Imagine this — your company has decided to create a smartphone app and the vice president has asked you to be the team leader. Your team’s assignment is to nurture the concept. When you meet with your VP next week, you will specify the kind of apps your company might develop, determine what the different apps might do, and focus on your target audience for each possible app.

As your project matures, you understand how important it is to have a research design. Such a plan will guide your team and your company’s decision makers. It will lay out the methods and procedures you need to employ as you collect information.

To develop a research design, you will rely on three types of studies: exploratory studies, descriptive studies, and causal studies.

Each depends on different information that will help you. No matter how large or small your project, conducting surveys and establishing a research design is vital to your success. If you don’t know where your project is going, you won’t know if it’s succeeding.


First, you need to do an exploratory study. This is the problem finding phase. An exploratory study forces you to focus the scope of your project. It helps you anticipate the problems and variables that might arise in your project.

Perhaps the most common problem is size. Your project must be kept focused. If the scope of a project is too big, it will not get off the ground. Too much information is overwhelming. An important objective of an exploratory study is keeping your project manageable. The larger your project’s scope, the more difficult it is to control. This process will help you weed out problems.

In the case of developing an app, for example, an exploratory study would help your research team take an abstract idea and develop it into a focused plan. The specific app would be market-driven. This process takes legwork, but the results are worth the effort.

Exploratory studies generally encompass three distinct methods:

  1. Literature search
    A literary search means you go to secondary sources of information: the internet, the public library, company or government records. These sources are usually easy and inexpensive to access. For example, your development team would search online. They would look at other kinds of apps on the market, the preferred phone to develop an app, the pricing of similar products, and any other information necessary to set parameters on their project.
  2. Expert interviews
    After a literature search, your team would have a useful background for the project. They know what questions to ask and how to set up their project. After the literary search, the next step is to interview experts. These experts might include company executives or consumers. They would also talk to people who used similar products. Your team would seek out professionals who have careers relating to the research project.Your team knows that one effective way to gain information from experts is through focus groups. A focus group includes 6-8 individuals who share a common background (software development, market analysis, administration, dog breeding, fly fishing) who participate in a joint interview. The secret to a successful focus group is ignoring the traditional question/answer format. Instead, you encourage the free flow of ideas and discussion.
  3. Case studies
    Every research project will have pitfalls. Thus, case studies become a vital tool because they allow you to examine another business’s managerial problems and solutions. If another study deals with similar issues, you can avoid these pitfalls by learning from its mistakes. Case studies include histories of other projects and simulations of possible alternatives. A good “What if?” can save a lot of time and resources.


Who are you selling to? An exploratory study helped you establish what you are selling, but the descriptive study will help you find your market and understand your customer. Since you will not be able to sell to everyone, a descriptive study is necessary to focus your project and resources.

There are different kinds of studies you can implement to better understand your market. Consider the following descriptive studies:

  • Market potential: description of the number of potential customers of a product.
  • Market-share: identification of the share of the market received by your product, company and your competitors.
  • Sales analysis: description of sales by territory, type of account, size or model of product.
  • Product research: identification and comparison of functional features and specifications of competitive products.
  • Promotion research: description of the demographic characteristics of the audience being reached by the current advertising program.
  • Distribution research: determining the number and location of retailers handling the company’s products. These are supplied by wholesalers and distributed by the company.
  • Pricing research: identifying competitors’ prices by geographic area.

These studies will help you formulate solutions. At the same time, they indicate how potential customers might react.


Even though descriptive studies describe and sometimes predict relationships, results, or events, you may want to know why. If you can discover the reasons behind your solutions, then you can assemble your own predictive models.

Such models can be used in the future. As a marketing researcher, knowing why will make your job easier. Causal studies try to find out the relationship between a specific cause and a specific effect.

Figuring out casual factors
Cause and effect have to be related. Before a cause and effect can be established, a logical implication (or theoretical justification) has to be found.

There are three types of evidence that can be used to establish causal relationships:

  1. Associative variation
    Associative variation involves taking two variables and seeing how often they are associated. The more they show up in studies, the more likely they are related. Associative variation can be broken down into two distinctions: association by presence and association by change.Association by presence measures how closely presence of one variable is associated with presence of another. However, association by change measures the extent to which a change in the level of one variable is associated with a change in the level of the other.For example, if you wanted to find a causal relationship between a salesperson’s success in sales and training, you would have to establish a relationship between the two variables. Do sales only increase after training? Can sales increase before training? If you find that one variable is affected by another, you know which variable to adjust.
  2. Sequence of events
    In order to establish a cause/effect relationship, you must first establish that the causal factor occurred first. For example, in order for salesperson training to result in increased sales, the training must have taken place prior to the sales increase. If the cause does not precede the effect, then there is no causal relationship.
  3. Absence of other possible causal factors
    You must also demonstrate that other factors did not cause the effect. Once you have proved this, you can logically conclude that the remaining factor is the cause. For example, if we can control all other factors affecting the sales item, then we have to conclude that the increase in sales comes from training.