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Descriptive Research Design – Types, Methods and Examples

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Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive Research Design


Descriptive research design is a type of research methodology that aims to describe or document the characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, opinions, or perceptions of a group or population being studied.

Descriptive research design does not attempt to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables or make predictions about future outcomes. Instead, it focuses on providing a detailed and accurate representation of the data collected, which can be useful for generating hypotheses, exploring trends, and identifying patterns in the data.

Types of Descriptive Research Design

Types of Descriptive Research Design are as follows:

Cross-sectional Study

This involves collecting data at a single point in time from a sample or population to describe their characteristics or behaviors. For example, a researcher may conduct a cross-sectional study to investigate the prevalence of certain health conditions among a population, or to describe the attitudes and beliefs of a particular group.

Longitudinal Study

This involves collecting data over an extended period of time, often through repeated observations or surveys of the same group or population. Longitudinal studies can be used to track changes in attitudes, behaviors, or outcomes over time, or to investigate the effects of interventions or treatments.

This involves an in-depth examination of a single individual, group, or situation to gain a detailed understanding of its characteristics or dynamics. Case studies are often used in psychology, sociology, and business to explore complex phenomena or to generate hypotheses for further research.

Survey Research

This involves collecting data from a sample or population through standardized questionnaires or interviews. Surveys can be used to describe attitudes, opinions, behaviors, or demographic characteristics of a group, and can be conducted in person, by phone, or online.

Observational Research

This involves observing and documenting the behavior or interactions of individuals or groups in a natural or controlled setting. Observational studies can be used to describe social, cultural, or environmental phenomena, or to investigate the effects of interventions or treatments.

Correlational Research

This involves examining the relationships between two or more variables to describe their patterns or associations. Correlational studies can be used to identify potential causal relationships or to explore the strength and direction of relationships between variables.

Data Analysis Methods

Descriptive research design data analysis methods depend on the type of data collected and the research question being addressed. Here are some common methods of data analysis for descriptive research:

Descriptive Statistics

This method involves analyzing data to summarize and describe the key features of a sample or population. Descriptive statistics can include measures of central tendency (e.g., mean, median, mode) and measures of variability (e.g., range, standard deviation).


This method involves analyzing data by creating a table that shows the frequency of two or more variables together. Cross-tabulation can help identify patterns or relationships between variables.

Content Analysis

This method involves analyzing qualitative data (e.g., text, images, audio) to identify themes, patterns, or trends. Content analysis can be used to describe the characteristics of a sample or population, or to identify factors that influence attitudes or behaviors.

Qualitative Coding

This method involves analyzing qualitative data by assigning codes to segments of data based on their meaning or content. Qualitative coding can be used to identify common themes, patterns, or categories within the data.


This method involves creating graphs or charts to represent data visually. Visualization can help identify patterns or relationships between variables and make it easier to communicate findings to others.

Comparative Analysis

This method involves comparing data across different groups or time periods to identify similarities and differences. Comparative analysis can help describe changes in attitudes or behaviors over time or differences between subgroups within a population.

Applications of Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design has numerous applications in various fields. Some of the common applications of descriptive research design are:

  • Market research: Descriptive research design is widely used in market research to understand consumer preferences, behavior, and attitudes. This helps companies to develop new products and services, improve marketing strategies, and increase customer satisfaction.
  • Health research: Descriptive research design is used in health research to describe the prevalence and distribution of a disease or health condition in a population. This helps healthcare providers to develop prevention and treatment strategies.
  • Educational research: Descriptive research design is used in educational research to describe the performance of students, schools, or educational programs. This helps educators to improve teaching methods and develop effective educational programs.
  • Social science research: Descriptive research design is used in social science research to describe social phenomena such as cultural norms, values, and beliefs. This helps researchers to understand social behavior and develop effective policies.
  • Public opinion research: Descriptive research design is used in public opinion research to understand the opinions and attitudes of the general public on various issues. This helps policymakers to develop effective policies that are aligned with public opinion.
  • Environmental research: Descriptive research design is used in environmental research to describe the environmental conditions of a particular region or ecosystem. This helps policymakers and environmentalists to develop effective conservation and preservation strategies.

Descriptive Research Design Examples

Here are some real-time examples of descriptive research designs:

  • A restaurant chain wants to understand the demographics and attitudes of its customers. They conduct a survey asking customers about their age, gender, income, frequency of visits, favorite menu items, and overall satisfaction. The survey data is analyzed using descriptive statistics and cross-tabulation to describe the characteristics of their customer base.
  • A medical researcher wants to describe the prevalence and risk factors of a particular disease in a population. They conduct a cross-sectional study in which they collect data from a sample of individuals using a standardized questionnaire. The data is analyzed using descriptive statistics and cross-tabulation to identify patterns in the prevalence and risk factors of the disease.
  • An education researcher wants to describe the learning outcomes of students in a particular school district. They collect test scores from a representative sample of students in the district and use descriptive statistics to calculate the mean, median, and standard deviation of the scores. They also create visualizations such as histograms and box plots to show the distribution of scores.
  • A marketing team wants to understand the attitudes and behaviors of consumers towards a new product. They conduct a series of focus groups and use qualitative coding to identify common themes and patterns in the data. They also create visualizations such as word clouds to show the most frequently mentioned topics.
  • An environmental scientist wants to describe the biodiversity of a particular ecosystem. They conduct an observational study in which they collect data on the species and abundance of plants and animals in the ecosystem. The data is analyzed using descriptive statistics to describe the diversity and richness of the ecosystem.

How to Conduct Descriptive Research Design

To conduct a descriptive research design, you can follow these general steps:

  • Define your research question: Clearly define the research question or problem that you want to address. Your research question should be specific and focused to guide your data collection and analysis.
  • Choose your research method: Select the most appropriate research method for your research question. As discussed earlier, common research methods for descriptive research include surveys, case studies, observational studies, cross-sectional studies, and longitudinal studies.
  • Design your study: Plan the details of your study, including the sampling strategy, data collection methods, and data analysis plan. Determine the sample size and sampling method, decide on the data collection tools (such as questionnaires, interviews, or observations), and outline your data analysis plan.
  • Collect data: Collect data from your sample or population using the data collection tools you have chosen. Ensure that you follow ethical guidelines for research and obtain informed consent from participants.
  • Analyze data: Use appropriate statistical or qualitative analysis methods to analyze your data. As discussed earlier, common data analysis methods for descriptive research include descriptive statistics, cross-tabulation, content analysis, qualitative coding, visualization, and comparative analysis.
  • I nterpret results: Interpret your findings in light of your research question and objectives. Identify patterns, trends, and relationships in the data, and describe the characteristics of your sample or population.
  • Draw conclusions and report results: Draw conclusions based on your analysis and interpretation of the data. Report your results in a clear and concise manner, using appropriate tables, graphs, or figures to present your findings. Ensure that your report follows accepted research standards and guidelines.

When to Use Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design is used in situations where the researcher wants to describe a population or phenomenon in detail. It is used to gather information about the current status or condition of a group or phenomenon without making any causal inferences. Descriptive research design is useful in the following situations:

  • Exploratory research: Descriptive research design is often used in exploratory research to gain an initial understanding of a phenomenon or population.
  • Identifying trends: Descriptive research design can be used to identify trends or patterns in a population, such as changes in consumer behavior or attitudes over time.
  • Market research: Descriptive research design is commonly used in market research to understand consumer preferences, behavior, and attitudes.
  • Health research: Descriptive research design is useful in health research to describe the prevalence and distribution of a disease or health condition in a population.
  • Social science research: Descriptive research design is used in social science research to describe social phenomena such as cultural norms, values, and beliefs.
  • Educational research: Descriptive research design is used in educational research to describe the performance of students, schools, or educational programs.

Purpose of Descriptive Research Design

The main purpose of descriptive research design is to describe and measure the characteristics of a population or phenomenon in a systematic and objective manner. It involves collecting data that describe the current status or condition of the population or phenomenon of interest, without manipulating or altering any variables.

The purpose of descriptive research design can be summarized as follows:

  • To provide an accurate description of a population or phenomenon: Descriptive research design aims to provide a comprehensive and accurate description of a population or phenomenon of interest. This can help researchers to develop a better understanding of the characteristics of the population or phenomenon.
  • To identify trends and patterns: Descriptive research design can help researchers to identify trends and patterns in the data, such as changes in behavior or attitudes over time. This can be useful for making predictions and developing strategies.
  • To generate hypotheses: Descriptive research design can be used to generate hypotheses or research questions that can be tested in future studies. For example, if a descriptive study finds a correlation between two variables, this could lead to the development of a hypothesis about the causal relationship between the variables.
  • To establish a baseline: Descriptive research design can establish a baseline or starting point for future research. This can be useful for comparing data from different time periods or populations.

Characteristics of Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design has several key characteristics that distinguish it from other research designs. Some of the main characteristics of descriptive research design are:

  • Objective : Descriptive research design is objective in nature, which means that it focuses on collecting factual and accurate data without any personal bias. The researcher aims to report the data objectively without any personal interpretation.
  • Non-experimental: Descriptive research design is non-experimental, which means that the researcher does not manipulate any variables. The researcher simply observes and records the behavior or characteristics of the population or phenomenon of interest.
  • Quantitative : Descriptive research design is quantitative in nature, which means that it involves collecting numerical data that can be analyzed using statistical techniques. This helps to provide a more precise and accurate description of the population or phenomenon.
  • Cross-sectional: Descriptive research design is often cross-sectional, which means that the data is collected at a single point in time. This can be useful for understanding the current state of the population or phenomenon, but it may not provide information about changes over time.
  • Large sample size: Descriptive research design typically involves a large sample size, which helps to ensure that the data is representative of the population of interest. A large sample size also helps to increase the reliability and validity of the data.
  • Systematic and structured: Descriptive research design involves a systematic and structured approach to data collection, which helps to ensure that the data is accurate and reliable. This involves using standardized procedures for data collection, such as surveys, questionnaires, or observation checklists.

Advantages of Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design has several advantages that make it a popular choice for researchers. Some of the main advantages of descriptive research design are:

  • Provides an accurate description: Descriptive research design is focused on accurately describing the characteristics of a population or phenomenon. This can help researchers to develop a better understanding of the subject of interest.
  • Easy to conduct: Descriptive research design is relatively easy to conduct and requires minimal resources compared to other research designs. It can be conducted quickly and efficiently, and data can be collected through surveys, questionnaires, or observations.
  • Useful for generating hypotheses: Descriptive research design can be used to generate hypotheses or research questions that can be tested in future studies. For example, if a descriptive study finds a correlation between two variables, this could lead to the development of a hypothesis about the causal relationship between the variables.
  • Large sample size : Descriptive research design typically involves a large sample size, which helps to ensure that the data is representative of the population of interest. A large sample size also helps to increase the reliability and validity of the data.
  • Can be used to monitor changes : Descriptive research design can be used to monitor changes over time in a population or phenomenon. This can be useful for identifying trends and patterns, and for making predictions about future behavior or attitudes.
  • Can be used in a variety of fields : Descriptive research design can be used in a variety of fields, including social sciences, healthcare, business, and education.

Limitation of Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design also has some limitations that researchers should consider before using this design. Some of the main limitations of descriptive research design are:

  • Cannot establish cause and effect: Descriptive research design cannot establish cause and effect relationships between variables. It only provides a description of the characteristics of the population or phenomenon of interest.
  • Limited generalizability: The results of a descriptive study may not be generalizable to other populations or situations. This is because descriptive research design often involves a specific sample or situation, which may not be representative of the broader population.
  • Potential for bias: Descriptive research design can be subject to bias, particularly if the researcher is not objective in their data collection or interpretation. This can lead to inaccurate or incomplete descriptions of the population or phenomenon of interest.
  • Limited depth: Descriptive research design may provide a superficial description of the population or phenomenon of interest. It does not delve into the underlying causes or mechanisms behind the observed behavior or characteristics.
  • Limited utility for theory development: Descriptive research design may not be useful for developing theories about the relationship between variables. It only provides a description of the variables themselves.
  • Relies on self-report data: Descriptive research design often relies on self-report data, such as surveys or questionnaires. This type of data may be subject to biases, such as social desirability bias or recall bias.

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  • Descriptive Research Designs: Types, Examples & Methods


One of the components of research is getting enough information about the research problem—the what, how, when and where answers, which is why descriptive research is an important type of research. It is very useful when conducting research whose aim is to identify characteristics, frequencies, trends, correlations, and categories.

This research method takes a problem with little to no relevant information and gives it a befitting description using qualitative and quantitative research method s. Descriptive research aims to accurately describe a research problem.

In the subsequent sections, we will be explaining what descriptive research means, its types, examples, and data collection methods.

What is Descriptive Research?

Descriptive research is a type of research that describes a population, situation, or phenomenon that is being studied. It focuses on answering the how, what, when, and where questions If a research problem, rather than the why.

This is mainly because it is important to have a proper understanding of what a research problem is about before investigating why it exists in the first place. 

For example, an investor considering an investment in the ever-changing Amsterdam housing market needs to understand what the current state of the market is, how it changes (increasing or decreasing), and when it changes (time of the year) before asking for the why. This is where descriptive research comes in.

What Are The Types of Descriptive Research?

Descriptive research is classified into different types according to the kind of approach that is used in conducting descriptive research. The different types of descriptive research are highlighted below:

  • Descriptive-survey

Descriptive survey research uses surveys to gather data about varying subjects. This data aims to know the extent to which different conditions can be obtained among these subjects.

For example, a researcher wants to determine the qualification of employed professionals in Maryland. He uses a survey as his research instrument , and each item on the survey related to qualifications is subjected to a Yes/No answer. 

This way, the researcher can describe the qualifications possessed by the employed demographics of this community. 

  • Descriptive-normative survey

This is an extension of the descriptive survey, with the addition being the normative element. In the descriptive-normative survey, the results of the study should be compared with the norm.

For example, an organization that wishes to test the skills of its employees by a team may have them take a skills test. The skills tests are the evaluation tool in this case, and the result of this test is compared with the norm of each role.

If the score of the team is one standard deviation above the mean, it is very satisfactory, if within the mean, satisfactory, and one standard deviation below the mean is unsatisfactory.

  • Descriptive-status

This is a quantitative description technique that seeks to answer questions about real-life situations. For example, a researcher researching the income of the employees in a company, and the relationship with their performance.

A survey will be carried out to gather enough data about the income of the employees, then their performance will be evaluated and compared to their income. This will help determine whether a higher income means better performance and low income means lower performance or vice versa.

  • Descriptive-analysis

The descriptive-analysis method of research describes a subject by further analyzing it, which in this case involves dividing it into 2 parts. For example, the HR personnel of a company that wishes to analyze the job role of each employee of the company may divide the employees into the people that work at the Headquarters in the US and those that work from Oslo, Norway office.

A questionnaire is devised to analyze the job role of employees with similar salaries and who work in similar positions.

  • Descriptive classification

This method is employed in biological sciences for the classification of plants and animals. A researcher who wishes to classify the sea animals into different species will collect samples from various search stations, then classify them accordingly.

  • Descriptive-comparative

In descriptive-comparative research, the researcher considers 2 variables that are not manipulated, and establish a formal procedure to conclude that one is better than the other. For example, an examination body wants to determine the better method of conducting tests between paper-based and computer-based tests.

A random sample of potential participants of the test may be asked to use the 2 different methods, and factors like failure rates, time factors, and others will be evaluated to arrive at the best method.

  • Correlative Survey

Correlative surveys are used to determine whether the relationship between 2 variables is positive, negative, or neutral. That is, if 2 variables say X and Y are directly proportional, inversely proportional or are not related to each other.

Examples of Descriptive Research

There are different examples of descriptive research, that may be highlighted from its types, uses, and applications. However, we will be restricting ourselves to only 3 distinct examples in this article.

  • Comparing Student Performance:

An academic institution may wish 2 compare the performance of its junior high school students in English language and Mathematics. This may be used to classify students based on 2 major groups, with one group going ahead to study while courses, while the other study courses in the Arts & Humanities field.

Students who are more proficient in mathematics will be encouraged to go into STEM and vice versa. Institutions may also use this data to identify students’ weak points and work on ways to assist them.

  • Scientific Classification

During the major scientific classification of plants, animals, and periodic table elements, the characteristics and components of each subject are evaluated and used to determine how they are classified.

For example, living things may be classified into kingdom Plantae or kingdom animal is depending on their nature. Further classification may group animals into mammals, pieces, vertebrae, invertebrae, etc. 

All these classifications are made a result of descriptive research which describes what they are.

  • Human Behavior

When studying human behaviour based on a factor or event, the researcher observes the characteristics, behaviour, and reaction, then use it to conclude. A company willing to sell to its target market needs to first study the behaviour of the market.

This may be done by observing how its target reacts to a competitor’s product, then use it to determine their behaviour.

What are the Characteristics of Descriptive Research?  

