Types of Research Methods (With Best Practices and Examples)
Researchers use different methods to achieve results while testing theories and analyzing data. Analysts and researchers use quantitative and qualitative research methods like focus groups, interviews and surveys for data interpretation to cultivate a better understanding of information. Selecting the best research method to use can help a research professional achieve useful results in their investigations.
In this article, we discuss what research methods are, types of research methods you can use and the best practices for using research methods.
What are research methods?
Research methods are processes used to collect data. You can use this data to analyze current methods or procedures and to find additional information on a topic. Professionals use research methods while studying medicine, human behavior and other scholarly topics. There are two main categories of research methods: qualitative research methods and quantitative research methods.
Quantitative research methods involve using numbers to measure data. Researchers can use statistical analysis to find connections and meaning in the data. Qualitative research methods involve exploring information and non-numerical data. These research methods also examine how people might connect meaning to their experiences and emotions.
Types of research methods
There are many types of research methods that professionals might use to conduct studies. Here are some common types of research methods, including best practices and the situations in which they're most effective:
Experimenters record what they see participants doing or saying during observational studies. These types of studies might include role-playing or watching the participants and waiting for a certain behavior to occur. For example, a researcher might set out drinks on the table and tell participants they can have a drink once they finish a task. The researcher would then watch to see how many participants finish the task before they grab a drink.
A modified form of observational study is the longitudinal observational study. Researchers track the same participants in longitudinal observational studies for months or years and study multiple data points. This method is useful when researchers need a large pool of data to study or if the study is dependent on tracking information over time. Researchers might not want to use observational studies if they do not have a lot of time to invest in their study.
Questionnaires and surveys
Questionnaires and surveys ask the same questions to a large group of individuals. These questions are typically used to measure quantitative data. Researchers translate the survey answers into numerical data so they can look for patterns. These questions could include something as simple are counting the number of employees at a company who prefer the color red to more complex data patterns, like studying the percentage of employees who preferred the color red and were also born in January.
Questionnaires can be a good way to quickly secure a high number of participants. People who do not have time for longer interview sessions can easily take a questionnaire on-site or return it in the mail later. However, mail-in surveys and questionnaires can have a low response rate, and participants might skip questions or answer them incorrectly. Researchers who elect to use this method should make considerations for potential gaps in the data due to human error in the survey completion.
Researchers have a written list of questions for their subjects during interviews, creating a very structured research setting. The researcher could also only have one question arranged, allowing the subject to speak and expand on the topic from there. You might hold interviews over the phone, via digital messaging or in person. Analysts can use interviews during qualitative or quantitative research projects.
During an interview, it's helpful to have two researchers. You might have one researcher take notes on a participant's responses while the other researcher watches the participant for nonverbal cues. If only one researcher is available, then getting permission to record the interview can be helpful—this ensures that the single researcher can watch the subject for nonverbal cues and is not hindered by excessive note-taking. A researcher might not want to use this method if they are working alone and cannot record the process.
Focus groups and case studies
In a focus group, researchers gather participants together and ask questions of the group. Researchers might observe a focus group and take notes on the session, or they can operate as the group's facilitator. As with interviews, researchers can record focus groups for further review and analysis.
In a case study, researchers study one central case of a person or a small group. Researchers might also make a case study of data from previous focus groups. Some researchers use the words "focus group" or "case study" interchangeably when studying a small group. Both focus groups and case studies are qualitative research methods, recording information rather than numerical data.
Researchers can hold focus groups and case studies on many topics, including public health, food preferences or even entertainment options. Researchers might want to use this method if they are looking for a very descriptive dataset to examine. However, you might not want to use a focus group or a case study if you need a broader scope of data to analyze.
Experiments involve testing a theory in a lab environment, in a controlled area or with willing study participants in different environments. You might ask participants to complete tests verbally, on paper or on a computer. Some experiments could involve multiple simulations.
For example, a researcher might give a cognitive test to a patient, but the actual test is evaluating how the patient performs when the room's temperature is colder or hotter than it was to begin with. Experiments are usually quantitative studies, recording numerical or statistical data.
There are many methods of completing experiments, so these can be easy to administer to participants. Best practices for this method include having simple instructions and easily replicated experiments. Participants might need to complete tests on computers, so researchers should ensure test-takers need no prior knowledge of computers to complete these types of tests.
You might not want to use experiments as a method if your directions for participants are not clear. Clear instructions allow participants to move through the experiment confidently and accurately, allowing for a more consistent collection of data.
Related: What Is Quantitative Analysis?
Secondary data analysis
Secondary data analysis, also known as archival study, is studying and assessing research that already exists. If the archival works include letters, diaries or emails, this is a qualitative study. If the archival files are numerical data, like accounting reports, that would be a quantitative study.
This research method can be much more expedient than other research methods because it involves using research that's already been completed. Researchers might want to use this method because it can be much more cost-effective, and you could find multiple sources for your analysis. However, you'll want to ensure that the data is timely, specific to your study's needs and unbiased for it to be most useful.
Mixed methods can be a combination of multiple types of research methods. The researcher might combine observations with focus groups or interviews. The selected combination depends on what the researcher is studying and which research methods are best suited for their tasks. Best practices for utilizing mixed methods include picking two complementary research methods, such as starting with a focus group and then using the focus group data to develop and conduct an experiment.
You might not want to use mixed methods if this approach could unnecessarily complicate the research. For example, if your mixed methods are surveys and secondary data analysis, these two methods could unnecessarily complicate the study if the sets of information are not relevant to one another.
Frequently asked questions
How do you decide which research method to use?
Reflect on what you want to learn about the topic you're researching. If you want to gain a statistical, objective answer to your research question, choose a quantitative method. If you're studying an intangible topic and would prefer to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ideas involved, qualitative methods may allow for more nuanced findings.
What are the four main types of research interviews?
The four main types of research interviews are:
Structured interviews: follow a predetermined order and set of questions
Semi-structured interviews: include a mixture of predetermined and spontaneous questions
Unstructured interviews: rely entirely on fluid, spontaneous questioning
Focus group interviews: involve a group of responders, answering questions in a shared setting
What is anonymity in research?
Anonymity is when researchers are unaware of participants' identities. Researchers sometimes anonymize subjects to protect their privacy and minimize bias.
What's the difference between a research design and a research method?
A research design is a high-level strategic plan that defines how you and your team expect to find an answer to your primary research question. It defines various tools, techniques and methods you plan to implement, along with details about each step. A research method is a type of research or a research tool, like an interview or survey, that you use to collect and evaluate data in pursuit of answers.
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