What Is Research Design? (With Definition and Types)

Updated November 6, 2022

Defining questions you want to answer in research projects can help guide your process. Research designs are detailed plans to help answer these research questions effectively. By learning about various design types, you can identify a suitable one for your personal or professional research project.

In this article, we explain what research design is, discuss how it's different from a research method, and explore several types of research designs.

What is research design?

Research design refers to the overall approach to conducting research projects. It's a logical plan to answer research questions through data collection, interpretation, analysis, and discussion. By creating one, you can ensure your results address all research problems effectively, and choosing the right type is essential. Effective research designs typically achieve the following goals:

  • Identify the research problem

  • Review published projects on the problem

  • Define all research questions

  • Describe the data required to answer all research questions

  • Outline the analysis methods

Research design vs. research method

A research method is a strategy for implementing your research design. It includes ways to collect and analyze data. For example, surveys, interviews, and experiments are research methods you might consider using to gather information. Deciding on a suitable method typically requires you to understand your research goal.

For example, if collecting detailed explanations from participants is one of your research goals, you might choose interviews over surveys, as they can provide more in-depth responses.

Related: Research Skills: Definition and Examples

15 types of research designs

Here's a list of 15 research designs you can consider for your projects:

1. Exploratory design

This design type can help you gain insights into a research topic without generating conclusive solutions. For example, suppose you're studying the role of a social networking site as a marketing channel. Because this research project might only help you understand the situation, you can consider using an exploratory design. Exploratory research can help direct future works, generate new ideas and assumptions, and obtain background information on a topic. You can use an exploratory design for research projects with limited previous studies.

2. Observational design

This design type involves comparing the behaviours of research participants against a control group or your general expectations. For example, you may use it for a research project that involves monitoring how customers put purchased items in shopping carts. While direct observational research occurs when participants know you're watching them, unobtrusive design occurs without this disclosure. Conducting observational research and recording your findings can be an effective alternative to performing experiments.

3. Descriptive design

This design helps describe and offer insights into a research topic. You may use it to compare how various groups respond to changes, measure data trends, or validate existing conditions from previous studies. For example, suppose a company wants to determine whether free gym membership appeals to employees and encourages them to meet work targets. Its research project may have a descriptive design. Descriptive designs can answer the questions, "who?", "what?", "when?", "where?", "why?", and "how?" regarding the research problem, without conclusively providing reasons for observed situations.

4. Case study design

A case study is an in-depth examination of an individual, group, or event. Using a case study design, you can determine whether a specific idea or theory has practical applications. For example, suppose you want to research active learning in educational institutions. You may select a community school as your case study or focus. Case study designs may be valuable when researching a new field or working on a project with limited previous studies.

5. Action design

This design type involves iterative steps to answer research questions. Action research typically starts by identifying a problem and exploring a research topic. Next, you can create a plan to address the research problem. Then you can act or implement your plan and evaluate the results. From your conclusion, you may discover a new problem and repeat the entire process. Action design is common in educational institutions, especially among teachers looking to improve classroom conditions through research.

Related: How to Write a Conclusion for a Research Paper (And Example)

6. Experimental design

An experimental design is a research plan for controlling potential factors that may impact an experiment's results. This way, you can anticipate situations or address challenges before they become urgent. An experimental design for a research project typically includes the following components:

  • Hypothesis: describes what you expect your research to reveal

  • Independent variable: doesn't change its value due to changes in other variables

  • Dependent variable: relies on other variables to change its value

  • Control variable: doesn't change its value throughout an experiment

Related: Types of Variables in Statistics and Research (With FAQs)

7. Causal design

Causal design is a research plan for projects that involves analyzing topics to determine what caused an effect. For example, if you organize a research project to understand how price reduction attracts more loyal customers, you may use a causal design format. In this case, price is an independent variable and customer loyalty is a dependent variable.

8. Correlational design

Correlational design is a plan investigating the relationships between variables outside of a researcher's interference. In research, a correlation may be positive, negative, or neutral. For example, suppose you research whether coffee consumption impacts energy levels. If your conclusion shows that energy levels increase as you drink more coffee, you can record a positive correlation between these variables.


  • Example of Positive Correlation And How to Calculate It

  • Example of Negative Correlations And How to Calculate It

9. Cross-sectional design

A cross-sectional design is a research plan that involves collecting data from many participants at the same time. It also involves observing variables without influencing them. For example, you might use this design type to research disease spread in a community, evaluating each member's symptoms. Cross-sectional research typically necessitates selecting research participants based on their individuality.

10. Sequential design

Sequential designs involve collecting data from many research groups over time. For example, suppose you want to research behavioural changes with age. You can establish a sequential plan for this project, collecting data from children, teenagers, and adults for several years. A sequential design comprises multiple stages, each using insights from a previous stage until you gather sufficient data. This way, you can terminate the study if results at any stage vary with the desired pattern and present your findings.

11. Cohort design

A cohort study identifies a research group and follows their interactions over time. It's a common design type in the social and medical sciences. For example, you may use a cohort design to research how individuals handle their health or social factors that may affect their lives. Through observations and monitoring, you can typically find correlations in a selected population.

12. Historical design

Historical research involves using evidence from the past to support a hypothesis. It often requires primary and secondary sources, such as official records, reports, archives, and dairies. For example, you might use this design type to research previous human civilizations. Historical research typically involves:

  • Formulating an idea

  • Developing an effective plan

  • Gathering data records

  • Analyzing collected data

  • Evaluating data sources for credibility

13. Longitudinal design

A longitudinal study, or longitudinal survey, is a type of observational design. It involves conducting multiple studies on a group over a period. Using it can help you identify changes in a selected population and each individual. For example, suppose you want to research the cholesterol levels among individuals who walk daily for 20 years. Your longitudinal study design may consider each individual's cholesterol levels at the project's start and their walking behaviour over time.

14. Philosophical design

Philosophical studies critically explore a research topic using argumentation tools from philosophy. For example, if you're studying the relevance of logic and evidence in academic debates, you might use a philosophical design. Philosophical studies cover the following fields:

  • Ontology: This describes the nature of reality. For example, you may explore what concepts are real in this field.

  • Epistemology: This field explores the nature of knowledge. For example, you may explore how individuals can be certain of what they know.

  • Axiology: This field studies values. For example, you may research an individual or group's core values and why they maintain them.

Related: A Guide to Developing Philosophies in Teaching

15. Meta-analysis design

Meta-analysis involves combining the findings of independent studies into a summarized study and developing new insights into a research problem. It can be an effective design type when researching topics with extensive previous projects. For example, you might use a meta-analysis design to research the effects of video games on a child's development. Meta-analysis studies can also be an effective strategy for exploring new aspects of a topic.


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