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GuidesResearch methodsData collection in research: Your complete guide

Data collection in research: Your complete guide

Last updated

31 January 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

In the late 16th century, Francis Bacon coined the phrase "knowledge is power," which implies that knowledge is a powerful force, like physical strength. In the 21st century, knowledge in the form of data is unquestionably powerful.

But data isn't something you just have - you need to collect it. This means utilizing a data collection process and turning the collected data into knowledge that you can leverage into a successful strategy for your business or organization.

Believe it or not, there's more to data collection than just conducting a Google search. In this complete guide, we shine a spotlight on data collection, outlining what it is, types of data collection methods, common challenges in data collection, data collection techniques, and the steps involved in data collection.

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What is data collection?

Data collection is the process of gathering information from various sources via different research methods and consolidating it into a single database or repository so researchers can use it for further analysis. Data collection aims to provide information that individuals, businesses, and organizations can use to solve problems, track progress, and make decisions.

There are two specific data collection techniques: primary and secondary data collection. Primary data collection is the process of gathering data directly from sources. It's often considered the most reliable data collection method, as researchers can collect information directly from respondents.

Secondary data collection is data that has already been collected by someone else and is readily available. This data is usually less expensive and quicker to obtain than primary data.

What are the different methods of data collection?

There are several data collection methods, which can be either manual or automated. Manual data collection involves collecting data manually, typically with pen and paper, while computerized data collection involves using software to collect data from online sources, such as social media, website data, transaction data, etc. 

Here are the five most popular methods of data collection:


Surveys are a very popular method of data collection that organizations can use to gather information from many people. Researchers can conduct multi-mode surveys that reach respondents in different ways, including in person, by mail, over the phone, or online.

As a method of data collection, surveys have several advantages. For instance, they are relatively quick and easy to administer, you can be flexible in what you ask, and they can be tailored to collect data on various topics or from certain demographics.

However, surveys also have several disadvantages. For instance, they can be expensive to administer, and the results may not represent the population as a whole. Additionally, survey data can be challenging to interpret. It may also be subject to bias if the questions are not well-designed or if the sample of people surveyed is not representative of the population of interest.


Interviews are a common method of collecting data in social science research. You can conduct interviews in person, over the phone, or even via email or online chat.

Interviews are a great way to collect qualitative and quantitative data. Qualitative interviews are likely your best option if you need to collect detailed information about your subjects' experiences or opinions. If you need to collect more generalized data about your subjects' demographics or attitudes, then quantitative interviews may be a better option.

Interviews are relatively quick and very flexible, allowing you to ask follow-up questions and explore topics in more depth. The downside is that interviews can be time-consuming and expensive due to the amount of information to be analyzed. They are also prone to bias, as both the interviewer and the respondent may have certain expectations or preconceptions that may influence the data.

Direct observation

Observation is a direct way of collecting data. It can be structured (with a specific protocol to follow) or unstructured (simply observing without a particular plan).

Organizations and businesses use observation as a data collection method to gather information about their target market, customers, or competition. Businesses can learn about consumer behavior, preferences, and trends by observing people using their products or service.

There are two types of observation: participatory and non-participatory. In participatory observation, the researcher is actively involved in the observed activities. This type of observation is used in ethnographic research, where the researcher wants to understand a group's culture and social norms. Non-participatory observation is when researchers observe from a distance and do not interact with the people or environment they are studying.

There are several advantages to using observation as a data collection method. It can provide insights that may not be apparent through other methods, such as surveys or interviews. Researchers can also observe behavior in a natural setting, which can provide a more accurate picture of what people do and how and why they behave in a certain context.

There are some disadvantages to using observation as a method of data collection. It can be time-consuming, intrusive, and expensive to observe people for extended periods. Observations can also be tainted if the researcher is not careful to avoid personal biases or preconceptions.

Automated data collection

Business applications and websites are increasingly collecting data electronically to improve the user experience or for marketing purposes.

There are a few different ways that organizations can collect data automatically. One way is through cookies, which are small pieces of data stored on a user's computer. They track a user's browsing history and activity on a site, measuring levels of engagement with a business’s products or services, for example.

Another way organizations can collect data automatically is through web beacons. Web beacons are small images embedded on a web page to track a user's activity.

Finally, organizations can also collect data through mobile apps, which can track user location, device information, and app usage. This data can be used to improve the user experience and for marketing purposes.

Automated data collection is a valuable tool for businesses, helping improve the user experience or target marketing efforts. Businesses should aim to be transparent about how they collect and use this data.

Sourcing data through information service providers

Organizations need to be able to collect data from a variety of sources, including social media, weblogs, and sensors. The process to do this and then use the data for action needs to be efficient, targeted, and meaningful.

In the era of big data, organizations are increasingly turning to information service providers (ISPs) and other external data sources to help them collect data to make crucial decisions. 

Information service providers help organizations collect data by offering personalized services that suit the specific needs of the organizations. These services can include data collection, analysis, management, and reporting. By partnering with an ISP, organizations can gain access to the newest technology and tools to help them to gather and manage data more effectively.

There are also several tools and techniques that organizations can use to collect data from external sources, such as web scraping, which collects data from websites, and data mining, which involves using algorithms to extract data from large data sets. 

Organizations can also use APIs (application programming interface) to collect data from external sources. APIs allow organizations to access data stored in another system and share and integrate it into their own systems.

