Types of Research Designs Compared | Examples

When you start planning a research project, developing research questions and creating a research design, you will have to make various decisions about the type of research you want to do.

There are many ways to categorise different types of research. The words you use to describe your research depend on your discipline and field. In general, though, the form your research design takes will be shaped by:

  • The type of knowledge you aim to produce
  • The type of data you will collect and analyse
  • The sampling methods, timescale, and location of the research

This article takes a look at some common distinctions made between different types of research and outlines the key differences between them.

Types of research aims

The first thing to consider is what kind of knowledge your research aims to contribute.

Type of research What’s the difference? What to consider
Basic vs applied Basic research aims to develop knowledge, theories, and predictions, while applied research aims to develop techniques, products, and procedures. Do you want to expand scientific understanding or solve a practical problem?
Exploratory vs explanatory Exploratory research aims to explore the main aspects of an under-researched problem, while explanatory research aims to explain the causes and consequences of a well-defined problem. How much is already known about your research problem? Are you conducting initial research on a newly-identified issue, or seeking precise conclusions about an established issue?
Inductive vs deductive Inductive research aims to develop a theory, while deductive research aims to test a theory. Is there already some theory on your research problem that you can use to develop hypotheses, or do you want to propose new theories based on your findings?

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Types of research data

The next thing to consider is what type of data you will collect. Each kind of data is associated with a range of specific research methods and procedures.

Type of research What’s the difference? What to consider
Primary vs secondary Primary data is collected directly by the researcher (e.g., through interviews or experiments), while secondary data has already been collected by someone else (e.g., in government surveys or scientific publications). How much data is already available on your topic? Do you want to collect original data or analyse existing data (e.g., through a literature review)?
Qualitative vs quantitative Qualitative research methods focus on words and meanings, while quantitative research methods focus on numbers and statistics. Is your research more concerned with measuring something or interpreting something? You can also create a mixed methods research design that has elements of both.
Descriptive vs experimental Descriptive research gathers data without controlling any variables, while experimental research manipulates and controls variables to determine cause and effect. Do you want to identify characteristics, patterns, and correlations or test causal relationships between variables?

Types of sampling, timescale, and location

Finally, you have to consider three closely related questions: How will you select the subjects or participants of the research? When and how often will you collect data from your subjects? And where will the research take place?

Type of research What’s the difference? What to consider
Probability vs non-probability sampling Probability sampling allows you to generalise your findings to a broader population, while non-probability sampling allows you to draw conclusions only about the specific subjects of the research. Do you want to produce generalisable knowledge that applies to many contexts or detailed knowledge about a specific context (e.g., in a case study)?
Cross-sectional vs longitudinal Cross-sectional studies gather data at a single point in time, while longitudinal studies gather data at several points in time. Is your research question focused on understanding the current situation or tracking changes over time?
Field vs laboratory Field research takes place in a natural or real-world setting, while laboratory research takes place in a controlled and constructed setting. Do you want to find out how something occurs in the real world or draw firm conclusions about cause and effect? Laboratory experiments have higher internal validity but lower external validity.
Fixed vs flexible In a fixed research design the subjects, timescale and location are set before data collection begins, while in a flexible design these aspects may develop through the data collection process. Do you want to test hypotheses and establish generalisable facts, or explore concepts and develop understanding? For measuring, testing, and making generalisations, a fixed research design has higher validity and reliability.

Choosing among all these different research types is part of the process of creating your research design, which determines exactly how the research will be conducted. But the type of research is only the first step: next, you have to make more concrete decisions about your research methods and the details of the study.

Read more about creating a research design

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Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.