The characteristics of descriptive research can be highlighted from its definition, applications, data collection methods, and examples. Some characteristics of descriptive research are:

  • Quantitativeness

Descriptive research uses a quantitative research method by collecting quantifiable information to be used for statistical analysis of the population sample. This is very common when dealing with research in the physical sciences.

  • Qualitativeness

It can also be carried out using the qualitative research method, to properly describe the research problem. This is because descriptive research is more explanatory than exploratory or experimental.

  • Uncontrolled variables

In descriptive research, researchers cannot control the variables like they do in experimental research.

  • The basis for further research

The results of descriptive research can be further analyzed and used in other research methods. It can also inform the next line of research, including the research method that should be used.

This is because it provides basic information about the research problem, which may give birth to other questions like why a particular thing is the way it is.

Why Use Descriptive Research Design?  

Descriptive research can be used to investigate the background of a research problem and get the required information needed to carry out further research. It is used in multiple ways by different organizations, and especially when getting the required information about their target audience.

  • Define subject characteristics :

It is used to determine the characteristics of the subjects, including their traits, behaviour, opinion, etc. This information may be gathered with the use of surveys, which are shared with the respondents who in this case, are the research subjects.

For example, a survey evaluating the number of hours millennials in a community spends on the internet weekly, will help a service provider make informed business decisions regarding the market potential of the community.

  • Measure Data Trends

It helps to measure the changes in data over some time through statistical methods. Consider the case of individuals who want to invest in stock markets, so they evaluate the changes in prices of the available stocks to make a decision investment decision.

Brokerage companies are however the ones who carry out the descriptive research process, while individuals can view the data trends and make decisions.

Descriptive research is also used to compare how different demographics respond to certain variables. For example, an organization may study how people with different income levels react to the launch of a new Apple phone.

This kind of research may take a survey that will help determine which group of individuals are purchasing the new Apple phone. Do the low-income earners also purchase the phone, or only the high-income earners do?

Further research using another technique will explain why low-income earners are purchasing the phone even though they can barely afford it. This will help inform strategies that will lure other low-income earners and increase company sales.

  • Validate existing conditions

When you are not sure about the validity of an existing condition, you can use descriptive research to ascertain the underlying patterns of the research object. This is because descriptive research methods make an in-depth analysis of each variable before making conclusions.

  • Conducted Overtime

Descriptive research is conducted over some time to ascertain the changes observed at each point in time. The higher the number of times it is conducted, the more authentic the conclusion will be.

What are the Disadvantages of Descriptive Research?  

  • Response and Non-response Bias

Respondents may either decide not to respond to questions or give incorrect responses if they feel the questions are too confidential. When researchers use observational methods, respondents may also decide to behave in a particular manner because they feel they are being watched.

  • The researcher may decide to influence the result of the research due to personal opinion or bias towards a particular subject. For example, a stockbroker who also has a business of his own may try to lure investors into investing in his own company by manipulating results.
  • A case-study or sample taken from a large population is not representative of the whole population.
  • Limited scope:The scope of descriptive research is limited to the what of research, with no information on why thereby limiting the scope of the research.

What are the Data Collection Methods in Descriptive Research?  

There are 3 main data collection methods in descriptive research, namely; observational method, case study method, and survey research.

1. Observational Method

The observational method allows researchers to collect data based on their view of the behaviour and characteristics of the respondent, with the respondents themselves not directly having an input. It is often used in market research, psychology, and some other social science research to understand human behaviour.

It is also an important aspect of physical scientific research, with it being one of the most effective methods of conducting descriptive research . This process can be said to be either quantitative or qualitative.

Quantitative observation involved the objective collection of numerical data , whose results can be analyzed using numerical and statistical methods. 

Qualitative observation, on the other hand, involves the monitoring of characteristics and not the measurement of numbers. The researcher makes his observation from a distance, records it, and is used to inform conclusions.

2. Case Study Method

A case study is a sample group (an individual, a group of people, organizations, events, etc.) whose characteristics are used to describe the characteristics of a larger group in which the case study is a subgroup. The information gathered from investigating a case study may be generalized to serve the larger group.

This generalization, may, however, be risky because case studies are not sufficient to make accurate predictions about larger groups. Case studies are a poor case of generalization.

3. Survey Research

This is a very popular data collection method in research designs. In survey research, researchers create a survey or questionnaire and distribute it to respondents who give answers.

Generally, it is used to obtain quick information directly from the primary source and also conducting rigorous quantitative and qualitative research. In some cases, survey research uses a blend of both qualitative and quantitative strategies.

Survey research can be carried out both online and offline using the following methods

  • Online Surveys: This is a cheap method of carrying out surveys and getting enough responses. It can be carried out using Formplus, an online survey builder. Formplus has amazing tools and features that will help increase response rates.
  • Offline Surveys: This includes paper forms, mobile offline forms , and SMS-based forms.

What Are The Differences Between Descriptive and Correlational Research?  

Before going into the differences between descriptive and correlation research, we need to have a proper understanding of what correlation research is about. Therefore, we will be giving a summary of the correlation research below.

Correlational research is a type of descriptive research, which is used to measure the relationship between 2 variables, with the researcher having no control over them. It aims to find whether there is; positive correlation (both variables change in the same direction), negative correlation (the variables change in the opposite direction), or zero correlation (there is no relationship between the variables).

Correlational research may be used in 2 situations;

(i) when trying to find out if there is a relationship between two variables, and

(ii) when a causal relationship is suspected between two variables, but it is impractical or unethical to conduct experimental research that manipulates one of the variables. 

Below are some of the differences between correlational and descriptive research:

  • Definitions :

Descriptive research aims is a type of research that provides an in-depth understanding of the study population, while correlational research is the type of research that measures the relationship between 2 variables. 

  • Characteristics :

Descriptive research provides descriptive data explaining what the research subject is about, while correlation research explores the relationship between data and not their description.

  • Predictions :

 Predictions cannot be made in descriptive research while correlation research accommodates the possibility of making predictions.

Descriptive Research vs. Causal Research

Descriptive research and causal research are both research methodologies, however, one focuses on a subject’s behaviors while the latter focuses on a relationship’s cause-and-effect. To buttress the above point, descriptive research aims to describe and document the characteristics, behaviors, or phenomena of a particular or specific population or situation. 

It focuses on providing an accurate and detailed account of an already existing state of affairs between variables. Descriptive research answers the questions of “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how” without attempting to establish any causal relationships or explain any underlying factors that might have caused the behavior.

Causal research, on the other hand, seeks to determine cause-and-effect relationships between variables. It aims to point out the factors that influence or cause a particular result or behavior. Causal research involves manipulating variables, controlling conditions or a subgroup, and observing the resulting effects. The primary objective of causal research is to establish a cause-effect relationship and provide insights into why certain phenomena happen the way they do.

Descriptive Research vs. Analytical Research

Descriptive research provides a detailed and comprehensive account of a specific situation or phenomenon. It focuses on describing and summarizing data without making inferences or attempting to explain underlying factors or the cause of the factor. 

It is primarily concerned with providing an accurate and objective representation of the subject of research. While analytical research goes beyond the description of the phenomena and seeks to analyze and interpret data to discover if there are patterns, relationships, or any underlying factors. 

It examines the data critically, applies statistical techniques or other analytical methods, and draws conclusions based on the discovery. Analytical research also aims to explore the relationships between variables and understand the underlying mechanisms or processes involved.

Descriptive Research vs. Exploratory Research

Descriptive research is a research method that focuses on providing a detailed and accurate account of a specific situation, group, or phenomenon. This type of research describes the characteristics, behaviors, or relationships within the given context without looking for an underlying cause. 

Descriptive research typically involves collecting and analyzing quantitative or qualitative data to generate descriptive statistics or narratives. Exploratory research differs from descriptive research because it aims to explore and gain firsthand insights or knowledge into a relatively unexplored or poorly understood topic. 

It focuses on generating ideas, hypotheses, or theories rather than providing definitive answers. Exploratory research is often conducted at the early stages of a research project to gather preliminary information and identify key variables or factors for further investigation. It involves open-ended interviews, observations, or small-scale surveys to gather qualitative data.

Read More – Exploratory Research: What are its Method & Examples?

Descriptive Research vs. Experimental Research

Descriptive research aims to describe and document the characteristics, behaviors, or phenomena of a particular population or situation. It focuses on providing an accurate and detailed account of the existing state of affairs. 

Descriptive research typically involves collecting data through surveys, observations, or existing records and analyzing the data to generate descriptive statistics or narratives. It does not involve manipulating variables or establishing cause-and-effect relationships.

Experimental research, on the other hand, involves manipulating variables and controlling conditions to investigate cause-and-effect relationships. It aims to establish causal relationships by introducing an intervention or treatment and observing the resulting effects. 

Experimental research typically involves randomly assigning participants to different groups, such as control and experimental groups, and measuring the outcomes. It allows researchers to control for confounding variables and draw causal conclusions.

Related – Experimental vs Non-Experimental Research: 15 Key Differences

Descriptive Research vs. Explanatory Research

Descriptive research focuses on providing a detailed and accurate account of a specific situation, group, or phenomenon. It aims to describe the characteristics, behaviors, or relationships within the given context. 

Descriptive research is primarily concerned with providing an objective representation of the subject of study without explaining underlying causes or mechanisms. Explanatory research seeks to explain the relationships between variables and uncover the underlying causes or mechanisms. 

It goes beyond description and aims to understand the reasons or factors that influence a particular outcome or behavior. Explanatory research involves analyzing data, conducting statistical analyses, and developing theories or models to explain the observed relationships.

Descriptive Research vs. Inferential Research

Descriptive research focuses on describing and summarizing data without making inferences or generalizations beyond the specific sample or population being studied. It aims to provide an accurate and objective representation of the subject of study. 

Descriptive research typically involves analyzing data to generate descriptive statistics, such as means, frequencies, or percentages, to describe the characteristics or behaviors observed.

Inferential research, however, involves making inferences or generalizations about a larger population based on a smaller sample. 

It aims to draw conclusions about the population characteristics or relationships by analyzing the sample data. Inferential research uses statistical techniques to estimate population parameters, test hypotheses, and determine the level of confidence or significance in the findings.

Related – Inferential Statistics: Definition, Types + Examples


The uniqueness of descriptive research partly lies in its ability to explore both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Therefore, when conducting descriptive research, researchers have the opportunity to use a wide variety of techniques that aids the research process.

Descriptive research explores research problems in-depth, beyond the surface level thereby giving a detailed description of the research subject. That way, it can aid further research in the field, including other research methods .

It is also very useful in solving real-life problems in various fields of social science, physical science, and education.


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18 Descriptive Research Examples

Descriptive research examples and definition, explained below

Descriptive research involves gathering data to provide a detailed account or depiction of a phenomenon without manipulating variables or conducting experiments.

A scholarly definition is:

“Descriptive research is defined as a research approach that describes the characteristics of the population, sample or phenomenon studied. This method focuses more on the “what” rather than the “why” of the research subject.” (Matanda, 2022, p. 63)

The key feature of descriptive research is that it merely describes phenomena and does not attempt to manipulate variables nor determine cause and effect .

To determine cause and effect , a researcher would need to use an alternate methodology, such as experimental research design .

Common approaches to descriptive research include:

  • Cross-sectional research : A cross-sectional study gathers data on a population at a specific time to get descriptive data that could include categories (e.g. age or income brackets) to get a better understanding of the makeup of a population.
  • Longitudinal research : Longitudinal studies return to a population to collect data at several different points in time, allowing for description of changes in categories over time. However, as it’s descriptive, it cannot infer cause and effect (Erickson, 2017).

Methods that could be used include:

  • Surveys: For example, sending out a census survey to be completed at the exact same date and time by everyone in a population.
  • Case Study : For example, an in-depth description of a specific person or group of people to gain in-depth qualitative information that can describe a phenomenon but cannot be generalized to other cases.
  • Observational Method : For example, a researcher taking field notes in an ethnographic study. (Siedlecki, 2020)

Descriptive Research Examples

1. Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (Psychology): Researchers analyze various behavior patterns, cognitive skills, and social interaction abilities specific to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to comprehensively describe the disorder’s symptom spectrum. This detailed description classifies it as descriptive research, rather than analytical or experimental, as it merely records what is observed without altering any variables or trying to establish causality.

2. Consumer Purchase Decision Process in E-commerce Marketplaces (Marketing): By documenting and describing all the factors that influence consumer decisions on online marketplaces, researchers don’t attempt to predict future behavior or establish causes—just describe observed behavior—making it descriptive research.

3. Impacts of Climate Change on Agricultural Practices (Environmental Studies): Descriptive research is seen as scientists outline how climate changes influence various agricultural practices by observing and then meticulously categorizing the impacts on crop variability, farming seasons, and pest infestations without manipulating any variables in real-time.

4. Work Environment and Employee Performance (Human Resources Management): A study of this nature, describing the correlation between various workplace elements and employee performance, falls under descriptive research as it merely narrates the observed patterns without altering any conditions or testing hypotheses.

5. Factors Influencing Student Performance (Education): Researchers describe various factors affecting students’ academic performance, such as studying techniques, parental involvement, and peer influence. The study is categorized as descriptive research because its principal aim is to depict facts as they stand without trying to infer causal relationships.

6. Technological Advances in Healthcare (Healthcare): This research describes and categorizes different technological advances (such as telemedicine, AI-enabled tools, digital collaboration) in healthcare without testing or modifying any parameters, making it an example of descriptive research.

7. Urbanization and Biodiversity Loss (Ecology): By describing the impact of rapid urban expansion on biodiversity loss, this study serves as a descriptive research example. It observes the ongoing situation without manipulating it, offering a comprehensive depiction of the existing scenario rather than investigating the cause-effect relationship.

8. Architectural Styles across Centuries (Art History): A study documenting and describing various architectural styles throughout centuries essentially represents descriptive research. It aims to narrate and categorize facts without exploring the underlying reasons or predicting future trends.

9. Media Usage Patterns among Teenagers (Sociology): When researchers document and describe the media consumption habits among teenagers, they are performing a descriptive research study. Their main intention is to observe and report the prevailing trends rather than establish causes or predict future behaviors.

10. Dietary Habits and Lifestyle Diseases (Nutrition Science): By describing the dietary patterns of different population groups and correlating them with the prevalence of lifestyle diseases, researchers perform descriptive research. They merely describe observed connections without altering any diet plans or lifestyles.

11. Shifts in Global Energy Consumption (Environmental Economics): When researchers describe the global patterns of energy consumption and how they’ve shifted over the years, they conduct descriptive research. The focus is on recording and portraying the current state without attempting to infer causes or predict the future.

12. Literacy and Employment Rates in Rural Areas (Sociology): A study aims at describing the literacy rates in rural areas and correlating it with employment levels. It falls under descriptive research because it maps the scenario without manipulating parameters or proving a hypothesis.

13. Women Representation in Tech Industry (Gender Studies): A detailed description of the presence and roles of women across various sectors of the tech industry is a typical case of descriptive research. It merely observes and records the status quo without establishing causality or making predictions.

14. Impact of Urban Green Spaces on Mental Health (Environmental Psychology): When researchers document and describe the influence of green urban spaces on residents’ mental health, they are undertaking descriptive research. They seek purely to understand the current state rather than exploring cause-effect relationships.

15. Trends in Smartphone usage among Elderly (Gerontology): Research describing how the elderly population utilizes smartphones, including popular features and challenges encountered, serves as descriptive research. Researcher’s aim is merely to capture what is happening without manipulating variables or posing predictions.

16. Shifts in Voter Preferences (Political Science): A study describing the shift in voter preferences during a particular electoral cycle is descriptive research. It simply records the preferences revealed without drawing causal inferences or suggesting future voting patterns.

17. Understanding Trust in Autonomous Vehicles (Transportation Psychology): This comprises research describing public attitudes and trust levels when it comes to autonomous vehicles. By merely depicting observed sentiments, without engineering any situations or offering predictions, it’s considered descriptive research.

18. The Impact of Social Media on Body Image (Psychology): Descriptive research to outline the experiences and perceptions of individuals relating to body image in the era of social media. Observing these elements without altering any variables qualifies it as descriptive research.

Descriptive vs Experimental Research

Descriptive research merely observes, records, and presents the actual state of affairs without manipulating any variables, while experimental research involves deliberately changing one or more variables to determine their effect on a particular outcome.

De Vaus (2001) succinctly explains that descriptive studies find out what is going on , but experimental research finds out why it’s going on /

Simple definitions are below:

  • Descriptive research is primarily about describing the characteristics or behaviors in a population, often through surveys or observational methods. It provides rich detail about a specific phenomenon but does not allow for conclusive causal statements; however, it can offer essential leads or ideas for further experimental research (Ivey, 2016).
  • Experimental research , often conducted in controlled environments, aims to establish causal relationships by manipulating one or more independent variables and observing the effects on dependent variables (Devi, 2017; Mukherjee, 2019).

