Descriptive research study design

Descriptive Research Design - Voxco

When conducting a study, researchers generally try to find an explanation for the existence of a phenomenon. They want to understand “why” the phenomenon occurred. 

However, before identifying why a phenomenon occurred, it is integral to answer other questions first. You need to have answers to the “what”, “when”, “how”, and “where” before you can understand the “why”. This is where descriptive research comes in.

The descriptive research design involves using a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods to collect data that aids in accurately describing a research problem.

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What is Descriptive Research Design?

Descriptive research design is a type of research design that aims to systematically obtain information to describe a phenomenon, situation, or population. More specifically, it helps answer the what, when, where, and how questions regarding the research problem rather than the why.  

A researcher can conduct this research using various methodologies. It predominantly employs quantitative data, although qualitative data is sometimes used for descriptive purposes. 

It is important to note that in the descriptive research method, the researcher does not control or manipulate any variables, unlike in experimental research. Instead, the variables are only identified, observed, and measured. 

Surveys and observation are the most used method to conduct this research design. You can leverage online survey tools or offline survey tools to gather data as per your research objective.

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What are the Characteristics of Descriptive Research Design?

Let’s take a look at the defining characteristics of the descriptive research design:


Quantitative in nature 

Descriptive research involves the collection of quantifiable and systematic data that can be used for the statistical analysis of the research problem. 

2. Uncontrolled variables

One of the most prominent characteristics of descriptive research is that, unlike in experimental research, the variables are not controlled or manipulated. Instead, they are simply identified, observed, and measured.

3. A basis for further research

The data collected in descriptive research provides a base for further research as it helps obtain a comprehensive understanding of the research question so that it can be answered appropriately. 

4. Cross-sectional studies

The descriptive research method is generally carried out through cross-sectional studies. A cross-sectional study is a type of observational study that involves gathering information on various variables at the individual level at a given point in time.

Example of Descriptive Research Design

To gain a deeper understanding of the descriptive method of research, let’s consider the following example: 

Company XYZ is a girls’ shoe brand catering to girls specifically between the ages of 4 to 14.  

They want to start selling shoes for boys of the same age group as well and therefore want to gather information on the kind of shoes boys want to wear. They decide to conduct market research & choose the observational method to learn about different shoes boys wear nowadays. 

Naturalistic observation can be conducted by observing boys’ shoes in schools, malls, playgrounds, and other public spaces. 

This will help company XYZ identify the kind of shoes boys wear nowadays so that they can create the kind of products that will appeal to this audience.

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Why use Descriptive Research Design?

Descriptive research allows researchers to thoroughly investigate the background of a research problem before further research can be carried out. 

There are many different contexts in which the use of a descriptive research design is beneficial, including the following:

1. To measure data trends 

The descriptive method of research can be used to measure changes in variables over a period of time, allowing trends to be identified and analyzed.  

2. To compare variables

Descriptive research can be used to compare different variables and how different demographics respond to different variables. 

3. To define the characteristics of subjects

It can also be used to determine the different characteristics of the subjects. This can include characteristics such as opinions, traits, behavior, etc. 

4. To verify or validate existing conditions 

Descriptive research can prove to be a useful tool when trying to test the validity of an existing condition as it involves conducting an in-depth analysis of every variable before drawing conclusions. 

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Advantages of Descriptive Research Design

The following are a few advantages of using a descriptive research design: 

1. Multiple methods of data collection

A research can use a wide range of methods for data collection, such as case study, observational, and survey methods. They can also decide how they want to collect the data, online, offline, or via phone. 

2. Fast and cost-effective

As the descriptive research design often employs the use of surveys, data can be collected from a very large sample size quickly and cost-effectively. 

Researchers aiming to conduct market research using this research design should leverage integrated market research software. It will enable them to conduct product, customer, brand, and market research using suitable channels. 

3. Comprehensive

Descriptive research often uses quantitative and qualitative research in amalgamation, providing a more holistic understanding of the research topic. 

