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Descriptive Research 101: Definition, Methods and Examples

Parvathi Vijayamohan

6 min read

Imagine you are a detective called to a crime scene. Your job is to study the scene and report whatever you find: whether that’s the half-smoked cigarette on the table or the large “RACHE” written in blood on the wall.

That, in a nutshell, is descriptive research.

Researchers often need to do descriptive research on a problem before they attempt to solve it. So in this guide, we’ll take you through descriptive research, its types, the ways you can do it, and tips to excel at it.

What is Descriptive Research?

What it is: As its name says, descriptive research describes the characteristics of the problem, phenomenon, situation, or group under study.

So the goal of all descriptive studies is to explore the background, details, and existing patterns in the problem to fully understand it. In other words, preliminary research.

However, descriptive research can be both preliminary and conclusive. You can use the data from a descriptive study to make reports and get insights for further planning.

What it isn’t: Descriptive research finds the what/when/where of a problem, not the why/how.

Because of this, we can’t use the descriptive method to explore cause-and-effect relationships where one variable (like a person’s job role) affects another variable (like their monthly income).

Key Characteristics of Descriptive Research

  1. Answers the “what,” “when,” and “where” of a research problem. For this reason, it is popularly used in market researchawareness surveys, and opinion polls.
  2. Sets the stage for a research problem. As an early part of the research process, descriptive studies help you dive deeper into the topic.
  3. Opens the door for further research. You can use descriptive data as the basis for more profound research, analysis and studies.
  4. Qualitative and quantitative. It is possible to get a balanced mix of numerical responses and open-ended answers from the descriptive method.
  5. No control or interference with the variables. The researcher simply observes and reports on them. However, specific research software has filters that allow her to zoom in on one variable.
  6. Done in natural settings. You can get the best results from descriptive research by talking to people, surveying them, or observing them in a suitable environment. For example, suppose you are beta testing an app feature. In that case, descriptive research invites users to try the feature, tracking their behavior and then asking their opinions.
  7. Can be applied to many research methods and areas. Examples include healthcare, SaaS, psychology, political studies, education, and pop culture.

Descriptive Research Methods: The 3 You Need to Know!

Descriptive Research: Surveys
Employee engagement survey by SurveySparrow

Surveys

In short, survey research is a brief interview or conversation with a premade set of questions about a topic.

So you create a questionnaire, share it, and analyze the data you collect for further action. Learn about the differences between surveys and questionnaires here.

You can access free survey templates, over 20+ question types, and pass data to 1,500+ applications with survey software like SurveySparrow. It enables you to create surveys, share them and capture data with very little effort.

Sign up today to launch stunning surveys for free.

Pros:

  • Surveys can be hyper-local, regional, or global, depending on your objectives.
  • Share surveys in-person, offline, via SMS, email, QR codes – so many options!
  • Easy to automate if you want to conduct many surveys over a period.

Descriptive Research: Observation

Observation

The observational method is a type of research in which you, the researcher, observe ongoing behavior.

Now, there are several (non-creepy) ways you can observe someone. In fact, observational research has three main approaches:

  • Covert observation: In true spy fashion, the researcher mixes in with the group undetected or observes from a distance.
  • Overt observation: The researcher identifies himself as a researcher – “The name’s Bond. J. Bond.” – and explains the purpose of the study.
  • Participatory observation: The researcher participates in what he is observing to understand his topic better.

Pros:

  • Observation is one of the most accurate ways to get data on a subject’s behavior in a natural setting.
  • You don’t need to rely on people’s willingness to share information.
  • Observation is a universal method that can be applied to any area of research.

Descriptive Research: Case Studies

Case Studies

In the case study method, you do a detailed study of a specific group, person or event over a period.

Which brings us to our next question: what’s the difference between case studies and longitudinal studies?

A case study will go very in-depth into their subject with one-on-one interviews, observations, and archival research. They are also qualitative, though sometimes they will use numbers and stats.

