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Descriptive Research Design – Types, Methods and Examples

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Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive Research Design


Descriptive research design is a type of research methodology that aims to describe or document the characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, opinions, or perceptions of a group or population being studied.

Descriptive research design does not attempt to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables or make predictions about future outcomes. Instead, it focuses on providing a detailed and accurate representation of the data collected, which can be useful for generating hypotheses, exploring trends, and identifying patterns in the data.

Types of Descriptive Research Design

Types of Descriptive Research Design are as follows:

Cross-sectional Study

This involves collecting data at a single point in time from a sample or population to describe their characteristics or behaviors. For example, a researcher may conduct a cross-sectional study to investigate the prevalence of certain health conditions among a population, or to describe the attitudes and beliefs of a particular group.

Longitudinal Study

This involves collecting data over an extended period of time, often through repeated observations or surveys of the same group or population. Longitudinal studies can be used to track changes in attitudes, behaviors, or outcomes over time, or to investigate the effects of interventions or treatments.

This involves an in-depth examination of a single individual, group, or situation to gain a detailed understanding of its characteristics or dynamics. Case studies are often used in psychology, sociology, and business to explore complex phenomena or to generate hypotheses for further research.

Survey Research

This involves collecting data from a sample or population through standardized questionnaires or interviews. Surveys can be used to describe attitudes, opinions, behaviors, or demographic characteristics of a group, and can be conducted in person, by phone, or online.

Observational Research

This involves observing and documenting the behavior or interactions of individuals or groups in a natural or controlled setting. Observational studies can be used to describe social, cultural, or environmental phenomena, or to investigate the effects of interventions or treatments.

Correlational Research

This involves examining the relationships between two or more variables to describe their patterns or associations. Correlational studies can be used to identify potential causal relationships or to explore the strength and direction of relationships between variables.

Data Analysis Methods

Descriptive research design data analysis methods depend on the type of data collected and the research question being addressed. Here are some common methods of data analysis for descriptive research:

Descriptive Statistics

This method involves analyzing data to summarize and describe the key features of a sample or population. Descriptive statistics can include measures of central tendency (e.g., mean, median, mode) and measures of variability (e.g., range, standard deviation).


This method involves analyzing data by creating a table that shows the frequency of two or more variables together. Cross-tabulation can help identify patterns or relationships between variables.

Content Analysis

This method involves analyzing qualitative data (e.g., text, images, audio) to identify themes, patterns, or trends. Content analysis can be used to describe the characteristics of a sample or population, or to identify factors that influence attitudes or behaviors.

Qualitative Coding

This method involves analyzing qualitative data by assigning codes to segments of data based on their meaning or content. Qualitative coding can be used to identify common themes, patterns, or categories within the data.


This method involves creating graphs or charts to represent data visually. Visualization can help identify patterns or relationships between variables and make it easier to communicate findings to others.

Comparative Analysis

This method involves comparing data across different groups or time periods to identify similarities and differences. Comparative analysis can help describe changes in attitudes or behaviors over time or differences between subgroups within a population.

Applications of Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design has numerous applications in various fields. Some of the common applications of descriptive research design are:

  • Market research: Descriptive research design is widely used in market research to understand consumer preferences, behavior, and attitudes. This helps companies to develop new products and services, improve marketing strategies, and increase customer satisfaction.
  • Health research: Descriptive research design is used in health research to describe the prevalence and distribution of a disease or health condition in a population. This helps healthcare providers to develop prevention and treatment strategies.
  • Educational research: Descriptive research design is used in educational research to describe the performance of students, schools, or educational programs. This helps educators to improve teaching methods and develop effective educational programs.
  • Social science research: Descriptive research design is used in social science research to describe social phenomena such as cultural norms, values, and beliefs. This helps researchers to understand social behavior and develop effective policies.
  • Public opinion research: Descriptive research design is used in public opinion research to understand the opinions and attitudes of the general public on various issues. This helps policymakers to develop effective policies that are aligned with public opinion.
  • Environmental research: Descriptive research design is used in environmental research to describe the environmental conditions of a particular region or ecosystem. This helps policymakers and environmentalists to develop effective conservation and preservation strategies.

Descriptive Research Design Examples

Here are some real-time examples of descriptive research designs:

  • A restaurant chain wants to understand the demographics and attitudes of its customers. They conduct a survey asking customers about their age, gender, income, frequency of visits, favorite menu items, and overall satisfaction. The survey data is analyzed using descriptive statistics and cross-tabulation to describe the characteristics of their customer base.
  • A medical researcher wants to describe the prevalence and risk factors of a particular disease in a population. They conduct a cross-sectional study in which they collect data from a sample of individuals using a standardized questionnaire. The data is analyzed using descriptive statistics and cross-tabulation to identify patterns in the prevalence and risk factors of the disease.
  • An education researcher wants to describe the learning outcomes of students in a particular school district. They collect test scores from a representative sample of students in the district and use descriptive statistics to calculate the mean, median, and standard deviation of the scores. They also create visualizations such as histograms and box plots to show the distribution of scores.
  • A marketing team wants to understand the attitudes and behaviors of consumers towards a new product. They conduct a series of focus groups and use qualitative coding to identify common themes and patterns in the data. They also create visualizations such as word clouds to show the most frequently mentioned topics.
  • An environmental scientist wants to describe the biodiversity of a particular ecosystem. They conduct an observational study in which they collect data on the species and abundance of plants and animals in the ecosystem. The data is analyzed using descriptive statistics to describe the diversity and richness of the ecosystem.

How to Conduct Descriptive Research Design

To conduct a descriptive research design, you can follow these general steps:

  • Define your research question: Clearly define the research question or problem that you want to address. Your research question should be specific and focused to guide your data collection and analysis.
  • Choose your research method: Select the most appropriate research method for your research question. As discussed earlier, common research methods for descriptive research include surveys, case studies, observational studies, cross-sectional studies, and longitudinal studies.
  • Design your study: Plan the details of your study, including the sampling strategy, data collection methods, and data analysis plan. Determine the sample size and sampling method, decide on the data collection tools (such as questionnaires, interviews, or observations), and outline your data analysis plan.
  • Collect data: Collect data from your sample or population using the data collection tools you have chosen. Ensure that you follow ethical guidelines for research and obtain informed consent from participants.
  • Analyze data: Use appropriate statistical or qualitative analysis methods to analyze your data. As discussed earlier, common data analysis methods for descriptive research include descriptive statistics, cross-tabulation, content analysis, qualitative coding, visualization, and comparative analysis.
  • I nterpret results: Interpret your findings in light of your research question and objectives. Identify patterns, trends, and relationships in the data, and describe the characteristics of your sample or population.
  • Draw conclusions and report results: Draw conclusions based on your analysis and interpretation of the data. Report your results in a clear and concise manner, using appropriate tables, graphs, or figures to present your findings. Ensure that your report follows accepted research standards and guidelines.

When to Use Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design is used in situations where the researcher wants to describe a population or phenomenon in detail. It is used to gather information about the current status or condition of a group or phenomenon without making any causal inferences. Descriptive research design is useful in the following situations:

  • Exploratory research: Descriptive research design is often used in exploratory research to gain an initial understanding of a phenomenon or population.
  • Identifying trends: Descriptive research design can be used to identify trends or patterns in a population, such as changes in consumer behavior or attitudes over time.
  • Market research: Descriptive research design is commonly used in market research to understand consumer preferences, behavior, and attitudes.
  • Health research: Descriptive research design is useful in health research to describe the prevalence and distribution of a disease or health condition in a population.
  • Social science research: Descriptive research design is used in social science research to describe social phenomena such as cultural norms, values, and beliefs.
  • Educational research: Descriptive research design is used in educational research to describe the performance of students, schools, or educational programs.

Purpose of Descriptive Research Design

The main purpose of descriptive research design is to describe and measure the characteristics of a population or phenomenon in a systematic and objective manner. It involves collecting data that describe the current status or condition of the population or phenomenon of interest, without manipulating or altering any variables.

The purpose of descriptive research design can be summarized as follows:

  • To provide an accurate description of a population or phenomenon: Descriptive research design aims to provide a comprehensive and accurate description of a population or phenomenon of interest. This can help researchers to develop a better understanding of the characteristics of the population or phenomenon.
  • To identify trends and patterns: Descriptive research design can help researchers to identify trends and patterns in the data, such as changes in behavior or attitudes over time. This can be useful for making predictions and developing strategies.
  • To generate hypotheses: Descriptive research design can be used to generate hypotheses or research questions that can be tested in future studies. For example, if a descriptive study finds a correlation between two variables, this could lead to the development of a hypothesis about the causal relationship between the variables.
  • To establish a baseline: Descriptive research design can establish a baseline or starting point for future research. This can be useful for comparing data from different time periods or populations.

Characteristics of Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design has several key characteristics that distinguish it from other research designs. Some of the main characteristics of descriptive research design are:

  • Objective : Descriptive research design is objective in nature, which means that it focuses on collecting factual and accurate data without any personal bias. The researcher aims to report the data objectively without any personal interpretation.
  • Non-experimental: Descriptive research design is non-experimental, which means that the researcher does not manipulate any variables. The researcher simply observes and records the behavior or characteristics of the population or phenomenon of interest.
  • Quantitative : Descriptive research design is quantitative in nature, which means that it involves collecting numerical data that can be analyzed using statistical techniques. This helps to provide a more precise and accurate description of the population or phenomenon.
  • Cross-sectional: Descriptive research design is often cross-sectional, which means that the data is collected at a single point in time. This can be useful for understanding the current state of the population or phenomenon, but it may not provide information about changes over time.
  • Large sample size: Descriptive research design typically involves a large sample size, which helps to ensure that the data is representative of the population of interest. A large sample size also helps to increase the reliability and validity of the data.
  • Systematic and structured: Descriptive research design involves a systematic and structured approach to data collection, which helps to ensure that the data is accurate and reliable. This involves using standardized procedures for data collection, such as surveys, questionnaires, or observation checklists.

Advantages of Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design has several advantages that make it a popular choice for researchers. Some of the main advantages of descriptive research design are:

  • Provides an accurate description: Descriptive research design is focused on accurately describing the characteristics of a population or phenomenon. This can help researchers to develop a better understanding of the subject of interest.
  • Easy to conduct: Descriptive research design is relatively easy to conduct and requires minimal resources compared to other research designs. It can be conducted quickly and efficiently, and data can be collected through surveys, questionnaires, or observations.
  • Useful for generating hypotheses: Descriptive research design can be used to generate hypotheses or research questions that can be tested in future studies. For example, if a descriptive study finds a correlation between two variables, this could lead to the development of a hypothesis about the causal relationship between the variables.
  • Large sample size : Descriptive research design typically involves a large sample size, which helps to ensure that the data is representative of the population of interest. A large sample size also helps to increase the reliability and validity of the data.
  • Can be used to monitor changes : Descriptive research design can be used to monitor changes over time in a population or phenomenon. This can be useful for identifying trends and patterns, and for making predictions about future behavior or attitudes.
  • Can be used in a variety of fields : Descriptive research design can be used in a variety of fields, including social sciences, healthcare, business, and education.

Limitation of Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design also has some limitations that researchers should consider before using this design. Some of the main limitations of descriptive research design are:

  • Cannot establish cause and effect: Descriptive research design cannot establish cause and effect relationships between variables. It only provides a description of the characteristics of the population or phenomenon of interest.
  • Limited generalizability: The results of a descriptive study may not be generalizable to other populations or situations. This is because descriptive research design often involves a specific sample or situation, which may not be representative of the broader population.
  • Potential for bias: Descriptive research design can be subject to bias, particularly if the researcher is not objective in their data collection or interpretation. This can lead to inaccurate or incomplete descriptions of the population or phenomenon of interest.
  • Limited depth: Descriptive research design may provide a superficial description of the population or phenomenon of interest. It does not delve into the underlying causes or mechanisms behind the observed behavior or characteristics.
  • Limited utility for theory development: Descriptive research design may not be useful for developing theories about the relationship between variables. It only provides a description of the variables themselves.
  • Relies on self-report data: Descriptive research design often relies on self-report data, such as surveys or questionnaires. This type of data may be subject to biases, such as social desirability bias or recall bias.

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Bridging the Gap: Overcome these 7 flaws in descriptive research design

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Descriptive research design is a powerful tool used by scientists and researchers to gather information about a particular group or phenomenon. This type of research provides a detailed and accurate picture of the characteristics and behaviors of a particular population or subject. By observing and collecting data on a given topic, descriptive research helps researchers gain a deeper understanding of a specific issue and provides valuable insights that can inform future studies.

In this blog, we will explore the definition, characteristics, and common flaws in descriptive research design, and provide tips on how to avoid these pitfalls to produce high-quality results. Whether you are a seasoned researcher or a student just starting, understanding the fundamentals of descriptive research design is essential to conducting successful scientific studies.

Table of Contents

What Is Descriptive Research Design?

The descriptive research design involves observing and collecting data on a given topic without attempting to infer cause-and-effect relationships. The goal of descriptive research is to provide a comprehensive and accurate picture of the population or phenomenon being studied and to describe the relationships, patterns, and trends that exist within the data.

Descriptive research methods can include surveys, observational studies , and case studies, and the data collected can be qualitative or quantitative . The findings from descriptive research provide valuable insights and inform future research, but do not establish cause-and-effect relationships.

Importance of Descriptive Research in Scientific Studies

1. understanding of a population or phenomenon.

Descriptive research provides a comprehensive picture of the characteristics and behaviors of a particular population or phenomenon, allowing researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the topic.

2. Baseline Information

The information gathered through descriptive research can serve as a baseline for future research and provide a foundation for further studies.

3. Informative Data

Descriptive research can provide valuable information and insights into a particular topic, which can inform future research, policy decisions, and programs.

4. Sampling Validation

Descriptive research can be used to validate sampling methods and to help researchers determine the best approach for their study.

5. Cost Effective

Descriptive research is often less expensive and less time-consuming than other research methods , making it a cost-effective way to gather information about a particular population or phenomenon.

6. Easy to Replicate

Descriptive research is straightforward to replicate, making it a reliable way to gather and compare information from multiple sources.

Key Characteristics of Descriptive Research Design

The primary purpose of descriptive research is to describe the characteristics, behaviors, and attributes of a particular population or phenomenon.

2. Participants and Sampling

Descriptive research studies a particular population or sample that is representative of the larger population being studied. Furthermore, sampling methods can include convenience, stratified, or random sampling.