Experimental designs often involve a control group and random assignment . While it can provide compelling evidence for cause and effect, its artificial setting might not perfectly mirror real-worldly conditions, potentially affecting the generalizability of its findings.

These two types of research are complementary, with descriptive studies often leading to hypotheses that are then tested experimentally (Devi, 2017; Zhao et al., 2021).

Benefits and Limitations of Descriptive Research

Descriptive research offers several benefits: it allows researchers to gather a vast amount of data and present a complete picture of the situation or phenomenon under study, even within large groups or over long time periods.

It’s also flexible in terms of the variety of methods used, such as surveys, observations, and case studies, and it can be instrumental in identifying patterns or trends and generating hypotheses (Erickson, 2017).

However, it also has its limitations.

The primary drawback is that it can’t establish cause-effect relationships, as no variables are manipulated. This lack of control over variables also opens up possibilities for bias, as researchers might inadvertently influence responses during data collection (De Vaus, 2001).

Additionally, the findings of descriptive research are often not generalizable since they are heavily reliant on the chosen sample’s characteristics.

See More Types of Research Design Here

De Vaus, D. A. (2001). Research Design in Social Research . SAGE Publications.

Devi, P. S. (2017). Research Methodology: A Handbook for Beginners . Notion Press.

Erickson, G. S. (2017). Descriptive research design. In  New Methods of Market Research and Analysis  (pp. 51-77). Edward Elgar Publishing.

Gresham, B. B. (2016). Concepts of Evidence-based Practice for the Physical Therapist Assistant . F.A. Davis Company.

Ivey, J. (2016). Is descriptive research worth doing?.  Pediatric nursing ,  42 (4), 189. ( Source )

Krishnaswamy, K. N., Sivakumar, A. I., & Mathirajan, M. (2009). Management Research Methodology: Integration of Principles, Methods and Techniques . Pearson Education.

Matanda, E. (2022). Research Methods and Statistics for Cross-Cutting Research: Handbook for Multidisciplinary Research . Langaa RPCIG.

Monsen, E. R., & Van Horn, L. (2007). Research: Successful Approaches . American Dietetic Association.

Mukherjee, S. P. (2019). A Guide to Research Methodology: An Overview of Research Problems, Tasks and Methods . CRC Press.

Siedlecki, S. L. (2020). Understanding descriptive research designs and methods.  Clinical Nurse Specialist ,  34 (1), 8-12. ( Source )

Zhao, P., Ross, K., Li, P., & Dennis, B. (2021). Making Sense of Social Research Methodology: A Student and Practitioner Centered Approach . SAGE Publications.


Dave Cornell (PhD)

Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

  • Dave Cornell (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/dave-cornell-phd/ Vicarious Punishment: Definition, Examples, Pros and Cons
  • Dave Cornell (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/dave-cornell-phd/ 10 Sublimation Examples (in Psychology)
  • Dave Cornell (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/dave-cornell-phd/ 10 Fixed Ratio Schedule Examples
  • Dave Cornell (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/dave-cornell-phd/ 10 Sensorimotor Stage Examples


Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

  • Chris Drew (PhD) #molongui-disabled-link Cognitive Dissonance Theory: Examples and Definition
  • Chris Drew (PhD) #molongui-disabled-link Vicarious Punishment: Definition, Examples, Pros and Cons
  • Chris Drew (PhD) #molongui-disabled-link 10 Sublimation Examples (in Psychology)
  • Chris Drew (PhD) #molongui-disabled-link Social Penetration Theory: Examples, Phases, Criticism

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  • What is descriptive research?

Last updated

5 February 2023

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

Descriptive research is a common investigatory model used by researchers in various fields, including social sciences, linguistics, and academia.

Read on to understand the characteristics of descriptive research and explore its underlying techniques, processes, and procedures.

Analyze your descriptive research

Dovetail streamlines analysis to help you uncover and share actionable insights

Descriptive research is an exploratory research method. It enables researchers to precisely and methodically describe a population, circumstance, or phenomenon.

As the name suggests, descriptive research describes the characteristics of the group, situation, or phenomenon being studied without manipulating variables or testing hypotheses . This can be reported using surveys , observational studies, and case studies. You can use both quantitative and qualitative methods to compile the data.

Besides making observations and then comparing and analyzing them, descriptive studies often develop knowledge concepts and provide solutions to critical issues. It always aims to answer how the event occurred, when it occurred, where it occurred, and what the problem or phenomenon is.

  • Characteristics of descriptive research

The following are some of the characteristics of descriptive research:


Descriptive research can be quantitative as it gathers quantifiable data to statistically analyze a population sample. These numbers can show patterns, connections, and trends over time and can be discovered using surveys, polls, and experiments.


Descriptive research can also be qualitative. It gives meaning and context to the numbers supplied by quantitative descriptive research .

Researchers can use tools like interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic studies to illustrate why things are what they are and help characterize the research problem. This is because it’s more explanatory than exploratory or experimental research.

Uncontrolled variables

Descriptive research differs from experimental research in that researchers cannot manipulate the variables. They are recognized, scrutinized, and quantified instead. This is one of its most prominent features.

Cross-sectional studies

Descriptive research is a cross-sectional study because it examines several areas of the same group. It involves obtaining data on multiple variables at the personal level during a certain period. It’s helpful when trying to understand a larger community’s habits or preferences.

Carried out in a natural environment

Descriptive studies are usually carried out in the participants’ everyday environment, which allows researchers to avoid influencing responders by collecting data in a natural setting. You can use online surveys or survey questions to collect data or observe.

Basis for further research

You can further dissect descriptive research’s outcomes and use them for different types of investigation. The outcomes also serve as a foundation for subsequent investigations and can guide future studies. For example, you can use the data obtained in descriptive research to help determine future research designs.

  • Descriptive research methods

There are three basic approaches for gathering data in descriptive research: observational, case study, and survey.

You can use surveys to gather data in descriptive research. This involves gathering information from many people using a questionnaire and interview .

Surveys remain the dominant research tool for descriptive research design. Researchers can conduct various investigations and collect multiple types of data (quantitative and qualitative) using surveys with diverse designs.

You can conduct surveys over the phone, online, or in person. Your survey might be a brief interview or conversation with a set of prepared questions intended to obtain quick information from the primary source.


This descriptive research method involves observing and gathering data on a population or phenomena without manipulating variables. It is employed in psychology, market research , and other social science studies to track and understand human behavior.

Observation is an essential component of descriptive research. It entails gathering data and analyzing it to see whether there is a relationship between the two variables in the study. This strategy usually allows for both qualitative and quantitative data analysis.

Case studies

A case study can outline a specific topic’s traits. The topic might be a person, group, event, or organization.

It involves using a subset of a larger group as a sample to characterize the features of that larger group.

You can generalize knowledge gained from studying a case study to benefit a broader audience.

This approach entails carefully examining a particular group, person, or event over time. You can learn something new about the study topic by using a small group to better understand the dynamics of the entire group.

  • Types of descriptive research

There are several types of descriptive study. The most well-known include cross-sectional studies, census surveys, sample surveys, case reports, and comparison studies.

Case reports and case series

In the healthcare and medical fields, a case report is used to explain a patient’s circumstances when suffering from an uncommon illness or displaying certain symptoms. Case reports and case series are both collections of related cases. They have aided the advancement of medical knowledge on countless occasions.

The normative component is an addition to the descriptive survey. In the descriptive–normative survey, you compare the study’s results to the norm.

Descriptive survey

This descriptive type of research employs surveys to collect information on various topics. This data aims to determine the degree to which certain conditions may be attained.

You can extrapolate or generalize the information you obtain from sample surveys to the larger group being researched.

Correlative survey

Correlative surveys help establish if there is a positive, negative, or neutral connection between two variables.

Performing census surveys involves gathering relevant data on several aspects of a given population. These units include individuals, families, organizations, objects, characteristics, and properties.

During descriptive research, you gather different degrees of interest over time from a specific population. Cross-sectional studies provide a glimpse of a phenomenon’s prevalence and features in a population. There are no ethical challenges with them and they are quite simple and inexpensive to carry out.

Comparative studies

These surveys compare the two subjects’ conditions or characteristics. The subjects may include research variables, organizations, plans, and people.

Comparison points, assumption of similarities, and criteria of comparison are three important variables that affect how well and accurately comparative studies are conducted.

For instance, descriptive research can help determine how many CEOs hold a bachelor’s degree and what proportion of low-income households receive government help.

  • Pros and cons

The primary advantage of descriptive research designs is that researchers can create a reliable and beneficial database for additional study. To conduct any inquiry, you need access to reliable information sources that can give you a firm understanding of a situation.

Quantitative studies are time- and resource-intensive, so knowing the hypotheses viable for testing is crucial. The basic overview of descriptive research provides helpful hints as to which variables are worth quantitatively examining. This is why it’s employed as a precursor to quantitative research designs.

Some experts view this research as untrustworthy and unscientific. However, there is no way to assess the findings because you don’t manipulate any variables statistically.

Cause-and-effect correlations also can’t be established through descriptive investigations. Additionally, observational study findings cannot be replicated, which prevents a review of the findings and their replication.

The absence of statistical and in-depth analysis and the rather superficial character of the investigative procedure are drawbacks of this research approach.

  • Descriptive research examples and applications

Several descriptive research examples are emphasized based on their types, purposes, and applications. Research questions often begin with “What is …” These studies help find solutions to practical issues in social science, physical science, and education.

Here are some examples and applications of descriptive research:

Determining consumer perception and behavior

Organizations use descriptive research designs to determine how various demographic groups react to a certain product or service.

For example, a business looking to sell to its target market should research the market’s behavior first. When researching human behavior in response to a cause or event, the researcher pays attention to the traits, actions, and responses before drawing a conclusion.

Scientific classification

Scientific descriptive research enables the classification of organisms and their traits and constituents.

Measuring data trends

A descriptive study design’s statistical capabilities allow researchers to track data trends over time. It’s frequently used to determine the study target’s current circumstances and underlying patterns.

Conduct comparison

Organizations can use a descriptive research approach to learn how various demographics react to a certain product or service. For example, you can study how the target market responds to a competitor’s product and use that information to infer their behavior.

  • Bottom line

A descriptive research design is suitable for exploring certain topics and serving as a prelude to larger quantitative investigations. It provides a comprehensive understanding of the “what” of the group or thing you’re investigating.

This research type acts as the cornerstone of other research methodologies . It is distinctive because it can use quantitative and qualitative research approaches at the same time.

What is descriptive research design?

Descriptive research design aims to systematically obtain information to describe a phenomenon, situation, or population. More specifically, it helps answer the what, when, where, and how questions regarding the research problem rather than the why.

How does descriptive research compare to qualitative research?

Despite certain parallels, descriptive research concentrates on describing phenomena, while qualitative research aims to understand people better.

How do you analyze descriptive research data?

Data analysis involves using various methodologies, enabling the researcher to evaluate and provide results regarding validity and reliability.

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Home Market Research

Descriptive Research: Definition, Characteristics, Methods + Examples

Descriptive Research

Suppose an apparel brand wants to understand the fashion purchasing trends among New York’s buyers, then it must conduct a demographic survey of the specific region, gather population data, and then conduct descriptive research on this demographic segment.

The study will then uncover details on “what is the purchasing pattern of New York buyers,” but will not cover any investigative information about “ why ” the patterns exist. Because for the apparel brand trying to break into this market, understanding the nature of their market is the study’s main goal. Let’s talk about it.

What is descriptive research?

Descriptive research is a research method describing the characteristics of the population or phenomenon studied. This descriptive methodology focuses more on the “what” of the research subject than the “why” of the research subject.

The method primarily focuses on describing the nature of a demographic segment without focusing on “why” a particular phenomenon occurs. In other words, it “describes” the research subject without covering “why” it happens.

Characteristics of descriptive research

The term descriptive research then refers to research questions, the design of the study, and data analysis conducted on that topic. We call it an observational research method because none of the research study variables are influenced in any capacity.

Some distinctive characteristics of descriptive research are:

  • Quantitative research: It is a quantitative research method that attempts to collect quantifiable information for statistical analysis of the population sample. It is a popular market research tool that allows us to collect and describe the demographic segment’s nature.
  • Uncontrolled variables: In it, none of the variables are influenced in any way. This uses observational methods to conduct the research. Hence, the nature of the variables or their behavior is not in the hands of the researcher.
  • Cross-sectional studies: It is generally a cross-sectional study where different sections belonging to the same group are studied.
  • The basis for further research: Researchers further research the data collected and analyzed from descriptive research using different research techniques. The data can also help point towards the types of research methods used for the subsequent research.

Applications of descriptive research with examples

A descriptive research method can be used in multiple ways and for various reasons. Before getting into any survey , though, the survey goals and survey design are crucial. Despite following these steps, there is no way to know if one will meet the research outcome. How to use descriptive research? To understand the end objective of research goals, below are some ways organizations currently use descriptive research today:

  • Define respondent characteristics: The aim of using close-ended questions is to draw concrete conclusions about the respondents. This could be the need to derive patterns, traits, and behaviors of the respondents. It could also be to understand from a respondent their attitude, or opinion about the phenomenon. For example, understand millennials and the hours per week they spend browsing the internet. All this information helps the organization researching to make informed business decisions.
  • Measure data trends: Researchers measure data trends over time with a descriptive research design’s statistical capabilities. Consider if an apparel company researches different demographics like age groups from 24-35 and 36-45 on a new range launch of autumn wear. If one of those groups doesn’t take too well to the new launch, it provides insight into what clothes are like and what is not. The brand drops the clothes and apparel that customers don’t like.
  • Conduct comparisons: Organizations also use a descriptive research design to understand how different groups respond to a specific product or service. For example, an apparel brand creates a survey asking general questions that measure the brand’s image. The same study also asks demographic questions like age, income, gender, geographical location, geographic segmentation , etc. This consumer research helps the organization understand what aspects of the brand appeal to the population and what aspects do not. It also helps make product or marketing fixes or even create a new product line to cater to high-growth potential groups.
  • Validate existing conditions: Researchers widely use descriptive research to help ascertain the research object’s prevailing conditions and underlying patterns. Due to the non-invasive research method and the use of quantitative observation and some aspects of qualitative observation , researchers observe each variable and conduct an in-depth analysis . Researchers also use it to validate any existing conditions that may be prevalent in a population.
  • Conduct research at different times: The analysis can be conducted at different periods to ascertain any similarities or differences. This also allows any number of variables to be evaluated. For verification, studies on prevailing conditions can also be repeated to draw trends.

Advantages of descriptive research

Some of the significant advantages of descriptive research are:

Advantages of descriptive research

  • Data collection: A researcher can conduct descriptive research using specific methods like observational method, case study method, and survey method. Between these three, all primary data collection methods are covered, which provides a lot of information. This can be used for future research or even for developing a hypothesis for your research object.
  • Varied: Since the data collected is qualitative and quantitative, it gives a holistic understanding of a research topic. The information is varied, diverse, and thorough.
  • Natural environment: Descriptive research allows for the research to be conducted in the respondent’s natural environment, which ensures that high-quality and honest data is collected.
  • Quick to perform and cheap: As the sample size is generally large in descriptive research, the data collection is quick to conduct and is inexpensive.

Descriptive research methods

There are three distinctive methods to conduct descriptive research. They are:

Observational method

The observational method is the most effective method to conduct this research, and researchers make use of both quantitative and qualitative observations.

A quantitative observation is the objective collection of data primarily focused on numbers and values. It suggests “associated with, of or depicted in terms of a quantity.” Results of quantitative observation are derived using statistical and numerical analysis methods. It implies observation of any entity associated with a numeric value such as age, shape, weight, volume, scale, etc. For example, the researcher can track if current customers will refer the brand using a simple Net Promoter Score question .

Qualitative observation doesn’t involve measurements or numbers but instead just monitoring characteristics. In this case, the researcher observes the respondents from a distance. Since the respondents are in a comfortable environment, the characteristics observed are natural and effective. In a descriptive research design, the researcher can choose to be either a complete observer, an observer as a participant, a participant as an observer, or a full participant. For example, in a supermarket, a researcher can from afar monitor and track the customers’ selection and purchasing trends. This offers a more in-depth insight into the purchasing experience of the customer.

Case study method

Case studies involve in-depth research and study of individuals or groups. Case studies lead to a hypothesis and widen a further scope of studying a phenomenon. However, case studies should not be used to determine cause and effect as they can’t make accurate predictions because there could be a bias on the researcher’s part. The other reason why case studies are not a reliable way of conducting descriptive research is that there could be an atypical respondent in the survey. Describing them leads to weak generalizations and moving away from external validity.

Survey research

In survey research, respondents answer through surveys or questionnaires or polls . They are a popular market research tool to collect feedback from respondents. A study to gather useful data should have the right survey questions. It should be a balanced mix of open-ended questions and close ended-questions . The survey method can be conducted online or offline, making it the go-to option for descriptive research where the sample size is enormous.