4. External validity

Results obtained through the descriptive method of research often have high external validity as research is conducted in the respondent’s natural environment and no variables are manipulated.

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Disadvantages of Descriptive Research design

The following are a few disadvantages of using a descriptive research design:

1. Cannot test or verify the research question

The descriptive method of research cannot be used to test or verify the research problem as the data collected does not help explain the cause of the phenomena being studied. 

2. Lack of reliability

If the research problem isn’t formulated well, then the data collected may not be entirely reliable. This also makes it more tedious to carry out a credible investigation. 

3. Risk of untrue responses

Descriptive research relies on the responses of people, especially when conducted using surveys. There may be instances when people provide false responses, compromising the validity of the data collected and the research results. 

4. Risk of sampling error

The descriptive research method generally employs random sampling while selecting a sample group. The randomness may lead to sampling error if the sample group isn’t representative of the larger population. Sampling error would lead to unreliable and inaccurate results.

What are the different methods of descriptive research design?

Three key methods are used to carry out descriptive research:

1. Surveys

In survey research, questionnaires or polls are used to collect information on a specific topic from respondents. Surveys should involve a mix of closed-ended and open-ended questions, as both have their own advantages. 

Online survey tools allow multiple data collection channels such as email, website, and SMS surveys. 

They are also popularly used in market research to collect customer feedback to optimize products and strategies and improve customer experience (CX). Some popular market research surveys are Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys, brand tracking surveys, and conjoint analysis surveys. 

2. Case Studies 

The case study method involves the in-depth research of individuals or groups of individuals. Case studies involve gathering detailed data on a narrowly defined subject rather than gathering a large volume of data to identify correlations and patterns. 

Therefore, this method is often used to describe a specific subject’s different characteristics rather than generalizable facts. 

Case studies allow researchers to create hypotheses that can widen the scope of evaluation while studying the phenomenon. However, it is important to note that case studies cannot be used to outline the cause-and-effect relationship between variables as they cannot make accurate predictions due to the risk of researcher bias.

3. Observations method

In this method, researchers observe respondents in their natural environment, from a distance, and therefore do not influence the variables being studied. This allows them to gather information on the behaviors and characteristics being studied without having to rely on respondents for honest and accurate responses. 

The observational method is considered the most effective method for carrying out descriptive research. It involves the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data. You can leverage offline survey tools to gather data digitally, even without the internet. 

Quantitative observation should be related to or understood in terms of quantity and can be analyzed with the use of statistical data analysis methods. A few examples of quantitative observations include age, weight, height, etc. 

Qualitative observations, on the other hand, involve monitoring variables whose values do not need to be related to numerical measurements. 

When employing this research method, the researcher can choose to be a complete observer, an observer as a participant, a participant as an observer, or a full participant. 

The observational method is generally used in psychological, social, and market research to obtain data that explains how people behave in real-life settings.

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What are the types of descriptive research design surveys?

The following are the different types of descriptive survey studies:


Census survey

A census survey is a kind of survey where information is gathered from all units of a population. Data collected through a census study is highly generalizable to the population as all or most units of the population are sampled. 

2. Sample survey 

A sample survey involves gathering information from a small subgroup of the entire population. When selecting a sample, the aim is to select a group of individuals representing the target population so that the data collected can be generalized to the larger population. Sample groups allow research to be conducted in a fast and cost-effective way. 

3. Cross-sectional survey 

In this type of survey, the standardized data is collected from a cross-section of the pre-determined population at a given point in time. There are two main types of cross-sectional surveys; those with a single variable and those with two or more variables. 

4. Longitudinal survey

Longitudinal surveys are used in longitudinal studies where the same variables are observed over a long period of time. This allows researchers to investigate the status of variables at different points in time. There are three main types of longitudinal studies; trend, panel, and cohort.

5. Comparative survey

Comparative surveys are used to compare the status of two or more variables. The variables are compared using specific criteria that must be delineated as criterion variables. 

