GuidesResearch methodsWhat are the different types of research design?

What are the different types of research design?

Last updated

7 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Every company benefits from research and data collection, whether providing a product or a service. Data helps you price your product, find your customer, make a better feature, or solve a problem.

Research design is the strategy or plan you use to gather that data and make sense of it in a way that seems understandable, logical, and actionable.

Consider your research design the roadmap of data collection and measurement. Various types of design allow you to systematically gather and interpret data to be most beneficial to you. Let’s dive into the ins and outs of research design.

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What are the elements of research design?

While there are many types of research design, some elements are essential to all types. For your research to be impactful, pay special attention to keeping the margin of error minimal.  

Here are the key elements:

  • A stated purpose

  • Method for collecting the data

  • Method for analyzing the data

  • Established type of research methodology

  • The number of participants necessary

  • To what capacity (time, data, permissions) you’ll require participants

  • The probable and expected goal for research (the questions you’ll answer)

  • Study setting

  • Established timeline for the entire study

  • Statistics of study (what you’re studying vs. statistically accurate sample representation)

  • Approved budget of study for compensation for participants and survey responses

 Characteristics of research design

Generally, four characteristics of research design will set your study up for success:

  1. Neutrality: Keep your projected study results unbiased and neutral.

  2. Reliability: Standardize your design to handle each research segment the same each time.

  3. Validity: Use the correct measuring tools to gauge the results.

  4. Generalization: Your research results should apply to a generalized segment, not just a small select sample.

Making sure your research is without bias means your survey must meet these four criteria. 

When planning your research design strategy, you need to consider two perspectives: Quantitative and qualitative. Understanding how these two work and how they pertain to your study will give you a better idea of how to implement your project in the research design.

Quantitative research design

In quantitative research design, you use numerous variables to analyze the findings, such as numbers and statistics. 

Quantitative research design is absolute and often uses graphs, charts, and statistics to demonstrate the findings. These findings typically answer “what is happening?”  

You can use online questionnaires, surveys, or polls to gather quantitative information.  Most surveys are multiple-choice, limiting open-ended questions. Researchers usually carry them out on a large statistically relevant group of respondents.  

Qualitative research design

Qualitative research determines the hows and the whys of how people think or respond to questions. This research design uses open-ended questions and conversational responses in virtual call conversations or face-to-face interviews.   

Qualitative research focuses on generating ideas and developing theories. You can do this with fewer but more in-depth sessions with respondents than with a quantitative research design.

What are the different types of research designs?

There are thirteen different types of research design. Researchers familiar with these types will find it easier to gather the data they need to complete their study. Each type differs in how you collect, analyze, or use data. 

Action research design

Action research can be quantitative, qualitative, or a combination. It addresses a specific issue and seeks to solve it. Because the action research design is cooperative and adaptive, it works well in employment and community situations. It can increase the chances of learning from the participant's overall experience.

Case study research design

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject. Case study research design is usually qualitative but can also sometimes use quantitative methods.  

These studies are excellent for evaluating and understanding the different facets of a research problem. Case study research designs narrow down a significant problem into more easily researchable problems.  

Researchers sometimes use them to describe rare cases, and social scientists test situations with case study research. Sometimes, case studies use small samplings, which can call the research’s reliability and generality into question.

Causal research design

Causal research works to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between two or more variables. Many companies use this research design to determine the impact a change in a product or process will make. 

Sometimes called explanatory research or causal-comparative research, it can be challenging to perform, especially when the research deals with opinions or emotions. 

Companies often use causal research during the later stages of decision-making rather than initial research designs. That’s because it’s usually assessing the impact of a change in an existing product.

Cohort research design

Cohort design is an observational research design that sometimes follows participants over an extended period. The health and medical fields regularly use this research to evaluate the outcome of a particular drug or the occurrence of a reaction. The researcher selects participants that have things in common. 

Open or closed cohort research types depend on the size and scope of the study. Closed studies involve participants who enter the study at the same time and involve a specific population. Though cohort studies are flexible, they are often lengthy.

Cross-sectional research design

Biological or medical applications use cross-sectional research when they require data from a population or representative sample at a specific point in time. Surveys are the usual data collection method, so it is less expensive than other research designs. Sometimes participants are difficult to find, and a narrow timeframe sometimes makes information hard to get.

Descriptive research design

In descriptive research design, the intent is to describe a situation or case by systematically obtaining data to describe the phenomenon, population, or event.  

It can help others further understand the need for research by answering the what: Questions as to how, when, or why require further research.  

Experimental research design

You conduct experimental research in an objective and controlled manner to ensure precision. This also enables you to draw conclusions that establish one variable's effect on another. In other words, it uses a control group to compare with the experimental group. 

This type of research has numerous applications, and several industries use it. It can deliver a high level of evidence based on the research and determine cause and effect in many situations. You can manipulate the variables and monitor the effect of the changes.  

Exploratory research design

As it sounds, exploratory research design explores areas researchers have not studied before. Often, exploratory research determines if further research is necessary. Exploratory research attempts to answer the what, why, and how while setting up additional research needs. Usually qualitative by design, you could also set up larger studies as quantitative.  

Historical research design

Historical research design pulls historical data from past studies. You collect, evaluate, and present that data based on the outcomes. This usually requires you to combine data from several sources and present it as one research hypothesis.  