Examples of descriptive research

Some examples of descriptive research are:

  • A specialty food group launching a new range of barbecue rubs would like to understand what flavors of rubs are favored by different people. To understand the preferred flavor palette, they conduct this type of research study using various methods like observational methods in supermarkets. By also surveying while collecting in-depth demographic information, offers insights about the preference of different markets. This can also help tailor make the rubs and spreads to various preferred meats in that demographic. Conducting this type of research helps the organization tweak their business model and amplify marketing in core markets.
  • Another example of where this research can be used is if a school district wishes to evaluate teachers’ attitudes about using technology in the classroom. By conducting surveys and observing their comfortableness using technology through observational methods, the researcher can gauge what they can help understand if a full-fledged implementation can face an issue. This also helps in understanding if the students are impacted in any way with this change.

Some other research problems and research questions that can lead to descriptive research are:

  • Market researchers want to observe the habits of consumers.
  • A company wants to evaluate the morale of its staff.
  • A school district wants to understand if students will access online lessons rather than textbooks.
  • To understand if its wellness questionnaire programs enhance the overall health of the employees.



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Descriptive research: what it is and how to use it.

8 min read Understanding the who, what and where of a situation or target group is an essential part of effective research and making informed business decisions.

For example you might want to understand what percentage of CEOs have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Or you might want to understand what percentage of low income families receive government support – or what kind of support they receive.

Descriptive research is what will be used in these types of studies.

In this guide we’ll look through the main issues relating to descriptive research to give you a better understanding of what it is, and how and why you can use it.

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What is descriptive research?

Descriptive research is a research method used to try and determine the characteristics of a population or particular phenomenon.

Using descriptive research you can identify patterns in the characteristics of a group to essentially establish everything you need to understand apart from why something has happened.

Market researchers use descriptive research for a range of commercial purposes to guide key decisions.

For example you could use descriptive research to understand fashion trends in a given city when planning your clothing collection for the year. Using descriptive research you can conduct in depth analysis on the demographic makeup of your target area and use the data analysis to establish buying patterns.

Conducting descriptive research wouldn’t, however, tell you why shoppers are buying a particular type of fashion item.

Descriptive research design

Descriptive research design uses a range of both qualitative research and quantitative data (although quantitative research is the primary research method) to gather information to make accurate predictions about a particular problem or hypothesis.

As a survey method, descriptive research designs will help researchers identify characteristics in their target market or particular population.

These characteristics in the population sample can be identified, observed and measured to guide decisions.

Descriptive research characteristics

While there are a number of descriptive research methods you can deploy for data collection, descriptive research does have a number of predictable characteristics.

Here are a few of the things to consider:

Measure data trends with statistical outcomes

Descriptive research is often popular for survey research because it generates answers in a statistical form, which makes it easy for researchers to carry out a simple statistical analysis to interpret what the data is saying.

Descriptive research design is ideal for further research

Because the data collection for descriptive research produces statistical outcomes, it can also be used as secondary data for another research study.

Plus, the data collected from descriptive research can be subjected to other types of data analysis .

Uncontrolled variables

A key component of the descriptive research method is that it uses random variables that are not controlled by the researchers. This is because descriptive research aims to understand the natural behavior of the research subject.

It’s carried out in a natural environment

Descriptive research is often carried out in a natural environment. This is because researchers aim to gather data in a natural setting to avoid swaying respondents.

Data can be gathered using survey questions or online surveys.

For example, if you want to understand the fashion trends we mentioned earlier, you would set up a study in which a researcher observes people in the respondent’s natural environment to understand their habits and preferences.

Descriptive research allows for cross sectional study

Because of the nature of descriptive research design and the randomness of the sample group being observed, descriptive research is ideal for cross sectional studies – essentially the demographics of the group can vary widely and your aim is to gain insights from within the group.

This can be highly beneficial when you’re looking to understand the behaviors or preferences of a wider population.

Descriptive research advantages

There are many advantages to using descriptive research, some of them include:

Cost effectiveness

Because the elements needed for descriptive research design are not specific or highly targeted (and occur within the respondent’s natural environment) this type of study is relatively cheap to carry out.

Multiple types of data can be collected

A big advantage of this research type, is that you can use it to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. This means you can use the stats gathered to easily identify underlying patterns in your respondents’ behavior.

Descriptive research disadvantages

Potential reliability issues.

When conducting descriptive research it’s important that the initial survey questions are properly formulated.

If not, it could make the answers unreliable and risk the credibility of your study.

Potential limitations

As we’ve mentioned, descriptive research design is ideal for understanding the what, who or where of a situation or phenomenon.

However, it can’t help you understand the cause or effect of the behavior. This means you’ll need to conduct further research to get a more complete picture of a situation.

Descriptive research methods

Because descriptive research methods include a range of quantitative and qualitative research, there are several research methods you can use.

Use case studies

Case studies in descriptive research involve conducting in-depth and detailed studies in which researchers get a specific person or case to answer questions.

Case studies shouldn’t be used to generate results, rather it should be used to build or establish hypothesis that you can expand into further market research .

For example you could gather detailed data about a specific business phenomenon, and then use this deeper understanding of that specific case.

Use observational methods

This type of study uses qualitative observations to understand human behavior within a particular group.

By understanding how the different demographics respond within your sample you can identify patterns and trends.

As an observational method, descriptive research will not tell you the cause of any particular behaviors, but that could be established with further research.

Use survey research

Surveys are one of the most cost effective ways to gather descriptive data.

An online survey or questionnaire can be used in descriptive studies to gather quantitative information about a particular problem.

Survey research is ideal if you’re using descriptive research as your primary research.

Descriptive research examples

Descriptive research is used for a number of commercial purposes or when organizations need to understand the behaviors or opinions of a population.

One of the biggest examples of descriptive research that is used in every democratic country, is during elections.

Using descriptive research, researchers will use surveys to understand who voters are more likely to choose out of the parties or candidates available.

Using the data provided, researchers can analyze the data to understand what the election result will be.

In a commercial setting, retailers often use descriptive research to figure out trends in shopping and buying decisions.

By gathering information on the habits of shoppers, retailers can get a better understanding of the purchases being made.

Another example that is widely used around the world, is the national census that takes place to understand the population.

The research will provide a more accurate picture of a population’s demographic makeup and help to understand changes over time in areas like population age, health and education level.

Where Qualtrics helps with descriptive research

Whatever type of research you want to carry out, there’s a survey type that will work.

Qualtrics can help you determine the appropriate method and ensure you design a study that will deliver the insights you need.

Our experts can help you with your market research needs , ensuring you get the most out of Qualtrics market research software to design, launch and analyze your data to guide better, more accurate decisions for your organization.

Related resources

Market intelligence 10 min read, marketing insights 11 min read, ethnographic research 11 min read, qualitative vs quantitative research 13 min read, qualitative research questions 11 min read, qualitative research design 12 min read, primary vs secondary research 14 min read, request demo.

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examples of descriptive research design

What is Descriptive Research and How is it Used?

examples of descriptive research design


What does descriptive research mean, why would you use a descriptive research design, what are the characteristics of descriptive research, examples of descriptive research, what are the data collection methods in descriptive research, how do you analyze descriptive research data, ensuring validity and reliability in the findings.

Conducting descriptive research offers researchers a way to present phenomena as they naturally occur. Rooted in an open-ended and non-experimental nature, this type of research focuses on portraying the details of specific phenomena or contexts, helping readers gain a clearer understanding of topics of interest.

From businesses gauging customer satisfaction to educators assessing classroom dynamics, the data collected from descriptive research provides invaluable insights across various fields.

This article aims to illuminate the essence, utility, characteristics, and methods associated with descriptive research, guiding those who wish to harness its potential in their respective domains.

examples of descriptive research design

At its core, descriptive research refers to a systematic approach used by researchers to collect, analyze, and present data about real-life phenomena to describe it in its natural context. It primarily aims to describe what exists, based on empirical observations .

Unlike experimental research, where variables are manipulated to observe outcomes, descriptive research deals with the "as-is" scenario to facilitate further research by providing a framework or new insights on which continuing studies can build.

Definition of descriptive research

Descriptive research is defined as a research method that observes and describes the characteristics of a particular group, situation, or phenomenon.

The goal is not to establish cause and effect relationships but rather to provide a detailed account of the situation.

The difference between descriptive and exploratory research

While both descriptive and exploratory research seek to provide insights into a topic or phenomenon, they differ in their focus. Exploratory research is more about investigating a topic to develop preliminary insights or to identify potential areas of interest.

In contrast, descriptive research offers detailed accounts and descriptions of the observed phenomenon, seeking to paint a full picture of what's happening.

The evolution of descriptive research in academia

Historically, descriptive research has played a foundational role in numerous academic disciplines. Anthropologists, for instance, used this approach to document cultures and societies. Psychologists have employed it to capture behaviors, emotions, and reactions.

Over time, the method has evolved, incorporating technological advancements and adapting to contemporary needs, yet its essence remains rooted in describing a phenomenon or setting as it is.

examples of descriptive research design

Descriptive research serves as a cornerstone in the research landscape for its ability to provide a detailed snapshot of life. Its unique qualities and methods make it an invaluable method for various research purposes. Here's why:

Benefits of obtaining a clear picture

Descriptive research captures the present state of phenomena, offering researchers a detailed reflection of situations. This unaltered representation is crucial for sectors like marketing, where understanding current consumer behavior can shape future strategies.

Facilitating data interpretation

Given its straightforward nature, descriptive research can provide data that's easier to interpret, both for researchers and their audiences. Rather than analyzing complex statistical relationships among variables, researchers present detailed descriptions of their qualitative observations . Researchers can engage in in depth analysis relating to their research question , but audiences can also draw insights from their own interpretations or reflections on potential underlying patterns.

Enhancing the clarity of the research problem

By presenting things as they are, descriptive research can help elucidate ambiguous research questions. A well-executed descriptive study can shine light on overlooked aspects of a problem, paving the way for further investigative research.

Addressing practical problems

In real-world scenarios, it's not always feasible to manipulate variables or set up controlled experiments. For instance, in social sciences, understanding cultural norms without interference is paramount. Descriptive research allows for such non-intrusive insights, ensuring genuine understanding.

Building a foundation for future research

Often, descriptive studies act as stepping stones for more complex research endeavors. By establishing baseline data and highlighting patterns, they create a platform upon which more intricate hypotheses can be built and tested in subsequent studies.

examples of descriptive research design

Descriptive research is distinguished by a set of hallmark characteristics that set it apart from other research methodologies . Recognizing these features can help researchers effectively design, implement , and interpret descriptive studies.

Specificity in the research question

As with all research, descriptive research starts with a well-defined research question aiming to detail a particular phenomenon. The specificity ensures that the study remains focused on gathering relevant data without unnecessary deviations.

Focus on the present situation

While some research methods aim to predict future trends or uncover historical truths, descriptive research is predominantly concerned with the present. It seeks to capture the current state of affairs, such as understanding today's consumer habits or documenting a newly observed phenomenon.

Standardized and structured methodology

To ensure credibility and consistency in results, descriptive research often employs standardized methods. Whether it's using a fixed set of survey questions or adhering to specific observation protocols, this structured approach ensures that data is collected uniformly, making it easier to compare and analyze.

Non-manipulative approach in observation

One of the standout features of descriptive research is its non-invasive nature. Researchers observe and document without influencing the research subject or the environment. This passive stance ensures that the data gathered is a genuine reflection of the phenomenon under study.

Replicability and consistency in results

Due to its structured methodology, findings from descriptive research can often be replicated in different settings or with different samples. This consistency adds to the credibility of the results, reinforcing the validity of the insights drawn from the study.

examples of descriptive research design

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Numerous fields and sectors conduct descriptive research for its versatile and detailed nature. Through its focus on presenting things as they naturally occur, it provides insights into a myriad of scenarios. Here are some tangible examples from diverse domains:

Conducting market research

Businesses often turn to data analysis through descriptive research to understand the demographics of their target market. For instance, a company launching a new product might survey potential customers to understand their age, gender, income level, and purchasing habits, offering valuable data for targeted marketing strategies.

Evaluating employee behaviors

Organizations rely on descriptive research designs to assess the behavior and attitudes of their employees. By conducting observations or surveys , companies can gather data on workplace satisfaction, collaboration patterns, or the impact of a new office layout on productivity.

examples of descriptive research design

Understanding consumer preferences

Brands aiming to understand their consumers' likes and dislikes often use descriptive research. By observing shopping behaviors or conducting product feedback surveys , they can gauge preferences and adjust their offerings accordingly.

Documenting historical patterns

Historians and anthropologists employ descriptive research to identify patterns through analysis of events or cultural practices. For instance, a historian might detail the daily life in a particular era, while an anthropologist might document rituals and ceremonies of a specific tribe.

Assessing student performance

Educational researchers can utilize descriptive studies to understand the effectiveness of teaching methodologies. By observing classrooms or surveying students, they can measure data trends and gauge the impact of a new teaching technique or curriculum on student engagement and performance.

examples of descriptive research design

Descriptive research methods aim to authentically represent situations and phenomena. These techniques ensure the collection of comprehensive and reliable data about the subject of interest.

The most appropriate descriptive research method depends on the research question and resources available for your research study.

Surveys and questionnaires

One of the most familiar tools in the researcher's arsenal, surveys and questionnaires offer a structured means of collecting data from a vast audience. Through carefully designed questions, researchers can obtain standardized responses that lend themselves to straightforward comparison and analysis in quantitative and qualitative research .

Survey research can manifest in various formats, from face-to-face interactions and telephone conversations to digital platforms. While surveys can reach a broad audience and generate quantitative data ripe for statistical analysis, they also come with the challenge of potential biases in design and rely heavily on respondent honesty.

Observations and case studies

Direct or participant observation is a method wherein researchers actively watch and document behaviors or events. A researcher might, for instance, observe the dynamics within a classroom or the behaviors of shoppers in a market setting.

Case studies provide an even deeper dive, focusing on a thorough analysis of a specific individual, group, or event. These methods present the advantage of capturing real-time, detailed data, but they might also be time-intensive and can sometimes introduce observer bias .

Interviews and focus groups

Interviews , whether they follow a structured script or flow more organically, are a powerful means to extract detailed insights directly from participants. On the other hand, focus groups gather multiple participants for discussions, aiming to gather diverse and collective opinions on a particular topic or product.

These methods offer the benefit of deep insights and adaptability in data collection . However, they necessitate skilled interviewers, and focus group settings might see individual opinions being influenced by group dynamics.

Document and content analysis

Here, instead of generating new data, researchers examine existing documents or content . This can range from studying historical records and newspapers to analyzing media content or literature.

Analyzing existing content offers the advantage of accessibility and can provide insights over longer time frames. However, the reliability and relevance of the content are paramount, and researchers must approach this method with a discerning eye.

examples of descriptive research design

Descriptive research data, rich in details and insights, necessitates meticulous analysis to derive meaningful conclusions. The analysis process transforms raw data into structured findings that can be communicated and acted upon.

Qualitative content analysis

For data collected through interviews , focus groups , observations , or open-ended survey questions , qualitative content analysis is a popular choice. This involves examining non-numerical data to identify patterns, themes, or categories.

By coding responses or observations , researchers can identify recurring elements, making it easier to comprehend larger data sets and draw insights.

Using descriptive statistics

When dealing with quantitative data from surveys or experiments, descriptive statistics are invaluable. Measures such as mean, median, mode, standard deviation, and frequency distributions help summarize data sets, providing a snapshot of the overall patterns.

Graphical representations like histograms, pie charts, or bar graphs can further help in visualizing these statistics.

Coding and categorizing the data

Both qualitative and quantitative data often require coding. Coding involves assigning labels to specific responses or behaviors to group similar segments of data. This categorization aids in identifying patterns, especially in vast data sets.

For instance, responses to open-ended questions in a survey can be coded based on keywords or sentiments, allowing for a more structured analysis.

Visual representation through graphs and charts

Visual aids like graphs, charts, and plots can simplify complex data, making it more accessible and understandable. Whether it's showcasing frequency distributions through histograms or mapping out relationships with networks, visual representations can elucidate trends and patterns effectively.

In the realm of research , the credibility of findings is paramount. Without trustworthiness in the results, even the most meticulously gathered data can lose its value. Two cornerstones that bolster the credibility of research outcomes are validity and reliability .

Validity: Measuring the right thing

Validity addresses the accuracy of the research. It seeks to answer the question: Is the research genuinely measuring what it aims to measure? In descriptive research, where the objective is to paint an authentic picture of the current state of affairs, ensuring validity is crucial.

For instance, if a study aims to understand consumer preferences for a product category, the questions posed should genuinely reflect those preferences and not veer into unrelated territories. Multiple forms of validity, including content, criterion, and construct validity, can be examined to ensure that the research instruments and processes are aligned with the research goals.

Reliability: Consistency in findings

Reliability, on the other hand, pertains to the consistency of the research findings. When a study demonstrates reliability, this suggests that others could repeat the study and the outcomes would remain consistent across repetitions.