An example of longitudinal research would be a study of the health of night shift employees vs. general shift employees over a decade. An example of a case study would involve in-depth interviews with Casey, an assistant director of nursing who’s handled the night shift at the hospital for ten years now.

 Pros:

  • Due to the focus on a few people, case studies can give you a tremendous amount of information.
  • Because of the time and effort involved, a case study engages both researchers and participants.
  • Case studies are helpful for ethically investigating unusual, complex, or challenging subjects. An example would be a study of the habits of long-term cocaine users.

7 Types of Descriptive Research

TypeApproach
Cross-sectional researchStudies a particular group of people or their sections at a given point in time. Example: current social attitudes of Gen Z in the US
Longitudinal researchStudies a group of people over a long period of time. Example: tracking changes in social attitudes among Gen-Zers from 2022 – 2032.
Normative researchCompares the results of a study against the existing norms. Example: comparing a verdict in a legal case against similar cases.
Correlational/relational researchInvestigates the type of relationship and patterns between 2 variables. Example: music genres and mental states.
Comparative researchCompares 2 or more similar people, groups or conditions based on specific traits. Example: job roles of employees in similar positions from two different companies.
Classification researchArranges the data into classes according to certain criteria for better analysis.  Example: the classification of newly discovered insects into species.
Archival researchSearching for and extracting information from past records. Example: Tracking US Census data over the decades.

Descriptive Research: Examples

Descriptive Research: Examples To Build Your Next Study

#1. Case Study: Airbnb’s Growth Strategy

In an excellent case study, Tam Al Saad, Principal Consultant, Strategy + Growth at Webprofits, deep dives into how Airbnb attracted and retained 150 mil users.

“What Airbnb offers isn’t a cheap place to sleep when you’re on holiday, it’s the opportunity to experience your destination as a local would. It’s the chance to meet the locals, experience the markets, and find the non-touristy places. Sure, you can visit the Louvre, see Buckingham Palace, and climb The Empire State Building but you can do it as if it were your home town, while staying in a place that has character and feels like a home.”

  • Tam al Saad, Principal Consultant, Strategy + Growth at Webprofits

#2. Observation – Better Tech Experiences for the Elderly

We often think that our elders are so hopeless with technology. But we’re not getting any younger either, and tech is changing at a hair-trigger! This article by Annemieke Hendricks shares a wonderful example where researchers compare the levels of technological familiarity between age groups, and how that influences usage.

“It is generally assumed that older adults have difficulty using modern electronic devices, such as mobile telephones or computers. Because this age group is growing in most countries, changing products and processes to adapt to their needs is increasingly more important. “

  • Annemieke Hendricks, Marketing Communication Specialist, Noldus

#3. Surveys – Decoding Sleep with SurveySparrow

SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) – an independent, non-profit research center – wanted to investigate the impact of stress on an adolescent’s sleep. To get data, two things were essential: tracking sleep patterns through wearable devices, and sending surveys at a pre-set time –  the pre-sleep period.

“With SurveySparrow’s recurring surveys feature, SRI was able to share engaging surveys with their participants exactly at the time they wanted and at the frequency they preferred.”

Read more about this project: How SRI International decoded sleep patterns with SurveySparrow

Tips to Excel at Descriptive Research

#1: Answer the six Ws –

  • Who should we consider?
  • What information do we need?
  • When should we collect the information?
  • Where should we collect the information?
  • Why are we obtaining the information?
  • Way to collect the information

#2: Introduce and explain your methodological approach

#3: Describe your methods of data collection and/or selection.

#4: Describe your methods of analysis.

#5: Explain the reasoning behind your choices.

#6: Collect data.

#7: Analyze the data. Use software to speed up the process and cut down on overthinking and human error.

#8: Report your conclusions and how you drew the results.

Wrapping Up

That’s all folks!

Parvathi Vijayamohan

Growth Marketer at SurveySparrow

Fledgling growth marketer. Curious about all things SaaS. Aunty to a naughty beagle.

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