Research design and its types: Exploratory, descriptive and causal

Research designs in marketing research and their types: Exploratory, descriptive and causal

A common definition of research is gathering and analysing information systematically. After having set the objectives of research, next step is to decide the research design which best suits the research objectives. It is on the basis of the research design that the research methodology and sampling procedure are selected. Then lay out the structure and sequence of the overall research project. Finally, the research design is implemented and this implementation begins with the design of the data gathering instruments. After that follows, data collection, manipulation and analysis and at last the data is interpreted to know the results.

A research design is an important part of research that serves as a road map letting you know your position and where you will stand once you have completed the research. Researchers must keep their ultimate objectives in mind even if they have to take detours and change direction during the research process. The road map helps them reach their destination. Based on the research objectives a researcher can decide which is the best way to reach the destination and there are always more than one to go. There is not one research design which you can consider the best but you can select from several. The choice of research design is affected by several factors, small and large. From research objectives to search budget and time frame, there are several factors that can help you determine which research design suits your research the best. Much of the choice is still based on the objectives of the research which may be one of the following or something similar:

– Gain insight into a specific phenomenon and conduct a broad exploration of a topic to gain better knowledge in that field.

– Describing a phenomenon, population or event where we can establish numerical relationships or determine the extent to which two variables covary.

– Establish cause and effect relationships between two variables to understand how one changes when we vary the other.

These were the three broadly defined types of objectives on which names of types of research designs have been obtained respectively.

The three types of research designs are:

– Exploratory research

– Descriptive research

– Causal  research.

 Exploratory research

It is a lot like exploration or detective work fuelled by curiosity. Researchers should use their instincts to find clues and venture into new territories in search of information. Flexibility is important in exploratory research and it is bound to result in new ideas, revelations and insights.

These are some of the objectives that warrant the need for exploratory research:

– To define an ambiguous problem more precisely like why sales of a specific product are declining.

– To gain  a better understanding of an  issue.

– to generate new ideas like what one can do to improve customer relationships.

– develop hypotheses that can explain the occurrence of specific phenomena.

– for providing insights like what political changes in the international environmental are going to affect our business.

– to determine if some research would be practical and to set priorities for future like we must focus on these two product categories because as per research interest in other categories has waned and they are not profitable nay more.

Some tools used to conduct exploratory research:

1. Secondary information:

Most often the best point to start research from is to study the previous research conducted in this area. If you study what others have found out, it will help you generate ideas, hypotheses and gain insights. For example if you are trying to conduct research to create an instrument that helps you measure customer satisfaction from your product or services then studying others’ research will help you reach your objectives quicker. Literature reviews most often are a great tool to conduct exploratory research.

2. Personal interviews:

Personal interviews are a great tool of exploratory research and talking to people with expertise in the respective areas can help you achieve your objectives more easily. Moreover, it is important to be flexible because the sources from which you can gain the most valuable insights are always not obvious. Sometimes you may find the right information from your managers, sometimes from your customers and sometimes talking to your supply chain partners could help understand the issue better. However, while personal interviews are also used in descriptive research, the level of flexibility differs. In descriptive research you are somewhat bound by your questions and in exploratory research you have to be flexible and rather than sticking to your original questions, you must ask questions related to what you are hearing from people you are talking to.

3. Focus groups:

Focus group is also a highly popular technique used to conduct exploratory research. A group of 8 to 12 people works on addressing a topic introduced by the moderator and the researcher. Focus groups have proved to be of special importance in :

– Letting marketing managers see how consumers respond to the company’s efforts.

– Generating hypothesis that can be tested through the use of descriptive and causal research.

– Introducing a new product to the respondents to know their impression.

– Suggest the current market trends.

– Deriving real results from abstract data or finding how a survey response translates into real life reactions.

The popularity of focus groups is because of their effectiveness and efficiency as well as because researchers or decision makers can themselves attend them and observe the response of the participants live. However, a major disadvantage is that a group of just 8 to 12 people cannot be believed to be representative of the entire consumer group. Moreover one cannot conduct extra focus groups to convert findings of exploratory research into descriptive data.

4. Case Analysis:

Analysing select cases also helps achieve the objectives of exploratory research. By doing an in-depth analysis of elect cases related to the topic one can reach his objectives. This approach is suitable when there are complex variables at work and to understand these complexities one may need to conduct intensive study. For example you want to know the reason or traits related to his level performance among your sales managers. You compare the top performers and bottom performers to check out which traits are common to the best performing salespeople.

5. Projective techniques:

Projective techniques are useful where the researchers are exploring a topic on which the respondents do not speak directly and clearly. Sensitive topics involving people’s personal lives fall obviously in this category. Projective techniques can be used to find out these deep hidden psychological motives which people would otherwise not reveal. Using a variety of communication and observable methods researchers explore these deep psychological motivations which otherwise do not reveal themselves at the surface.