In descriptive research, factors like the clarity of survey questions , the training of observers , and the standardization of interview protocols play a role in enhancing reliability. Techniques such as test-retest and internal consistency measurements can be employed to assess and improve reliability.

examples of descriptive research design

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  • Methodology

Research Design | Step-by-Step Guide with Examples

Published on 5 May 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 20 March 2023.

A research design is a strategy for answering your research question  using empirical data. Creating a research design means making decisions about:

  • Your overall aims and approach
  • The type of research design you’ll use
  • Your sampling methods or criteria for selecting subjects
  • Your data collection methods
  • The procedures you’ll follow to collect data
  • Your data analysis methods

A well-planned research design helps ensure that your methods match your research aims and that you use the right kind of analysis for your data.

Table of contents

Step 1: consider your aims and approach, step 2: choose a type of research design, step 3: identify your population and sampling method, step 4: choose your data collection methods, step 5: plan your data collection procedures, step 6: decide on your data analysis strategies, frequently asked questions.

  • Introduction

Before you can start designing your research, you should already have a clear idea of the research question you want to investigate.

There are many different ways you could go about answering this question. Your research design choices should be driven by your aims and priorities – start by thinking carefully about what you want to achieve.

The first choice you need to make is whether you’ll take a qualitative or quantitative approach.

Qualitative research designs tend to be more flexible and inductive , allowing you to adjust your approach based on what you find throughout the research process.

Quantitative research designs tend to be more fixed and deductive , with variables and hypotheses clearly defined in advance of data collection.

It’s also possible to use a mixed methods design that integrates aspects of both approaches. By combining qualitative and quantitative insights, you can gain a more complete picture of the problem you’re studying and strengthen the credibility of your conclusions.

Practical and ethical considerations when designing research

As well as scientific considerations, you need to think practically when designing your research. If your research involves people or animals, you also need to consider research ethics .

  • How much time do you have to collect data and write up the research?
  • Will you be able to gain access to the data you need (e.g., by travelling to a specific location or contacting specific people)?
  • Do you have the necessary research skills (e.g., statistical analysis or interview techniques)?
  • Will you need ethical approval ?

At each stage of the research design process, make sure that your choices are practically feasible.

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Within both qualitative and quantitative approaches, there are several types of research design to choose from. Each type provides a framework for the overall shape of your research.

Types of quantitative research designs

Quantitative designs can be split into four main types. Experimental and   quasi-experimental designs allow you to test cause-and-effect relationships, while descriptive and correlational designs allow you to measure variables and describe relationships between them.

With descriptive and correlational designs, you can get a clear picture of characteristics, trends, and relationships as they exist in the real world. However, you can’t draw conclusions about cause and effect (because correlation doesn’t imply causation ).

Experiments are the strongest way to test cause-and-effect relationships without the risk of other variables influencing the results. However, their controlled conditions may not always reflect how things work in the real world. They’re often also more difficult and expensive to implement.

Types of qualitative research designs

Qualitative designs are less strictly defined. This approach is about gaining a rich, detailed understanding of a specific context or phenomenon, and you can often be more creative and flexible in designing your research.

The table below shows some common types of qualitative design. They often have similar approaches in terms of data collection, but focus on different aspects when analysing the data.

Your research design should clearly define who or what your research will focus on, and how you’ll go about choosing your participants or subjects.

In research, a population is the entire group that you want to draw conclusions about, while a sample is the smaller group of individuals you’ll actually collect data from.

Defining the population

A population can be made up of anything you want to study – plants, animals, organisations, texts, countries, etc. In the social sciences, it most often refers to a group of people.

For example, will you focus on people from a specific demographic, region, or background? Are you interested in people with a certain job or medical condition, or users of a particular product?

The more precisely you define your population, the easier it will be to gather a representative sample.

Sampling methods

Even with a narrowly defined population, it’s rarely possible to collect data from every individual. Instead, you’ll collect data from a sample.

To select a sample, there are two main approaches: probability sampling and non-probability sampling . The sampling method you use affects how confidently you can generalise your results to the population as a whole.

Probability sampling is the most statistically valid option, but it’s often difficult to achieve unless you’re dealing with a very small and accessible population.

For practical reasons, many studies use non-probability sampling, but it’s important to be aware of the limitations and carefully consider potential biases. You should always make an effort to gather a sample that’s as representative as possible of the population.

Case selection in qualitative research

In some types of qualitative designs, sampling may not be relevant.

For example, in an ethnography or a case study, your aim is to deeply understand a specific context, not to generalise to a population. Instead of sampling, you may simply aim to collect as much data as possible about the context you are studying.

In these types of design, you still have to carefully consider your choice of case or community. You should have a clear rationale for why this particular case is suitable for answering your research question.

For example, you might choose a case study that reveals an unusual or neglected aspect of your research problem, or you might choose several very similar or very different cases in order to compare them.

Data collection methods are ways of directly measuring variables and gathering information. They allow you to gain first-hand knowledge and original insights into your research problem.

You can choose just one data collection method, or use several methods in the same study.

Survey methods

Surveys allow you to collect data about opinions, behaviours, experiences, and characteristics by asking people directly. There are two main survey methods to choose from: questionnaires and interviews.

Observation methods

Observations allow you to collect data unobtrusively, observing characteristics, behaviours, or social interactions without relying on self-reporting.

Observations may be conducted in real time, taking notes as you observe, or you might make audiovisual recordings for later analysis. They can be qualitative or quantitative.

Other methods of data collection

There are many other ways you might collect data depending on your field and topic.

If you’re not sure which methods will work best for your research design, try reading some papers in your field to see what data collection methods they used.

Secondary data

If you don’t have the time or resources to collect data from the population you’re interested in, you can also choose to use secondary data that other researchers already collected – for example, datasets from government surveys or previous studies on your topic.

With this raw data, you can do your own analysis to answer new research questions that weren’t addressed by the original study.

Using secondary data can expand the scope of your research, as you may be able to access much larger and more varied samples than you could collect yourself.

However, it also means you don’t have any control over which variables to measure or how to measure them, so the conclusions you can draw may be limited.

As well as deciding on your methods, you need to plan exactly how you’ll use these methods to collect data that’s consistent, accurate, and unbiased.

Planning systematic procedures is especially important in quantitative research, where you need to precisely define your variables and ensure your measurements are reliable and valid.


Some variables, like height or age, are easily measured. But often you’ll be dealing with more abstract concepts, like satisfaction, anxiety, or competence. Operationalisation means turning these fuzzy ideas into measurable indicators.

If you’re using observations , which events or actions will you count?

If you’re using surveys , which questions will you ask and what range of responses will be offered?

You may also choose to use or adapt existing materials designed to measure the concept you’re interested in – for example, questionnaires or inventories whose reliability and validity has already been established.

Reliability and validity

Reliability means your results can be consistently reproduced , while validity means that you’re actually measuring the concept you’re interested in.

For valid and reliable results, your measurement materials should be thoroughly researched and carefully designed. Plan your procedures to make sure you carry out the same steps in the same way for each participant.

If you’re developing a new questionnaire or other instrument to measure a specific concept, running a pilot study allows you to check its validity and reliability in advance.

Sampling procedures

As well as choosing an appropriate sampling method, you need a concrete plan for how you’ll actually contact and recruit your selected sample.

That means making decisions about things like:

  • How many participants do you need for an adequate sample size?
  • What inclusion and exclusion criteria will you use to identify eligible participants?
  • How will you contact your sample – by mail, online, by phone, or in person?

If you’re using a probability sampling method, it’s important that everyone who is randomly selected actually participates in the study. How will you ensure a high response rate?

If you’re using a non-probability method, how will you avoid bias and ensure a representative sample?

Data management

It’s also important to create a data management plan for organising and storing your data.

Will you need to transcribe interviews or perform data entry for observations? You should anonymise and safeguard any sensitive data, and make sure it’s backed up regularly.

Keeping your data well organised will save time when it comes to analysing them. It can also help other researchers validate and add to your findings.

On their own, raw data can’t answer your research question. The last step of designing your research is planning how you’ll analyse the data.

Quantitative data analysis

In quantitative research, you’ll most likely use some form of statistical analysis . With statistics, you can summarise your sample data, make estimates, and test hypotheses.

Using descriptive statistics , you can summarise your sample data in terms of:

  • The distribution of the data (e.g., the frequency of each score on a test)
  • The central tendency of the data (e.g., the mean to describe the average score)
  • The variability of the data (e.g., the standard deviation to describe how spread out the scores are)

The specific calculations you can do depend on the level of measurement of your variables.

Using inferential statistics , you can:

  • Make estimates about the population based on your sample data.
  • Test hypotheses about a relationship between variables.

Regression and correlation tests look for associations between two or more variables, while comparison tests (such as t tests and ANOVAs ) look for differences in the outcomes of different groups.

Your choice of statistical test depends on various aspects of your research design, including the types of variables you’re dealing with and the distribution of your data.

Qualitative data analysis

In qualitative research, your data will usually be very dense with information and ideas. Instead of summing it up in numbers, you’ll need to comb through the data in detail, interpret its meanings, identify patterns, and extract the parts that are most relevant to your research question.

Two of the most common approaches to doing this are thematic analysis and discourse analysis .

There are many other ways of analysing qualitative data depending on the aims of your research. To get a sense of potential approaches, try reading some qualitative research papers in your field.

A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population. Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research.

For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.

Statistical sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population. There are various sampling methods you can use to ensure that your sample is representative of the population as a whole.

Operationalisation means turning abstract conceptual ideas into measurable observations.

For example, the concept of social anxiety isn’t directly observable, but it can be operationally defined in terms of self-rating scores, behavioural avoidance of crowded places, or physical anxiety symptoms in social situations.

Before collecting data , it’s important to consider how you will operationalise the variables that you want to measure.

The research methods you use depend on the type of data you need to answer your research question .

  • If you want to measure something or test a hypothesis , use quantitative methods . If you want to explore ideas, thoughts, and meanings, use qualitative methods .
  • If you want to analyse a large amount of readily available data, use secondary data. If you want data specific to your purposes with control over how they are generated, collect primary data.
  • If you want to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables , use experimental methods. If you want to understand the characteristics of a research subject, use descriptive methods.

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Shona McCombes

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Research Design 101

Everything You Need To Get Started (With Examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewers: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) & Kerryn Warren (PhD) | April 2023

Research design for qualitative and quantitative studies

Navigating the world of research can be daunting, especially if you’re a first-time researcher. One concept you’re bound to run into fairly early in your research journey is that of “ research design ”. Here, we’ll guide you through the basics using practical examples , so that you can approach your research with confidence.

Overview: Research Design 101

What is research design.

  • Research design types for quantitative studies
  • Video explainer : quantitative research design
  • Research design types for qualitative studies
  • Video explainer : qualitative research design
  • How to choose a research design
  • Key takeaways

Research design refers to the overall plan, structure or strategy that guides a research project , from its conception to the final data analysis. A good research design serves as the blueprint for how you, as the researcher, will collect and analyse data while ensuring consistency, reliability and validity throughout your study.

Understanding different types of research designs is essential as helps ensure that your approach is suitable  given your research aims, objectives and questions , as well as the resources you have available to you. Without a clear big-picture view of how you’ll design your research, you run the risk of potentially making misaligned choices in terms of your methodology – especially your sampling , data collection and data analysis decisions.

The problem with defining research design…

One of the reasons students struggle with a clear definition of research design is because the term is used very loosely across the internet, and even within academia.

Some sources claim that the three research design types are qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods , which isn’t quite accurate (these just refer to the type of data that you’ll collect and analyse). Other sources state that research design refers to the sum of all your design choices, suggesting it’s more like a research methodology . Others run off on other less common tangents. No wonder there’s confusion!

In this article, we’ll clear up the confusion. We’ll explain the most common research design types for both qualitative and quantitative research projects, whether that is for a full dissertation or thesis, or a smaller research paper or article.

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Research Design: Quantitative Studies

Quantitative research involves collecting and analysing data in a numerical form. Broadly speaking, there are four types of quantitative research designs: descriptive , correlational , experimental , and quasi-experimental . 

Descriptive Research Design

As the name suggests, descriptive research design focuses on describing existing conditions, behaviours, or characteristics by systematically gathering information without manipulating any variables. In other words, there is no intervention on the researcher’s part – only data collection.

For example, if you’re studying smartphone addiction among adolescents in your community, you could deploy a survey to a sample of teens asking them to rate their agreement with certain statements that relate to smartphone addiction. The collected data would then provide insight regarding how widespread the issue may be – in other words, it would describe the situation.

The key defining attribute of this type of research design is that it purely describes the situation . In other words, descriptive research design does not explore potential relationships between different variables or the causes that may underlie those relationships. Therefore, descriptive research is useful for generating insight into a research problem by describing its characteristics . By doing so, it can provide valuable insights and is often used as a precursor to other research design types.

Correlational Research Design

Correlational design is a popular choice for researchers aiming to identify and measure the relationship between two or more variables without manipulating them . In other words, this type of research design is useful when you want to know whether a change in one thing tends to be accompanied by a change in another thing.

For example, if you wanted to explore the relationship between exercise frequency and overall health, you could use a correlational design to help you achieve this. In this case, you might gather data on participants’ exercise habits, as well as records of their health indicators like blood pressure, heart rate, or body mass index. Thereafter, you’d use a statistical test to assess whether there’s a relationship between the two variables (exercise frequency and health).

As you can see, correlational research design is useful when you want to explore potential relationships between variables that cannot be manipulated or controlled for ethical, practical, or logistical reasons. It is particularly helpful in terms of developing predictions , and given that it doesn’t involve the manipulation of variables, it can be implemented at a large scale more easily than experimental designs (which will look at next).

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that correlational research design has limitations – most notably that it cannot be used to establish causality . In other words, correlation does not equal causation . To establish causality, you’ll need to move into the realm of experimental design, coming up next…

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examples of descriptive research design

Experimental Research Design

Experimental research design is used to determine if there is a causal relationship between two or more variables . With this type of research design, you, as the researcher, manipulate one variable (the independent variable) while controlling others (dependent variables). Doing so allows you to observe the effect of the former on the latter and draw conclusions about potential causality.

For example, if you wanted to measure if/how different types of fertiliser affect plant growth, you could set up several groups of plants, with each group receiving a different type of fertiliser, as well as one with no fertiliser at all. You could then measure how much each plant group grew (on average) over time and compare the results from the different groups to see which fertiliser was most effective.

Overall, experimental research design provides researchers with a powerful way to identify and measure causal relationships (and the direction of causality) between variables. However, developing a rigorous experimental design can be challenging as it’s not always easy to control all the variables in a study. This often results in smaller sample sizes , which can reduce the statistical power and generalisability of the results.

Moreover, experimental research design requires random assignment . This means that the researcher needs to assign participants to different groups or conditions in a way that each participant has an equal chance of being assigned to any group (note that this is not the same as random sampling ). Doing so helps reduce the potential for bias and confounding variables . This need for random assignment can lead to ethics-related issues . For example, withholding a potentially beneficial medical treatment from a control group may be considered unethical in certain situations.

Quasi-Experimental Research Design

Quasi-experimental research design is used when the research aims involve identifying causal relations , but one cannot (or doesn’t want to) randomly assign participants to different groups (for practical or ethical reasons). Instead, with a quasi-experimental research design, the researcher relies on existing groups or pre-existing conditions to form groups for comparison.

For example, if you were studying the effects of a new teaching method on student achievement in a particular school district, you may be unable to randomly assign students to either group and instead have to choose classes or schools that already use different teaching methods. This way, you still achieve separate groups, without having to assign participants to specific groups yourself.

Naturally, quasi-experimental research designs have limitations when compared to experimental designs. Given that participant assignment is not random, it’s more difficult to confidently establish causality between variables, and, as a researcher, you have less control over other variables that may impact findings.

All that said, quasi-experimental designs can still be valuable in research contexts where random assignment is not possible and can often be undertaken on a much larger scale than experimental research, thus increasing the statistical power of the results. What’s important is that you, as the researcher, understand the limitations of the design and conduct your quasi-experiment as rigorously as possible, paying careful attention to any potential confounding variables .

The four most common quantitative research design types are descriptive, correlational, experimental and quasi-experimental.

Research Design: Qualitative Studies

There are many different research design types when it comes to qualitative studies, but here we’ll narrow our focus to explore the “Big 4”. Specifically, we’ll look at phenomenological design, grounded theory design, ethnographic design, and case study design.

Phenomenological Research Design

Phenomenological design involves exploring the meaning of lived experiences and how they are perceived by individuals. This type of research design seeks to understand people’s perspectives , emotions, and behaviours in specific situations. Here, the aim for researchers is to uncover the essence of human experience without making any assumptions or imposing preconceived ideas on their subjects.

For example, you could adopt a phenomenological design to study why cancer survivors have such varied perceptions of their lives after overcoming their disease. This could be achieved by interviewing survivors and then analysing the data using a qualitative analysis method such as thematic analysis to identify commonalities and differences.