3. Data Collection Techniques

Descriptive research typically involves the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data through methods such as surveys, observational studies, case studies, or focus groups.

4. Data Analysis

Descriptive research data is analyzed to identify patterns, relationships, and trends within the data. Statistical techniques , such as frequency distributions and descriptive statistics, are commonly used to summarize and describe the data.

5. Focus on Description

Descriptive research is focused on describing and summarizing the characteristics of a particular population or phenomenon. It does not make causal inferences.

6. Non-Experimental

Descriptive research is non-experimental, meaning that the researcher does not manipulate variables or control conditions. The researcher simply observes and collects data on the population or phenomenon being studied.

When Can a Researcher Conduct Descriptive Research?

A researcher can conduct descriptive research in the following situations:

  • To better understand a particular population or phenomenon
  • To describe the relationships between variables
  • To describe patterns and trends
  • To validate sampling methods and determine the best approach for a study
  • To compare data from multiple sources.

Types of Descriptive Research Design

1. survey research.

Surveys are a type of descriptive research that involves collecting data through self-administered or interviewer-administered questionnaires. Additionally, they can be administered in-person, by mail, or online, and can collect both qualitative and quantitative data.

2. Observational Research

Observational research involves observing and collecting data on a particular population or phenomenon without manipulating variables or controlling conditions. It can be conducted in naturalistic settings or controlled laboratory settings.

3. Case Study Research

Case study research is a type of descriptive research that focuses on a single individual, group, or event. It involves collecting detailed information on the subject through a variety of methods, including interviews, observations, and examination of documents.

4. Focus Group Research

Focus group research involves bringing together a small group of people to discuss a particular topic or product. Furthermore, the group is usually moderated by a researcher and the discussion is recorded for later analysis.

5. Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research involves conducting detailed observations of a particular culture or community. It is often used to gain a deep understanding of the beliefs, behaviors, and practices of a particular group.

Advantages of Descriptive Research Design

1. provides a comprehensive understanding.

Descriptive research provides a comprehensive picture of the characteristics, behaviors, and attributes of a particular population or phenomenon, which can be useful in informing future research and policy decisions.

2. Non-invasive

Descriptive research is non-invasive and does not manipulate variables or control conditions, making it a suitable method for sensitive or ethical concerns.

3. Flexibility

Descriptive research allows for a wide range of data collection methods , including surveys, observational studies, case studies, and focus groups, making it a flexible and versatile research method.

4. Cost-effective

Descriptive research is often less expensive and less time-consuming than other research methods. Moreover, it gives a cost-effective option to many researchers.

5. Easy to Replicate

Descriptive research is easy to replicate, making it a reliable way to gather and compare information from multiple sources.

6. Informs Future Research

The insights gained from a descriptive research can inform future research and inform policy decisions and programs.

Disadvantages of Descriptive Research Design

1. limited scope.

Descriptive research only provides a snapshot of the current situation and cannot establish cause-and-effect relationships.

2. Dependence on Existing Data

Descriptive research relies on existing data, which may not always be comprehensive or accurate.

3. Lack of Control

Researchers have no control over the variables in descriptive research, which can limit the conclusions that can be drawn.

The researcher’s own biases and preconceptions can influence the interpretation of the data.

5. Lack of Generalizability

Descriptive research findings may not be applicable to other populations or situations.

6. Lack of Depth

Descriptive research provides a surface-level understanding of a phenomenon, rather than a deep understanding.

7. Time-consuming

Descriptive research often requires a large amount of data collection and analysis, which can be time-consuming and resource-intensive.

7 Ways to Avoid Common Flaws While Designing Descriptive Research

concept of descriptive research

1. Clearly define the research question

A clearly defined research question is the foundation of any research study, and it is important to ensure that the question is both specific and relevant to the topic being studied.

2. Choose the appropriate research design

Choosing the appropriate research design for a study is crucial to the success of the study. Moreover, researchers should choose a design that best fits the research question and the type of data needed to answer it.

3. Select a representative sample

Selecting a representative sample is important to ensure that the findings of the study are generalizable to the population being studied. Researchers should use a sampling method that provides a random and representative sample of the population.

4. Use valid and reliable data collection methods

Using valid and reliable data collection methods is important to ensure that the data collected is accurate and can be used to answer the research question. Researchers should choose methods that are appropriate for the study and that can be administered consistently and systematically.

5. Minimize bias

Bias can significantly impact the validity and reliability of research findings.  Furthermore, it is important to minimize bias in all aspects of the study, from the selection of participants to the analysis of data.

6. Ensure adequate sample size

An adequate sample size is important to ensure that the results of the study are statistically significant and can be generalized to the population being studied.

7. Use appropriate data analysis techniques

The appropriate data analysis technique depends on the type of data collected and the research question being asked. Researchers should choose techniques that are appropriate for the data and the question being asked.

Have you worked on descriptive research designs? How was your experience creating a descriptive design? What challenges did you face? Do write to us or leave a comment below and share your insights on descriptive research designs!

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  • Descriptive Research Design | Definition, Methods & Examples

Descriptive Research Design | Definition, Methods & Examples

Published on 5 May 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 10 October 2022.

Descriptive research aims to accurately and systematically describe a population, situation or phenomenon. It can answer what , where , when , and how   questions , but not why questions.

A descriptive research design can use a wide variety of research methods  to investigate one or more variables . Unlike in experimental research , the researcher does not control or manipulate any of the variables, but only observes and measures them.

Table of contents

When to use a descriptive research design, descriptive research methods.

Descriptive research is an appropriate choice when the research aim is to identify characteristics, frequencies, trends, and categories.

It is useful when not much is known yet about the topic or problem. Before you can research why something happens, you need to understand how, when, and where it happens.

  • How has the London housing market changed over the past 20 years?
  • Do customers of company X prefer product Y or product Z?
  • What are the main genetic, behavioural, and morphological differences between European wildcats and domestic cats?
  • What are the most popular online news sources among under-18s?
  • How prevalent is disease A in population B?

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Descriptive research is usually defined as a type of quantitative research , though qualitative research can also be used for descriptive purposes. The research design should be carefully developed to ensure that the results are valid and reliable .

Survey research allows you to gather large volumes of data that can be analysed for frequencies, averages, and patterns. Common uses of surveys include:

  • Describing the demographics of a country or region
  • Gauging public opinion on political and social topics
  • Evaluating satisfaction with a company’s products or an organisation’s services


Observations allow you to gather data on behaviours and phenomena without having to rely on the honesty and accuracy of respondents. This method is often used by psychological, social, and market researchers to understand how people act in real-life situations.

Observation of physical entities and phenomena is also an important part of research in the natural sciences. Before you can develop testable hypotheses , models, or theories, it’s necessary to observe and systematically describe the subject under investigation.

Case studies

A case study can be used to describe the characteristics of a specific subject (such as a person, group, event, or organisation). Instead of gathering a large volume of data to identify patterns across time or location, case studies gather detailed data to identify the characteristics of a narrowly defined subject.

Rather than aiming to describe generalisable facts, case studies often focus on unusual or interesting cases that challenge assumptions, add complexity, or reveal something new about a research problem .

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  • What is descriptive research?

Last updated

5 February 2023

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

Descriptive research is a common investigatory model used by researchers in various fields, including social sciences, linguistics, and academia.

Read on to understand the characteristics of descriptive research and explore its underlying techniques, processes, and procedures.

Analyze your descriptive research

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Descriptive research is an exploratory research method. It enables researchers to precisely and methodically describe a population, circumstance, or phenomenon.

As the name suggests, descriptive research describes the characteristics of the group, situation, or phenomenon being studied without manipulating variables or testing hypotheses . This can be reported using surveys , observational studies, and case studies. You can use both quantitative and qualitative methods to compile the data.

Besides making observations and then comparing and analyzing them, descriptive studies often develop knowledge concepts and provide solutions to critical issues. It always aims to answer how the event occurred, when it occurred, where it occurred, and what the problem or phenomenon is.

  • Characteristics of descriptive research

The following are some of the characteristics of descriptive research:


Descriptive research can be quantitative as it gathers quantifiable data to statistically analyze a population sample. These numbers can show patterns, connections, and trends over time and can be discovered using surveys, polls, and experiments.


Descriptive research can also be qualitative. It gives meaning and context to the numbers supplied by quantitative descriptive research .

Researchers can use tools like interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic studies to illustrate why things are what they are and help characterize the research problem. This is because it’s more explanatory than exploratory or experimental research.

Uncontrolled variables

Descriptive research differs from experimental research in that researchers cannot manipulate the variables. They are recognized, scrutinized, and quantified instead. This is one of its most prominent features.

Cross-sectional studies

Descriptive research is a cross-sectional study because it examines several areas of the same group. It involves obtaining data on multiple variables at the personal level during a certain period. It’s helpful when trying to understand a larger community’s habits or preferences.

Carried out in a natural environment

Descriptive studies are usually carried out in the participants’ everyday environment, which allows researchers to avoid influencing responders by collecting data in a natural setting. You can use online surveys or survey questions to collect data or observe.

Basis for further research

You can further dissect descriptive research’s outcomes and use them for different types of investigation. The outcomes also serve as a foundation for subsequent investigations and can guide future studies. For example, you can use the data obtained in descriptive research to help determine future research designs.

  • Descriptive research methods

There are three basic approaches for gathering data in descriptive research: observational, case study, and survey.

You can use surveys to gather data in descriptive research. This involves gathering information from many people using a questionnaire and interview .

Surveys remain the dominant research tool for descriptive research design. Researchers can conduct various investigations and collect multiple types of data (quantitative and qualitative) using surveys with diverse designs.

You can conduct surveys over the phone, online, or in person. Your survey might be a brief interview or conversation with a set of prepared questions intended to obtain quick information from the primary source.


This descriptive research method involves observing and gathering data on a population or phenomena without manipulating variables. It is employed in psychology, market research , and other social science studies to track and understand human behavior.

Observation is an essential component of descriptive research. It entails gathering data and analyzing it to see whether there is a relationship between the two variables in the study. This strategy usually allows for both qualitative and quantitative data analysis.

Case studies

A case study can outline a specific topic’s traits. The topic might be a person, group, event, or organization.

It involves using a subset of a larger group as a sample to characterize the features of that larger group.

You can generalize knowledge gained from studying a case study to benefit a broader audience.

This approach entails carefully examining a particular group, person, or event over time. You can learn something new about the study topic by using a small group to better understand the dynamics of the entire group.

  • Types of descriptive research

There are several types of descriptive study. The most well-known include cross-sectional studies, census surveys, sample surveys, case reports, and comparison studies.

Case reports and case series

In the healthcare and medical fields, a case report is used to explain a patient’s circumstances when suffering from an uncommon illness or displaying certain symptoms. Case reports and case series are both collections of related cases. They have aided the advancement of medical knowledge on countless occasions.

The normative component is an addition to the descriptive survey. In the descriptive–normative survey, you compare the study’s results to the norm.

Descriptive survey

This descriptive type of research employs surveys to collect information on various topics. This data aims to determine the degree to which certain conditions may be attained.

You can extrapolate or generalize the information you obtain from sample surveys to the larger group being researched.

Correlative survey

Correlative surveys help establish if there is a positive, negative, or neutral connection between two variables.

Performing census surveys involves gathering relevant data on several aspects of a given population. These units include individuals, families, organizations, objects, characteristics, and properties.

During descriptive research, you gather different degrees of interest over time from a specific population. Cross-sectional studies provide a glimpse of a phenomenon’s prevalence and features in a population. There are no ethical challenges with them and they are quite simple and inexpensive to carry out.

Comparative studies

These surveys compare the two subjects’ conditions or characteristics. The subjects may include research variables, organizations, plans, and people.

Comparison points, assumption of similarities, and criteria of comparison are three important variables that affect how well and accurately comparative studies are conducted.

For instance, descriptive research can help determine how many CEOs hold a bachelor’s degree and what proportion of low-income households receive government help.

  • Pros and cons

The primary advantage of descriptive research designs is that researchers can create a reliable and beneficial database for additional study. To conduct any inquiry, you need access to reliable information sources that can give you a firm understanding of a situation.

Quantitative studies are time- and resource-intensive, so knowing the hypotheses viable for testing is crucial. The basic overview of descriptive research provides helpful hints as to which variables are worth quantitatively examining. This is why it’s employed as a precursor to quantitative research designs.

Some experts view this research as untrustworthy and unscientific. However, there is no way to assess the findings because you don’t manipulate any variables statistically.

Cause-and-effect correlations also can’t be established through descriptive investigations. Additionally, observational study findings cannot be replicated, which prevents a review of the findings and their replication.

The absence of statistical and in-depth analysis and the rather superficial character of the investigative procedure are drawbacks of this research approach.

  • Descriptive research examples and applications

Several descriptive research examples are emphasized based on their types, purposes, and applications. Research questions often begin with “What is …” These studies help find solutions to practical issues in social science, physical science, and education.

Here are some examples and applications of descriptive research:

Determining consumer perception and behavior

Organizations use descriptive research designs to determine how various demographic groups react to a certain product or service.

For example, a business looking to sell to its target market should research the market’s behavior first. When researching human behavior in response to a cause or event, the researcher pays attention to the traits, actions, and responses before drawing a conclusion.

Scientific classification

Scientific descriptive research enables the classification of organisms and their traits and constituents.

Measuring data trends

A descriptive study design’s statistical capabilities allow researchers to track data trends over time. It’s frequently used to determine the study target’s current circumstances and underlying patterns.

Conduct comparison

Organizations can use a descriptive research approach to learn how various demographics react to a certain product or service. For example, you can study how the target market responds to a competitor’s product and use that information to infer their behavior.

  • Bottom line

A descriptive research design is suitable for exploring certain topics and serving as a prelude to larger quantitative investigations. It provides a comprehensive understanding of the “what” of the group or thing you’re investigating.

This research type acts as the cornerstone of other research methodologies . It is distinctive because it can use quantitative and qualitative research approaches at the same time.

What is descriptive research design?

Descriptive research design aims to systematically obtain information to describe a phenomenon, situation, or population. More specifically, it helps answer the what, when, where, and how questions regarding the research problem rather than the why.

How does descriptive research compare to qualitative research?

Despite certain parallels, descriptive research concentrates on describing phenomena, while qualitative research aims to understand people better.

How do you analyze descriptive research data?

Data analysis involves using various methodologies, enabling the researcher to evaluate and provide results regarding validity and reliability.

