What is desk research?

One of the first exploratory activities that is conducted during the contextual inquiry phase is desk research. Within eHealth development, desk research is the non-systematic collection of material that helps the development team to learn as much as possible about the context (Wentzel, Beerlage-de Jong, & van Gemert-Pijnen, 2014). Examples of relevant materials are scientific and non-scientific literature, policy documents, videos, or readily available reports such as the outcomes of employee satisfaction surveys. Desk research can be conducted in several ways, e.g. by means of using search engines, going through relevant websites, asking stakeholders for material, or using the archive of an organization. A prerequisite is that all the collected material should already exist; no systematic data collection or primary research activities are carried out. Since desk research is an exploratory activity and not a systematic research method, the aim is not to publish scientific articles on the results, but to get acquainted with the context.

What kind of results can desk research generate?

Desk research can be used as a first step in the development process in all kinds of settings. An example is the development of a technology in forensic psychiatry, which is the psychological treatment of offenders with the primary goal of preventing recidivism. Desk research can help in answering several questions, like:

  • what official rules and regulations are relevant when implementing a technology in forensic practice and working with forensic psychiatric patients for research purposes?
  • what e-mental health technologies are already being used by Dutch forensic psychiatric institutions?
  • what treatment protocols exist for forensic psychiatry? What kind of psychological tests are being used in the treatment of forensic psychiatric patients?
  • what organizations are involved in initiatives related to e-mental health in forensic psychiatry?

These types of results are used throughout the entire development process to make sure that, for example, the technology complements the current practice, doesn’t overlap with existing technologies, or is consistent with rules and regulations.