Part 4 - The Robust Proposal (Qualitative Research Proposal Series)

This is Part 4 of a four-part series on proposal writing for qualitative research. Please read Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series. They cover how to craft an overview as a starting point of conversation with the client, best practices for developing a budget, and how to justify proposal details.

You have made it this far with the client! You’ve crafted your overview, which piqued their interest and gave them a beacon. Your budget calculation has helped you understand the amount of actual work that will take place to complete the project. Ensuing discussions forged the way for further clarity on the executable details.

Now is the time to iron out the legal language, and document the specifics. In addition to having all the details about the study objectives, methodology, sample, and cost (which are all in the overview), your proposal is going to need:

1.      Phase by phase breakdown

2.    Terms and conditions

3.    Signature page


1. Phase by phase breakdown

Accompanying a phase overview (a snapshot of the entire program), we separate each phase onto its own page. We spoke of the table in Part 1 – this takes each “column” from the table and presents all excruciating details. For each phase, we put in specifically what we will do (the tasks), the deliverables, and the assumptions. Tasks are pretty self-explanatory, but being very pointed as to the actual work transpiring is very important. Mention all of the actual work that go into the task, such as making a document, holding a meeting (and length), creating an agenda, etc.

We almost always indicate the form factor of the deliverables at each phase. Creating a PowerPoint presentation for a check in, is very different from drafting a set of engaging posters. If there is an ambiguity about the quantity of certain deliverables, we usually indicate an “up to” point – such as “up to two screeners.”

Assumptions are dependencies from the client. We usually think of them in terms of how much effort the client must put in, and what are some constraints discussed prior to the development of the proposal. We have included assumptions that keep the client accountable if there’s a particularly tight timeline (i.e., client must respond in two days with feedback of draft). We have also included assumptions about field involvement. For instance, to cut costs, sometimes we rely on the client to be a note taker, therefore we put this directly into the assumptions so it is clear that the scope is based on that expectation.

The phase breakdown can be as granular as you feel comfortable, but keep in mind the overall arc of the program and your relationship with the client. Some will appreciate the attention to detail, while others (or their legal departments) will want more clarification on an assumption.


2. Terms and conditions

There are many online resources researchers can use as terms and conditions. Always include them in the robust proposal. Sometimes the client legal team will have push back on particular language, or will want to include their own (such as intellectual property ownership). It’s always prudent to have a legal expert to consult with to draft your own terms and in cases in which clients want to make revisions.


3. Signature page

This is the dotted line page! Sometimes it gets forgotten, and then the client has nowhere to put their signature. Always have the client sign first, in case they come back with revisions along with their signature.


Proposals are so important for qualitative researchers. With so many moving parts, ambiguity in the outcomes, and reliance on the findings to drive other processes, it is crucial for researchers to develop strong practices for sound proposal writing.

This concludes our first foray into a blog series. We hope you enjoyed reading it and look forward to answering any other tactical questions you might have. Meena will be sharing a blog post soon that collects all the many questions we have received from colleagues and practitioners that we are going to share on our blog. Stay tuned for that!

If you have any final comments on proposals, tweet them to Meena @meena+ko, #betterproposals. Maybe in your tweet, indicate why I should get into the Twittersphere!

Part 3 - The Conversation/Talking Points (Qualitative Research Proposal Series)

This is Part 3 of a four-part series on proposal writing for qualitative research. Please read the introduction, and Parts 1 and 2 of this series. They cover how to craft an overview as a starting point of conversation with the client and best practices for developing a budget.

With a proposal overview, supported by a budget calculation and rough field schedule, we can now have a detailed conversation with the client about the project. It is healthy for a bit of back and forth to ensue, typically involving methodology questions and opportunities to cut cost. This demonstrates to the client your willingness to be flexible (while maintaining the integrity of the research study), as well as your knowledge on how to modify the details to suit constraints.

In this section, we will share the common discussion points that then inform the final proposal.

1.      Cost

2.    Partners

3.    Field realities


1. Cost

Unless a client has shared a specific number with you, it is inevitable that they will ask questions about cost. Clients sometimes experience sticker shock, but once aware of the resource power and intellectual onus involved in research they become more comfortable with it. We never adjust the cost of the work unless actual tasks are being impacted. In these discussions about cost, we more often than not are giving our client the language to share with others who might be the final purchase decision-maker.