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concept of descriptive research

Home Market Research

Descriptive Research: Definition, Characteristics, Methods + Examples

Descriptive Research

Suppose an apparel brand wants to understand the fashion purchasing trends among New York’s buyers, then it must conduct a demographic survey of the specific region, gather population data, and then conduct descriptive research on this demographic segment.

The study will then uncover details on “what is the purchasing pattern of New York buyers,” but will not cover any investigative information about “ why ” the patterns exist. Because for the apparel brand trying to break into this market, understanding the nature of their market is the study’s main goal. Let’s talk about it.

What is descriptive research?

Descriptive research is a research method describing the characteristics of the population or phenomenon studied. This descriptive methodology focuses more on the “what” of the research subject than the “why” of the research subject.

The method primarily focuses on describing the nature of a demographic segment without focusing on “why” a particular phenomenon occurs. In other words, it “describes” the research subject without covering “why” it happens.

Characteristics of descriptive research

The term descriptive research then refers to research questions, the design of the study, and data analysis conducted on that topic. We call it an observational research method because none of the research study variables are influenced in any capacity.

Some distinctive characteristics of descriptive research are:

  • Quantitative research: It is a quantitative research method that attempts to collect quantifiable information for statistical analysis of the population sample. It is a popular market research tool that allows us to collect and describe the demographic segment’s nature.
  • Uncontrolled variables: In it, none of the variables are influenced in any way. This uses observational methods to conduct the research. Hence, the nature of the variables or their behavior is not in the hands of the researcher.
  • Cross-sectional studies: It is generally a cross-sectional study where different sections belonging to the same group are studied.
  • The basis for further research: Researchers further research the data collected and analyzed from descriptive research using different research techniques. The data can also help point towards the types of research methods used for the subsequent research.

Applications of descriptive research with examples

A descriptive research method can be used in multiple ways and for various reasons. Before getting into any survey , though, the survey goals and survey design are crucial. Despite following these steps, there is no way to know if one will meet the research outcome. How to use descriptive research? To understand the end objective of research goals, below are some ways organizations currently use descriptive research today:

  • Define respondent characteristics: The aim of using close-ended questions is to draw concrete conclusions about the respondents. This could be the need to derive patterns, traits, and behaviors of the respondents. It could also be to understand from a respondent their attitude, or opinion about the phenomenon. For example, understand millennials and the hours per week they spend browsing the internet. All this information helps the organization researching to make informed business decisions.
  • Measure data trends: Researchers measure data trends over time with a descriptive research design’s statistical capabilities. Consider if an apparel company researches different demographics like age groups from 24-35 and 36-45 on a new range launch of autumn wear. If one of those groups doesn’t take too well to the new launch, it provides insight into what clothes are like and what is not. The brand drops the clothes and apparel that customers don’t like.
  • Conduct comparisons: Organizations also use a descriptive research design to understand how different groups respond to a specific product or service. For example, an apparel brand creates a survey asking general questions that measure the brand’s image. The same study also asks demographic questions like age, income, gender, geographical location, geographic segmentation , etc. This consumer research helps the organization understand what aspects of the brand appeal to the population and what aspects do not. It also helps make product or marketing fixes or even create a new product line to cater to high-growth potential groups.
  • Validate existing conditions: Researchers widely use descriptive research to help ascertain the research object’s prevailing conditions and underlying patterns. Due to the non-invasive research method and the use of quantitative observation and some aspects of qualitative observation , researchers observe each variable and conduct an in-depth analysis . Researchers also use it to validate any existing conditions that may be prevalent in a population.
  • Conduct research at different times: The analysis can be conducted at different periods to ascertain any similarities or differences. This also allows any number of variables to be evaluated. For verification, studies on prevailing conditions can also be repeated to draw trends.

Advantages of descriptive research

Some of the significant advantages of descriptive research are:

Advantages of descriptive research

  • Data collection: A researcher can conduct descriptive research using specific methods like observational method, case study method, and survey method. Between these three, all primary data collection methods are covered, which provides a lot of information. This can be used for future research or even for developing a hypothesis for your research object.
  • Varied: Since the data collected is qualitative and quantitative, it gives a holistic understanding of a research topic. The information is varied, diverse, and thorough.
  • Natural environment: Descriptive research allows for the research to be conducted in the respondent’s natural environment, which ensures that high-quality and honest data is collected.
  • Quick to perform and cheap: As the sample size is generally large in descriptive research, the data collection is quick to conduct and is inexpensive.

Descriptive research methods

There are three distinctive methods to conduct descriptive research. They are:

Observational method

The observational method is the most effective method to conduct this research, and researchers make use of both quantitative and qualitative observations.

A quantitative observation is the objective collection of data primarily focused on numbers and values. It suggests “associated with, of or depicted in terms of a quantity.” Results of quantitative observation are derived using statistical and numerical analysis methods. It implies observation of any entity associated with a numeric value such as age, shape, weight, volume, scale, etc. For example, the researcher can track if current customers will refer the brand using a simple Net Promoter Score question .

Qualitative observation doesn’t involve measurements or numbers but instead just monitoring characteristics. In this case, the researcher observes the respondents from a distance. Since the respondents are in a comfortable environment, the characteristics observed are natural and effective. In a descriptive research design, the researcher can choose to be either a complete observer, an observer as a participant, a participant as an observer, or a full participant. For example, in a supermarket, a researcher can from afar monitor and track the customers’ selection and purchasing trends. This offers a more in-depth insight into the purchasing experience of the customer.

Case study method

Case studies involve in-depth research and study of individuals or groups. Case studies lead to a hypothesis and widen a further scope of studying a phenomenon. However, case studies should not be used to determine cause and effect as they can’t make accurate predictions because there could be a bias on the researcher’s part. The other reason why case studies are not a reliable way of conducting descriptive research is that there could be an atypical respondent in the survey. Describing them leads to weak generalizations and moving away from external validity.

Survey research

In survey research, respondents answer through surveys or questionnaires or polls . They are a popular market research tool to collect feedback from respondents. A study to gather useful data should have the right survey questions. It should be a balanced mix of open-ended questions and close ended-questions . The survey method can be conducted online or offline, making it the go-to option for descriptive research where the sample size is enormous.

Examples of descriptive research

Some examples of descriptive research are:

  • A specialty food group launching a new range of barbecue rubs would like to understand what flavors of rubs are favored by different people. To understand the preferred flavor palette, they conduct this type of research study using various methods like observational methods in supermarkets. By also surveying while collecting in-depth demographic information, offers insights about the preference of different markets. This can also help tailor make the rubs and spreads to various preferred meats in that demographic. Conducting this type of research helps the organization tweak their business model and amplify marketing in core markets.
  • Another example of where this research can be used is if a school district wishes to evaluate teachers’ attitudes about using technology in the classroom. By conducting surveys and observing their comfortableness using technology through observational methods, the researcher can gauge what they can help understand if a full-fledged implementation can face an issue. This also helps in understanding if the students are impacted in any way with this change.

Some other research problems and research questions that can lead to descriptive research are:

  • Market researchers want to observe the habits of consumers.
  • A company wants to evaluate the morale of its staff.
  • A school district wants to understand if students will access online lessons rather than textbooks.
  • To understand if its wellness questionnaire programs enhance the overall health of the employees.



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Blog General

Descriptive Research 101: Definition, Methods and Examples

Parvathi vijayamohan.

8 April 2024

Table Of Contents

  • Descriptive Research 101: The Definitive Guide

What is Descriptive Research?

Key characteristics of descriptive research.

  • Descriptive Research Methods: The 3 You Need to Know!


Case studies, 7 types of descriptive research, descriptive research: examples to build your next study, tips to excel at descriptive research.

Imagine you are a detective called to a crime scene. Your job is to study the scene and report whatever you find: whether that’s the half-smoked cigarette on the table or the large “RACHE” written in blood on the wall. That, in a nutshell, is  descriptive research .

Researchers often need to do descriptive research on a problem before they attempt to solve it. So in this guide, we’ll take you through:

  • What is descriptive research + characteristics
  • Descriptive research methods
  • Types of descriptive research
  • Descriptive research examples
  • Tips to excel at the descriptive method

Click to jump to the section that interests you.

Definition: As its name says, descriptive research  describes  the characteristics of the problem, phenomenon, situation, or group under study.

So the goal of all descriptive studies is to  explore  the background, details, and existing patterns in the problem to fully understand it. In other words, preliminary research.

However, descriptive research can be both  preliminary and conclusive . You can use the data from a descriptive study to make reports and get insights for further planning.

What descriptive research isn’t: Descriptive research finds the  what/when/where  of a problem, not the  why/how .

Because of this, we can’t use the descriptive method to explore cause-and-effect relationships where one variable (like a person’s job role) affects another variable (like their monthly income).

  • Answers the “what,” “when,” and “where”  of a research problem. For this reason, it is popularly used in  market research ,  awareness surveys , and  opinion polls .
  • Sets the stage  for a research problem. As an early part of the research process, descriptive studies help you dive deeper into the topic.
  • Opens the door  for further research. You can use descriptive data as the basis for more profound research, analysis and studies.
  • Qualitative and quantitative . It is possible to get a balanced mix of numerical responses and open-ended answers from the descriptive method.
  • No control or interference with the variables . The researcher simply observes and reports on them. However, specific research software has filters that allow her to zoom in on one variable.
  • Done in natural settings . You can get the best results from descriptive research by talking to people, surveying them, or observing them in a suitable environment. For example, suppose you are a website beta testing an app feature. In that case, descriptive research invites users to try the feature, tracking their behavior and then asking their opinions .
  • Can be applied to many research methods and areas. Examples include healthcare, SaaS, psychology, political studies, education, and pop culture.

Descriptive Research Methods: The Top Three You Need to Know!

In short, survey research is a brief interview or conversation with a set of prepared questions about a topic.

So you create a questionnaire, share it, and analyze the data you collect for further action. Learn about the differences between surveys and questionnaires  here .

You can access free survey templates , over 20+ question types, and pass data to 1,500+ applications with survey software, like SurveySparrow . It enables you to create surveys, share them and capture data with very little effort.

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  • Surveys can be hyper-local, regional, or global, depending on your objectives.
  • Share surveys in-person, offline, via SMS, email, or QR codes – so many options!
  • Easy to automate if you want to conduct many surveys over a period.

The observational method is a type of descriptive research in which you, the researcher, observe ongoing behavior.

Now, there are several (non-creepy) ways you can observe someone. In fact, observational research has three main approaches:

  • Covert observation: In true spy fashion, the researcher mixes in with the group undetected or observes from a distance.
  • Overt observation : The researcher identifies himself as a researcher – “The name’s Bond. J. Bond.” – and explains the purpose of the study.
  • Participatory observation : The researcher participates in what he is observing to understand his topic better.
  • Observation is one of the most accurate ways to get data on a subject’s behavior in a natural setting.
  • You don’t need to rely on people’s willingness to share information.
  • Observation is a universal method that can be applied to any area of research.

In the case study method, you do a detailed study of a specific group, person, or event over a period.

This brings us to a frequently asked question: “What’s the difference between case studies and longitudinal studies?”

A case study will go  very in-depth into the subject with one-on-one interviews, observations, and archival research. They are also qualitative, though sometimes they will use numbers and stats.

An example of longitudinal research would be a study of the health of night shift employees vs. general shift employees over a decade. An example of a case study would involve in-depth interviews with Casey, an assistant director of nursing who’s handled the night shift at the hospital for ten years now.

  • Due to the focus on a few people, case studies can give you a tremendous amount of information.
  • Because of the time and effort involved, a case study engages both researchers and participants.
  • Case studies are helpful for ethically investigating unusual, complex, or challenging subjects. An example would be a study of the habits of long-term cocaine users.

1. Case Study: Airbnb’s Growth Strategy

In an excellent case study, Tam Al Saad, Principal Consultant, Strategy + Growth at Webprofits, deep dives into how Airbnb attracted and retained 150 million users .

“What Airbnb offers isn’t a cheap place to sleep when you’re on holiday; it’s the opportunity to experience your destination as a local would. It’s the chance to meet the locals, experience the markets, and find non-touristy places.

Sure, you can visit the Louvre, see Buckingham Palace, and climb the Empire State Building, but you can do it as if it were your hometown while staying in a place that has character and feels like a home.” – Tam al Saad, Principal Consultant, Strategy + Growth at Webprofits

2. Observation – Better Tech Experiences for the Elderly

We often think that our elders are so hopeless with technology. But we’re not getting any younger either, and tech is changing at a hair trigger! This article by Annemieke Hendricks shares a wonderful example where researchers compare the levels of technological familiarity between age groups and how that influences usage.

“It is generally assumed that older adults have difficulty using modern electronic devices, such as mobile telephones or computers. Because this age group is growing in most countries, changing products and processes to adapt to their needs is increasingly more important. “ – Annemieke Hendricks, Marketing Communication Specialist, Noldus

3. Surveys – Decoding Sleep with SurveySparrow

SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) – an independent, non-profit research center – wanted to investigate the impact of stress on an adolescent’s sleep. To get those insights, two actions were essential: tracking sleep patterns through wearable devices and sending surveys at a pre-set time –  the pre-sleep period.

“With SurveySparrow’s recurring surveys feature, SRI was able to share engaging surveys with their participants exactly at the time they wanted and at the frequency they preferred.”

Read more about this project : How SRI International decoded sleep patterns with SurveySparrow

1: Answer the six Ws –

  • Who should we consider?
  • What information do we need?
  • When should we collect the information?
  • Where should we collect the information?
  • Why are we obtaining the information?
  • Way to collect the information

#2: Introduce and explain your methodological approach

#3: Describe your methods of data collection and/or selection.

#4: Describe your methods of analysis.

#5: Explain the reasoning behind your choices.

#6: Collect data.

#7: Analyze the data. Use software to speed up the process and reduce overthinking and human error.

#8: Report your conclusions and how you drew the results.

Wrapping Up

That’s all, folks!

Growth Marketer at SurveySparrow

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concept of descriptive research

What is Descriptive Research and How is it Used?

concept of descriptive research


What does descriptive research mean, why would you use a descriptive research design, what are the characteristics of descriptive research, examples of descriptive research, what are the data collection methods in descriptive research, how do you analyze descriptive research data, ensuring validity and reliability in the findings.

Conducting descriptive research offers researchers a way to present phenomena as they naturally occur. Rooted in an open-ended and non-experimental nature, this type of research focuses on portraying the details of specific phenomena or contexts, helping readers gain a clearer understanding of topics of interest.

From businesses gauging customer satisfaction to educators assessing classroom dynamics, the data collected from descriptive research provides invaluable insights across various fields.