Finally, organizations can also use manual methods to collect data from external sources. This can involve contacting companies or individuals directly to request data, by using the right tools and methods to get the insights they need.

What are common challenges in data collection?

There are many challenges that researchers face when collecting data. Here are five common examples:

Big data environments

Data collection can be a challenge in big data environments for several reasons. It can be located in different places, such as archives, libraries, or online. The sheer volume of data can also make it difficult to identify the most relevant data sets.

Second, the complexity of data sets can make it challenging to extract the desired information. Third, the distributed nature of big data environments can make it difficult to collect data promptly and efficiently.

Therefore it is important to have a well-designed data collection strategy to consider the specific needs of the organization and what data sets are the most relevant. Alongside this, consideration should be made regarding the tools and resources available to support data collection and protect it from unintended use.

Data bias

Data bias is a common challenge in data collection. It occurs when data is collected from a sample that is not representative of the population of interest. 

There are different types of data bias, but some common ones include selection bias, self-selection bias, and response bias. Selection bias can occur when the collected data does not represent the population being studied. For example, if a study only includes data from people who volunteer to participate, that data may not represent the general population.

Self-selection bias can also occur when people self-select into a study, such as by taking part only if they think they will benefit from it. Response bias happens when people respond in a way that is not honest or accurate, such as by only answering questions that make them look good. 

These types of data bias present a challenge because they can lead to inaccurate results and conclusions about behaviors, perceptions, and trends. Data bias can be avoided by identifying potential sources or themes of bias and setting guidelines for eliminating them.

Lack of quality assurance processes

One of the biggest challenges in data collection is the lack of quality assurance processes. This can lead to several problems, including incorrect data, missing data, and inconsistencies between data sets.

Quality assurance is important because there are many data sources, and each source may have different levels of quality or corruption. There are also different ways of collecting data, and data quality may vary depending on the method used. 

Without quality assurance processes in place, it's difficult to ensure that data is accurate and complete. This can impact the validity of research findings, leading to decision-making based on faulty data.

There are several ways to improve quality assurance in data collection. These include developing clear and consistent goals and guidelines for data collection, implementing quality control measures, using standardized procedures, and employing data validation techniques. By taking these steps, you can ensure that your data is of adequate quality to inform decision-making.

Limited access to data

Another challenge in data collection is limited access to data. This can be due to several reasons, including privacy concerns, the sensitive nature of the data, security concerns, or simply the fact that data is not readily available.

Most countries have regulations governing how data can be collected, used, and stored. In some cases, data collected in one country may not be used in another. This means gaining a global perspective can be a challenge. 

For example, if a company is required to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it may not be able to collect data from individuals in the EU without their explicit consent. This can make it difficult to collect data from a target audience.

Legal and compliance regulations can be complex, and it's important to ensure that all data collected is done so in a way that complies with the relevant regulations.

What are the key steps in the data collection process?

There are five steps involved in the data collection process. They are:

1. Decide what data you want to gather

Have a clear understanding of the questions you are asking, and then consider where the answers might lie and how you might obtain them. This saves time and resources by avoiding the collection of irrelevant data, and helps maintain the quality of your datasets. 

2. Establish a deadline for data collection

Establishing a deadline for data collection helps you avoid collecting too much data, which can be costly and time-consuming to analyze. It also allows you to plan for data analysis and prompt interpretation. Finally, it helps you meet your research goals and objectives and allows you to move forward.

3. Select a data collection approach

The data collection approach you choose will depend on different factors, including the type of data you need, available resources, and the project timeline. For instance, if you need qualitative data, you might choose a focus group or interview methodology. If you need quantitative data, then a survey or observational study may be the most appropriate form of collection.

4. Gather information

When collecting data for your business, identify your business goals first. Once you know what you want to achieve, you can start collecting data to reach those goals. The most important thing is to ensure that the data you collect is reliable and valid. Otherwise, any decisions you make using the data could result in a negative outcome for your business.

5. Examine the information and apply your findings

As a researcher, it's important to examine the data you're collecting and analyzing before you apply your findings. This is because data can be misleading, leading to inaccurate conclusions. Ask yourself whether it is what you are expecting? Is it similar to other datasets you have looked at? 

There are many scientific ways to examine data, but some common methods include:

  • looking at the distribution of data points

  • examining the relationships between variables

  • looking for outliers

By taking the time to examine your data and noticing any patterns, strange or otherwise, you can avoid making mistakes that could invalidate your research.

How qualitative analysis software streamlines the data collection process

Knowledge derived from data does indeed carry power. However, if you don't convert the knowledge into action, it will remain a resource of unexploited energy and wasted potential.

Luckily, data collection tools enable organizations to streamline their data collection and analysis processes and leverage the derived knowledge to grow their businesses. For instance, qualitative analysis software can be highly advantageous in data collection by streamlining the process, making it more efficient and less time-consuming.

Secondly, qualitative analysis software provides a structure for data collection and analysis, ensuring that data is of high quality. It can also help to uncover patterns and relationships that would otherwise be difficult to discern. Moreover, you can use it to replace more expensive data collection methods, such as focus groups or surveys.

Overall, qualitative analysis software can be valuable for any researcher looking to collect and analyze data. By increasing efficiency, improving data quality, and providing greater insights, qualitative software can help to make the research process much more efficient and effective.

Learn more about qualitative research data analysis software

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