to ensure the findings are delivered in a format and at a time when they can be used to make changes. 

Common rapid qualitative research approaches

The field of rapid qualitative research has a rich history and includes a wide range of approaches, many of which have cross-fertilized over time. Some of the most common types of rapid research include rapid appraisals, rapid ethnographic assessments (REA), rapid qualitative inquiry (RQI), rapid assessment procedures (RAPs), the rapid assessment, response and evaluation model (RARE model), and quick, focused or short-term ethnographies. Rapid evaluation methods have also been developed in the form of real time evaluations (RTE), rapid feedback evaluations (RFE), rapid evaluation methods (REM) and rapid-cycle evaluations (RCE). 

In general, the research approaches mentioned above have the following characteristics: 

  • Iterative design, often carrying out data collection and analysis in parallel
  • Involve at least some degree of participatory research (including relevant stakeholders in the design and/or implementation of the study)
  • Combine multiple methods of data collection and carry out triangulation during analysis
  • Can rely on the use of teams of researchers to cover more ground during data collection or contribute to data analysis
  • Are normally carried out within short study timeframes (a few weeks to a few months) or might include multiple data collection exercises of short duration (i.e. rapid feedback evaluations that run for a few years, but include short and intensive periods of data collection and analysis to share emerging findings as the evaluation is ongoing). 

Rapid qualitative research techniques

Researchers have also made modifications to the way they implement commonly used methods of data collection and analysis in qualitative research to decrease the length of studies. The main approaches used to date have included:

  • Bypassing the transcription of interview audio recordings to analyse data directly from the recordings
  • Reliance on interview or focus group notes instead of audio recordings and transcription
  • The use of techniques such as mind maps as focus groups are ongoing to summarise emerging findings
  • The implementation of structured observation guides to focus on the development of field notes during participant observation
  • The development of rapid data analysis techniques through the use of frameworks, tables or targeted coding techniques. 

Main challenges of rapid qualitative research

The field of rapid qualitative research has grown tremendously over the past decades. Despite these advances, rapid research continues to be regarded as research of lower quality than long-term research. In part, this is due to evident gaps in the reporting of research methods and findings in published rapid studies. The situation is further complicated by the lack of quality standards for rapid research and lack of consensus on terminology (i.e. time-spans for the study, types of rapid designs, etc). 

Researchers also face challenges when designing and implementing rapid studies such as ensuring consistency in data collection and analysis across team members, biases in sampling, balancing the breadth and depth of data, allowing time for critical reflection, time pressures for data access and barriers produced by ethical review processes. 

Findings might not be shared appropriately with stakeholders, reducing the possibility to use them to make changes in practice. Many researchers also feel ready to implement rapid studies, without learning from approaches developed previously (leading to “reinventing the wheel” scenarios) or considering the limitations and benefits of short-term research. 

The future of the field
As rapid qualitative research gains popularity, we will need to focus our attention on the implementation of these approaches across various contexts. We will need to foster methodological innovation without disregarding the rich history of our field. 

At RREAL, we have invested a lot of time and energy in the development of training that can provide researchers, clinicians and practitioners with an understanding of the approaches that are currently available for rapid research and how principles and tools from these can be combined to generate new techniques. Our team is also involved in the development of standards for the reporting and quality assessment of rapid research. 

Global unexpected events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have demonstrated the value of research that can be responsive to these events and deliver findings at a time when they can be used to inform decision-making processes. Our field must learn from the past to develop new ways of thinking about and implementing rapid, flexible and collaborative research capable of making tangible contributions to our society. 

Author bio: Cecilia Vindrola-Padros is a medical anthropologist interested in applied health research and the development of rapid approaches to research. She has written extensively on the use of rapid qualitative research. She currently works as a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Targeted Intervention, UCL and Social Scientist at the NIAA Health Services Research Centre (HSRC), Royal College of Anaesthetists (RCoA). She is a member of five interdisciplinary teams, applying anthropological theories and methods to study and improve healthcare delivery in the UK and abroad. She is a researcher on the NIHR-funded Rapid Service Evaluation Team (RSET), a collaboration between UCL and the Nuffield Trust.