This article aims to illuminate the essence, utility, characteristics, and methods associated with descriptive research, guiding those who wish to harness its potential in their respective domains.

concept of descriptive research

At its core, descriptive research refers to a systematic approach used by researchers to collect, analyze, and present data about real-life phenomena to describe it in its natural context. It primarily aims to describe what exists, based on empirical observations .

Unlike experimental research, where variables are manipulated to observe outcomes, descriptive research deals with the "as-is" scenario to facilitate further research by providing a framework or new insights on which continuing studies can build.

Definition of descriptive research

Descriptive research is defined as a research method that observes and describes the characteristics of a particular group, situation, or phenomenon.

The goal is not to establish cause and effect relationships but rather to provide a detailed account of the situation.

The difference between descriptive and exploratory research

While both descriptive and exploratory research seek to provide insights into a topic or phenomenon, they differ in their focus. Exploratory research is more about investigating a topic to develop preliminary insights or to identify potential areas of interest.

In contrast, descriptive research offers detailed accounts and descriptions of the observed phenomenon, seeking to paint a full picture of what's happening.

The evolution of descriptive research in academia

Historically, descriptive research has played a foundational role in numerous academic disciplines. Anthropologists, for instance, used this approach to document cultures and societies. Psychologists have employed it to capture behaviors, emotions, and reactions.

Over time, the method has evolved, incorporating technological advancements and adapting to contemporary needs, yet its essence remains rooted in describing a phenomenon or setting as it is.

concept of descriptive research

Descriptive research serves as a cornerstone in the research landscape for its ability to provide a detailed snapshot of life. Its unique qualities and methods make it an invaluable method for various research purposes. Here's why:

Benefits of obtaining a clear picture

Descriptive research captures the present state of phenomena, offering researchers a detailed reflection of situations. This unaltered representation is crucial for sectors like marketing, where understanding current consumer behavior can shape future strategies.

Facilitating data interpretation

Given its straightforward nature, descriptive research can provide data that's easier to interpret, both for researchers and their audiences. Rather than analyzing complex statistical relationships among variables, researchers present detailed descriptions of their qualitative observations . Researchers can engage in in depth analysis relating to their research question , but audiences can also draw insights from their own interpretations or reflections on potential underlying patterns.

Enhancing the clarity of the research problem

By presenting things as they are, descriptive research can help elucidate ambiguous research questions. A well-executed descriptive study can shine light on overlooked aspects of a problem, paving the way for further investigative research.

Addressing practical problems

In real-world scenarios, it's not always feasible to manipulate variables or set up controlled experiments. For instance, in social sciences, understanding cultural norms without interference is paramount. Descriptive research allows for such non-intrusive insights, ensuring genuine understanding.

Building a foundation for future research

Often, descriptive studies act as stepping stones for more complex research endeavors. By establishing baseline data and highlighting patterns, they create a platform upon which more intricate hypotheses can be built and tested in subsequent studies.

concept of descriptive research

Descriptive research is distinguished by a set of hallmark characteristics that set it apart from other research methodologies . Recognizing these features can help researchers effectively design, implement , and interpret descriptive studies.

Specificity in the research question

As with all research, descriptive research starts with a well-defined research question aiming to detail a particular phenomenon. The specificity ensures that the study remains focused on gathering relevant data without unnecessary deviations.

Focus on the present situation

While some research methods aim to predict future trends or uncover historical truths, descriptive research is predominantly concerned with the present. It seeks to capture the current state of affairs, such as understanding today's consumer habits or documenting a newly observed phenomenon.

Standardized and structured methodology

To ensure credibility and consistency in results, descriptive research often employs standardized methods. Whether it's using a fixed set of survey questions or adhering to specific observation protocols, this structured approach ensures that data is collected uniformly, making it easier to compare and analyze.

Non-manipulative approach in observation

One of the standout features of descriptive research is its non-invasive nature. Researchers observe and document without influencing the research subject or the environment. This passive stance ensures that the data gathered is a genuine reflection of the phenomenon under study.

Replicability and consistency in results

Due to its structured methodology, findings from descriptive research can often be replicated in different settings or with different samples. This consistency adds to the credibility of the results, reinforcing the validity of the insights drawn from the study.

concept of descriptive research

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Numerous fields and sectors conduct descriptive research for its versatile and detailed nature. Through its focus on presenting things as they naturally occur, it provides insights into a myriad of scenarios. Here are some tangible examples from diverse domains:

Conducting market research

Businesses often turn to data analysis through descriptive research to understand the demographics of their target market. For instance, a company launching a new product might survey potential customers to understand their age, gender, income level, and purchasing habits, offering valuable data for targeted marketing strategies.

Evaluating employee behaviors

Organizations rely on descriptive research designs to assess the behavior and attitudes of their employees. By conducting observations or surveys , companies can gather data on workplace satisfaction, collaboration patterns, or the impact of a new office layout on productivity.

concept of descriptive research

Understanding consumer preferences

Brands aiming to understand their consumers' likes and dislikes often use descriptive research. By observing shopping behaviors or conducting product feedback surveys , they can gauge preferences and adjust their offerings accordingly.

Documenting historical patterns

Historians and anthropologists employ descriptive research to identify patterns through analysis of events or cultural practices. For instance, a historian might detail the daily life in a particular era, while an anthropologist might document rituals and ceremonies of a specific tribe.

Assessing student performance

Educational researchers can utilize descriptive studies to understand the effectiveness of teaching methodologies. By observing classrooms or surveying students, they can measure data trends and gauge the impact of a new teaching technique or curriculum on student engagement and performance.

concept of descriptive research

Descriptive research methods aim to authentically represent situations and phenomena. These techniques ensure the collection of comprehensive and reliable data about the subject of interest.

The most appropriate descriptive research method depends on the research question and resources available for your research study.

Surveys and questionnaires

One of the most familiar tools in the researcher's arsenal, surveys and questionnaires offer a structured means of collecting data from a vast audience. Through carefully designed questions, researchers can obtain standardized responses that lend themselves to straightforward comparison and analysis in quantitative and qualitative research .

Survey research can manifest in various formats, from face-to-face interactions and telephone conversations to digital platforms. While surveys can reach a broad audience and generate quantitative data ripe for statistical analysis, they also come with the challenge of potential biases in design and rely heavily on respondent honesty.

Observations and case studies

Direct or participant observation is a method wherein researchers actively watch and document behaviors or events. A researcher might, for instance, observe the dynamics within a classroom or the behaviors of shoppers in a market setting.

Case studies provide an even deeper dive, focusing on a thorough analysis of a specific individual, group, or event. These methods present the advantage of capturing real-time, detailed data, but they might also be time-intensive and can sometimes introduce observer bias .

Interviews and focus groups

Interviews , whether they follow a structured script or flow more organically, are a powerful means to extract detailed insights directly from participants. On the other hand, focus groups gather multiple participants for discussions, aiming to gather diverse and collective opinions on a particular topic or product.

These methods offer the benefit of deep insights and adaptability in data collection . However, they necessitate skilled interviewers, and focus group settings might see individual opinions being influenced by group dynamics.

Document and content analysis

Here, instead of generating new data, researchers examine existing documents or content . This can range from studying historical records and newspapers to analyzing media content or literature.

Analyzing existing content offers the advantage of accessibility and can provide insights over longer time frames. However, the reliability and relevance of the content are paramount, and researchers must approach this method with a discerning eye.

concept of descriptive research

Descriptive research data, rich in details and insights, necessitates meticulous analysis to derive meaningful conclusions. The analysis process transforms raw data into structured findings that can be communicated and acted upon.

Qualitative content analysis

For data collected through interviews , focus groups , observations , or open-ended survey questions , qualitative content analysis is a popular choice. This involves examining non-numerical data to identify patterns, themes, or categories.

By coding responses or observations , researchers can identify recurring elements, making it easier to comprehend larger data sets and draw insights.

Using descriptive statistics

When dealing with quantitative data from surveys or experiments, descriptive statistics are invaluable. Measures such as mean, median, mode, standard deviation, and frequency distributions help summarize data sets, providing a snapshot of the overall patterns.

Graphical representations like histograms, pie charts, or bar graphs can further help in visualizing these statistics.

Coding and categorizing the data

Both qualitative and quantitative data often require coding. Coding involves assigning labels to specific responses or behaviors to group similar segments of data. This categorization aids in identifying patterns, especially in vast data sets.

For instance, responses to open-ended questions in a survey can be coded based on keywords or sentiments, allowing for a more structured analysis.

Visual representation through graphs and charts

Visual aids like graphs, charts, and plots can simplify complex data, making it more accessible and understandable. Whether it's showcasing frequency distributions through histograms or mapping out relationships with networks, visual representations can elucidate trends and patterns effectively.

In the realm of research , the credibility of findings is paramount. Without trustworthiness in the results, even the most meticulously gathered data can lose its value. Two cornerstones that bolster the credibility of research outcomes are validity and reliability .

Validity: Measuring the right thing

Validity addresses the accuracy of the research. It seeks to answer the question: Is the research genuinely measuring what it aims to measure? In descriptive research, where the objective is to paint an authentic picture of the current state of affairs, ensuring validity is crucial.

For instance, if a study aims to understand consumer preferences for a product category, the questions posed should genuinely reflect those preferences and not veer into unrelated territories. Multiple forms of validity, including content, criterion, and construct validity, can be examined to ensure that the research instruments and processes are aligned with the research goals.

Reliability: Consistency in findings

Reliability, on the other hand, pertains to the consistency of the research findings. When a study demonstrates reliability, this suggests that others could repeat the study and the outcomes would remain consistent across repetitions.

In descriptive research, factors like the clarity of survey questions , the training of observers , and the standardization of interview protocols play a role in enhancing reliability. Techniques such as test-retest and internal consistency measurements can be employed to assess and improve reliability.

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Child Care and Early Education Research Connections

Descriptive research studies.

Descriptive research is a type of research that is used to describe the characteristics of a population. It collects data that are used to answer a wide range of what, when, and how questions pertaining to a particular population or group. For example, descriptive studies might be used to answer questions such as: What percentage of Head Start teachers have a bachelor's degree or higher? What is the average reading ability of 5-year-olds when they first enter kindergarten? What kinds of math activities are used in early childhood programs? When do children first receive regular child care from someone other than their parents? When are children with developmental disabilities first diagnosed and when do they first receive services? What factors do programs consider when making decisions about the type of assessments that will be used to assess the skills of the children in their programs? How do the types of services children receive from their early childhood program change as children age?

Descriptive research does not answer questions about why a certain phenomenon occurs or what the causes are. Answers to such questions are best obtained from  randomized and quasi-experimental studies . However, data from descriptive studies can be used to examine the relationships (correlations) among variables. While the findings from correlational analyses are not evidence of causality, they can help to distinguish variables that may be important in explaining a phenomenon from those that are not. Thus, descriptive research is often used to generate hypotheses that should be tested using more rigorous designs.

A variety of data collection methods may be used alone or in combination to answer the types of questions guiding descriptive research. Some of the more common methods include surveys, interviews, observations, case studies, and portfolios. The data collected through these methods can be either quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative data are typically analyzed and presenting using  descriptive statistics . Using quantitative data, researchers may describe the characteristics of a sample or population in terms of percentages (e.g., percentage of population that belong to different racial/ethnic groups, percentage of low-income families that receive different government services) or averages (e.g., average household income, average scores of reading, mathematics and language assessments). Quantitative data, such as narrative data collected as part of a case study, may be used to organize, classify, and used to identify patterns of behaviors, attitudes, and other characteristics of groups.

Descriptive studies have an important role in early care and education research. Studies such as the  National Survey of Early Care and Education  and the  National Household Education Surveys Program  have greatly increased our knowledge of the supply of and demand for child care in the U.S. The  Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey  and the  Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Program  have provided researchers, policy makers and practitioners with rich information about school readiness skills of children in the U.S.

Each of the methods used to collect descriptive data have their own strengths and limitations. The following are some of the strengths and limitations of descriptive research studies in general.

Study participants are questioned or observed in a natural setting (e.g., their homes, child care or educational settings).

Study data can be used to identify the prevalence of particular problems and the need for new or additional services to address these problems.

Descriptive research may identify areas in need of additional research and relationships between variables that require future study. Descriptive research is often referred to as "hypothesis generating research."

Depending on the data collection method used, descriptive studies can generate rich datasets on large and diverse samples.


Descriptive studies cannot be used to establish cause and effect relationships.

Respondents may not be truthful when answering survey questions or may give socially desirable responses.

The choice and wording of questions on a questionnaire may influence the descriptive findings.

Depending on the type and size of sample, the findings may not be generalizable or produce an accurate description of the population of interest.

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Descriptive Research in Psychology

Sometimes you need to dig deeper than the pure statistics

John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.

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Types of Descriptive Research and the Methods Used

  • Advantages & Limitations of Descriptive Research

Best Practices for Conducting Descriptive Research

Descriptive research is one of the key tools needed in any psychology researcher’s toolbox in order to create and lead a project that is both equitable and effective. Because psychology, as a field, loves definitions, let’s start with one. The University of Minnesota’s Introduction to Psychology defines this type of research as one that is “...designed to provide a snapshot of the current state of affairs.” That's pretty broad, so what does that mean in practice? Dr. Heather Derry-Vick (PhD) , an assistant professor in psychiatry at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, helps us put it into perspective. "Descriptive research really focuses on defining, understanding, and measuring a phenomenon or an experience," she says. "Not trying to change a person's experience or outcome, or even really looking at the mechanisms for why that might be happening, but more so describing an experience or a process as it unfolds naturally.”

Within the descriptive research methodology there are multiple types, including the following.

Descriptive Survey Research

This involves going beyond a typical tool like a LIkert Scale —where you typically place your response to a prompt on a one to five scale. We already know that scales like this can be ineffective, particularly when studying pain, for example.

When that's the case, using a descriptive methodology can help dig deeper into how a person is thinking, feeling, and acting rather than simply quantifying it in a way that might be unclear or confusing.

Descriptive Observational Research

Think of observational research like an ethically-focused version of people-watching. One example would be watching the patterns of children on a playground—perhaps when looking at a concept like risky play or seeking to observe social behaviors between children of different ages.

Descriptive Case Study Research

A descriptive approach to a case study is akin to a biography of a person, honing in on the experiences of a small group to extrapolate to larger themes. We most commonly see descriptive case studies when those in the psychology field are using past clients as an example to illustrate a point.