The biggest influencer of the total cost of a qualitative research project is the the sample size. The larger your sample, the more time the researcher will be in the field. If a client is asking to remove ancillary tasks beyond the actual data gathering, then it is likely the total cost of the project will not go down much. For example, if you include an alignment work session, or a bit of ideation coupled with the findings presentation – they will wonder if removing those tasks will effect the bottom line. Most of the time, removing these small tasks will not impact the total cost as much as sample reduction will.

Researchers are also well aware that cost will be impacted by the methodology. The data gathering techniques (in-person versus remote, for example) will impact the cost greatly. It is your responsibility, as a researcher, to help the client understand the benefits and challenges with method contexts, dynamics, and engagements (we will cover these in another blog post!)

The reality with cost is that the client will always want to find ways to bring it down. You have two options at that point – remove tasks, and/or reduce sample. Researchers need to equip themselves with the knowledge to justify either. Shameless plug: Using the twig+fish NCredible Framework gives researchers the talking points on cost justification around different types of research.


2. Partners

Offloading some of the non-intellectual parts of research can be one of the smartest moves a researcher can make. From a proposal perspective, working with partners means less in professional fees and more in expenses. We always share the rationale for working with partners to our clients during this stage, so that they understand how they are gaining.

We work with various trusted recruiting specialists, and also with the client (who may be the best recruiter for certain population). Meena and I have determined that we are not experts in finding participants, but are experts in describing identifying criteria. And, we simply do not like the tasks involved with recruiting. Our recruiter typically works on the screener (based on criteria we gather), and schedules participants. Our partner is so good at this that it would be almost insulting for us to take it on – so we do not.

We also partner with data gathering services. Sometimes we propose data gathering engagements that require automated fielding and data capture. There are so many tools out there, so it is important to stay vigilant on their evolving reputations.

Another common partnership for us is design and ideation. We have a very short list of trusted visual and interaction designers we work with. We also have a network that can tap into industrial, service, and space design (among so many others). Designing is not part of our wheelhouse, , nor do we desire to do it – so we volley that to the experts. We suggest baking in time for the designers early in the project (say, kickoff), so that they can be a part of the team from the start. Ensure you communicate openly with these partners in particular as they are directly tied to the lasting, final deliverable for your client.

An undisputed source of burnout is doing unwanted work tasks. We do not want to burnout, because we want to deliver great process and output results to our clients. Outsource the tasks you do not want to do, but justify it in plain language to your client. It is important to be transparent, so that the client has full understanding of the “what” and the “why.”


3. Field realities

Being in the field is a lot of work. There is no other way to state that reality. I will repeat: being in the field is a lot of work. Not only are days long, they often consist of active listening, supporting client questions, managing logistics, and hand writing (ouch, the hand writing!) Meena and I have learned how to make field research more efficient (cost/time saving), and also, how to ensure our needs are met as researchers. Take breaks, and advocate for yourself so that you are always at your best when researching!

We have learned that efficiency is subjective, and varies based on the client – it is something that needs to be discussed at this stage. One client’s expectation of efficiency may be constrained by time, while another’s is constrained by cost. Get a sense of where the constraints are and how this will impact the field schedule.

A big part of research is travel. Making sound travel arrangements that also adhere to the field schedule require an adept attention to detail (we will make another blog post on travel). Meena and I always like to have full control of our travel arrangements. This goes back to the comment about burnout – we are less prone to this challenge if we have the agency to manage our arrangements. This does not mean we are ostentatious in our travel choices; often, it just accounts for our own biorhythmic patterns and priorities (are you more of a morning person, or night person? When do you like to shut down? What are personal priorities that must be attended to that never take second place?)

When traveling, we opt for direct flights (which are not easy to come by in Boston), and a safe reliable car. Beyond that, we believe that if we are away from our families and daily lives, our lodging accommodations should be comfortable, but most importantly predictable. Because of this, we usually stay in reputable hotel brands.

Sometimes, we do not have control of our travel. It’s completely fine to adapt to a client’s travel constraints, but talk about the logistics and the importance of them (and impact upon the research) upfront. When a third party books our travel, sometimes, the additional time spent on travel does not necessarily reduce the overall expense.