Phenomenological research design typically involves in-depth interviews or open-ended questionnaires to collect rich, detailed data about participants’ subjective experiences. This richness is one of the key strengths of phenomenological research design but, naturally, it also has limitations. These include potential biases in data collection and interpretation and the lack of generalisability of findings to broader populations.

Grounded Theory Research Design

Grounded theory (also referred to as “GT”) aims to develop theories by continuously and iteratively analysing and comparing data collected from a relatively large number of participants in a study. It takes an inductive (bottom-up) approach, with a focus on letting the data “speak for itself”, without being influenced by preexisting theories or the researcher’s preconceptions.

As an example, let’s assume your research aims involved understanding how people cope with chronic pain from a specific medical condition, with a view to developing a theory around this. In this case, grounded theory design would allow you to explore this concept thoroughly without preconceptions about what coping mechanisms might exist. You may find that some patients prefer cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) while others prefer to rely on herbal remedies. Based on multiple, iterative rounds of analysis, you could then develop a theory in this regard, derived directly from the data (as opposed to other preexisting theories and models).

Grounded theory typically involves collecting data through interviews or observations and then analysing it to identify patterns and themes that emerge from the data. These emerging ideas are then validated by collecting more data until a saturation point is reached (i.e., no new information can be squeezed from the data). From that base, a theory can then be developed .

As you can see, grounded theory is ideally suited to studies where the research aims involve theory generation , especially in under-researched areas. Keep in mind though that this type of research design can be quite time-intensive , given the need for multiple rounds of data collection and analysis.

examples of descriptive research design

Ethnographic Research Design

Ethnographic design involves observing and studying a culture-sharing group of people in their natural setting to gain insight into their behaviours, beliefs, and values. The focus here is on observing participants in their natural environment (as opposed to a controlled environment). This typically involves the researcher spending an extended period of time with the participants in their environment, carefully observing and taking field notes .

All of this is not to say that ethnographic research design relies purely on observation. On the contrary, this design typically also involves in-depth interviews to explore participants’ views, beliefs, etc. However, unobtrusive observation is a core component of the ethnographic approach.

As an example, an ethnographer may study how different communities celebrate traditional festivals or how individuals from different generations interact with technology differently. This may involve a lengthy period of observation, combined with in-depth interviews to further explore specific areas of interest that emerge as a result of the observations that the researcher has made.

As you can probably imagine, ethnographic research design has the ability to provide rich, contextually embedded insights into the socio-cultural dynamics of human behaviour within a natural, uncontrived setting. Naturally, however, it does come with its own set of challenges, including researcher bias (since the researcher can become quite immersed in the group), participant confidentiality and, predictably, ethical complexities . All of these need to be carefully managed if you choose to adopt this type of research design.

Case Study Design

With case study research design, you, as the researcher, investigate a single individual (or a single group of individuals) to gain an in-depth understanding of their experiences, behaviours or outcomes. Unlike other research designs that are aimed at larger sample sizes, case studies offer a deep dive into the specific circumstances surrounding a person, group of people, event or phenomenon, generally within a bounded setting or context .

As an example, a case study design could be used to explore the factors influencing the success of a specific small business. This would involve diving deeply into the organisation to explore and understand what makes it tick – from marketing to HR to finance. In terms of data collection, this could include interviews with staff and management, review of policy documents and financial statements, surveying customers, etc.

While the above example is focused squarely on one organisation, it’s worth noting that case study research designs can have different variation s, including single-case, multiple-case and longitudinal designs. As you can see in the example, a single-case design involves intensely examining a single entity to understand its unique characteristics and complexities. Conversely, in a multiple-case design , multiple cases are compared and contrasted to identify patterns and commonalities. Lastly, in a longitudinal case design , a single case or multiple cases are studied over an extended period of time to understand how factors develop over time.

As you can see, a case study research design is particularly useful where a deep and contextualised understanding of a specific phenomenon or issue is desired. However, this strength is also its weakness. In other words, you can’t generalise the findings from a case study to the broader population. So, keep this in mind if you’re considering going the case study route.

Case study design often involves investigating an individual to gain an in-depth understanding of their experiences, behaviours or outcomes.

How To Choose A Research Design

Having worked through all of these potential research designs, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed and wondering, “ But how do I decide which research design to use? ”. While we could write an entire post covering that alone, here are a few factors to consider that will help you choose a suitable research design for your study.

Data type: The first determining factor is naturally the type of data you plan to be collecting – i.e., qualitative or quantitative. This may sound obvious, but we have to be clear about this – don’t try to use a quantitative research design on qualitative data (or vice versa)!

Research aim(s) and question(s): As with all methodological decisions, your research aim and research questions will heavily influence your research design. For example, if your research aims involve developing a theory from qualitative data, grounded theory would be a strong option. Similarly, if your research aims involve identifying and measuring relationships between variables, one of the experimental designs would likely be a better option.

Time: It’s essential that you consider any time constraints you have, as this will impact the type of research design you can choose. For example, if you’ve only got a month to complete your project, a lengthy design such as ethnography wouldn’t be a good fit.

Resources: Take into account the resources realistically available to you, as these need to factor into your research design choice. For example, if you require highly specialised lab equipment to execute an experimental design, you need to be sure that you’ll have access to that before you make a decision.

Keep in mind that when it comes to research, it’s important to manage your risks and play as conservatively as possible. If your entire project relies on you achieving a huge sample, having access to niche equipment or holding interviews with very difficult-to-reach participants, you’re creating risks that could kill your project. So, be sure to think through your choices carefully and make sure that you have backup plans for any existential risks. Remember that a relatively simple methodology executed well generally will typically earn better marks than a highly-complex methodology executed poorly.

examples of descriptive research design

Recap: Key Takeaways

We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Let’s recap by looking at the key takeaways:

  • Research design refers to the overall plan, structure or strategy that guides a research project, from its conception to the final analysis of data.
  • Research designs for quantitative studies include descriptive , correlational , experimental and quasi-experimenta l designs.
  • Research designs for qualitative studies include phenomenological , grounded theory , ethnographic and case study designs.
  • When choosing a research design, you need to consider a variety of factors, including the type of data you’ll be working with, your research aims and questions, your time and the resources available to you.

If you need a helping hand with your research design (or any other aspect of your research), check out our private coaching services .

examples of descriptive research design

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Wei Leong YONG

Is there any blog article explaining more on Case study research design? Is there a Case study write-up template? Thank you.

Solly Khan

Thanks this was quite valuable to clarify such an important concept.


Thanks for this simplified explanations. it is quite very helpful.


This was really helpful. thanks


Thank you for your explanation. I think case study research design and the use of secondary data in researches needs to be talked about more in your videos and articles because there a lot of case studies research design tailored projects out there.

Please is there any template for a case study research design whose data type is a secondary data on your repository?

Sam Msongole

This post is very clear, comprehensive and has been very helpful to me. It has cleared the confusion I had in regard to research design and methodology.

Robyn Pritchard

This post is helpful, easy to understand, and deconstructs what a research design is. Thanks


how to cite this page


Thank you very much for the post. It is wonderful and has cleared many worries in my mind regarding research designs. I really appreciate .


how can I put this blog as my reference(APA style) in bibliography part?

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Survey descriptive research: Method, design, and examples

  • November 2, 2022

What is survey descriptive research?

The observational method: monitor people while they engage with a subject, the case study method: gain an in-depth understanding of a subject, survey descriptive research: easy and cost-effective, types of descriptive research design, what is the descriptive survey research design definition by authors, 1. quantitativeness and qualitatively, 2. uncontrolled variables, 3. natural environment, 4. provides a solid basis for further research, describe a group and define its characteristics, measure data trends by conducting descriptive marketing research, understand how customers perceive a brand, descriptive survey research design: how to make the best descriptive questionnaire, create descriptive surveys with surveyplanet.

Survey descriptive research is a quantitative method that focuses on describing the characteristics of a phenomenon rather than asking why it occurs. Doing this provides a better understanding of the nature of the subject at hand and creates a good foundation for further research.

Descriptive market research is one of the most commonly used ways of examining trends and changes in the market. It is easy, low-cost, and provides valuable in-depth information on a chosen subject.

This article will examine the basic principles of the descriptive survey study and show how to make the best descriptive survey questionnaire and how to conduct effective research.

It is often said to be quantitative research that focuses more on the what, how, when, and where instead of the why. But what does that actually mean?

The answer is simple. By conducting descriptive survey research, the nature of a phenomenon is focused upon without asking about what causes it.

The main goal of survey descriptive research is to shed light on the heart of the research problem and better understand it. The technique provides in-depth knowledge of what the research problem is before investigating why it exists.

Survey descriptive research and data collection methods

Descriptive research methods can differ based on data collection. We distinguish three main data collection methods: case study, observational method, and descriptive survey method.

Of these, the descriptive survey research method is most commonly used in fields such as market research, social research, psychology, politics, etc.

Sometimes also called the observational descriptive method, this is simply monitoring people while they engage with a particular subject. The aim is to examine people’s real-life behavior by maintaining a natural environment that does not change the respondents’ behavior—because they do not know they are being observed.

It is often used in fields such as market research, psychology, or social research. For example, customers can be monitored while dining at a restaurant or browsing through the products in a shop.

When doing case studies, researchers conduct thorough examinations of individuals or groups. The case study method is not used to collect general information on a particular subject. Instead, it provides an in-depth understanding of a particular subject and can give rise to interesting conclusions and new hypotheses.

The term case study can also refer to a sample group, which is a specific group of people that are examined and, afterward, findings are generalized to a larger group of people. However, this kind of generalization is rather risky because it is not always accurate.

Additionally, case studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect because of potential bias on the researcher’s part.

The survey descriptive research method consists of creating questionnaires or polls and distributing them to respondents, who then answer the questions (usually a mix of open-ended and closed-ended).

Surveys are the easiest and most cost-efficient way to gain feedback on a particular topic. They can be conducted online or offline, the size of the sample is highly flexible, and they can be distributed through many different channels.

When doing market research , use such surveys to understand the demographic of a certain market or population, better determine the target audience, keep track of the changes in the market, and learn about customer experience and satisfaction with products and services.

Several types of survey descriptive research are classified based on the approach used:

  • Descriptive surveys gather information about a certain subject.
  • Descriptive-normative surveys gather information just like a descriptive survey, after which results are compared with a norm.
  • Correlative surveys explore the relationship between two variables and conclude if it is positive, neutral, or negative.

A descriptive survey research design is a methodology used in social science and other fields to gather information and describe the characteristics, behaviors, or attitudes of a particular population or group of interest. While there may not be a single definition provided by specific authors, the concept is widely understood and defined similarly across the literature.

Here’s a general definition that captures the essence of a descriptive survey research design definition by authors:

A descriptive survey research design is a systematic and structured approach to collecting data from a sample of individuals or entities within a larger population, with the primary aim of providing a detailed and accurate description of the characteristics, behaviors, opinions, or attitudes that exist within the target group. This method involves the use of surveys, questionnaires, interviews, or observations to collect data, which is then analyzed and summarized to draw conclusions about the population of interest.

It’s important to note that descriptive survey research is often used when researchers want to gain insights into a population or phenomenon, but without manipulating variables or testing hypotheses, as is common in experimental research. Instead, it focuses on providing a comprehensive overview of the subject under investigation. Researchers often use various statistical and analytical techniques to summarize and interpret the collected data in descriptive survey research.

The characteristics and advantages of a descriptive survey questionnaire

There are numerous advantages to using a descriptive survey design. First of all, it is cheap and easy to conduct. A large sample can be surveyed and extensive data gathered quickly and inexpensively.

The data collected provides both quantitative and qualitative information , which provides a holistic understanding of the topic. Moreover, it can be used in further research on this or related topics.

Here are some of the most important advantages of conducting a survey descriptive research:

The descriptive survey research design uses both quantitative and qualitative research methods. It is used primarily to conduct quantitative research and gather data that is statistically easy to analyze. However, it can also provide qualitative data that helps describe and understand the research subject.

Descriptive research explores more than one variable. However, unlike experimental research, descriptive survey research design doesn’t allow control of variables. Instead, observational methods are used during research. Even though these variables can change and have an unexpected impact on an inquiry, they will give access to honest responses.

The descriptive research is conducted in a natural environment. This way, answers gathered from responses are more honest because the nature of the research does not influence them.

The data collected through descriptive research can be used to further explore the same or related subjects. Additionally, it can help develop the next line of research and the best method to use moving forward.

Descriptive survey example: When to use a descriptive research questionnaire?

Descriptive research design can be used for many purposes. It is mainly utilized to test a hypothesis, define the characteristics of a certain phenomenon, and examine the correlations between them.

Market research is one of the main fields in which descriptive methods are used to conduct studies. Here’s what can be done using this method:

Understanding the needs of customers and their desires is the key to a business’s success. By truly understanding these, it will be possible to offer exactly what customers need and prevent them from turning to competitors.

By using a descriptive survey, different customer characteristics—such as traits, opinions, or behavior patterns—can be determined. With this data, different customer types can be defined and profiles developed that focus on their interests and the behavior they exhibit. This information can be used to develop new products and services that will be successful.

Measuring data trends is extremely important. Explore the market and get valuable insights into how consumers’ interests change over time—as well as how the competition is performing in the marketplace.

Over time, the data gathered from a descriptive questionnaire can be subjected to statistical analysis. This will deliver valuable insights.

Another important aspect to consider is brand awareness. People need to know about your brand, and they need to have a positive opinion of it. The best way to discover their perception is to conduct a brand survey , which gives deeper insight into brand awareness, perception, identity, and customer loyalty .

When conducting survey descriptive research, there are a few basic steps that are needed for a survey to be successful:

  • Define the research goals.
  • Decide on the research method.
  • Define the sample population.
  • Design the questionnaire.
  • Write specific questions.
  • Distribute the questionnaire.
  • Analyze the data .
  • Make a survey report.

First of all, define the research goals. By setting up clear objectives, every other step can be worked through. This will result in the perfect descriptive questionnaire example and collect only valuable data.

Next, decide on the research method to use—in this case, the descriptive survey method. Then, define the sample population for (that is, the target audience). After that, think about the design itself and the questions that will be asked in the survey .

If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got you covered. As free survey software, SurveyPlanet offers pre-made themes that are clean and eye-catching, as well as pre-made questions that will save you the trouble of making new ones.

Simply scroll through our library and choose a descriptive survey questionnaire sample that best suits your needs, though our user-friendly interface can help you create bespoke questions in a process that is easy and efficient.

With a survey in hand, it will then need to be delivered to the target audience. This is easy with our survey embedding feature, which allows for the linking of surveys on a website, via emails, or by sharing on social media.

When all the responses are gathered, it’s time to analyze them. Use SurveyPlanet to easily filter data and do cross-sectional analysis. Finally, just export the results and make a survey report.

Conducting descriptive survey research is the best way to gain a deeper knowledge of a topic of interest and develop a sound basis for further research. Sign up for a free SurveyPlanet account to start improving your business today!

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Child Care and Early Education Research Connections

Descriptive research studies.

Descriptive research is a type of research that is used to describe the characteristics of a population. It collects data that are used to answer a wide range of what, when, and how questions pertaining to a particular population or group. For example, descriptive studies might be used to answer questions such as: What percentage of Head Start teachers have a bachelor's degree or higher? What is the average reading ability of 5-year-olds when they first enter kindergarten? What kinds of math activities are used in early childhood programs? When do children first receive regular child care from someone other than their parents? When are children with developmental disabilities first diagnosed and when do they first receive services? What factors do programs consider when making decisions about the type of assessments that will be used to assess the skills of the children in their programs? How do the types of services children receive from their early childhood program change as children age?

Descriptive research does not answer questions about why a certain phenomenon occurs or what the causes are. Answers to such questions are best obtained from  randomized and quasi-experimental studies . However, data from descriptive studies can be used to examine the relationships (correlations) among variables. While the findings from correlational analyses are not evidence of causality, they can help to distinguish variables that may be important in explaining a phenomenon from those that are not. Thus, descriptive research is often used to generate hypotheses that should be tested using more rigorous designs.

A variety of data collection methods may be used alone or in combination to answer the types of questions guiding descriptive research. Some of the more common methods include surveys, interviews, observations, case studies, and portfolios. The data collected through these methods can be either quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative data are typically analyzed and presenting using  descriptive statistics . Using quantitative data, researchers may describe the characteristics of a sample or population in terms of percentages (e.g., percentage of population that belong to different racial/ethnic groups, percentage of low-income families that receive different government services) or averages (e.g., average household income, average scores of reading, mathematics and language assessments). Quantitative data, such as narrative data collected as part of a case study, may be used to organize, classify, and used to identify patterns of behaviors, attitudes, and other characteristics of groups.

Descriptive studies have an important role in early care and education research. Studies such as the  National Survey of Early Care and Education  and the  National Household Education Surveys Program  have greatly increased our knowledge of the supply of and demand for child care in the U.S. The  Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey  and the  Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Program  have provided researchers, policy makers and practitioners with rich information about school readiness skills of children in the U.S.

