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Types of survey research

Learn about the three main types of survey research and why survey research is important.

Most research can be divided into three different categories: exploratory, descriptive and causal. Each serves a different end purpose and can only be used in certain ways.

In the online survey world, mastery of all three can lead to sounder insights and greater quality information. Let’s do a quick overview of all three types of research, and how they fit in a research plan.

What is survey research?

Surveys are primary research tools that provide data as part of your overall research strategies. Survey research is critical to getting the answers you need to make informed decisions about everything from product development to marketing campaigns. 

Understanding more about survey research will help you create effective surveys that yield valuable primary research data. 

Advantages of survey research

Depending on the type of information you’re looking for and the survey research method you employ, you’ll find that there are several benefits, including:

Easy to do

Surveys are generally easy to conduct, especially online. If you use SurveyMonkey, you can access hundreds of customizable templates that make it easy to personalize your survey research. Our data dashboard transforms your data into charts and graphs that make data easy to understand and use.


Conducting your survey research online is likely the most cost-effective way to gather data. In-person surveys and interviews require trained staff to gather, calculate, and analyze data. 

Gather data from a large sample

With surveys, you can collect data from a large population in a short time. Don’t have a list of participants from your target market? Use SurveyMonkey Audience to reach the respondents you need.

Collect quantitative and qualitative data

Surveys can be easily adapted to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. Use a variety of question types, such as multiple choice, Likert scale, dropdowns, ranking, open-ended, and more, to obtain all the information you need.

Limitations of using survey research

Like any type of research, there are some disadvantages to using surveys, including:


Survey participants may feel that they don’t have to provide honest answers because of the anonymity of taking surveys online.


Respondents may choose not to respond to some questions, which can lead to bias in your results.

Interpretation differences

If questions and answers are not specific enough, respondents may have difficulty interpreting and answering. For example, a yes or no question may be difficult for someone who wants to answer “only one time.”

Characteristics of survey research

Regardless of how you conduct survey research, it has the following characteristics:

  • Usage: surveys are used to gather information about human behavior
  • Systematic: survey research follows systematic procedures
  • Replicable: if you apply the same methods more than once, you will achieve similar results
  • Types: surveys use online or offline forms
  • Data: survey research collects both quantitative and qualitative data
  • Impartial: sampling is random to avoid bias

Types of survey research

There are several types of research methods. Exploratory, descriptive, and causal are the three main types used in survey research. It helps to familiarize yourself with these types before designing your survey research.

Exploratory research

Exploratory research is an important part of any marketing or business strategy. Its focus is on the discovery of ideas and insights as opposed to collecting statistically accurate data. That is why exploratory research is best suited as the beginning of your total research plan. It is most commonly used for further defining company issues, areas for potential growth, alternative courses of action, and prioritizing areas that require statistical research.

When it comes to online surveys, the most common example of exploratory research takes place in the form of open-ended questions. Think of the exploratory questions in your survey as expanding your understanding of the people you are surveying. Text responses may not be statistically measureable, but they will give you richer quality information that can lead to the discovery of new initiatives or problems that should be addressed.

Key characteristics of exploratory research

The following are key traits of exploratory research:

  • Probing questions: exploratory questions are designed to understand more about a topic qualitatively
  • Uncover issues: the qualitative answers can uncover unknown issues or new solutions
  • Not measurable: the data is not quantifiable
  • Dig deeper: gain understanding into specifics of existing problems
  • Find related issues: as you learn more about your topic, you may discover related issues you were unaware of
  • Open-ended questions: exploratory research generally consists of open-ended questions
  • Answers the why: unlike quantitative research methods, exploratory research seeks to answer why something happened or the motivation behind a behavior
  • Time consuming: as a quantitative, primary research method, extra time is required for data collection and analysis
  • Flexible: not as structured as a quantitative form of research

Descriptive research

Descriptive research takes up the bulk of online surveying and is considered conclusive in nature due to its quantitative nature. Unlike exploratory research, descriptive research is preplanned and structured in design so the information collected can be statistically inferred on a population.

The main idea behind using this type of research is to better define an opinion, attitude, or behaviour held by a group of people on a given subject. Consider your everyday multiple choice question. Since there are predefined categories a respondent must choose from, it is considered descriptive research. These questions will not give the unique insights on the issues like exploratory research would. Instead, grouping the responses into predetermined choices will provide statistically inferable data. This allows you to measure the significance of your results on the overall population you are studying, as well as the changes of your respondent’s opinions, attitudes, and behaviours over time.

Send your survey to a large or small group of people with our online Audience panel.

Key characteristics of descriptive research

The following are the key traits of descriptive research:

  • Majority of surveys: descriptive research makes up the majority of online survey methods
  • Focus: unlike exploratory research, which focuses on why something happens, descriptive research seeks to find out what, where, when, and how
  • Quantitative: this research is quantitative in nature
  • Conclusive: due to quantitative questions, it is deemed conclusive research
  • Statistical inference: data provides statistical inference for a target population
  • Structured: questions are structured and closed-ended
  • Defines: descriptive research strives to define attitudes, opinions, and behaviors
  • Significance: measures the significance of results and determines trends

Causal research

Like descriptive research, causal research is quantitative in nature as well as preplanned and structured in design. For this reason, it is also considered conclusive research. Causal research differs in its attempt to explain the cause and effect relationship between variables. This is opposed to the observational style of descriptive research, because it attempts to decipher whether a relationship is causal through experimentation. In the end, causal research will have two objectives:

  • To understand which variables are the cause and which variables are the effect.
  • To determine the nature of the relationship between the causal variables and the effect to be predicted.

For example, a cereal brand owner wants to learn if they will receive more sales with their new cereal box design. Instead of conducting descriptive research by asking people whether they would be more likely to buy their cereal in its new box, they would set up an experiment in two separate stores. One will sell the cereal in only its original box and the other with the new box. Taking care to avoid any outside sources of bias, they would then measure the difference between sales based on the cereal packaging. Did the new packaging have any effect on the cereal sales? What was that effect?

Key characteristics of causal research

The following are the key characteristics of causal research:

  • Conclusive: research is structured in design, preplanning, and quantitative nature
  • Scientific: the two objectives make causal research more scientific than exploratory or descriptive research
  • Focus: observing variations in variables suspected in causing changes in other variables
  • Measure: changes in both causal variables and the ones they affect
  • Structured: requires objectives, preplanning, and identification of causal and affected variables to reduce bias
  • Accounting: all possible causal factors must be identified and accounted for to maintain accuracy
  • Control: all confounding variables must be kept controlled or consistent
  • Order: to conclude a cause and effect relationship, the cause must precede effect

Applications of survey research

Here are some applications of survey research:

Exploratory research applications include case studies, field observations, focus groups, and interviews.

Descriptive research applications include descriptive surveys, descriptive-normative surveys, descriptive analysis surveys, and correlative surveys.

Causal research applications include product testing, advertising improvements, customer retention efforts, and community needs.

Are your research senses tingling?

Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing internal or external research, or whether your project's end goal is to improve a business’s image, increase a product’s sales or kick start an initiative’s on the right foot. Finding the proper balance between exploratory, descriptive, and causal research will be a major factor in your goals’ success.

Get started today. And if you need help acquiring survey respondents, visit SurveyMonkey Audience now.

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