Correlational Descriptive Research

While descriptive research is often about the here and now, this form of the methodology allows researchers to make connections between groups of people. As an example from her research, Derry-Vick says she uses this method to identify how gender might play a role in cancer scan anxiety, aka scanxiety.

Dr. Derry-Vick's research uses surveys and interviews to get a sense of how cancer patients are feeling and what they are experiencing both in the course of their treatment and in the lead-up to their next scan, which can be a significant source of stress.

David Marlon, PsyD, MBA , who works as a clinician and as CEO at Vegas Stronger, and whose research focused on leadership styles at community-based clinics, says that using descriptive research allowed him to get beyond the numbers.

In his case, that includes data points like how many unhoused people found stable housing over a certain period or how many people became drug-free—and identify the reasons for those changes.

Those [data points] are some practical, quantitative tools that are helpful. But when I question them on how safe they feel, when I question them on the depth of the bond or the therapeutic alliance, when I talk to them about their processing of traumas,  wellbeing...these are things that don't really fall on to a yes, no, or even on a Likert scale.

For the portion of his thesis that was focused on descriptive research, Marlon used semi-structured interviews to look at the how and the why of transformational leadership and its impact on clinics’ clients and staff.

Advantages & Limitations of Descriptive Research

So, if the advantages of using descriptive research include that it centers the research participants, gives us a clear picture of what is happening to a person in a particular moment,  and gives us very nuanced insights into how a particular situation is being perceived by the very person affected, are there drawbacks? Yes, there are. Dr. Derry-Vick says that it’s important to keep in mind that just because descriptive research tells us something is happening doesn’t mean it necessarily leads us to the resolution of a given problem.

I think that, by design, the descriptive research might not tell you why a phenomenon is happening. So it might tell you, very well, how often it's happening, or what the levels are, or help you understand it in depth. But that may or may not always tell you information about the causes or mechanisms for why something is happening.

Another limitation she identifies is that it also can’t tell you, on its own, whether a particular treatment pathway is having the desired effect.

“Descriptive research in and of itself can't really tell you whether a specific approach is going to be helpful until you take in a different approach to actually test it.”

Marlon, who believes in a multi-disciplinary approach, says that his subfield—addictions—is one where descriptive research had its limits, but helps readers go beyond preconceived notions of what addictions treatment looks and feels like when it is effective. “If we talked to and interviewed and got descriptive information from the clinicians and the clients, a much more precise picture would be painted, showing the need for a client's specific multidisciplinary approach augmented with a variety of modalities," he says. "If you tried to look at my discipline in a pure quantitative approach , it wouldn't begin to tell the real story.”

Because you’re controlling far fewer variables than other forms of research, it’s important to identify whether those you are describing, your study participants, should be informed that they are part of a study.

For example, if you’re observing and describing who is buying what in a grocery store to identify patterns, then you might not need to identify yourself.

However, if you’re asking people about their fear of certain treatment, or how their marginalized identities impact their mental health in a particular way, there is far more of a pressure to think deeply about how you, as the researcher, are connected to the people you are researching.

Many descriptive research projects use interviews as a form of research gathering and, as a result, descriptive research that is focused on this type of data gathering also has ethical and practical concerns attached. Thankfully, there are plenty of guides from established researchers about how to best conduct these interviews and/or formulate surveys .

While descriptive research has its limits, it is commonly used by researchers to get a clear vantage point on what is happening in a given situation.

Tools like surveys, interviews, and observation are often employed to dive deeper into a given issue and really highlight the human element in psychological research. At its core, descriptive research is rooted in a collaborative style that allows deeper insights when used effectively.

University of Minnesota. Introduction to Psychology .

By John Loeppky John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.

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  • Research Process

Descriptive Research Design and Its Myriad Uses

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Table of Contents

The design of a research study can be of two broad types—observational or interventional. In interventional studies, at least one variable can be controlled by the researcher. For example, drug trials that examine the efficacy of novel medicines are interventional studies. Observational studies, on the other hand, simply examine and describe uncontrollable variables¹ .   

What is descriptive research design?¹

Descriptive design is one of the simplest forms of observational study design. It can either quantify the distribution of certain variables (quantitative descriptive research) or simply report the qualities of these variables without quantifying them (qualitative descriptive research).   

When can descriptive research design be used?¹

It is useful when you wish to examine the occurrence of a phenomenon, delineate trends or patterns within the phenomenon, or describe the relationship between variables. As such, descriptive design is great for¹ :  

  • A survey conducted to measure the changes in the levels of customer satisfaction among shoppers in the US is the perfect example of quantitative descriptive research.  
  • Conversely, a case report detailing the experiences and perspectives of individuals living with a particular rare disease is a good example of qualitative descriptive research.  
  • Cross-sectional studies : Descriptive research is ideal for cross-sectional studies that capture a snapshot of a population at a specific point in time. This approach can be used to observe the variations in risk factors and diseases in a population. Take the following examples:   
  • In quantitative descriptive research: A study that measures the prevalence of heart disease among college students in the current academic year.  
  • In qualitative descriptive research: A cross-sectional study exploring the cultural perceptions of mental health across different communities.  
  • Ecological studies : Descriptive research design is also well-suited for studies that seek to understand relationships between variables and outcomes in specific populations. For example:  
  • A study that measures the relationship between the number of police personnel and homicides in India can use quantitative descriptive research design  
  • A study describing the impact of deforestation on indigenous communities’ cultural practices and beliefs can use qualitative descriptive research design.  
  • Focus group discussion reports : Descriptive research can help in capturing diverse perspectives and understanding the nuances of participants’ experiences.   
  • First, an example of quantitative descriptive research: A study that uses two focus groups to explore the perceptions of mental health among immigrants in London.  
  • Next, an example of qualitative descriptive research: A focus group report analyzing the themes and emotions associated with different advertising campaigns.  

Benefits of descriptive research design¹  

  • Easy to conduct: Due to its simplicity, descriptive research design can be employed by researchers of all experience levels.  
  • Economical: Descriptive research design is not resource intensive. It is a budget-friendly approach to studying many phenomena without costly equipment.   
  • Provides comprehensive and useful information: Descriptive research is a more thorough approach that can capture many different aspects of a phenomena, facilitating a wholistic understanding.  
  • Aids planning of major projects or future research: As a tool for preliminary exploration, descriptive research guides can guide strategic decision-making and guide major projects.  

The Bottom Line  

Descriptive research plays a crucial role in improving our lives. Surveys help create better policies and cross-sectional studies help us understand problems affecting different populations including diseases. Used in the right context, descriptive research can advance knowledge and inform decision making¹ .  

We, at Elsevier Language Services, understand the value of your descriptive research, as well as the importance of communicating it correctly. If you have a manuscript based on a descriptive study, our experienced editors can help improve its myriad aspects. By improving the logical flow, tone, and accuracy of your writing, we ensure that your descriptive research gets published in a top tier journal and makes maximum impact in academia and beyond. Contact us for a comprehensive list of services!   

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  • Aggarwal, R., & Ranganathan, P. (2019). Study designs: Part 2 – Descriptive studies. Perspectives in Clinical Research , 10 (1), 34. https://doi.org/10.4103/picr.picr_154_18 .  

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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.

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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 behavior 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 behaviors 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’ behavior.

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 behavior. 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 behavior 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 behaviors, 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 organizations need to understand the behaviors 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 analyze 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 analyze your data to guide better, more accurate decisions for your organization.

Related resources

Market intelligence 10 min read, marketing insights 11 min read, ethnographic research 11 min read, qualitative vs quantitative research 13 min read, qualitative research questions 11 min read, qualitative research design 12 min read, primary vs secondary research 14 min read, request demo.

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Descriptive Research

Descriptive research can be explained as a statement of affairs as they are at present with the researcher having no control over variable. Moreover, “descriptive studies may be characterised as simply the attempt to determine, describe or identify what is, while analytical research attempts to establish why it is that way or how it came to be” [1] . Three main purposes of descriptive studies can be explained as describing, explaining and validating research findings. This type of research is popular with non-quantified topic.

Descriptive research is “aimed at casting light on current issues or problems through a process of data collection that enables them to describe the situation more completely than was possible without employing this method.” [2] To put it simply, descriptive studies are used to describe various aspects of the phenomenon. In its popular format, descriptive research is used to describe characteristics and/or behaviour of sample population. It is an effective method to get information that can be used to develop hypotheses and propose associations.

Importantly, these types of studies do not focus on reasons for the occurrence of the phenomenon. In other words, descriptive research focuses on the question “What?”, but it is not concerned with the question “Why?”

Descriptive studies have the following characteristics:

1. While descriptive research can employ a number of variables, only one variable is required to conduct a descriptive study.

2. Descriptive studies are closely associated with observational studies, but they are not limited with observation data collection method. Case studies and  surveys can also be specified as popular data collection methods used with descriptive studies.

3. Findings of descriptive researches create a scope for further research. When a descriptive study answers to the question “What?”, a further research can be conducted to find an answer to “Why?” question.

Examples of Descriptive Research

Research questions in descriptive studies typically start with ‘What is…”. Examples of research questions in descriptive studies may include the following:

  • What are the most effective intangible employee motivation tools in hospitality industry in the 21 st century?
  • What is the impact of viral marketing on consumer behaviour in consumer amongst university students in Canada?
  • Do corporate leaders of multinational companies in the 21 st century possess moral rights to receive multi-million bonuses?
  • What are the main distinctive traits of organisational culture of McDonald’s USA?
  • What is the impact of the global financial crisis of 2007 – 2009 on fitness industry in the UK?

Advantages of Descriptive Research

  • Effective to analyse non-quantified topics and issues
  • The possibility to observe the phenomenon in a completely natural and unchanged natural environment
  • The opportunity to integrate the qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection. Accordingly, research findings can be comprehensive.
  • Less time-consuming than quantitative experiments
  • Practical use of research findings for decision-making

Disadvantages of Descriptive Research

  • Descriptive studies cannot test or verify the research problem statistically
  • Research results may reflect certain level of bias due to the absence of statistical tests
  • The majority of descriptive studies are not ‘repeatable’ due to their observational nature
  • Descriptive studies are not helpful in identifying cause behind described phenomenon

My e-book,  The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Dissertation in Business Studies: a step by step assistance  contains discussions of theory and application of research designs. The e-book also explains all stages of the  research process  starting from the  selection of the research area  to writing personal reflection. Important elements of dissertations such as  research philosophy ,  research approach ,  methods of data collection ,  data analysis  and  sampling  are explained in this e-book in simple words.

John Dudovskiy

Descriptive research

[1] Ethridge, D.E. (2004) “Research Methodology in Applied Economics” John Wiley & Sons, p.24

[2] Fox, W. & Bayat, M.S. (2007) “A Guide to Managing Research” Juta Publications, p.45

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Descriptive Research: Definition, Methods & Examples

  • August 19, 2021

Voxco’s Descriptive Research guide helps uncover the how, when, what, and where questions in a research problem


Descriptive Research cvr 1

When you are a store manager in a convenience store, and you have to make a report. Any finding such as which product is selling most, what time of the day you have the most crowd, or which product customers are demanding most, all these observations and reporting is descriptive research. 

It is often the first step of any research since the data you gather sets the stage for the research question. It is used to determine the problem you want to explore before fully realizing it. The information helps you identify the problem. 

In this blog, we’ll discuss the characteristics, types, pros & cons, and three ways to conduct this research type to help you in your next market research.

What is descriptive research?

Descriptive research refers to the research method that describes the characteristics of the variables you are studying. This methodology focuses on answering questions to the “WHAT” than the “WHY” of the research question. The primary focus of this research method is to describe the nature of the demographics understudy instead of focusing on the “why”.

It is called an observational research method as none of the variables in the study are influenced during the research process.

For example, let’s assume that a UK-based brand is trying to establish itself in New York and wants to understand the demographics of the buyers who generally purchase from brands similar to it. 

In descriptive research, the information gathered from the survey will only focus on the population’s demographics. It will uncover details on the buying patterns of different age cohorts in New York. It will not study why such patterns exist because the brand is trying to establish itself in New York. 

They want to understand the buying behavior of the population, not why such associations exist. It is a part of quantitative market research or social research study, which involves conducting survey research using quantitative variables on a market research software or social research software .

Voxco’s omnichannel survey software helps you collect insights from multiple channels using a single platform.

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What are the characteristics of descriptive research?

Among the many, the following are the main characteristics of this research type:

  • Quantitative research
  • Nature of variables
  • Cross-sectional studies
  • Directs future research

Let’s discuss these four characteristics in detail. 

1. Quantitative research:

It is quantitative as it attempts to collect and statistically analyze information. This research type is a powerful research tool that permits a researcher to collect data and describe the demographics of the same with the help of statistical analysis. Thus, it is a quantitative research method .

2. Nature of variables:

The variables included in this research are uncontrolled. They are not manipulated in any way. Descriptive research mostly uses observational methods; thus, the researcher cannot control the nature and behavior of the variables under study.

3. Cross-sectional studies:

In this research type, different sections of the same group are studied. For instance, in order to study the fashion preferences of New York, the researcher can study Gen Z as well as Millennials from the same population in New York.

4. Directs future research:

Since this research identifies the patterns between variables and describes them, researchers can further study the data collected here. It guides researchers to discover further why such patterns have been found and their association. Hence, it gives researchers a direction toward insightful market research.

What are the methods of conducting descriptive research?

Primarily, there are three descriptive research methods: 

  • Observation,
  • Survey, & 

We have explained how you can conduct this research type in three different ways. Each method helps gather descriptive data and sets the scene for thorough research.

MicrosoftTeams image 9 2

1. Observational method

All research has some component of observation, this observation can be quantitative or qualitative. A quantitative observation includes objectively collecting data that is primarily in numerical form. 

The data collected should be related to or understood in terms of quantity.

Quantitative observations are analyzed with the help of survey analytics software . 

Examples of quantitative observations include observation of any variable related to a numerical value such as age, shape, weight, height, scale, etc.

For example, a researcher can understand a customer’s satisfaction with their recent purchases by asking them to rate their satisfaction on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (extremely unsatisfied) to 7 (extremely satisfied).

Qualitative observations monitor the characteristics of a phenomenon and do not involve numerical measurements.

Using this type of descriptive research, you can observe respondents in a naturalistic environment from a distance. Since the respondents are in a natural environment, the observed characteristics enrich and offer more insights. 

For instance, you can monitor and note down the observations of customers in a supermarket by observing their selection and purchasing patterns. This offers a detailed cognizance of the customer.

