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Types of research design

When it comes to the importance of design, former IBM President Thomas Watson Jr. cut to the chase, "Good design is good business," he said.

Indeed, how things are designed matters. That goes for the personal computer on your desk, the watch on your wrist—or if your focus is market research, the design of your study or survey.

Effective research design can add real value by creating the framework for successfully executing market research in ways that produce the most relevant results for what you aim to achieve.

Research design is the method you choose to set up a study to allow you to gain a greater understanding of an issue. You start with a theory, problem, or idea, and then develop a hypothesis. Your research design will include a systematic way to collect, measure, and analyze data with the aim of reaching a logical conclusion to your hypothesis. Ideally, the results you end up with should be objective, measurable, and actionable.


Get a better understanding of survey design, sampling, and analysis from survey experts.

Prep for success

Preparation is key when it comes to effective research design. Putting careful thought upfront into design improves your chances of the study running smoothly and delivering the most relevant, easy-to-assess, and statistically sound results. Importantly, it also limits the risk of research flaws, bias, or false assumptions.

The best place to start is by clearly outlining the purpose of the study, research design methods, and who will make up the study participants.

A good research design includes:

  • A clear hypothesis or research study purpose
  • Type of research methodology to be used
  • Specific research methods to collect and analyze data
  • Timeline for data collection and measurements
  • Potential research objections

The result will be well-designed research to clearly answer the hypothesis. The research study’s findings will be objective and reliable, able to be validated, and can be generalized to situations beyond the study group. 

New to market research? Learn more about the different types of market research surveys.

Fortunately, there is a wide range of research design options to choose from to land on the just-right choice for your study. Again, this is where careful assessment at the beginning of the process can pay big dividends.

Developing a clear approach to your research helps guide you in this process. Once you have chosen a topic, problem, or hypothesis for your research, ask a series of questions to narrow down which design options are likely the best fit. Questions such as:

  • Who do you want to study?
  • Are there specific consumer behavior patterns that show gaps in your market?
  • Do you have a new concept, logo, or product to test?
  • Are there any anticipated challenges to capturing or assessing the data you will collect?

Detailed answers to these questions help narrow down the research design that is best for your study.

Another key factor to consider is your timeline. If you only have a few weeks, then it makes sense to select a design in which you can gather and analyze data quickly. Surveys are one great way to quickly gather data from a large population.

If you are collecting detailed information and insights or are focused on a more narrow target audience, you will need more time to identify respondents, collect data, and analyze the results. Observation, interviews, focus groups, or experiments will provide deeper insights, but take longer to administer.

Once you’ve nailed down your research design purpose and timeline, you’re ready to choose the type of research design that will help you achieve your goals. You can assess your choices from the eight research options described below.


Find the exact people you want to reach and buy survey respondents based on your unique needs.

If you flip on a light switch, a light will turn on.

That’s a simple example of cause and effect between two things, and that’s what experimental research design aims to find out.

Experimental design studies the relationship between a variable that can be changed, the “independent variable,” and a variable that remains constant, the “dependent variable.” In experimental research design, independent variables are frequently changed to understand potential different effects on the dependent variable.

A common market research example is using experimental research to understand how a product’s price (independent variable) influences a customer (dependent variable) when purchasing a product. 

Words can also influence people’s behavior. For example, take these questions:

“Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?”

“Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Every penny will help.”

Notice how that last sentence could affect someone’s decision to donate? The independent variable (The wording of the request) was changed to understand the effect on the dependent variable (people). In one study it was noted that by adding the words such as “every penny will help” twice as many donations were collected. 

The pros of experimental research design include flexibility in adjusting variables, creating two groups to study (an experimental group and control group), and gathering measurements over a long time period.

The potential cons of experimental research design are that it can be time-consuming and expensive. Further, the research results may not be applicable to the general population if the study assumes everyone falls into one or two categories.

Descriptive research design makes sense when there’s limited information available about the problem you’re exploring. That means you need to gather, analyze, and present data to clarify the issue.

A classic example is renowned researcher Jane Goodall who performed a descriptive research study by observing and living with gorillas in Africa. Through her careful observations, Goodall became one of the first scientists to gather extensive, previously unknown information and insights on animal behavior.