Make sure that your client understands what is required to field an efficient study. Use this time to discuss what will result in successful data capture. Have a strong sense of what it means and feels like to be out in the field. A no-win situation is one in which the research team arrives exhausted and misses valuable opportunity to learn from participants due to exhaustion.


Your discussions with the client should be productive and tactical. Focus on the pros and cons of various solutions, and be honest and transparent. All of the talking points you share with your client should lead back to one core objective: research is executed credibly. If at any point the research falls into jeopardy because of cost cutting or time cutting, it is the researcher who must provide the rationale for the best path forward.

Now it's your turn to share some great and not-so-great field stories that may have impacted or influenced the way you scope out projects today - share them with Meena @meena_ko #betterproposals. I'm still not on the Twitter bandwagon!

Part 2 - The Budget Calculation (Qualitative Research Proposal Series)

This is Part 2 of a four-part series on proposal writing for qualitative research. Please read Part 1 of this series, which covers crafting an overview as a starting point of conversation with the client.

Budget calculations at the most basic level include estimated costs in professional fees and expenses associated with your proposal. These costs are in fact estimates because sometimes project scopes can adjust total fees, and expenses are never easy to predict.

Regardless of whether you apply a fixed fee or variable fee approach – creating a budget calculation is always advisable. Meena and I have always advocated a fixed fee approach, believing it shows sufficient predictability to the process, and one that does not rest on our charging for every small piece of work conducted. The key in a fixed fee approach is the confidence you have in your process.

A good budget calculation requires some previous experience and repeatable processes. Because our projects typically involve research and some strategy, we developed a five-phased research approach that can be applied to pretty much any program. Within each of these general phases, there is a lot of consistency to the tasks included. Often, each is tweaked to meet the demands of the research study.

The five-phased approach is a result of both Meena and my experience. Based on our experiences, we know exactly what it takes us to execute a well thought-out and credible research program. We encourage you to tap into your personal experience to determine the best process for you that can make crafting a budget calculation more predictable.

On a side note, when consulting, it’s easy to spend just as much time writing proposals as it does conducting project work. Set structures in place so that you are not reinventing the wheel every time you create a proposal – this will save you time, and money. This could mean a reusable budget calculator in a spreadsheet, or using a program that you have had good success with.

We have both used project programs, spreadsheets and other tools to calculate budget. I used to be a big fan of Microsoft Project because it not only provides tasks associated with real dollars and hours, but it also links up to actual working time (dates). This is great, but MS Project is a costly tool. We use a simple Excel spreadsheet that does just the trick, but does not include actual dates

Each section will describe how to determine and describe:

1.      Professional fees

2.    Expenses

3.    Field schedule


1. Professional Fees

There are a number of calculators online that help freelancers and independent consultants determine an annual living wage. If you have not already determined what this is, we suggest exploring these calculators to determine your hourly wage. It is ALSO very important to look at market data on how much freelancers/independents are charging in your region. We strongly advocate doing your research prior to determining your hourly wage so as not to artificially inflate or weigh down (deflate) the value of qualitative research.

Once you have determined your hourly wage, you can enter this as a header column in a spreadsheet. From there, list all the possible tasks that would be associated with the program (one task per line). Do not forget little administrative tasks like the time it takes you to book travel (unless you outsource it, in which case it becomes an expense). Indicate the number of hours (considering an 8-hour work day) for each task, and multiply these hours by your wage. This will yield your professional fee total, ta da!

Having a solid, well-thought out description of tasks in professional fees is crucial for the discussion with the client. While we do not share the spreadsheet with our client, it gives us specific line items to adjust. Therefore, when the inevitable discussion about cost-cutting comes into play, we can specifically associate any cost reduction with specific tasks. For instance, “we removed an orientation session with client observers,” is a specific task and associated deliverable that is tied to actual dollars. As well, the client can understand where some variability can be applied. Creating a research protocol is a task regardless of meeting with 5, 10 or 15 people. Therefore, its creation does not get affected by the sample or recruitment. The amount of time spent on analysis does get affected – and therefore, the client can appreciate which professional fees can and cannot get affected by sample size change.


2. Expenses

Qualitative research requires plenty of purchases, partnerships, and getting around. If a methodology and sample size are set, then the cost of recruiting is typically the same whether a client goes with vendor x or vendor y. As such, we like to focus the conversation on the professional fees and our value-add as opposed to the number of flights and cost of group session catering.