These methods include (types of projective techniques):

– Word association –

In word association, a series of words are used to associate responses and find out the relationship. The respondents are provided with a  series of words and they select the word that comes to mind first. The response, its frequency as well as the time taken to make the response helps establish the underlying motivations towards the topic. No response means a high level of emotional involvement blocking the response. 

– Sentence completion –

Sentence completion is like a game of filling the gaps and allows responders to complete the sentence by inserting the right word or phrases. The responses are then analysed to establish underlying motivations towards the topic.

– Story telling –

Respondents are provided with a scene or drawing related to the topic and asked to knit a story around it. This allows the researcher to see there respondent’s association with the topic and his psychological motivations. Suppose a workplace scene is provided to the respondents and the stories help understand how these people view a workplace. The picture works as a visual aid or stimulus to bring out the inner thoughts or deep motivations of the respondent.

– Role playing or the third person technique –

Respondents are asked to play particular roles or enter a third person’s shoes to explain why a person might act in a certain way in a given situation. Like asking people to play the role of a retail customer arriving at a retain store..

While these techniques can provide intriguing insights, it is best to leave the tasks to the experts. Apart from being skilled at structuring these approaches, it is essential that one is also experienced at interpreting these results. If properly applied, these techniques can help you generate hypotheses, clarify results and generate ideas. Often it is good to start a multistage research project with exploratory research. Then based upon the results of exploratory research one can frame a descriptive research questionnaire or set a causal research experiment. However, exploratory results do not have value alone and cannot be used till the real research has taken place. It is because the preliminary research alone is not sufficient to support your claims  and therefore exploratory research results  cannot be used alone. Descriptive research is important to reach your objectives and test the hypotheses generated by exploratory research and still exploratory research is like a stepping stone to start the process.

Descriptive research:

Descriptive research as the name suggests is used for description or to describe  phenomenon or idea. It is generally used in the following conditions:

1. to describe the traits of specific groups like our largest customers who account for more than 60 percent of our sales and based upon the results design future marketing efforts.

2. Covariance of two variables – like does consumption of our services vary by income range.

3. to estimate the size of consumer groups in a  population that act in a specific manner.   How often do newly married like to shop from our brand?

4. For specific predictions. Forecasting the number of companies switching to new CRM software.

Compared to exploratory research, descriptive research follows a very rigid approach. Its data collection methods are highly rigid as compared to the unstructured and flexible approach used in exploratory research. Exploratory research often forms the basis for descriptive research and the knowledge acquires through exploratory research is used to select respondents, setting priority issues, framing and asking questions as well as setting the time and place for the respondents like when and where to ask questions. While exploratory research can provide the hypotheses, you need to conduct descriptive research to prove the hypotheses. Exploratory research will answer the basic questions related to who, where, what when, why and how if descriptive research but then descriptive research will answer the final questions related to the market. The main difference between exploratory and descriptive research is that the first does not follow standardized methods but the second does.

So, descriptive research does the task of putting the picture created by exploratory research into the frame. Two basic types of descriptive research studies for collecting data are cross sectional and longitudinal studies.

Cross sectional studies:

Cross sectional designs are the most used and popular descriptive research design. It involves sampling the population at a given point of time. also referred to as sample surveys, it follows a high degree of structure in both data collection process and instrument.

Longitudinal studies:

While cross sectional studies sample the population at a point of time, longitudinal studies sample it over a period of time. The difference is just like that between a still photo and video film. The main objective of longitudinal studies is to observe behavioural changes occurring over  period of time. Also known as true panels, these studies provide the same information at various specific points of time. This information can be combined with other information to know if some specific behaviour change was triggered by a particular act like brand switching was caused due to exposure to a particular advertisement.

Causal research:

Casual research is effective in terms of identifying covariation between variables but when it comes to identifying causality. Causal research helps identify if there is a causal relationship between two or more variables. It is highly structured like descriptive research and is also known for use of control procedures used during experimental designs related to tests of causal relationships. In most of such cases the researcher is concerned with knowing the impact the independent variable has on the dependent variable. Following are the main things that we are concerned with when using causal research:


manipulation of the independent variable like price


Measuring the dependent variable like profit.


Controlling the variable that affects the dependent variable

Good marketing decisions and great strategy are always based upon useful market intelligence and such information can be obtained through research. Organisational problems can be carefully translated into research problems to find a solution.  Research design is an essential and important component of research that helps you reach your destination and arrive at great decisions by getting actionable information. Research design includes one or more of the above categories. It is the research objectives that help us establish that  whether one or more of the research designs must be used.


The Marketing Research Guide By Robert E. Stevens