In any kind of research, you should ensure high survey response rates for improved quality of insights.  

2. Survey method

The survey method includes recording the answers of respondents through surveys or questionnaires. Surveys can include polls as well. They are the most common tool for collecting market research data. 

Surveys are generally used to collect feedback from the respondents. It should have a survey that taps into both open-ended and closed-ended questions .

The biggest advantage of the survey method is that it can be conducted using online or offline survey tools . One of the reasons why the survey method is the go-to option for descriptive research is that it entails the collection of large amounts of data in a limited span of time.

3. Case study method

The in-depth study of an individual or a group is known as a case study. Case studies usually lead to developing a hypothesis to explore a phenomenon further. Case studies are limited in their scope in that they don’t allow the researcher to make cause-effect conclusions or accurate predictions. 

This is because these associations could reflect the bias on the researchers’ part instead of a naturally occurring phenomenon. Another reason why case studies are limited in scope is that they could just be reflecting an atypical respondent in the survey. 

An atypical respondent refers to someone who is different from the average consumer, and if researchers make judgments about the entire target population based on this consumer, it can affect the external validity of the study.

[ Related read: Descriptive vs experimental research ]

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What are the types of descriptive research?

There are seven types of descriptive research based on when you conduct them and what type of data research you conduct. We have explained these seven types in brief with examples to help you better understand them.

1. Cross-sectional: 

A descriptive method of studying a particular section of the target population at a specific point in time. 

Example : Tracking the use of social media by Gen Z in the Netherlands. 

2. Longitudinal: 

This type of descriptive study is conducted for an extended period on a group of people. 

Example : Monitoring changes in the volume of cyber-bullying among Millenials from 2022 to 2024. 

3. Normative: 

In this descriptive method, we compare the result of a study with an existing norm. 

Example : Comparing legal verdicts in similar types of cases. 

4. Relational/Correlational:

We investigate the type of relationships (correlation) between two variables in this type of descriptive research. 

Example : Investigating the relationship between video games and mental health. 

5. Comparative: 

A descriptive study that compares two or more people, groups, or conditions based on a specific aspect. 

Example : Comparing the salary of two employees in similar job roles from two companies. 

6. Classification: 

This type of research arranges collected data into classes based on specific criteria to analyze them. 

Example : Classification of customers based on their buying behavior. 

7. Archival: 

A descriptive study where you search for past records and extract information.

Example : Tracking company’s sales data over the decade. 

We have been discussing the descriptive method with examples. So now let’s see how you can use this research type in a real-world application.

Guide to Descriptive Research

Learn the key steps of conducting descriptive research to uncover breakthrough insights into your target market.

Examples of Descriptive Research Under Market Research

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This research type helps you gather the necessary information you need to understand the problem. It sets the scene to conduct further research. But how can you use this research method in the real world? 

We have explained its real-world application in three scenarios to help you determine where and where you want to use this research type. 

1. Sales Studies

You can use this research type to analyze the potential of the market, what is currently trending in the market, and which products may perform well in terms of sales. You can also study what circumstances influence the market shares and when they are likely to increase or decrease. 

This research type can help you gather the demographic data of the consumers.

2. Consumer Perception and Behavior Studies

You can use this research method to analyze what consumers think about the brand. You can evaluate their perceptions about the products sold by a particular brand and the uses of other competitive products. 

Using descriptive research, you can also analyze what advertising strategies have worked to increase the positive perceptions of the brand. You can assess consumers’ consumption behavior and how it is influenced by product pricing.

3. Market Characteristics Studies

Another way you can use this research method is by analyzing the distribution of the products in the market. You can gather contextual data on questions such as “which countries have more sales”, “which countries have fewer products but the product is sold out quickly” , etc. 

You can also analyze the brand management of competitors ; what strategy is working for them and what is not.

What are the applications of descriptive research?

This research method is used for a variety of reasons. Even after outlining survey goals, and survey designs as well as collecting information through surveys, there is no way of knowing whether or not the research you are conducting will meet the predictions that you have made. 

Here are some popular ways in which organizations use this research type:

1. Defining the characteristics of respondents

Since most descriptive research methods use close-ended questions for the collection of data, it helps in drawing objective conclusions about the respondents.

It helps in deriving patterns, traits, and behaviors of respondents. It also aims to understand respondents’ attitudes and opinions about certain phenomena.

For instance , researchers can understand how many hours young adults spend on the internet, their opinions about social media platforms, and how important they consider these platforms to be. This information will help the company make informed decisions regarding its products and brands. 

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2. Analyzing trends in data

You can use statistical data analysis to understand the trends in data over time. 

For instance, consider an apparel company that drops a new line of clothing; they may research how Gen Z and Millennials react to the new launch. If they discover that the new range of clothes has worked effectively for one group (Gen Z) but not the other, the company may stop producing clothes for the other group.

Leverage a data analysis platform that allows you to conduct advanced statistical analysis and offers a data analytics dashboard to track real-time data.

3. Comparing different groups

Something closely knit to the previous point is also comparing different groups of customers based on their demographics. With descriptive research, you can study how different groups of people respond to specific services offered by a company. 

For instance , what is the influence of income, age, gender, income, etc. influence the spending behaviors of consumers?

This research method helps companies understand what they should do to increase their brand appeal in different groups of the population. 

4. Validating existing patterns of respondents

Since it is non-invasive and makes use of quantitative data (mostly), you can make observations about why the current patterns of purchasing exist in customers. 

You can also use the findings as the basis of a more in-depth study in the future. 

5. Conducting research at different times

Descriptive research can be conducted at different periods of time in order to see whether the patterns are similar or dissimilar at different points in time. You can also replicate the studies to verify the findings of the original study to draw accurate conclusions.

6. Finding correlations among variables

This method is also used to draw correlations between variables and the degree of association between the variables. 

For instance, if the focus is on men’s age and expenditure. 

There is a possibility of finding a negative correlation between the two variables, indicating that as the age of men increases, the less they spend on sports products.

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Descriptive research Examples

A descriptive method of research aims to gather answers for how, what, when, and where. 

Let’s use some examples to understand how a descriptive method of research is used. 

Before investing in housing at any location, you would want to conduct your own research to understand 

  • How is the market changing?
  • When or at what time of year is it changing?
  • Where would you make more profit?

This type of research is an example of a descriptive study. 

A company studies the behavior of its customers to identify its target market before it launches a new product. This is another use case of how brands use descriptive research. 

The company may conduct this research by observing the customer’s reaction and behavior toward a competitor’s product. 

Or, they can also conduct surveys to ask customer opinions on the new product by the company before its launch. 

A restaurant planning to open a branch in a new locality will research to understand the behavior of the people living there. They will survey the people to know their choice of flavor, taste, foods, drinks, and more. 

Now that we’ve seen how you can use this research method for your research purpose, let’s also see the advantages & disadvantages of the research.

What Are the Advantages of Descriptive Research?

It is the preliminary research method. Most researchers use this method to discover the problem they should prioritize. Before diving into the experiments, let’s see some of the reasons why you should be conducting this research. 

1. Primary data collection

In this type of descriptive research, the data is collected through primary data collection methods such as case studies, observational methods, and surveys. This kind of data collection provides us with rich information and can be used for future research as well. It can also be used for developing hypotheses or your research objective.

2. Multiple data collection

Descriptive research can also be conducted by collecting qualitative or quantitative data . Hence, it is more varied, flexible, and diverse and tends to be thorough and elaborate.

[ Related read: Data Collection: All you need to know! ]

3. Observational behavior 

The observational method of this research allows researchers to observe the respondent’s behavior in natural settings. This also ensures that the data collected is high in quality and honest.

4. Cost-effective

It is cost-effective and the data collection of this research can be done quickly. You can conduct descriptive research using an all-in-one solution such as Voxco. Leverage a platform that gives you the capability of the best market research software to conduct customer, product, and brand research.

What Are the Disadvantages of Descriptive Research?

Descriptive research also has some disadvantages. Let’s learn about these cons so you can wisely decide when you should use this research to keep the disadvantages to a minimum. 

1. Misleading information

Respondents can give misleading or incorrect responses if they feel that the questions are assessing intimate matters. Respondents can also be affected by the observer’s presence and may engage in pretending. This is known as the observer effect.

2. Biases in studies

The researchers’ own opinions of biases may affect the results of the study. This is known as the experimenter effect.

3. Representative issue 

There is also the problem of data representativeness. It occurs when a case study or the data of a small sample does not adequately represent the whole population.

4. Limited scope

Descriptive research has limited scope, wherein it only analyzes the “what” of research, it does not evaluate the “why” or “how” questions of research.

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Wrapping up;

So that sums up our descriptive research guide. It is a wide concept that demands a conceptual framework for descriptive design and a thorough understanding of descriptive survey design . 

Naturally, it becomes essential that you adopt online survey tools that facilitates all of the above and provides ample room for insightful research.  

Voxco’s omnichannel survey software allows you to create interactive surveys, deploy them across multiple channels, and conduct data analysis in one platform.

This research method enables you to explain and describe the characteristics of a target population. The descriptive research method helps you uncover deeper insights into various aspects of the target population, such as who, what, when, where, and how. 

There are many data collection methods you can use to collect descriptive research data. For example, you can perform the research via surveys (online, phone, or offline), case studies, observations, and archival research.

Here are some key characteristics of this research methodology: 

This research type helps you describe the characteristics, behavior, opinions, and perspectives of the population or research subject. 

The data gathered from descriptive research is a reliable and comprehensive source of explanation of the research subject. 

In this methodology, the researcher focuses on observing and reporting on the natural relationship between the variables. There is no manipulation of variables or establishing a cause-and-effect relationship.

Descriptive research offers many advantages. 

Descriptive research methods are simple and easy to design and conduct. You don’t need research expertise for this research design in comparison to conducting more complex research. 

This research method is more cost-effective than other research methodologies, particularly experimental research designs. 

The descriptive research method enables you to collect qualitative and quantitative data. The research data helps extract valuable insights and supports further root-cause analysis.

Descriptive research methodology also has some limitations, here are some of those: 

Descriptive research data may generate insights specific to a population under study. This limits your ability to generalize the results to a wider population, which makes the data less representative. 

The data collection approaches and observation biases can lead to bias in the research method, which can negatively impact the accuracy and reliability of the research findings.

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  • What is descriptive research: Methods & examples

What is descriptive research: Methods & examples

Defne Çobanoğlu

Being able to observe and describe your surroundings successfully is very crucial when you are doing a study. But what does it really mean? Let us give an example;

You are watching a schoolyard and observing the kids interact with one another. Then, you make comments about their ages, sexes, and playing patterns. You write down how many children there are and how many have blond hair, brown eyes, and stuff like that. In this scenario, you are “describing” them according to your observation. 

Have this concept on a much bigger scale, and you have descriptive research. But why would a researcher need to do this research? Let us see what it means, when to do it, and some real-life examples.🔎 

  • What is descriptive research?

Descriptive research is a type of research where researchers try to “describe” the characteristics of the problem, phenomenon, or subject. 

The researcher studies the details and background information related to the subject. Therefore, this research type deals with the questions of what, when, and where and try to find answers to these questions.

However, it is important to keep in mind that this research type does not try to explore the cause-and-effect relationship of the aspects. So, this research type does not deal with questions of why and how. 

  • When to use descriptive research?

A researcher can use descriptive research for numerous reasons. As with all the research types, the researcher should want to answer some questions. In this method, the questions are basically, “ What are the elements that contribute to this phenomenon?” But let us make a list of reasons that may play a role in the researcher's mind. The researcher chooses to conduct descriptive research when he/she:

  • Wants to understand a concept better than before. (This research method brings forward the hidden details and gives them a systematic form)
  • Wishes to describe relationships between different concepts.
  • Wants to explore patterns and trends.
  • Wants to get into the core of the information for future studies. 
  • Decides to compare data from numerous sources.
  • Wishes to explore the best approach for future studies.
  • Characteristics of descriptive research

Descriptive research is characterized by several key features, and these aspects differentiate it from other research types. Now, let us see a list of the main characteristics of descriptive research:

  • It answers W questions. Meaning what, when, who, and where. They give concrete answers that are useful for the whole study.
  • It gives qualitative and quantitative results . The results of descriptive research can be both numerical and open-ended.
  • Makes way for future research . The results collected via descriptive research make a good start for future studies. The researcher can simply take what is on hand and build on it.
  • It is conducted in natural settings . As natural observation and surveying are two of the great methods of descriptive research, they provide unbiased information. Let us say you want to test the accessibility and effectiveness of children's playgrounds; you can observe daily and survey the parents, etc.
  • It can be used in many areas. From marketing, medicine, and education to psychology, the results of descriptive research can be used in any field.
  • Descriptive research methods

Descriptive research methodologies

Descriptive research methodologies

In order to conduct descriptive research, the researchers can use one of the methods below or make a mix of all three. It depends on the researchers and the research problems. Now let us see the three descriptive research methods:

1. Observations

One of the best ways to collect real-life, accurate, and honest information about human behavior is through observations. The observational method is an essential part of descriptive research. There is no outside intervention to observations. However, the researcher can be part of the observation as an observer, participant as an observer, or a full participant.

2. Case study

A case study study is done by gathering a group of individuals as a sample group. The characteristics, details, and choices of this sample group are used to have a generalized idea to represent a bigger population. This generalization from a case study is actually risky as the data collected can be insufficient to make accurate predictions about larger groups.

3. Survey research

Surveys are where the researcher asks pre-determined questions to participants to collect information from them. The questions can be close-ended questions or open-ended questions where the answers are more free. 

The survey can be done face-to-face, or it can be done online using a smart survey maker , such as forms.app. forms.app has more than 4000 ready-to-use templates, and it is free of charge.

  • Real-life examples of descriptive research

The study type of descriptive research can be used in many areas, including psychology, medicine, marketing, business, and education. It mostly depends on your objective. However, it is almost always smart to start with descriptive research. Now, here are some descriptive research examples:

Descriptive research example #1

A school branch that wants to open a daycare in the district can look at the demographics in the area. They can make a list of the number of families with kids ages 1-6 and the percentages of working mothers. If there are other competitors, they can make informed analyses about them as well. After all this studying of the region, the school branch can make an informed decision about whether or not to open a daycare in the area.

Descriptive research example #2

A restaurant owner wants to figure out what areas need to be improved and what kind of problems the visitors face daily. In order to collect detailed and systematic data about the subject, it is smart to use a survey, such as a customer satisfaction survey or a feedback survey . The survey can help identify specific areas that need improvements, such as food quality, service speed, or cleanliness concerns. The main focus of the study is obtaining customer feedback without manipulating variables.