Expenses typically fall into three categories: travel, recruiting, and supplies.

For travel, we always do research into flight options as well as hotel and ground transportation. Having specific numbers for each travel component (such as hotel, number of Uber rides, etc.) will give a better sense of what it will take to be in the field. We always indicate two multipliers in our spreadsheet – the number of researchers or participants, and the number of days in the field. These help us determine total cost of travel. As well, consider times of year, and availability of flights and hotels: doing this legwork upfront can help manage the client perception of research expenses.

For recruiting, our strategy is to outsource. We will discuss this in more length in Part 3 (The Conversation/Talking Points). We work with a trusted partner to give us an estimate on recruiting fees, incentives, floater fees, facility rentals, catering (for behind and in front of the glass), and video recording. We typically ask for these as line items so that we know the per head cost. To bring down costs, video recording is often the first thing to go. Meena and I typically challenge that video is expensive, and does not yield as much actual value to the client. How often does the client team go back and review the recordings? What will the recordings be used for, and more importantly, how will the recordings be stored? Given that it almost always contains personal information on specific individuals recruited for a study, we want to make sure it is given its due respect.

Lastly, supplies are always a big part of our research programs. We believe people have easier times articulating themselves when they do not have to simply sit in conversation. We calculate how much printing, shipping, purchasing, and renting we have to do and make this one lump sum. It is essentially the cost of executing the protocol and conducting analysis. This can also include printing, which we tend to outsource because often our deliverables involve some printed material.


3. Field Schedule

In qualitative research, it is important to be as realistic as possible, as early as possible. In the same spreadsheet in which we have our budget calculation, we also include a field schedule. This helps us visually see how many actual days we are in the field, and when actual travel will occur. A flight out on a Sunday evening is going to be a different price than a Monday morning – for example. As well, from a work-life balance standpoint, there will be times you will have to work on Sunday evenings, or late into a weeknight, but, making it a regular occurrence often sets an unhealthy standard.

We indicate the days of the week (often with actual dates), and list off the amount of participants that can be engaged on any given day. We always give ourselves enough travel time between participant locations, and enough time to debrief with our client (who is often in the field with us).

Once we have a rough field schedule, and the proposal is moving to signature, we then populate an actual Google calendar with these dates. This is a shared calendar between Meena and I, and we use it to see if there are any conflicts. It is usually a separate project calendar that can be deleted or hidden once we are finished with the program.


Your budget calculation is your hard, fast numbers. It is crucial to give it the diligence and time it deserves. All the details count here, even if they are not ported into your actual proposal. Budgeting is a skill – and not something that comes to everyone right away. We feel comfortable with our process because we have done it so many times. Be sure to set aside time to reflect on the budget, and the fees and expenses applied so that you can continuously make the process more accurate as you evolve in your profession. Note details about the client interaction as well – and where your time might be eaten more so than other projects. This permits you to allow more time for the “client that needs extra coaching” so that can be explained in those very terms when costs are brought up.

What are some costs you consider? Tweet Meena (I ain't on the Twitter!) @meena_ko for #betterproposals.

Part 1 – The Overview (Qualitative Research Proposal Series)

This is Part 1 of a  four-part on proposal writing for qualitative research. Read the introduction for context on why we started this series.

Qualitative research is full of nuanced details. Qualitative research by nature embraces the unquantifiable parts of being human. In a proposal, we are trying to identify and account for those “hard to quantify” elements. The nuance is often to the researcher’s (and client’s) benefit, allowing us to tailor each study to particular needs and constraints. However, for the person reviewing the initial pass at what the approach might look like, these subtle details can be overwhelming.

This first discussion glances at a high level breakdown of the proposal.

Prior to drafting a full proposal with assumptions and terms, we always create an overview document that walks through five sections. Each section is usually one page and consists of:

1.      Research objectives

2.    A suggested approach

3.    Research phases

4.    About us

5.    Case studies


1. Research objectives

The objectives are a repeat-back to the client of the program intent, usually in paragraph form and very brief. We reference strategy context to root the research in a meaningful scale to the business. We always include initial questions that team members have raised, and describe the outcome or the final deliverable.


2. A suggested approach

We always consider sample and study design in the overview, and begin with a potential methodology and recruiting rationale. Without being too prescriptive, we use this page to educate the client on all variables needed to craft the study.