Each of the methods used to collect descriptive data have their own strengths and limitations. The following are some of the strengths and limitations of descriptive research studies in general.

Study participants are questioned or observed in a natural setting (e.g., their homes, child care or educational settings).

Study data can be used to identify the prevalence of particular problems and the need for new or additional services to address these problems.

Descriptive research may identify areas in need of additional research and relationships between variables that require future study. Descriptive research is often referred to as "hypothesis generating research."

Depending on the data collection method used, descriptive studies can generate rich datasets on large and diverse samples.


Descriptive studies cannot be used to establish cause and effect relationships.

Respondents may not be truthful when answering survey questions or may give socially desirable responses.

The choice and wording of questions on a questionnaire may influence the descriptive findings.

Depending on the type and size of sample, the findings may not be generalizable or produce an accurate description of the population of interest.

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An overview of the qualitative descriptive design within nursing research

Louise doyle.

Associate Professor in Mental Health Nursing, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Catherine McCabe

Associate Professor in General Nursing, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Brian Keogh

Assistant Professor in Mental Health Nursing, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Annemarie Brady

Chair of Nursing and Chronic Illness, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Qualitative descriptive designs are common in nursing and healthcare research due to their inherent simplicity, flexibility and utility in diverse healthcare contexts. However, the application of descriptive research is sometimes critiqued in terms of scientific rigor. Inconsistency in decision making within the research process coupled with a lack of transparency has created issues of credibility for this type of approach. It can be difficult to clearly differentiate what constitutes a descriptive research design from the range of other methodologies at the disposal of qualitative researchers.

This paper provides an overview of qualitative descriptive research, orientates to the underlying philosophical perspectives and key characteristics that define this approach and identifies the implications for healthcare practice and policy.

Methods and results

Using real-world examples from healthcare research, the paper provides insight to the practical application of descriptive research at all stages of the design process and identifies the critical elements that should be explicit when applying this approach.


By adding to the existing knowledge base, this paper enhances the information available to researchers who wish to use the qualitative descriptive approach, influencing the standard of how this approach is employed in healthcare research.


Qualitative descriptive approaches to nursing and healthcare research provide a broad insight into particular phenomena and can be used in a variety of ways including as a standalone research design, as a precursor to larger qualitative studies and commonly as the qualitative component in mixed-methods studies. Despite the widespread use of descriptive approaches within nursing research, there is limited methodological guidance about this type of design in research texts or papers. The lack of adequate representation in research texts has at times resulted in novice researchers using other more complex qualitative designs including grounded theory or phenomenology without meeting the requirements of these approaches ( Lambert and Lambert, 2012 ), or having an appropriate rationale for use of these approaches. This suggests there is a need to have more discussion about how and why descriptive approaches to qualitative research are used. This serves to not only provide information and guidance for researchers, but to ensure acceptable standards in how this approach is applied in healthcare research.

Rationale for qualitative descriptive research

The selection of an appropriate approach to answer research questions is one of the most important stages of the research process; consequently, there is a requirement that researchers can clearly articulate and defend their selection. Those who wish to undertake qualitative research have a range of approaches available to them including grounded theory, phenomenology and ethnography. However, these designs may not be the most suitable for studies that do not require a deeply theoretical context and aim to stay close to and describe participants’ experiences. The most frequently proposed rationale for the use of a descriptive approach to is to provide straightforward descriptions of experiences and perceptions ( Sandelowski, 2010 ), particularly in areas where little is known about the topic under investigation. A qualitative descriptive design may be deemed most appropriate as it recognises the subjective nature of the problem, the different experiences participants have and will present the findings in a way that directly reflects or closely resembles the terminology used in the initial research question ( Bradshaw et al., 2017 ). This is particularly relevant in nursing and healthcare research, which is commonly concerned with how patients experience illness and associated healthcare interventions. The utilisation of a qualitative descriptive approach is often encouraged in Master’s level nurse education programmes as it enables novice clinical nurse researchers explore important healthcare questions that have direct implications and impact for their specific healthcare setting (Colorafi and Evans, 2016). As a Master’s level project is often the first piece of primary research undertaken by nurses, the use of a qualitative descriptive design provides an excellent method to address important clinical issues where the focus is not on increasing theoretical or conceptual understanding, but rather contributing to change and quality improvement in the practice setting ( Chafe, 2017 ).

This design is also frequently used within mixed-methods studies where qualitative data can explain quantitative findings in explanatory studies, be used for questionnaire development in exploratory studies and validate and corroborate findings in convergent studies ( Doyle et al., 2016 ). There has also been an increase in the use of qualitative descriptive research embedded in large-scale healthcare intervention studies, which can serve a number of purposes including identifying participants’ perceptions of why an intervention worked or, just as importantly, did not work and how the intervention might be improved ( Doyle et al., 2016 ). Using qualitative descriptive research in this manner can help to make the findings of intervention studies more clinically meaningful.

Philosophical and theoretical influences

Qualitative descriptive research generates data that describe the ‘who, what, and where of events or experiences’ from a subjective perspective ( Kim et al., 2017 , p. 23). From a philosophical perspective, this approach to research is best aligned with constructionism and critical theories that use interpretative and naturalistic methods ( Lincoln et al., 2017 ). These philosophical perspectives represent the view that reality exists within various contexts that are dynamic and perceived differently depending on the subject, therefore, reality is multiple and subjective ( Lincoln et al., 2017 ). In qualitative descriptive research, this translates into researchers being concerned with understanding the individual human experience in its unique context. This type of inquiry requires flexible research processes that are inductive and dynamic but do not transform the data beyond recognition from the phenomenon being studied ( Ormston et al., 2014 ; Sandelwoski 2010). Descriptive qualitative research has also been aligned with pragmatism ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ) where decisions are made about how the research should be conducted based on the aims or objectives and context of the study ( Ormston et al., 2014 ). The pragmatist researcher is not aligned to one particular view of knowledge generation or one particular methodology. Instead they look to the concepts or phenomena being studied to guide decision making in the research process, facilitating the selection of the most appropriate methods to answer the research question ( Bishop, 2015 ).

Perhaps linked to the practical application of pragmatism to research, that is, applying the best methods to answer the research question, is the classification of qualitative descriptive research by Sandelowski ( 2010 , p. 82) into a ‘distributed residual category’. This recognises and incorporates uncertainty about the phenomena being studied and the research methods used to study them. For researchers, it permits the use of one or more different types of inquiry, which is essential when acknowledging and exploring different realities and subjective experiences in relation to phenomena ( Long et al., 2018 ). Clarity, in terms of the rationale for the phenomenon being studied and the methods used by the researcher, emerges from the qualitative descriptive approach because the data gathered continue to remain close to the phenomenon throughout the study ( Sandelowski, 2010 ). For this to happen a flexible approach is required and this is evident in the practice of ‘borrowing’ elements of other qualitative methodologies such as grounded theory, phenomenology and ethnography ( Vaismoradi et al., 2013 ).

Regarded as a positive aspect by many researchers who are interested in studying human nature and phenomenon, others believe this flexibility leads to inconsistency across studies and in some cases complacency by researchers. This can result in vague or unexplained decision making around the research process and subsequent lack of credibility. Accordingly, nurse researchers need to be reflexive, that is, clear about their role and position in terms of the phenomena being studied, the context, the theoretical framework and all decision-making processes used in a qualitative descriptive study. This adds credibility to both the study and qualitative descriptive research.

Methods in qualitative descriptive research

As with any research study, the application of descriptive methods will emerge in response to the aims and objectives, which will influence the sampling, data collection and analysis phases of the study.

Most qualitative research aligns itself with non-probability sampling and descriptive research is no different. Descriptive research generally uses purposive sampling and a range of purposive sampling techniques have been described ( Palinkas et al., 2015 ). Many researchers use a combination of approaches such as convenience, opportunistic or snowball sampling as part of the sampling framework, which is determined by the desired sample and the phenomena being studied.

Purposive sampling refers to selecting research participants that can speak to the research aims and who have knowledge and experience of the phenomenon under scrutiny ( Ritchie et al., 2014 ). When purposive sampling is used in a study it delimits and narrows the study population; however, researchers need to remember that other characteristics of the sample will also affect the population, such as the location of the researcher and their flexibility to recruit participants from beyond their base. In addition, the heterogeneity of the population will need to be considered and how this might influence sampling and subsequent data collection and analysis ( Palinkas et al ., 2015 ). Take, for example, conducting research on the experience of caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). For the most part AD is a condition that affects older people and experiences of participants caring for older people will ultimately dominate the sample. However, AD also affects younger people and how this will impact on sampling needs to be considered before recruitment as both groups will have very different experiences, although there will be overlap. Teddlie and Fu (2007) suggest that although some purposive sampling techniques generate representative cases, most result in describing contrasting cases, which they argue are at the heart of qualitative analysis. To achieve this, Sandelowski (2010) suggests that maximum variation sampling is particularly useful in qualitative descriptive research, which may acknowledge the range of experiences that exist especially in healthcare research. Palinkas et al . (2015) describe maximum variation sampling as identifying shared patterns that emerge from heterogeneity. In other words, researchers attempt to include a wide range of participants and experiences when collecting data. This may be more difficult to achieve in areas where little is known about the substantive area and may depend on the researcher’s knowledge and immersion within the subject area.

Sample size will also need to be considered and although small sample sizes are common in qualitative descriptive research, researchers need to be careful they have enough data collected to meet the study aims ( Ritchie et al., 2014 ). Pre-determining the sample size prior to data collection may stifle the analytic process, resulting in too much or too little data. Traditionally, the gold standard for sample size in qualitative research is data saturation, which differs depending on the research design and the size of the population ( Fusch and Ness, 2015 ). Data saturation is reached ‘when there is enough information to replicate the study, when the ability to obtain additional new information has been attained, and when further coding is no longer feasible’ ( Fusch and Ness, 2015 , p. 1408). However, some argue that although saturation is often reported, it is rarely demonstrated in qualitative descriptive research reports ( Caelli et al., 2003 ; Malterud et al., 2016 ). If data saturation is used to determine sample size, it is suggested that greater emphasis be placed on demonstrating how saturation was reached and at what level to provide more credibility to sample sizes ( Caelli et al., 2003 ). Sample size calculation should be an estimate until saturation has been achieved through the concurrent processes of data collection and analysis. Where saturation has not been achieved, or where sample size has been predetermined for resource reasons, this should be clearly acknowledged. However, there is also a movement away from the reliance on data saturation as a measure of sample size in qualitative research ( Malterud et al., 2016 ). O’Reilly and Parker (2012) question the appropriateness of the rigid application of saturation as a sample size measure arguing that outside of Grounded Theory, its use is inconsistent and at times questionable. Malterud et al. (2016) focus instead on the concept of ‘information power’ to determine sample size. Here, they suggest sample size is determined by the amount of information the sample holds relevant to the actual study rather than the number of participants ( Malterud et al., 2016 ). Some guidance on specific sample size depending on research design has been provided in the literature; however, these are sometimes conflicting and in some cases lack evidence to support their claims ( Guest et al., 2006 ). This is further complicated by the range of qualitative designs and data collection approaches available.

Data collection

Data collection methods in qualitative descriptive research are diverse and aim to discover the who, what and where of phenomena ( Sandelowski, 2000 ). Although semi-structured individual face-to-face interviews are the most commonly used data collection approaches ( Kim et al ., 2017 ), focus groups, telephone interviews and online approaches are also used.

Focus groups involve people with similar characteristics coming together in a relaxed and permissive environment to share their thoughts, experiences and insights ( Krueger and Casey, 2009 ). Participants share their own views and experiences, but also listen to and reflect on the experiences of other group members. It is this synergistic process of interacting with other group members that refines individuals’ viewpoints to a deeper and more considered level and produces data and insights that would not be accessible without the interaction found in a group (Finch et al., 2014). Telephone interviews and online approaches are gaining more traction as they offer greater flexibility and reduced costs for researchers and ease of access for participants. In addition, they may help to achieve maximum variation sampling or examine experiences from a national or international perspective. Face-to-face interviews are often perceived as more appropriate than telephone interviews; however, this assumption has been challenged as evidence to support the use of telephone interviews emerges ( Ward et al., 2015 ). Online data collection also offers the opportunity to collect synchronous and asynchronous data using instant messaging and other online media ( Hooley et al., 2011 ). Online interviews or focus groups conducted via Skype or other media may overcome some of the limitations of telephone interviews, although observation of non-verbal communication may be more difficult to achieve ( Janghorban et al., 2014 ). Open-ended free-text responses in surveys have also been identified as useful data sources in qualitative descriptive studies ( Kim et al . , 2017 ) and in particular the use of online open-ended questions, which can have a large geographical reach ( Seixas et al., 2018 ). Observation is also cited as an approach to data collection in qualitative descriptive research ( Sandelowski, 2000 ; Lambert and Lambert, 2012 ); however, in a systematic review examining the characteristics of qualitative research studies, observation was cited as an additional source of data and was not used as a primary source of data collection ( Kim et al. , 2017 ).

Data analysis and interpretation

According to Lambert and Lambert (2012) , data analysis in qualitative descriptive research is data driven and does not use an approach that has emerged from a pre-existing philosophical or epistemological perspective. Within qualitative descriptive research, it is important analysis is kept at a level at which those to whom the research pertains are easily able to understand and so can use the findings in healthcare practice ( Chafe, 2017 ). The approach to analysis is dictated by the aims of the research and as qualitative descriptive research is generally explorative, inductive approaches will commonly need to be applied although deductive approaches can also be used ( Kim et al . , 2017 ).

Content and thematic analyses are the most commonly used data analysis techniques in qualitative descriptive research. Vaismoradi et al . (2013) argue that content and thematic analysis, although poorly understood and unevenly applied, offer legitimate ways of a lower level of interpretation that is often required in qualitative descriptive research. Sandelowski (2000) indicated that qualitative content analysis is the approach of choice in descriptive research; however, confusion exists between content and thematic analysis, which sometimes means researchers use a combination of the two. Vaismoradi et al. (2013) argue there are differences between the two and that content analysis allows the researchers to analyse the data qualitatively as well as being able to quantify the data whereas thematic analysis provides a purely qualitative account of the data that is richer and more detailed. Decisions to use one over the other will depend on the aims of the study, which will dictate the depth of analysis required. Although there is a range of analysis guidelines available, they share some characteristics and an overview of these, derived from some key texts ( Sandleowski, 2010 ; Braun and Clark, 2006 ; Newell and Burnard, 2006), is presented in Table 1 . Central to these guidelines is an attempt by the researcher to immerse themselves in the data and the ability to demonstrate a consistent and systematic approach to the analysis.

Common characteristics of descriptive qualitative analysis.

Coding in qualitative descriptive research can be inductive and emerge from the data, or a priori where they are based on a pre-determined template as in template analysis. Inductive codes can be ‘in vivo’ where the researcher uses the words or concepts as stated by the participants ( Howitt, 2019 ), or can be named by the researcher and grouped together to form emerging themes or categories through an iterative systematic process until the final themes emerge. Template analysis involves designing a coding template, which is designed inductively from a subset of the data and then applied to all the data and refined as appropriate ( King, 2012 ). It offers a standardised approach that may be useful when several researchers are involved in the analysis process.

Within qualitative research studies generally, the analysis of data and subsequent presentation of research findings can range from studies with a relatively minimal amount of interpretation to those with high levels of interpretation ( Sandelowski and Barroso, 2003 ). The degree of interpretation required in qualitative descriptive research is contentious. Sandelowski (2010) argues that although descriptive research produces findings that are ‘data-near’, they are nevertheless interpretative. Sandelowski (2010) reports that a common misconception in qualitative descriptive designs is that researchers do not need to include any level of analysis and interpretation and can rely solely on indiscriminately selecting direct quotations from participants to answer the research question(s). Although it is important to ensure those familiar with the topic under investigation can recognise their experiences in the description of it ( Kim et al . , 2017 ), this is not to say that there should be no transformation of data. Researchers using a qualitative descriptive design need to, through data analysis, move from un-interpreted participant quotations to interpreted research findings, which can still remain ‘data-near’ ( Sandeklwoski, 2010 ). Willis et al. (2016) suggest that researchers using the qualitative descriptive method might report a comprehensive thematic summary as findings, which moves beyond individual participant reports by developing an interpretation of a common theme. The extent of description and/or interpretation in a qualitative descriptive study is ultimately determined by the focus of the study (Neergard et al ., 2009).

As with any research design, ensuring the rigor or trustworthiness of findings from a qualitative descriptive study is crucial. For a more detailed consideration of the quality criteria in qualitative studies, readers are referred to the seminal work of Lincoln and Guba (1985) in which the four key criteria of credibility, dependability, confirmability and transferability are discussed. At the very least, researchers need to be clear about the methodological decisions taken during the study so readers can judge the trustworthiness of the study and ultimately the findings ( Hallberg, 2013 ). Being aware of personal assumptions and the role they play in the research process is also an important quality criterion (Colorafi and Evans, 2016) and these assumptions can be made explicit through the use of researcher reflexivity in the study ( Bradshaw et al., 2017 ).