  • Frequently asked questions about descriptive research

This research type has some similarities and differences with other research types and we have gathered some frequently asked questions about the subject. Let us see them:

What is the difference between descriptive and analytical research?

The methods used in descriptive research are surveys and observation. For analytical research, the researcher has to use facts already available and analyze them to make a critical evaluation.

What is the difference between qualitative and descriptive studies?

Descriptive research is usually described as quantitative research. The researcher doing a descriptive study defines the existing facts through observations and surveys. On the other hand, qualitative research aims to explore and answer the underlying meaning and context of subjects.

Can a study be both analytical and descriptive?

Yes, a study can be both analytical and descriptive. Researchers often use mixed methods to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of a concept. For example, particular research tries to analyze the characteristics of the youth population in a certain area (descriptive) and then examine how these characteristics are associated with alcohol abuse in the area (analytical).

What is the goal of descriptive research?

The aim of descriptive research is to accurately and systematically obtain information to summarize events, subjects, and concepts. The data collected using types of descriptive research methods can be used to describe the characteristics, patterns, and relationships within a specific context.

Why is descriptive research used in research?

Descriptive research is used to provide a detailed understanding of the elements of a specific subject, area, or concept in research. The findings of descriptive research work as a foundation for further investigations, hypothesis testing, and decision-making.

  • Key points to take away

A descriptive research method is an important step when starting a research project. The result of such data can give detailed information on the population or the area of the subject. After all, knowing what you are working with is a crucial element. Therefore, as descriptive research is a good start to a study, it also opens the doors for future projects. Here are some key elements to take away about descriptive research:

  • Descriptive research does not explore cause-and-effect relations but rather answers the questions of what, who, and when.
  • It is used to define details and explore patterns.
  • Gives both qualitative and quantitative results.
  • The methods that can be used when doing descriptive research are case studies, observations, and surveys.
  • Gives a good foundation for future research.

In conclusion, descriptive research is about being able to make an analysis that answers qualitative and quantitative questions. In this article, we mentioned when to use this research type, its characteristics, research methods, examples, and frequently asked questions. For so much more and all your research needs, visit forms.app today!

Defne is a content writer at forms.app. She is also a translator specializing in literary translation. Defne loves reading, writing, and translating professionally and as a hobby. Her expertise lies in survey research, research methodologies, content writing, and translation.

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Characteristics of Qualitative Descriptive Studies: A Systematic Review

MSN, CRNP, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

Justine S. Sefcik

MS, RN, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

Christine Bradway

PhD, CRNP, FAAN, Associate Professor of Gerontological Nursing, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

Qualitative description (QD) is a term that is widely used to describe qualitative studies of health care and nursing-related phenomena. However, limited discussions regarding QD are found in the existing literature. In this systematic review, we identified characteristics of methods and findings reported in research articles published in 2014 whose authors identified the work as QD. After searching and screening, data were extracted from the sample of 55 QD articles and examined to characterize research objectives, design justification, theoretical/philosophical frameworks, sampling and sample size, data collection and sources, data analysis, and presentation of findings. In this review, three primary findings were identified. First, despite inconsistencies, most articles included characteristics consistent with limited, available QD definitions and descriptions. Next, flexibility or variability of methods was common and desirable for obtaining rich data and achieving understanding of a phenomenon. Finally, justification for how a QD approach was chosen and why it would be an appropriate fit for a particular study was limited in the sample and, therefore, in need of increased attention. Based on these findings, recommendations include encouragement to researchers to provide as many details as possible regarding the methods of their QD study so that readers can determine whether the methods used were reasonable and effective in producing useful findings.

Qualitative description (QD) is a label used in qualitative research for studies which are descriptive in nature, particularly for examining health care and nursing-related phenomena ( Polit & Beck, 2009 , 2014 ). QD is a widely cited research tradition and has been identified as important and appropriate for research questions focused on discovering the who, what, and where of events or experiences and gaining insights from informants regarding a poorly understood phenomenon. It is also the label of choice when a straight description of a phenomenon is desired or information is sought to develop and refine questionnaires or interventions ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ; Sullivan-Bolyai et al., 2005 ).

Despite many strengths and frequent citations of its use, limited discussions regarding QD are found in qualitative research textbooks and publications. To the best of our knowledge, only seven articles include specific guidance on how to design, implement, analyze, or report the results of a QD study ( Milne & Oberle, 2005 ; Neergaard, Olesen, Andersen, & Sondergaard, 2009 ; Sandelowski, 2000 , 2010 ; Sullivan-Bolyai, Bova, & Harper, 2005 ; Vaismoradi, Turunen, & Bondas, 2013 ; Willis, Sullivan-Bolyai, Knafl, & Zichi-Cohen, 2016 ). Furthermore, little is known about characteristics of QD as reported in journal-published, nursing-related, qualitative studies. Therefore, the purpose of this systematic review was to describe specific characteristics of methods and findings of studies reported in journal articles (published in 2014) self-labeled as QD. In this review, we did not have a goal to judge whether QD was done correctly but rather to report on the features of the methods and findings.

Features of QD

Several QD design features and techniques have been described in the literature. First, researchers generally draw from a naturalistic perspective and examine a phenomenon in its natural state ( Sandelowski, 2000 ). Second, QD has been described as less theoretical compared to other qualitative approaches ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ), facilitating flexibility in commitment to a theory or framework when designing and conducting a study ( Sandelowski, 2000 , 2010 ). For example, researchers may or may not decide to begin with a theory of the targeted phenomenon and do not need to stay committed to a theory or framework if their investigations take them down another path ( Sandelowski, 2010 ). Third, data collection strategies typically involve individual and/or focus group interviews with minimal to semi-structured interview guides ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ; Sandelowski, 2000 ). Fourth, researchers commonly employ purposeful sampling techniques such as maximum variation sampling which has been described as being useful for obtaining broad insights and rich information ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ; Sandelowski, 2000 ). Fifth, content analysis (and in many cases, supplemented by descriptive quantitative data to describe the study sample) is considered a primary strategy for data analysis ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ; Sandelowski, 2000 ). In some instances thematic analysis may also be used to analyze data; however, experts suggest care should be taken that this type of analysis is not confused with content analysis ( Vaismoradi et al., 2013 ). These data analysis approaches allow researchers to stay close to the data and as such, interpretation is of low-inference ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ), meaning that different researchers will agree more readily on the same findings even if they do not choose to present the findings in the same way ( Sandelowski, 2000 ). Finally, representation of study findings in published reports is expected to be straightforward, including comprehensive descriptive summaries and accurate details of the data collected, and presented in a way that makes sense to the reader ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ; Sandelowski, 2000 ).

It is also important to acknowledge that variations in methods or techniques may be appropriate across QD studies ( Sandelowski, 2010 ). For example, when consistent with the study goals, decisions may be made to use techniques from other qualitative traditions, such as employing a constant comparative analytic approach typically associated with grounded theory ( Sandelowski, 2000 ).

Search Strategy and Study Screening

The PubMed electronic database was searched for articles written in English and published from January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2014, using the terms, “qualitative descriptive study,” “qualitative descriptive design,” and “qualitative description,” combined with “nursing.” This specific publication year, “2014,” was chosen because it was the most recent full year at the time of beginning this systematic review. As we did not intend to identify trends in QD approaches over time, it seemed reasonable to focus on the nursing QD studies published in a certain year. The inclusion criterion for this review was data-based, nursing-related, research articles in which authors used the terms QD, qualitative descriptive study, or qualitative descriptive design in their titles or abstracts as well as in the main texts of the publication.

All articles yielded through an initial search in PubMed were exported into EndNote X7 ( Thomson Reuters, 2014 ), a reference management software, and duplicates were removed. Next, titles and abstracts were reviewed to determine if the publication met inclusion criteria; all articles meeting inclusion criteria were then read independently in full by two authors (HK and JS) to determine if the terms – QD or qualitative descriptive study/design – were clearly stated in the main texts. Any articles in which researchers did not specifically state these key terms in the main text were then excluded, even if the terms had been used in the study title or abstract. In one article, for example, although “qualitative descriptive study” was reported in the published abstract, the researchers reported a “qualitative exploratory design” in the main text of the article ( Sundqvist & Carlsson, 2014 ); therefore, this article was excluded from our review. Despite the possibility that there may be other QD studies published in 2014 that were not labeled as such, to facilitate our screening process we only included articles where the researchers clearly used our search terms for their approach. Finally, the two authors compared, discussed, and reconciled their lists of articles with a third author (CB).

Study Selection

Initially, although the year 2014 was specifically requested, 95 articles were identified (due to ahead of print/Epub) and exported into the EndNote program. Three duplicate publications were removed and the 20 articles with final publication dates of 2015 were also excluded. The remaining 72 articles were then screened by examining titles, abstracts, and full-texts. Based on our inclusion criteria, 15 (of 72) were then excluded because QD or QD design/study was not identified in the main text. We then re-examined the remaining 57 articles and excluded two additional articles that did not meet inclusion criteria (e.g., QD was only reported as an analytic approach in the data analysis section). The remaining 55 publications met inclusion criteria and comprised the sample for our systematic review (see Figure 1 ).

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Flow Diagram of Study Selection

Of the 55 publications, 23 originated from North America (17 in the United States; 6 in Canada), 12 from Asia, 11 from Europe, 7 from Australia and New Zealand, and 2 from South America. Eleven studies were part of larger research projects and two of them were reported as part of larger mixed-methods studies. Four were described as a secondary analysis.

Quality Appraisal Process

Following the identification of the 55 publications, two authors (HK and JS) independently examined each article using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) qualitative checklist ( CASP, 2013 ). The CASP was chosen to determine the general adequacy (or rigor) of the qualitative studies included in this review as the CASP criteria are generic and intend to be applied to qualitative studies in general. In addition, the CASP was useful because we were able to examine the internal consistency between study aims and methods and between study aims and findings as well as the usefulness of findings ( CASP, 2013 ). The CASP consists of 10 main questions with several sub-questions to consider when making a decision about the main question ( CASP, 2013 ). The first two questions have reviewers examine the clarity of study aims and appropriateness of using qualitative research to achieve the aims. With the next eight questions, reviewers assess study design, sampling, data collection, and analysis as well as the clarity of the study’s results statement and the value of the research. We used the seven questions and 17 sub-questions related to methods and statement of findings to evaluate the articles. The results of this process are presented in Table 1 .

CASP Questions and Quality Appraisal Results (N = 55)

Note . The CASP questions are adapted from “10 questions to help you make sense of qualitative research,” by Critical Appraisal Skills Programme, 2013, retrieved from http://media.wix.com/ugd/dded87_29c5b002d99342f788c6ac670e49f274.pdf . Its license can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

Once articles were assessed by the two authors independently, all three authors discussed and reconciled our assessment. No articles were excluded based on CASP results; rather, results were used to depict the general adequacy (or rigor) of all 55 articles meeting inclusion criteria for our systematic review. In addition, the CASP was included to enhance our examination of the relationship between the methods and the usefulness of the findings documented in each of the QD articles included in this review.

Process for Data Extraction and Analysis

To further assess each of the 55 articles, data were extracted on: (a) research objectives, (b) design justification, (c) theoretical or philosophical framework, (d) sampling and sample size, (e) data collection and data sources, (f) data analysis, and (g) presentation of findings (see Table 2 ). We discussed extracted data and identified common and unique features in the articles included in our systematic review. Findings are described in detail below and in Table 3 .

Elements for Data Extraction

Data Extraction and Analysis Results

Note . NR = not reported

Quality Appraisal Results

Justification for use of a QD design was evident in close to half (47.3%) of the 55 publications. While most researchers clearly described recruitment strategies (80%) and data collection methods (100%), justification for how the study setting was selected was only identified in 38.2% of the articles and almost 75% of the articles did not include any reason for the choice of data collection methods (e.g., focus-group interviews). In the vast majority (90.9%) of the articles, researchers did not explain their involvement and positionality during the process of recruitment and data collection or during data analysis (63.6%). Ethical standards were reported in greater than 89% of all articles and most articles included an in-depth description of data analysis (83.6%) and development of categories or themes (92.7%). Finally, all researchers clearly stated their findings in relation to research questions/objectives. Researchers of 83.3% of the articles discussed the credibility of their findings (see Table 1 ).

Research Objectives

In statements of study objectives and/or questions, the most frequently used verbs were “explore” ( n = 22) and “describe” ( n = 17). Researchers also used “identify” ( n = 3), “understand” ( n = 4), or “investigate” ( n = 2). Most articles focused on participants’ experiences related to certain phenomena ( n = 18), facilitators/challenges/factors/reasons ( n = 14), perceptions about specific care/nursing practice/interventions ( n = 11), and knowledge/attitudes/beliefs ( n = 3).

Design Justification

A total of 30 articles included references for QD. The most frequently cited references ( n = 23) were “Whatever happened to qualitative description?” ( Sandelowski, 2000 ) and “What’s in a name? Qualitative description revisited” ( Sandelowski, 2010 ). Other references cited included “Qualitative description – the poor cousin of health research?” ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ), “Reaching the parts other methods cannot reach: an introduction to qualitative methods in health and health services research” ( Pope & Mays, 1995 ), and general research textbooks ( Polit & Beck, 2004 , 2012 ).

In 26 articles (and not necessarily the same as those citing specific references to QD), researchers provided a rationale for selecting QD. Most researchers chose QD because this approach aims to produce a straight description and comprehensive summary of the phenomenon of interest using participants’ language and staying close to the data (or using low inference).

Authors of two articles distinctly stated a QD design, yet also acknowledged grounded-theory or phenomenological overtones by adopting some techniques from these qualitative traditions ( Michael, O'Callaghan, Baird, Hiscock, & Clayton, 2014 ; Peacock, Hammond-Collins, & Forbes, 2014 ). For example, Michael et al. (2014 , p. 1066) reported:

The research used a qualitative descriptive design with grounded theory overtones ( Sandelowski, 2000 ). We sought to provide a comprehensive summary of participants’ views through theoretical sampling; multiple data sources (focus groups [FGs] and interviews); inductive, cyclic, and constant comparative analysis; and condensation of data into thematic representations ( Corbin & Strauss, 1990 , 2008 ).