6. Evaluative survey

An evaluative survey is generally used to evaluate a program, policy, or curriculum. It involves gathering information that can be used to rate the effectiveness and worthwhileness of a program or policy, or institution. 

7. Documentary survey

A documentary survey involves gathering and analyzing information using pre-existing data that is already available. This data can be research papers, review articles, books, official records, etc. In documentary studies, the researcher evaluates the available literature on the research topic.

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6 Steps to conduct a descriptive research design

Use the following steps to conduct a study using the descriptive method of research:

Step-1: Outline the research objective

The next step is to identify and outline the objectives of your research and then translate these objectives into criteria of investigation. You must clearly identify the different issues and questions in the context of which the knowledge of the situation must be surveyed. 

This must be framed in the form of objectives. Once you’ve clearly stated your criteria and objectives, you must also specify the nature of the data that must be gathered. 

Step-2: Determine the tools and techniques to be used for data collection

In this step, you must determine the tools you will employ for the data collection process. Some examples of different tools that can be used are interviews, questionnaires, observation schedules, reaction scales, etc.  

In this stage, you will have to identify which tools and techniques are relevant and valid to your study. Leverage robust survey software that offers you multiple channels, thus enabling you to utilize various channels to gather insights. 

Step-3: Define​​ the target population and sample group

In the fourth step, you will have to outline your target population. The target population is the group of individuals that you are examining in your research study. Additionally, unless you are conducting a census study and collecting data from the entire population, you must select a sample group.

You can also use an audience panel to accelerate your research. A survey panel gives you access to diverse respondents so you can create your ideal panel. 

Additional read: Types of sampling methods.

Step-4: Select a method for data collection

In the data collection stage, you must have a clear plan of how your data will be collected. This involves clearly outlining the type of data you require, the tools that will be used to gather it, the level of training required by researchers to collect the data, the time required for data collection and fieldwork, and so on.  

As you collect data, keep your research question and objectives in mind and aim to gather authentic and objective data without personal bias. 

Step-5: Analyse the data collected

Once you’ve collected your data, you reach the sixth stage of descriptive research: data analysis. In this stage, you will have to evaluate all the data collected from all your different sources, quantify and qualify them, and then categorize them component-wise. 

If you are working with quantitative and qualitative data, you must employ a range of different quantitative and qualitative analysis techniques to analyze the data collected. 

Leverage survey analytics software that allows you to run statistical analysis and observe data on a live dashboard.  

Step-6: Write the report

The final step of survey research involves writing the report. As survey research involves working with extensive data, it is important to keep the focus of the investigation in mind. The report must be precise and objective-oriented.


This sums up our article on descriptive research design. This research method helps uncover the hidden element of a customer’s behavior. It helps you create a foundation for your research by helping you create an outline of your research subject.

Descriptive Research | Definition, Types, Methods & Examples

Published on May 15, 2019 by Shona McCombes. Revised on October 10, 2022.

Descriptive research aims to accurately and systematically describe a population, situation or phenomenon. It can answer what, where, when and how questions, but not why questions.

A descriptive research design can use a wide variety of research methods to investigate one or more variables. Unlike in experimental research, the researcher does not control or manipulate any of the variables, but only observes and measures them.

Table of contents

  1. When to use a descriptive research design
  2. Descriptive research methods

Descriptive research is an appropriate choice when the research aim is to identify characteristics, frequencies, trends, and categories.

It is useful when not much is known yet about the topic or problem. Before you can research why something happens, you need to understand how, when and where it happens.

Descriptive research question examples
  • How has the Amsterdam housing market changed over the past 20 years?
  • Do customers of company X prefer product X or product Y?
  • What are the main genetic, behavioural and morphological differences between European wildcats and domestic cats?
  • What are the most popular online news sources among under-18s?
  • How prevalent is disease A in population B?

Descriptive research methods

Descriptive research is usually defined as a type of quantitative research, though qualitative research can also be used for descriptive purposes. The research design should be carefully developed to ensure that the results are valid and reliable.