Challenges in using a qualitative descriptive design

One of the challenges of utilising a qualitative descriptive design is responding to the charge that many qualitative designs have historically encountered, which is that qualitative designs lack the scientific rigor associated with quantitative approaches ( Vaismoradi et al . , 2013 ). The descriptive design faces further critique in this regard as, unlike other qualitative approaches such as phenomenology or grounded theory, it is not theory driven or oriented ( Neergaard et al ., 2009 ). However, it is suggested that this perceived limitation of qualitative descriptive research only holds true if it is used for the wrong purposes and not primarily for describing the phenomenon ( Neergaard et al ., 2009 ). Kahlke (2014) argues that rather than being atheoretical, qualitative descriptive approaches require researchers to consider to what extent theory will inform the study and are sufficiently flexible to leave space for researchers to utilise theoretical frameworks that are relevant and inform individual research studies. Kim et al. (2017) reported that most descriptive studies reviewed did not identify a theoretical or philosophical framework, but those that did used it to inform the development of either the interview guide or the data analysis framework, thereby identifying the potential use of theory in descriptive designs.

Another challenge around the use of qualitative descriptive research is that it can erroneously be seen as a ‘quick fix’ for researchers who want to employ qualitative methods, but perhaps lack the expertise or familiarity with qualitative research ( Sandelowski, 2010 ). Kim et al. (2017) report how in their review fewer than half of qualitative descriptive papers explicitly identified a rationale for choosing this design, suggesting that in some cases the rationale behind its use was ill considered. Providing a justification for choosing a particular research design is an important part of the research process and, in the case of qualitative descriptive research, a clear justification can offset concerns that a descriptive design was an expedient rather than a measured choice. For studies exploring participants’ experiences, which could be addressed using other qualitative designs, it also helps to clearly make a distinction as to why a descriptive design was the best choice for the research study ( Kim et al ., 2017 ). Similarly, there is a perception that the data analysis techniques most commonly associated with descriptive research – thematic and content analysis are the ‘easiest’ approaches to qualitative analysis; however, as Vaismoradi et al . (2013) suggest, this does not mean they produce low-quality research findings.

As previously identified, a further challenge with the use of qualitative descriptive methods is that as a research design it has limited visibility in research texts and methodological papers ( Kim et al ., 2017 ). This means that novice qualitative researchers have little guidance on how to design and implement a descriptive study as there is a lack of a ‘methodological rulebook’ to guide researchers ( Kahlke, 2014 ). It is also suggested that this lack of strict boundaries and rules around qualitative descriptive research also offers researchers flexibility to design a study using a variety of data collection and analysis approaches that best answer the research question ( Kahlke, 2014 ; Kim et al . , 2017 ). However, should researchers choose to integrate methods ‘borrowed’ from other qualitative designs such as phenomenology or grounded theory, they should do so with the caveat that they do not claim they are using designs they are not actually using ( Neergaard et al . , 2009 ).

Examples of the use of qualitative descriptive research in healthcare

Findings from qualitative descriptive studies within healthcare have the potential to describe the experiences of patients, families and health providers, inform the development of health interventions and policy and promote health and quality of life ( Neergaard et al ., 2009 ; Willis et al ., 2016 ). The examples provided here demonstrate different ways qualitative descriptive methods can be used in a range of healthcare settings.

Simon et al. (2015) used a qualitative descriptive design to identify the perspectives of seriously ill, older patients and their families on the barriers and facilitators to advance care planning. The authors provided a rationale for using a descriptive design, which was to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. Data were gathered through nine open-ended questions on a researcher-administered questionnaire. Responses to all questions were recorded verbatim and transcribed. Using descriptive, interpretative and explanatory coding that transformed raw data recorded from 278 patients and 225 family members to more abstract ideas and concepts ( Simon et al. , 2015 ), a deeper understanding of the barriers and facilitators to advance care planning was developed. Three categories were developed that identified personal beliefs, access to doctors and interaction with doctors as the central barriers and facilitators to advance care planning. The use of a qualitative descriptive design facilitated the development of a schematic based on these three themes, which provides a framework for use by clinicians to guide improvement in advance care planning.

Focus group interviews are a common data collection method in qualitative descriptive studies and were the method of choice in a study by Pelentsov et al. (2015), which sought to identify the supportive care needs of parents whose child has a rare disease. The rationale provided for using a qualitative descriptive design was to obtain a ‘straight description of the phenomena’ and to provide analysis and interpretation of the findings that remained data-near and representative of the responses of participants. In this study, four semi-structured focus group interviews were conducted with 23 parents. The data from these focus groups were then subjected to a form of thematic analysis during which emerging theories and inferences were identified and organised into a series of thematic networks and ultimately into three global themes. These themes identified that a number of factors including social isolation and lack of knowledge on behalf of healthcare professionals significantly affected how supported parents felt. Identifying key areas of the supportive needs of parents using qualitative description provides direction to health professionals on how best to respond to and support parents of children with a rare disease.

The potential for findings from a qualitative descriptive study to impact on policy was identified in a study by Syme et al. (2016) , who noted a lack of guidance and policies around sexual expression management of residents in long-term care settings. In this study, 20 directors of nursing from long-term care settings were interviewed with a view to identifying challenges in addressing sexual expression in these settings and elicit their recommendations for addressing these challenges in practice and policy. Following thematic analysis, findings relating to what directors of nursing believed to be important components of policy to address sexual expression were identified. These included providing educational resources, having a person-centred care delivery model when responding to sexual expression and providing guidance when working with families. Findings from this qualitative descriptive study provide recommendations that can then feed in to a broader policy on sexual expression in long-term care settings.

The final example of the use of a qualitative descriptive study comes from a mixed-methods study comprising a randomised control trial and a qualitative process evaluation. He et al. (2015) sought to determine the effects of a play intervention for children on parental perioperative anxiety and to explore parents’ perceptions of the intervention. Parents who had children going for surgery were assigned to a control group or an intervention group. The intervention group took part in a 1-hour play therapy session with their child whereas the control group received usual care. Quantitative findings identified there was no difference in parents’ anxiety levels between the intervention and control group. However, qualitative findings identified that parents found the intervention helpful in preparing both themselves and their child for surgery and perceived a reduction in their anxiety about the procedure thereby capturing findings that were not captured by the quantitative measures. In addition, in the qualitative interviews, parents made suggestions about how the play group could be improved, which provides important data for the further development of the intervention.

These examples across a range of healthcare settings provide evidence of the way findings from qualitative descriptive research can be directly used to more fully understand the experiences and perspectives of patients, their families and healthcare providers in addition to guiding future healthcare practice and informing further research.

Qualitative research designs have made significant contributions to the development of nursing and healthcare practices and policy. The utilisation of qualitative descriptive research is common within nursing research and is gaining popularity with other healthcare professions. This paper has identified that the utilisation of this design can be particularly relevant to nursing and healthcare professionals undertaking a primary piece of research and provides an excellent method to address issues that are of real clinical significance to them and their practice setting. However, the conundrum facing researchers who wish to use this approach is its lack of visibility and transparency within methodological papers and texts, resulting in a deficit of available information to researchers when designing such studies. By adding to the existing knowledge base, this paper enhances the information available to researchers who wish to use the qualitative descriptive approach, thus influencing the standard in how this approach is employed in healthcare research. We highlight the need for researchers using this research approach to clearly outline the context, theoretical framework and concepts underpinning it and the decision-making process that informed the design of their qualitative descriptive study including chosen research methods, and how these contribute to the achievement of the study’s aims and objectives. Failure to describe these issues may have a negative impact on study credibility. As seen in our paper, qualitative descriptive studies have a role in healthcare research providing insight into service users and providers’ perceptions and experiences of a particular phenomenon, which can inform healthcare service provision.

Key points for policy, practice and/or research

  • Despite its widespread use, there is little methodological guidance to orientate novice nurse researchers when using the qualitative descriptive design. This paper provides this guidance and champions the qualitative descriptive design as appropriate to explore research questions that require accessible and understandable findings directly relevant to healthcare practice and policy.
  • This paper identifies how the use of a qualitative descriptive design gives direct voice to participants including patients and healthcare staff, allowing exploration of issues of real and immediate importance in the practice area.
  • This paper reports how within qualitative descriptive research, the analysis of data and presentation of findings in a way that is easily understood and recognised is important to contribute to the utilisation of research findings in nursing practice.
  • As this design is often overlooked in research texts despite its suitability to exploring many healthcare questions, this paper adds to the limited methodological guidance and has utility for researchers who wish to defend their rationale for the use of the qualitative descriptive design in nursing and healthcare research.

Louise Doyle (PhD, MSc, BNS, RNT, RPN) is an Associate Professor in Mental Health Nursing at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin. Her research interests are in the area of self-harm and suicide and she has a particular interest and expertise in mixed-methods and qualitative research designs.

Catherine McCabe (PhD, MSc, BNS, RNT, RGN) is an Associate Professor in General Nursing at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin. Her research interests and expertise are in the areas of digital health (chronic disease self-management and social/cultural wellbeing), cancer, dementia, arts and health and systematic reviews.

Brian Keogh (PhD, MSc, BNS, RNT, RPN) is an Assistant Professor in Mental Health Nursing at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin. His main area of research interest is mental health recovery and he specialises in qualitative research approaches with a particular emphasis on grounded theory.

Annemarie Brady (PhD, MSc, BNS, RNT, RPN) is Chair of Nursing and Chronic Illness and Head of School of Nursing and Midwifery at Trinity College Dublin. Her research work has focused on the development of healthcare systems and workforce solutions to respond to increased chronic illness demands within healthcare. She has conducted a range of mixed-method research studies in collaboration with health service providers to examine issues around patient-related outcomes measures, workload measurement, work conditions, practice development, patient safety and competency among healthcare workers.

Margaret McCann (PhD, MSc, BNS, RNT, RGN) is an Assistant Professor in General Nursing at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin. Research interests are focused on chronic illness management, the use of digital health and smart technology in supporting patient/client education, self-management and independence. Other research interests include conducting systematic reviews, infection prevention and control and exploring patient outcomes linked to chronic kidney disease.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

Ethical approval was not required for this paper as it is a methodological paper and does not report on participant data.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

Louise Doyle https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0153-8326

Margaret McCann https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7925-6396

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examples of descriptive research design

Descriptive Research: Methods And Examples

A research project always begins with selecting a topic. The next step is for researchers to identify the specific areas…

Descriptive Research Design

A research project always begins with selecting a topic. The next step is for researchers to identify the specific areas of interest. After that, they tackle the key component of any research problem: how to gather enough quality information. If we opt for a descriptive research design we have to ask the correct questions to access the right information. 

For instance, researchers may choose to focus on why people invest in cryptocurrency, knowing how dynamic the market is rather than asking why the market is so shaky. These are completely different questions that require different research approaches. Adopting the descriptive method can help capitalize on trends the information reveals. Descriptive research examples show the thorough research involved in such a study. 

Get to know more about descriptive research design .

Descriptive Research Meaning

Features of descriptive research design, types of descriptive research, descriptive research methods, applications of descriptive research, descriptive research examples.

A descriptive method of research is one that describes the characteristics of a phenomenon, situation or population. It uses quantitative and qualitative approaches to describe problems with little relevant information. Descriptive research accurately describes a research problem without asking why a particular event happened. By researching market patterns, the descriptive method answers how patterns change, what caused the change and when the change occurred, instead of dwelling on why the change happened.

Descriptive research refers to questions, study design and analysis of data conducted on a particular topic. It is a strictly observational research methodology with no influence on variables. Some distinctive features of descriptive research are:

  • It’s a research method that collects quantifiable information for statistical analysis of a sample. It’s a quantitative market research tool that can analyze the nature of a demographic
  • In a descriptive method of research , the nature of research study variables is determined with observation, without influence from the researcher
  • Descriptive research is cross-sectional and different sections of a group can be studied
  • The analyzed data is collected and serves as information for other search techniques. In this way, a descriptive research design becomes the basis of further research

To understand the descriptive research meaning , data collection methods, examples and application, we need a deeper understanding of its features.

Different ways of approaching the descriptive method help break it down further. Let’s look at the different types of descriptive research :

Descriptive Survey

Descriptive normative survey, descriptive status.

This type of research quantitatively describes real-life situations. For example, to understand the relation between wages and performance, research on employee salaries and their respective performances can be conducted.

Descriptive Analysis

This technique analyzes a subject further. Once the relation between wages and performance has been established, an organization can further analyze employee performance by researching the output of those who work from an office with those who work from home.

Descriptive Classification

Descriptive classification is mainly used in the field of biological science. It helps researchers classify species once they have studied the data collected from different search stations.

Descriptive Comparative

Comparing two variables can show if one is better than the other. Doing this through tests or surveys can reveal all the advantages and disadvantages associated with the two. For example, this technique can be used to find out if paper ballots are better than electronic voting devices.

Correlative Survey

The researcher has to effectively interpret the area of the problem and then decide the appropriate technique of descriptive research design . 

A researcher can choose one of the following methods to solve research problems and meet research goals:

Observational Method

With this method, a researcher observes the behaviors, mannerisms and characteristics of the participants. It is widely used in psychology and market research and does not require the participants to be involved directly. It’s an effective method and can be both qualitative and quantitative for the sheer volume and variety of data that is generated.

Survey Research

It’s a popular method of data collection in research. It follows the principle of obtaining information quickly and directly from the main source. The idea is to use rigorous qualitative and quantitative research methods and ask crucial questions essential to the business for the short and long term.

Case Study Method

Case studies tend to fall short in situations where researchers are dealing with highly diverse people or conditions. Surveys and observations are carried out effectively but the time of execution significantly differs between the two. 

There are multiple applications of descriptive research design but executives must learn that it’s crucial to clearly define the research goals first. Here’s how organizations use descriptive research to meet their objectives:

  • As a tool to analyze participants : It’s important to understand the behaviors, traits and patterns of the participants to draw a conclusion about them. Close-ended questions can reveal their opinions and attitudes. Descriptive research can help understand the participant and assist in making strategic business decisions
  • Designed to measure data trends : It’s a statistically capable research design that, over time, allows organizations to measure data trends. A survey can reveal unfavorable scenarios and give an organization the time to fix unprofitable moves
  • Scope of comparison: Surveys and research can allow an organization to compare two products across different groups. This can provide a detailed comparison of the products and an opportunity for the organization to capitalize on a large demographic
  • Conducting research at any time: An analysis can be conducted at any time and any number of variables can be evaluated. It helps to ascertain differences and similarities

Descriptive research is widely used due to its non-invasive nature. Quantitative observations allow in-depth analysis and a chance to validate any existing condition.

There are several different descriptive research examples that highlight the types, applications and uses of this research method. Let’s look at a few:

  • Before launching a new line of gym wear, an organization chose more than one descriptive method to gather vital information. Their objective was to find the kind of gym clothes people like wearing and the ones they would like to see in the market. The organization chose to conduct a survey by recording responses in gyms, sports shops and yoga centers. As a second method, they chose to observe members of different gyms and fitness institutions. They collected volumes of vital data such as color and design preferences and the amount of money they’re willing to spend on it .
  • To get a good idea of people’s tastes and expectations, an organization conducted a survey by offering a new flavor of the sauce and recorded people’s responses by gathering data from store owners. This let them understand how people reacted, whether they found the product reasonably priced, whether it served its purpose and their overall general preferences. Based on this, the brand tweaked its core marketing strategies and made the product widely acceptable .

Descriptive research can be used by an organization to understand the spending patterns of customers as well as by a psychologist who has to deal with mentally ill patients. In both these professions, the individuals will require thorough analyses of their subjects and large amounts of crucial data to develop a plan of action.

Every method of descriptive research can provide information that is diverse, thorough and varied. This supports future research and hypotheses. But although they can be quick, cheap and easy to conduct in the participants’ natural environment, descriptive research design can be limited by the kind of information it provides, especially with case studies. Trying to generalize a larger population based on the data gathered from a smaller sample size can be futile. Similarly, a researcher can unknowingly influence the outcome of a research project due to their personal opinions and biases. In any case, a manager has to be prepared to collect important information in substantial quantities and have a balanced approach to prevent influencing the result. 

Harappa’s Thinking Critically program harnesses the power of information to strengthen decision-making skills. It’s a growth-driven course for young professionals and managers who want to be focused on their strategies, outperform targets and step up to assume the role of leader in their organizations. It’s for any professional who wants to lay a foundation for a successful career and business owners who’re looking to take their organizations to new heights.

Explore Harappa Diaries to learn more about topics such as Main Objectives of Research , Examples of Experimental Research , Methods Of Ethnographic Research , and How To Use Blended Learning to upgrade your knowledge and skills.



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