Learn about the three main types of survey research and how SurveyMonkey can help you on your next research project.

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.

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. 

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:

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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

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 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 measurable, but they will give you richer quality information that can lead to the discovery of new initiatives or problems that should be addressed.

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: understanding more details about 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 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 behavior 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 in your respondent’s opinions, attitudes, and behaviors over time.

Pointing to a specific market on a globe

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

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

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?

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

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.

There are three main formats that research surveys can take: online, phone, and in-person. Let’s look closer at each of these formats to determine which is right for your research.

Online surveys are the most common form of survey used today. This low-cost survey format is the easiest way to reach a group of people—especially larger audiences. A variety of organizations, including educational institutions, businesses, healthcare organizations, marketing agencies, and more use online surveys.

Reasons to use online surveys:

  • Accurate results: Online surveys have a very low margin of error because they are extremely easy to complete. People can complete them while sitting on their couch. 
  • There is no human error during analysis: Your survey platform will perform complex calculations for you.
  • Respondents are comfortable: Online surveys are generally anonymous. This gives the respondents the opportunity to say exactly what they want because there is no penalty for negative responses. More people will participate if they know your research is anonymous.
  • Reach a large audience: Online surveys allow you to reach out to a global audience. For example, with SurveyMonkey Audience, you can reach your target market with up to  5,000 complete responses.
  • Templates are available: SurveyMonkey offers many free, customizable survey templates to help you get your survey ready quickly and easily.
  • Flexibility: Online survey technology allows researchers to use skip logic based on a participant’s answer to a question. With this feature, the survey is tailored to each person as they proceed through the questions.
  • Customizable: Online surveys have multiple options for adding your logo, images, fonts, etc. to imprint your brand in the minds of your participants as they take the survey.

Make the most of your online surveys with tips from our survey experts.

Once a very popular method of gathering information, the use of phone surveys is steadily declining. 

Phone surveys can be useful when you want to reach a large number of respondents but don’t have the time or money to conduct face-to-face interviews or focus groups. However, phone surveys incur costs related to the time and personnel required to administer the surveys. 

Phone surveys carry a risk of human error, specifically skewing data through transcription errors. There is also a high risk of respondents not being completely honest—giving brief answers to end the call sooner or changing their responses because they are speaking to someone directly.

Face-to-face interviews yield a plethora of information, but they tend to be prohibitively expensive. Survey interviewers must be fully trained to obtain high-quality data that takes advantage of this format. For example, they must recognize and note body language cues, ask relevant follow-up questions, and probe for more information when necessary.
There is also the risk of multiple types of survey bias with in-person interviews.

There are endless reasons to conduct research surveys. Perhaps you are gathering information for a conference or event, performing research into the side effects of a medication or treatment, or conducting market research for your business. Regardless of your end goals, there are four main reasons for conducting research surveys.

When you administer a survey that yields quantitative data, you have hard numbers to back up your decisions. For example, if your customer service survey reveals a significant number of customers are dissatisfied with the service they receive from your company, the hard numbers indicate that there is a problem with your service providers.

Hard numbers are also useful when bringing research to stakeholders for decision-making. If you can prove that customers prefer one product feature over another with quantifiable data, it is a much more convincing argument.

Trends are incredibly powerful when identified in your research. While one survey may provide significant data about what your customers want, repeated surveys that prove a trend in customer buying behaviors are more influential on your decisions. 
Consider the Net Promoter Score® (NPS). One score gives you an idea of where your company stands as far as customer loyalty. But if you repeat the NPS quarterly and notice that the scores are trending down, it bears investigation to find out what’s causing the change. You can then take action to fix the problem.

Surveys, especially those conducted online, can reach a large number of participants. Surveys created and administered with SurveyMonkey are mobile responsive, so respondents can easily answer your questions right on their smartphones. 

In some cases, larger audiences are necessary for research validity and generalizations for a particular population. SurveyMonkey Audience allows you to indicate the number of responses you need to validate your research.

Online surveys allow your participants to answer anonymously. Respondents will be more likely to answer honestly, respond to more sensitive questions, and provide detailed, truthful answers to your questions. 

Regardless of the reason you’re performing a research survey, we have a few survey design tips to help you design your survey for maximum effectiveness.

The first step in your research should be to set a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goal. Defining these parameters ensures that your goal is clearly defined, attainable in a certain amount of time, has a quantifiable objective, and has relevance to your company.

Once your goal is fully realized, use it to direct your question creation. All questions should relate to meeting your SMART goal. If they don’t, remove them from the survey.

Just as you would in a face-to-face conversation, leave personal questions until later in your survey. Your initial questions should be easy to answer and straightforward. Then, move into deeper areas that require more thought. Finally, ask demographic questions, which tend to be more personal, and any other sensitive questions.

Steer away from industry jargon or complicated vocabulary. The language in your survey should be clear, concise, and impartial. A survey participant who has trouble understanding your questions or answer choices will likely abandon your survey.

Respondents can encounter survey fatigue if a survey asks too many questions. This leads to substandard or inaccurate answers because the respondent simply wants to finish.

Offer participants incentives such as discounts, gift cards, point programs, or other inducements to complete your survey. These are great for increasing response rates and serve as a “thank you” for taking the survey.

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 or choose the plan that best suits your research needs!

Net Promoter®, NPS®, NPS Prism®, and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc., and Fred Reichheld. Net Promoter Score℠ and Net Promoter System℠ are service marks of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc., and Fred Reichheld.

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