For example, you could pull information from timesheets, logs, news reports, maps, or other archived or current information. Many industries use it in trend analysis.  

Longitudinal research design

This type of research design makes multiple observations and experiments. Longitudinal research tends to interview the same group over an extended period. 

Behavioral and psychological research uses this type of study to track the behavior of specific groups and identify the variables that changed their behavior.  

This type of research takes a long time to complete, and sometimes the original sample changes over time. It is an observational study that we can also refer to as a panel study.

Observational research design

Observational research design is where you observe participants with or without their knowledge. You’ll usually perform it in natural settings to observe how the respondents make choices or respond to certain situations. They are reasonably flexible types of research, and you can correlate the results to reflect real-life events.   

Philosophical research design

Philosophical research design is a broader approach to researching a problem. You use this design to make assumptions in areas you’re researching.  

In essence, researchers use logic and information from models and theories to analyze and create a basis for:

  • Practical decision-making

  • Refining established concepts

  • Giving clarity and definition to ideas and concepts 

Sequential research design

Of course, this type of research design is sequential. This means you must finish one research stage before moving on to the next stage or sequence.  

These sequences continue until you’ve collected enough data to fulfill the research. Sequential research includes some elements from cross-sectional and longitudinal designs.

How to create a research design

To create a research design, you must be sure your chosen methods match your research intent. Not all types are suitable for all research analysis and data collection.

When creating your research design, consider your overall objectives, how you plan to sample, and how you intend to collect and analyze your data. Determine which methods are the most appropriate for the research you’ll be doing.

Keep the following steps in mind when creating your research design:

1. Consider your aims and approach

Before anything else, determine the question you want to answer. Without this information, it is hard to formulate the research you need, the length of time for your study, and the desired result. Sometimes, people get so wrapped up in the details that they can lose sight of the goal.  

Knowing what type of information you are collecting and why you need the data is important. Being concise and to the point can save your stakeholders time and money and prevent you from getting lost.

2.  Choose a type of research design

Look at the type of research designs above and decide on the design that best fits your needs. Each provides a framework for you to move forward with your research. Decide if your research should be quantitative, qualitative, or a mix of both.

Will you need online surveys to collect your data? Will you conduct in-person interviews, asking open-ended questions that give respondents a chance to voice their opinions? Or maybe a more scientific, quantitative approach is what you are looking for.  

3. Identify your population and sampling method

By now, you’ve determined who or what your research will focus on and how you will choose your respondents. Now you need to focus on your population.

In research talk, population is the whole group that you are aiming your research at. Samples are the ones you actually peg as your participants from that group. They will provide you with the relevant data to form accurate theories.  

Decide what makes up your population specifically. If you are researching all students who are attending college, you will identify that as your target population. You narrow the population if you want to target all students in a state university. You've defined the population further if you’re researching students studying literature at Arizona State University. The more precise your definition, the easier it will be to get a reliable sample.  

4. Choose your data collection methods

The way you gather your information is vital to your overall results. You need a method that’s manageable for your project. 

Several methods effectively collect data, and you can use some in combination for the best results:


Surveys are helpful in collecting information on opinions, behaviors, and characteristics. You can acquire the data through questionnaires with multiple-choice questions. It’s best to analyze this option as quantitative data.  


Observation lets you observe the participants, their reactions, choices, and interactions. You can do this with or without their knowledge. In addition to observing in real-time, you can collect some qualitative data through recordings and in-app behavior analytics.

Historical data

You can collect historical data from an assortment of sources if combining the data helps you get to your desired study results.  

5.  Plan your data collection procedures

Data collection procedures mean more than just writing up a survey and asking a few questions. You must ensure your data is accurate, unbiased, and the same data you use throughout your sample. It’s essential to be consistent in collecting the information.

It may be easy to ask your sample population the same questions on the same survey, but are there variables you must consider? If using observation, how do you maintain a neutral position if it’s impossible to observe every single detail?

This is where you should determine: 

  • The size of your sample

  • The length of the survey or interview

  • The resources (financial or human) needed to conduct your study

  • Is the location secured for your research to be conducted? 

Organizational skills are necessary regardless of which research design you use. Often, stakeholders will want to know upfront the costs and resources involved in a study. 

For the collected data to meet the requirements of neutrality, reliability, validity, and generalization, you must ensure your data collection is consistent, unbiased, and accurate. 

6.  Decide on your data analysis strategies

If you have decided on a quantitative research design, you may want to prepare your analysis using statistics and numbers. You may present your findings in pie charts, graphs, and other statistical visual methods.  

Qualitative research design relies on opinions and ideas and may be more challenging to represent. You will have to weed through your information, compile it to meet the objectives, and only extract relevant facts.

What makes a good research design?

A good research design fulfills the needs of the study. While that’s a broad definition, the research design that’s right for you should always have the end in sight.  

In summary, your research should always be: 

  • Flexible

  • Within your budget

  • Manageable

  • Appropriate

  • Reliable

  • Neutral

  • Packed with valid information from appropriate and trustworthy data collection

  • A large enough sample to represent the larger population you are researching

By applying these guidelines to your next research design, you’ll be able to craft a winning formula.

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