How to develop a graphical framework to chart your research

Graphic representations or frameworks can be powerful tools to explain research processes and outcomes. David Waller explains how researchers can develop effective visual models to chart their work

David Waller's avatar
University of Technology Sydney
31 Mar 2022
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Advice on developing graphical frameworks to explain your research

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While undertaking a study, researchers can uncover insights, connections and findings that are extremely valuable to anyone likely to read their eventual paper. Thus, it is important for the researcher to clearly present and explain the ideas and potential relationships. One important way of presenting findings and relationships is by developing a graphical conceptual framework.

A graphical conceptual framework is a visual model that assists readers by illustrating how concepts, constructs, themes or processes work. It is an image designed to help the viewer understand how various factors interrelate and affect outcomes, such as a chart, graph or map.

These are commonly used in research to show outcomes but also to create, develop, test, support and criticise various ideas and models. The use of a conceptual framework can vary depending on whether it is being used for qualitative or quantitative research.

There are many forms that a graphical conceptual framework can take, which can depend on the topic, the type of research or findings, and what can best present the story.

Below are examples of frameworks based on qualitative and quantitative research.

Example 1: Qualitative Research
Example 1: Qualitative research (An analysis of negative reviews in top art museums’ Facebook sites)
Example 2: Quantitative Research
Example 2: Quantitative research (Marketing to different Asian communities)

As shown by the table below, in qualitative research the conceptual framework is developed at the end of the study to illustrate the factors or issues presented in the qualitative data. It is designed to assist in theory building and the visual understanding of the exploratory findings. It can also be used to develop a framework in preparation for testing the proposition using quantitative research.

In quantitative research a conceptual framework can be used to synthesise the literature and theoretical concepts at the beginning of the study to present a model that will be tested in the statistical analysis of the research.

Qualitative study

Quantitative study



Background/lit review

Background/lit review


Conceptual framework





Conceptual framework




It is important to understand that the role of a conceptual framework differs depending on the type of research that is being undertaken.

So how should you go about creating a conceptual framework? After undertaking some studies where I have developed conceptual frameworks, here is a simple model based on “Six Rs”: Review, Reflect, Relationships, Reflect, Review, and Repeat.

Process for developing conceptual frameworks:

Review: literature/themes/theory.

Reflect: what are the main concepts/issues?

Relationships: what are their relationships?

Reflect: does the diagram represent it sufficiently?

Review: check it with theory, colleagues, stakeholders, etc.

Repeat: review and revise it to see if something better occurs.

This is not an easy process. It is important to begin by reviewing what has been presented in previous studies in the literature or in practice. This provides a solid background to the proposed model as it can show how it relates to accepted theoretical concepts or practical examples, and helps make sure that it is grounded in logical sense.

It can start with pen and paper, but after reviewing you should reflect to consider if the proposed framework takes into account the main concepts and issues, and the potential relationships that have been presented on the topic in previous works.

It may take a few versions before you are happy with the final framework, so it is worth continuing to reflect on the model and review its worth by reassessing it to determine if the model is consistent with the literature and theories. It can also be useful to discuss the idea with colleagues or to present preliminary ideas at a conference or workshop – be open to changes.

Even after you come up with a potential model it is good to repeat the process to review the framework and be prepared to revise it as this can help in refining the model. Over time you may develop a number of models with each one superseding the previous one.

A concern is that some students hold on to the framework they first thought of and worry that developing or changing it will be seen as a weakness in their research. However, a revised and refined model can be an important factor in justifying the value of the research.

Plenty of possibilities and theoretical topics could be considered to enhance the model. Whether it ultimately supports the theoretical constructs of the research will be dependent on what occurs when it is tested. As social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, famously said “There's nothing so practical as good theory”.

The final result after doing your reviewing and reflecting should be a clear graphical presentation that will help the reader understand what the research is about as well as where it is heading.

It doesn’t need to be complex. A simple diagram or table can clarify the nature of a process and help in its analysis, which can be important for the researcher when communicating to their audience. As the saying goes: “A picture is worth 1000 words”. The same goes for a good conceptual framework, when explaining a research process or findings.

David Waller is an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney.

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