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Descriptive research: What it is and how to use it

8 min read
Understanding the who, what and where of a situation or target group is an essential part of effective research and making informed business decisions.

For example you might want to understand what percentage of CEOs have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Or you might want to understand what percentage of low income families receive government support – or what kind of support they receive.

Descriptive research is what will be used in these types of studies.

In this guide we’ll look through the main issues relating to descriptive research to give you a better understanding of what it is, and how and why you can use it.

Free eBook: Qualitative research design handbook

What is descriptive research?

Descriptive research is a research method used to try and determine the characteristics of a population or particular phenomenon.

Using descriptive research you can identify patterns in the characteristics of a group to essentially establish everything you need to understand apart from why something has happened.

Market researchers use descriptive research for a range of commercial purposes to guide key decisions.

For example you could use descriptive research to understand fashion trends in a given city when planning your clothing collection for the year. Using descriptive research you can conduct in depth analysis on the demographic makeup of your target area and use the data analysis to establish buying patterns.

Conducting descriptive research wouldn’t, however, tell you why shoppers are buying a particular type of fashion item.

Descriptive research design

Descriptive research design uses a range of both qualitative research and quantitative data (although quantitative research is the primary research method) to gather information to make accurate predictions about a particular problem or hypothesis.

As a survey method, descriptive research designs will help researchers identify characteristics in their target market or particular population.

These characteristics in the population sample can be identified, observed and measured to guide decisions.

Descriptive research characteristics

While there are a number of descriptive research methods you can deploy for data collection, descriptive research does have a number of predictable characteristics.

Here are a few of the things to consider:

Measure data trends with statistical outcomes

Descriptive research is often popular for survey research because it generates answers in a statistical form, which makes it easy for researchers to carry out a simple statistical analysis to interpret what the data is saying.

Descriptive research design is ideal for further research

Because the data collection for descriptive research produces statistical outcomes, it can also be used as secondary data for another research study.

Plus, the data collected from descriptive research can be subjected to other types of data analysis.

Uncontrolled variables

A key component of the descriptive research method is that it uses random variables that are not controlled by the researchers. This is because descriptive research aims to understand the natural behaviour of the research subject.

It’s carried out in a natural environment

Descriptive research is often carried out in a natural environment. This is because researchers aim to gather data in a natural setting to avoid swaying respondents.

Data can be gathered using survey questions or online surveys.

For example, if you want to understand the fashion trends we mentioned earlier, you would set up a study in which a researcher observes people in the respondent’s natural environment to understand their habits and preferences.

Descriptive research allows for cross sectional study

Because of the nature of descriptive research design and the randomness of the sample group being observed, descriptive research is ideal for cross sectional studies – essentially the demographics of the group can vary widely and your aim is to gain insights from within the group.

This can be highly beneficial when you’re looking to understand the behaviours or preferences of a wider population.

Descriptive research advantages

There are many advantages to using descriptive research, some of them include:

Cost effectiveness

Because the elements needed for descriptive research design are not specific or highly targeted (and occur within the respondent’s natural environment) this type of study is relatively cheap to carry out.

Multiple types of data can be collected

A big advantage of this research type, is that you can use it to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. This means you can use the stats gathered to easily identify underlying patterns in your respondents’ behaviour.

Descriptive research disadvantages

Potential reliability issues

When conducting descriptive research it’s important that the initial survey questions are properly formulated.

If not, it could make the answers unreliable and risk the credibility of your study.

Potential limitations

As we’ve mentioned, descriptive research design is ideal for understanding the what, who or where of a situation or phenomenon.

However, it can’t help you understand the cause or effect of the behaviour. This means you’ll need to conduct further research to get a more complete picture of a situation.

Descriptive research methods

Because descriptive research methods include a range of quantitative and qualitative research, there are several research methods you can use.

Use case studies

Case studies in descriptive research involve conducting in-depth and detailed studies in which researchers get a specific person or case to answer questions.

Case studies shouldn’t be used to generate results, rather it should be used to build or establish hypothesis that you can expand into further market research.

For example you could gather detailed data about a specific business phenomenon, and then use this deeper understanding of that specific case.

Use observational methods

This type of study uses qualitative observations to understand human behaviour within a particular group.

By understanding how the different demographics respond within your sample you can identify patterns and trends.

As an observational method, descriptive research will not tell you the cause of any particular behaviours, but that could be established with further research.

Use survey research

Surveys are one of the most cost effective ways to gather descriptive data.

An online survey or questionnaire can be used in descriptive studies to gather quantitative information about a particular problem.

Survey research is ideal if you’re using descriptive research as your primary research.

Descriptive research examples

Descriptive research is used for a number of commercial purposes or when organisations need to understand the behaviours or opinions of a population.

One of the biggest examples of descriptive research that is used in every democratic country, is during elections.

Using descriptive research, researchers will use surveys to understand who voters are more likely to choose out of the parties or candidates available.

Using the data provided, researchers can analyse the data to understand what the election result will be.

In a commercial setting, retailers often use descriptive research to figure out trends in shopping and buying decisions.

By gathering information on the habits of shoppers, retailers can get a better understanding of the purchases being made.

Another example that is widely used around the world, is the national census that takes place to understand the population.

The research will provide a more accurate picture of a population’s demographic makeup and help to understand changes over time in areas like population age, health and education level.

Where Qualtrics helps with descriptive research

Whatever type of research you want to carry out, there’s a survey type that will work.

Qualtrics can help you determine the appropriate method and ensure you design a study that will deliver the insights you need.

Our experts can help you with your market research needs, ensuring you get the most out of Qualtrics market research software to design, launch and analyse your data to guide better, more accurate decisions for your organisation.

Free eBook: Qualitative research design handbook