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Experimental design: Guide, steps, examples

Last updated

27 April 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

Experimental research design is a scientific framework that allows you to manipulate one or more variables while controlling the test environment. 

When testing a theory or new product, it can be helpful to have a certain level of control and manipulate variables to discover different outcomes. You can use these experiments to determine cause and effect or study variable associations. 

This guide explores the types of experimental design, the steps in designing an experiment, and the advantages and limitations of experimental design. 

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What is experimental research design?

Experimental design is a research method that enables researchers to assess the effect of multiple factors on an outcome.

You can determine the relationship between each of the variables by: 

  • Manipulating one or more independent variables (i.e., stimuli or treatments)

  • Applying the changes to one or more dependent variables (i.e., test groups or outcomes)

With the ability to analyze the relationship between variables and using measurable data, you can increase the accuracy of the result. 

What is a good experimental design?

A good experimental design requires: 

  • Significant planning to ensure control over the testing environment

  • Sound experimental treatments

  • Properly assigning subjects to treatment groups

Without proper planning, unexpected external variables can alter an experiment's outcome. 

To meet your research goals, your experimental design should include these characteristics:

  • Provide unbiased estimates of inputs and associated uncertainties

  • Enable the researcher to detect differences caused by independent variables

  • Include a plan for analysis and reporting of the results

  • Provide easily interpretable results with specific conclusions

What's the difference between experimental and quasi-experimental design?

The major difference between experimental and quasi-experimental design is the random assignment of subjects to groups. 

A true experiment relies on certain controls. Typically, the researcher designs the treatment and randomly assigns subjects to control and treatment groups. 

However, these conditions are unethical or impossible to achieve in some situations.

When it's unethical or impractical to assign participants randomly, that’s when a quasi-experimental design comes in. 

This design allows researchers to conduct a similar experiment by assigning subjects to groups based on non-random criteria. 

Another type of quasi-experimental design might occur when the researcher doesn't have control over the treatment but studies pre-existing groups after they receive different treatments.

When can a researcher conduct experimental research?

Various settings and professions can use experimental research to gather information and observe behavior in controlled settings. 

Basically, a researcher can conduct experimental research any time they want to test a theory with variable and dependent controls. 

Experimental research is an option when the project includes an independent variable and a desire to understand the relationship between cause and effect. 

The importance of experimental research design

Experimental research enables researchers to conduct studies that provide specific, definitive answers to questions and hypotheses. 

Researchers can test Independent variables in controlled settings to:

  • Test the effectiveness of a new medication

  • Design better products for consumers

  • Answer questions about human health and behavior

Developing a quality research plan means a researcher can accurately answer vital research questions with minimal error. As a result, definitive conclusions can influence the future of the independent variable. 

Types of experimental research designs

There are three main types of experimental research design. The research type you use will depend on the criteria of your experiment, your research budget, and environmental limitations. 

Pre-experimental research design

A pre-experimental research study is a basic observational study that monitors independent variables’ effects. 

During research, you observe one or more groups after applying a treatment to test whether the treatment causes any change. 

The three subtypes of pre-experimental research design are:

One-shot case study research design

This research method introduces a single test group to a single stimulus to study the results at the end of the application. 

After researchers presume the stimulus or treatment has caused changes, they gather results to determine how it affects the test subjects. 

One-group pretest-posttest design

This method uses a single test group but includes a pretest study as a benchmark. The researcher applies a test before and after the group’s exposure to a specific stimulus. 

Static group comparison design

This method includes two or more groups, enabling the researcher to use one group as a control. They apply a stimulus to one group and leave the other group static. 

A posttest study compares the results among groups. 

True experimental research design

A true experiment is the most common research method. It involves statistical analysis to prove or disprove a specific hypothesis

Under completely experimental conditions, researchers expose participants in two or more randomized groups to different stimuli. 

Random selection removes any potential for bias, providing more reliable results. 

These are the three main sub-groups of true experimental research design:

Posttest-only control group design

This structure requires the researcher to divide participants into two random groups. One group receives no stimuli and acts as a control while the other group experiences stimuli.

Researchers perform a test at the end of the experiment to observe the stimuli exposure results.

Pretest-posttest control group design

This test also requires two groups. It includes a pretest as a benchmark before introducing the stimulus. 

The pretest introduces multiple ways to test subjects. For instance, if the control group also experiences a change, it reveals that taking the test twice changes the results.

Solomon four-group design

This structure divides subjects into two groups, with two as control groups. Researchers assign the first control group a posttest only and the second control group a pretest and a posttest. 

