The basics of desk-based research

Lessons from a project on capacity building for small charity menstrual health projects in East Africa

“to do list – office – desk – computer – human resources” by justworks1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Desk-based research makes up a significant part of my work as a consultant. Research is something I love doing and has been a key feature of my everyday working life since doing my Masters in 2013, then through my PhD and now in my consulting career. But, what does it mean to do desk-based research and what does it involve? In this blog, I draw on a recent project I completed for Irise International on building the capacity of small charities to deliver effective menstrual health projects in East Africa, to provide some key tips for doing a desk based research project.

Understand the project purpose and end goal first

There are so many possibilities for doing research, even in global development issues such as WASH from the comfort of your desk. I’ve been doing desk-based research for just over a year and I absolutely love it. When you set out on doing a desk-based project, like with any study, it is vital that you take the time to understand the purpose and aim of the project with care. In this case, I determined that there were three aspects: identifying the issues and problems to be addressed, looking at effective solutions to address them, and providing a picture of what best practice is. To do this, the project was aiming to explore the needs of small charities for menstrual health projects (problems), build consensus from experts on the best practice for menstrual health, and provide recommendations for running effective menstrual health projects (solutions and best practice). The recommendations I would make were the ‘end goal’ of the project, and to do this I had to design my project accordingly to ensure it could be met. This gave me focus for ensuring that the data that I gathered was relevant for the project.

Design your methodology with technology in mind

Once I determined which data is relevant and  needed for the project, I then had to work out how to get it. Even if you are sitting at your desk for the entirety of the research, I’ve learned over the past year that there are a range of techniques at our fingertips. In desk-based qualitative research, such as through this project on the needs of small charities for delivering menstrual health projects across Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi, the computer is a powerful tool to carry out your research with. In essence, I  was trying to understand the views of different people in the same way as doing it in person, but through my computer. I chose to opt for techniques which enabled other people to send me written data with their views. I used Google Forms to create a survey (a really easy to use tool) and distributed this to various small charities. Google Forms is brilliant because it is very straightforward to design questions how you want them and in an accessible way for your target sample, and it is possible to download your data (for free!) and look at people’s answers easily in a spreadsheet, particularly for a survey with mostly open ended questions with written answers as was needed in this project. This makes it really easy to look at your data for each question and to see who said what on your screen. I learned quickly that it is not just the design of the survey that matters but also the distribution. Having a pre-prepared email list with your target participants is useful, but it is just the start. We are now living in a world connected through social media, and sharing my survey through my Twitter and LinkedIn platforms and Irise International’s platforms yielded a diverse and sizable sample for the survey. The power of social media in research today, even if from a desk, should not be underestimated. Technology can also allow us to conduct interviews in different ways. I was able to interview experts on menstrual hygiene over Skype. In desk based research, it is important to recognise that in a socially distanced new normal, we can use platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype and others to conduct interviews. Recording these interviews within the programs themselves is a true lifeline when it comes to writing up your results, as you can look back on your interviews as videos and jump to wherever you need to be. If you opt to do email interviews with certain people, keep interview questions limited in number (definitely less than 10) as people will not spend so long replying to emails, but I found this really useful for involving experts in this study.

Keep writing

I find keeping a record of what I have done and what I have found really useful, particularly if you do it as you go along. In this research, I had a very clear framework of what questions I needed to answer as part of my project brief from Irise International, which was good because I had a very short timeframe for the study. From the start of the project and as I was designing (and redrafting) the survey and interview questions with Irise (and I recommend always to get a second opinion on if questions are understood), I could tell what the structure of the project report would roughly look like. As soon as you know this, plot out your headings in your document. I find automatically numbered headings really useful, because you can clearly see the levels of different headings, and you can add sections in between other sections without manually changing the document. Once you have your headings, as you start to get your research data through your surveys, emails and conference calls, you can start to ‘paste’ quotes under the relevant headings to shape up later. You may find that you add in lots of extra headings to mark out different themes emerging (which you can see clearly in Microsoft Word if you click ‘View’ at the top and check ‘Navigation Pane’), and then reduce as you go along. A report from desk based work evolves gradually, because the data is received gradually, but compared to collecting data in the field, you can see your ‘live’ feedback on the computer through surveys and email answers and analyse it as you go along every day.

Enjoy and be adventurous!

At the moment, many of us cannot travel and for those of us who are used to field work in various parts of the world, it takes time to get used to working from home rather than being in the field. But desk based research does not mean you cannot have fun. As I  mentioned in my recent blog on teaching on a Masters course in India, technology lets us connect to what’s going on in other parts of the world. In this work, the survey was telling me the stories of people in East Africa working on menstrual health projects right now and strengthen my – in the middle of lockdown! Try and be creative with socially-distanced research methods, be bold, be adventurous and enjoy your journey.


Thank you to Dr. Emily Wilson and Calum Smith at Irise International for enabling me to support this great project, and to all of the participants who gave their feedback for the research.