The sample outlines who it is we intend to recruit for the study. Given that “who” is very open-ended, we further reduce the sample to identifiable behaviors, demographics, psychographics, and aptitudes that we seek to recruit.

The study design does not lead with methodology: instead, we reduce methodology to the most basic common denominators to avoid any confusion, by describing potential contexts, dynamics, and engagements needed for the study. These topics will be explored in further detail in subsequent blog posts

Given that the suggested approach has an associated sample and study design, the proposal can then serve as a conversation-starter to have with clients, so that rough cost and timing can be evaluated. It also serves to educate what factors within the sample and study design can affect cost and timing, giving the client a better sense of what they can, and cannot control.


3. Research phases

We cover the phase intent, tasks, cost, and timing in a visual table to provide insight into the study arc. From our perspective, using this table format keeps the process predictable and relatively easy to replicate across research studies. It also allows for clients to walk away with a “1-pager”, which can be shared and internalized easily within their organization. We focus our efforts in making the methodology and recruiting rationale tailored to each client, but in general the key steps in the process form a standard for all qualitative research.


4. About us

We always include a paragraph about twig+fish, our philosophy, and how we like to work with clients. Every freelancer, organization, team (whatever you call yourself!) needs to have a research perspective. Share it! We also include individual bios of ourselves, with a nice headshot of course!


5. Case studies (optional)

Every so often, we will get a lead for a project in which the potential client does not know us at all. In a scenario like this, we will provide a two paragraph anonymized narrative to further demonstrate our credibility in the space. Making it short and readable is key – at this point it is simply about demonstrating know-how, not getting into the weeds of details.


The purpose of the overview is to help the client understand what information we need to define the optimal study design. Using it as a starting point for discussion, the client can then consider what they already know and have, that may further inform the study design.  

As mentioned earlier, a budget calculation is always included in this overview. In Part 2, we will discuss considerations for the budget calculation, and how we create it. Stay tuned for Part 2 coming tomorrow!

We want to hear your thoughts! Tweet Meena (@meena_ko) with what you always consider in crafting a proposal - #betterproposals.


Writing Qualitative Research Proposals - A Four-Part Series

Musical performances with complex stage setups can result in one of two ways: a beautiful choreography or a tragic mess. In crafting contracts with venues, the musician’s representatives sometimes insert random requests in the instructions – i.e., remove all blue M&Ms from the singer’s candy bowl. These random requests can be interpreted as diva-ing, but it reveals far more.  It is a means to vet the venue to ensure they have read the entire contract. Are they really paying attention to all the details? Knowing that the contract has been thoroughly read, and all details given due diligence typically implies that the show will go off without a hitch.

In qualitative research, much like in complex stage setups, there are a lot of moving parts. These moving parts are a reality and a point of vulnerability for the researchers doing the work.

Meena and I are sometimes asked about our proposals: how do we write them, what do we include. In the spirit of transparency, we wanted to share the key components of our proposal process.

In this five-part series, we will share how we craft qualitative research proposals. Going into the writing process, we have some information but not all. We use the proposal process as a means of beginning a conversation: one that not only focuses on the study design, but also, one that touts our knowledge, and flexibility in crafting a research study that meets the needs of the client, while preserving the integrity of a credible approach. As we gather this information, we keep the conversation going by providing more project facts. We always begin at a high level, and then end with more detail.

Part 1 will cover our initial proposal overview. Rather than investing a lot of time in a detailed write-up, we give our clients a sense of the project trajectory.

Part 2 will go into considerations for the budget calculation. We include the budget calculation in our proposal overview, but in this part we will dive deeper into the minutiae of fees and expenses.

Part 3 will address the conversations and back and forth that ensue as a result of sharing the proposal overviews with the client.

Part 4 will address the robust proposal itself, which includes all the logistics and expectations.

We encourage others in our domain to weigh in. We would love to hear other processes that have worked for you. Last year, for instance, Meena attended a conference in which a freelance researcher described the reason why he very transparently shares his budget calculations and hourly rate with clients. While it is not something we practice, it was an interesting perspective to consider in some situations.

Stay tuned for part 1 (coming tomorrow).

In the meantime, tweet Meena (I’m not active on Twitter) with some of your proposal best practices - @meena_ko #betterproposals.