The two variable groups mirror the control groups, but researchers expose them to stimuli. The ability to differentiate between groups in multiple ways provides researchers with more testing approaches for data-based conclusions. 

Quasi-experimental research design

Although closely related to a true experiment, quasi-experimental research design differs in approach and scope. 

Quasi-experimental research design doesn’t have randomly selected participants. Researchers typically divide the groups in this research by pre-existing differences. 

Quasi-experimental research is more common in educational studies, nursing, or other research projects where it's not ethical or practical to use randomized subject groups.

5 steps for designing an experiment

Experimental research requires a clearly defined plan to outline the research parameters and expected goals. 

Here are five key steps in designing a successful experiment:

Step 1: Define variables and their relationship

Your experiment should begin with a question: What are you hoping to learn through your experiment? 

The relationship between variables in your study will determine your answer.

Define the independent variable (the intended stimuli) and the dependent variable (the expected effect of the stimuli). After identifying these groups, consider how you might control them in your experiment. 

Could natural variations affect your research? If so, your experiment should include a pretest and posttest. 

Step 2: Develop a specific, testable hypothesis

With a firm understanding of the system you intend to study, you can write a specific, testable hypothesis. 

What is the expected outcome of your study? 

Develop a prediction about how the independent variable will affect the dependent variable. 

How will the stimuli in your experiment affect your test subjects? 

Your hypothesis should provide a prediction of the answer to your research question

Step 3: Design experimental treatments to manipulate your independent variable

Depending on your experiment, your variable may be a fixed stimulus (like a medical treatment) or a variable stimulus (like a period during which an activity occurs). 

Determine which type of stimulus meets your experiment’s needs and how widely or finely to vary your stimuli. 

Step 4: Assign subjects to groups

When you have a clear idea of how to carry out your experiment, you can determine how to assemble test groups for an accurate study. 

When choosing your study groups, consider: 

  • The size of your experiment

  • Whether you can select groups randomly

  • Your target audience for the outcome of the study

You should be able to create groups with an equal number of subjects and include subjects that match your target audience. Remember, you should assign one group as a control and use one or more groups to study the effects of variables. 

Step 5: Plan how to measure your dependent variable

This step determines how you'll collect data to determine the study's outcome. You should seek reliable and valid measurements that minimize research bias or error. 

You can measure some data with scientific tools, while you’ll need to operationalize other forms to turn them into measurable observations.

Advantages of experimental research

Experimental research is an integral part of our world. It allows researchers to conduct experiments that answer specific questions. 

While researchers use many methods to conduct different experiments, experimental research offers these distinct benefits:

  • Researchers can determine cause and effect by manipulating variables.

  • It gives researchers a high level of control.

  • Researchers can test multiple variables within a single experiment.

  • All industries and fields of knowledge can use it. 

  • Researchers can duplicate results to promote the validity of the study.

  • Replicating natural settings rapidly means immediate research.

  • Researchers can combine it with other research methods.

  • It provides specific conclusions about the validity of a product, theory, or idea.

Disadvantages (or limitations) of experimental research

Unfortunately, no research type yields ideal conditions or perfect results. 

While experimental research might be the right choice for some studies, certain conditions could render experiments useless or even dangerous. 

Before conducting experimental research, consider these disadvantages and limitations:

Required professional qualification

Only competent professionals with an academic degree and specific training are qualified to conduct rigorous experimental research. This ensures results are unbiased and valid. 

Limited scope

Experimental research may not capture the complexity of some phenomena, such as social interactions or cultural norms. These are difficult to control in a laboratory setting.

Resource-intensive

Experimental research can be expensive, time-consuming, and require significant resources, such as specialized equipment or trained personnel.

Limited generalizability

The controlled nature means the research findings may not fully apply to real-world situations or people outside the experimental setting.

Practical or ethical concerns

Some experiments may involve manipulating variables that could harm participants or violate ethical guidelines

Researchers must ensure their experiments do not cause harm or discomfort to participants. 

Sometimes, recruiting a sample of people to randomly assign may be difficult. 

Experimental research design example

Experiments across all industries and research realms provide scientists, developers, and other researchers with definitive answers. These experiments can solve problems, create inventions, and heal illnesses. 

Product design testing is an excellent example of experimental research. 

A company in the product development phase creates multiple prototypes for testing. With a randomized selection, researchers introduce each test group to a different prototype. 

When groups experience different product designs, the company can assess which option most appeals to potential customers. 

Experimental research design provides researchers with a controlled environment to conduct experiments that evaluate cause and effect. 

Using the five steps to develop a research plan ensures you anticipate and eliminate external variables while answering life’s crucial questions.

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