Authors of four additional articles included language suggestive of a grounded-theory or phenomenological tradition, e.g., by employing a constant comparison technique or translating themes stated in participants’ language into the primary language of the researchers during data analysis ( Asemani et al., 2014 ; Li, Lee, Chen, Jeng, & Chen, 2014 ; Ma, 2014 ; Soule, 2014 ). Additionally, Li et al. (2014) specifically reported use of a grounded-theory approach.

Theoretical or Philosophical Framework

In most (n = 48) articles, researchers did not specify any theoretical or philosophical framework. Of those articles in which a framework or philosophical stance was included, the authors of five articles described the framework as guiding the development of an interview guide ( Al-Zadjali, Keller, Larkey, & Evans, 2014 ; DeBruyn, Ochoa-Marin, & Semenic, 2014 ; Fantasia, Sutherland, Fontenot, & Ierardi, 2014 ; Ma, 2014 ; Wiens, Babenko-Mould, & Iwasiw, 2014 ). In two articles, data analysis was described as including key concepts of a framework being used as pre-determined codes or categories ( Al-Zadjali et al., 2014 ; Wiens et al., 2014 ). Oosterveld-Vlug et al. (2014) and Zhang, Shan, and Jiang (2014) discussed a conceptual model and underlying philosophy in detail in the background or discussion section, although the model and philosophy were not described as being used in developing interview questions or analyzing data.

Sampling and Sample Size

In 38 of the 55 articles, researchers reported ‘purposeful sampling’ or some derivation of purposeful sampling such as convenience ( n = 10), maximum variation ( n = 8), snowball ( n = 3), and theoretical sampling ( n = 1). In three instances ( Asemani et al., 2014 ; Chan & Lopez, 2014 ; Soule, 2014 ), multiple sampling strategies were described, for example, a combination of snowball, convenience, and maximum variation sampling. In articles where maximum variation sampling was employed, “variation” referred to seeking diversity in participants’ demographics ( n = 7; e.g., age, gender, and education level), while one article did not include details regarding how their maximum variation sampling strategy was operationalized ( Marcinowicz, Abramowicz, Zarzycka, Abramowicz, & Konstantynowicz, 2014 ). Authors of 17 articles did not specify their sampling techniques.

Sample sizes ranged from 8 to 1,932 with nine studies in the 8–10 participant range and 24 studies in the 11–20 participant range. The participant range of 21–30 and 31–50 was reported in eight articles each. Six studies included more than 50 participants. Two of these articles depicted quite large sample sizes (N=253, Hart & Mareno, 2014 ; N=1,932, Lyndon et al., 2014 ) and the authors of these articles described the use of survey instruments and analysis of responses to open-ended questions. This was in contrast to studies with smaller sample sizes where individual interviews and focus groups were more commonly employed.

Data Collection and Data Sources

In a majority of studies, researchers collected data through individual ( n = 39) and/or focus-group ( n = 14) interviews that were semistructured. Most researchers reported that interviews were audiotaped ( n = 51) and interview guides were described as the primary data collection tool in 29 of the 51 studies. In some cases, researchers also described additional data sources, for example, taking memos or field notes during participant observation sessions or as a way to reflect their thoughts about interviews ( n = 10). Written responses to open-ended questions in survey questionnaires were another type of data source in a small number of studies ( n = 4).

Data Analysis

The analysis strategy most commonly used in the QD studies included in this review was qualitative content analysis ( n = 30). Among the studies where this technique was used, most researchers described an inductive approach; researchers of two studies analyzed data both inductively and deductively. Thematic analysis was adopted in 14 studies and the constant comparison technique in 10 studies. In nine studies, researchers employed multiple techniques to analyze data including qualitative content analysis with constant comparison ( Asemani et al., 2014 ; DeBruyn et al., 2014 ; Holland, Christensen, Shone, Kearney, & Kitzman, 2014 ; Li et al., 2014 ) and thematic analysis with constant comparison ( Johansson, Hildingsson, & Fenwick, 2014 ; Oosterveld-Vlug et al., 2014 ). In addition, five teams conducted descriptive statistical analysis using both quantitative and qualitative data and counting the frequencies of codes/themes ( Ewens, Chapman, Tulloch, & Hendricks, 2014 ; Miller, 2014 ; Santos, Sandelowski, & Gualda, 2014 ; Villar, Celdran, Faba, & Serrat, 2014 ) or targeted events through video monitoring ( Martorella, Boitor, Michaud, & Gelinas, 2014 ). Tseng, Chen, and Wang (2014) cited Thorne, Reimer Kirkham, and O’Flynn-Magee (2004)’s interpretive description as the inductive analytic approach. In five out of 55 articles, researchers did not specifically name their analysis strategies, despite including descriptions about procedural aspects of data analysis. Researchers of 20 studies reported that data saturation for their themes was achieved.

Presentation of Findings

Researchers described participants’ experiences of health care, interventions, or illnesses in 18 articles and presented straightforward, focused, detailed descriptions of facilitators, challenges, factors, reasons, and causes in 15 articles. Participants’ perceptions of specific care, interventions, or programs were described in detail in 11 articles. All researchers presented their findings with extensive descriptions including themes or categories. In 25 of 55 articles, figures or tables were also presented to illustrate or summarize the findings. In addition, the authors of three articles summarized, organized, and described their data using key concepts of conceptual models ( Al-Zadjali et al., 2014 ; Oosterveld-Vlug et al., 2014 ; Wiens et al., 2014 ). Martorella et al. (2014) assessed acceptability and feasibility of hand massage therapy and arranged their findings in relation to pre-determined indicators of acceptability and feasibility. In one longitudinal QD study ( Kneck, Fagerberg, Eriksson, & Lundman, 2014 ), the researchers presented the findings as several key patterns of learning for persons living with diabetes; in another longitudinal QD study ( Stegenga & Macpherson, 2014 ), findings were presented as processes and themes regarding patients’ identity work across the cancer trajectory. In another two studies, the researchers described and compared themes or categories from two different perspectives, such as patients and nurses ( Canzan, Heilemann, Saiani, Mortari, & Ambrosi, 2014 ) or parents and children ( Marcinowicz et al., 2014 ). Additionally, Ma (2014) reported themes using both participants’ language and the researcher’s language.

In this systematic review, we examined and reported specific characteristics of methods and findings reported in journal articles self-identified as QD and published during one calendar year. To accomplish this we identified 55 articles that met inclusion criteria, performed a quality appraisal following CASP guidelines, and extracted and analyzed data focusing on QD features. In general, three primary findings emerged. First, despite inconsistencies, most QD publications had the characteristics that were originally observed by Sandelowski (2000) and summarized by other limited available QD literature. Next, there are no clear boundaries in methods used in the QD studies included in this review; in a number of studies, researchers adopted and combined techniques originating from other qualitative traditions to obtain rich data and increase their understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. Finally, justification for how QD was chosen and why it would be an appropriate fit for a particular study is an area in need of increased attention.

In general, the overall characteristics were consistent with design features of QD studies described in the literature ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ; Sandelowski, 2000 , 2010 ; Vaismoradi et al., 2013 ). For example, many authors reported that study objectives were to describe or explore participants’ experiences and factors related to certain phenomena, events, or interventions. In most cases, these authors cited Sandelowski (2000) as a reference for this particular characteristic. It was rare that theoretical or philosophical frameworks were identified, which also is consistent with descriptions of QD. In most studies, researchers used purposeful sampling and its derivative sampling techniques, collected data through interviews, and analyzed data using qualitative content analysis or thematic analysis. Moreover, all researchers presented focused or comprehensive, descriptive summaries of data including themes or categories answering their research questions. These characteristics do not indicate that there are correct ways to do QD studies; rather, they demonstrate how others designed and produced QD studies.

In several studies, researchers combined techniques that originated from other qualitative traditions for sampling, data collection, and analysis. This flexibility or variability, a key feature of recently published QD studies, may indicate that there are no clear boundaries in designing QD studies. Sandelowski (2010) articulated: “in the actual world of research practice, methods bleed into each other; they are so much messier than textbook depictions” (p. 81). Hammersley (2007) also observed:

“We are not so much faced with a set of clearly differentiated qualitative approaches as with a complex landscape of variable practice in which the inhabitants use a range of labels (‘ethnography’, ‘discourse analysis’, ‘life history work’, narrative study’, ……, and so on) in diverse and open-ended ways in order to characterize their orientation, and probably do this somewhat differently across audiences and occasions” (p. 293).

This concept of having no clear boundaries in methods when designing a QD study should enable researchers to obtain rich data and produce a comprehensive summary of data through various data collection and analysis approaches to answer their research questions. For example, using an ethnographical approach (e.g., participant observation) in data collection for a QD study may facilitate an in-depth description of participants’ nonverbal expressions and interactions with others and their environment as well as situations or events in which researchers are interested ( Kawulich, 2005 ). One example found in our review is that Adams et al. (2014) explored family members’ responses to nursing communication strategies for patients in intensive care units (ICUs). In this study, researchers conducted interviews with family members, observed interactions between healthcare providers, patients, and family members in ICUs, attended ICU rounds and family meetings, and took field notes about their observations and reflections. Accordingly, the variability in methods provided Adams and colleagues (2014) with many different aspects of data that were then used to complement participants’ interviews (i.e., data triangulation). Moreover, by using a constant comparison technique in addition to qualitative content analysis or thematic analysis in QD studies, researchers compare each case with others looking for similarities and differences as well as reasoning why differences exist, to generate more general understanding of phenomena of interest ( Thorne, 2000 ). In fact, this constant comparison analysis is compatible with qualitative content analysis and thematic analysis and we found several examples of using this approach in studies we reviewed ( Asemani et al., 2014 ; DeBruyn et al., 2014 ; Holland et al., 2014 ; Johansson et al., 2014 ; Li et al., 2014 ; Oosterveld-Vlug et al., 2014 ).

However, this flexibility or variability in methods of QD studies may cause readers’ as well as researchers’ confusion in designing and often labeling qualitative studies ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ). Especially, it could be difficult for scholars unfamiliar with qualitative studies to differentiate QD studies with “hues, tones, and textures” of qualitative traditions ( Sandelowski, 2000 , p. 337) from grounded theory, phenomenological, and ethnographical research. In fact, the major difference is in the presentation of the findings (or outcomes of qualitative research) ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ; Sandelowski, 2000 ). The final products of grounded theory, phenomenological, and ethnographical research are a generation of a theory, a description of the meaning or essence of people’s lived experience, and an in-depth, narrative description about certain culture, respectively, through researchers’ intensive/deep interpretations, reflections, and/or transformation of data ( Streubert & Carpenter, 2011 ). In contrast, QD studies result in “a rich, straight description” of experiences, perceptions, or events using language from the collected data ( Neergaard et al., 2009 ) through low-inference (or data-near) interpretations during data analysis ( Sandelowski, 2000 , 2010 ). This feature is consistent with our finding regarding presentation of findings: in all QD articles included in this systematic review, the researchers presented focused or comprehensive, descriptive summaries to their research questions.

Finally, an explanation or justification of why a QD approach was chosen or appropriate for the study aims was not found in more than half of studies in the sample. While other qualitative approaches, including grounded theory, phenomenology, ethnography, and narrative analysis, are used to better understand people’s thoughts, behaviors, and situations regarding certain phenomena ( Sullivan-Bolyai et al., 2005 ), as noted above, the results will likely read differently than those for a QD study ( Carter & Little, 2007 ). Therefore, it is important that researchers accurately label and justify their choices of approach, particularly for studies focused on participants’ experiences, which could be addressed with other qualitative traditions. Justifying one’s research epistemology, methodology, and methods allows readers to evaluate these choices for internal consistency, provides context to assist in understanding the findings, and contributes to the transparency of choices, all of which enhance the rigor of the study ( Carter & Little, 2007 ; Wu, Thompson, Aroian, McQuaid, & Deatrick, 2016 ).

Use of the CASP tool drew our attention to the credibility and usefulness of the findings of the QD studies included in this review. Although justification for study design and methods was lacking in many articles, most authors reported techniques of recruitment, data collection, and analysis that appeared. Internal consistencies among study objectives, methods, and findings were achieved in most studies, increasing readers’ confidence that the findings of these studies are credible and useful in understanding under-explored phenomenon of interest.

In summary, our findings support the notion that many scholars employ QD and include a variety of commonly observed characteristics in their study design and subsequent publications. Based on our review, we found that QD as a scholarly approach allows flexibility as research questions and study findings emerge. We encourage authors to provide as many details as possible regarding how QD was chosen for a particular study as well as details regarding methods to facilitate readers’ understanding and evaluation of the study design and rigor. We acknowledge the challenge of strict word limitation with submissions to print journals; potential solutions include collaboration with journal editors and staff to consider creative use of charts or tables, or using more citations and less text in background sections so that methods sections are robust.


Several limitations of this review deserve mention. First, only articles where researchers explicitly stated in the main body of the article that a QD design was employed were included. In contrast, articles labeled as QD in only the title or abstract, or without their research design named were not examined due to the lack of certainty that the researchers actually carried out a QD study. As a result, we may have excluded some studies where a QD design was followed. Second, only one database was searched and therefore we did not identify or describe potential studies following a QD approach that were published in non-PubMed databases. Third, our review is limited by reliance on what was included in the published version of a study. In some cases, this may have been a result of word limits or specific styles imposed by journals, or inconsistent reporting preferences of authors and may have limited our ability to appraise the general adequacy with the CASP tool and examine specific characteristics of these studies.


A systematic review was conducted by examining QD research articles focused on nursing-related phenomena and published in one calendar year. Current patterns include some characteristics of QD studies consistent with the previous observations described in the literature, a focus on the flexibility or variability of methods in QD studies, and a need for increased explanations of why QD was an appropriate label for a particular study. Based on these findings, recommendations include encouragement to authors to provide as many details as possible regarding the methods of their QD study. In this way, readers can thoroughly consider and examine if the methods used were effective and reasonable in producing credible and useful findings.


This work was supported in part by the John A. Hartford Foundation’s National Hartford Centers of Gerontological Nursing Excellence Award Program.

Hyejin Kim is a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Predoctoral Fellow (F31NR015702) and 2013–2015 National Hartford Centers of Gerontological Nursing Excellence Patricia G. Archbold Scholar. Justine Sefcik is a Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Fellow (F31NR015693) through the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Nursing Research.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The Authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

Contributor Information

Hyejin Kim, MSN, CRNP, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

Justine S. Sefcik, MS, RN, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

Christine Bradway, PhD, CRNP, FAAN, Associate Professor of Gerontological Nursing, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

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Research Methods | Definitions, Types, Examples

Research methods are specific procedures for collecting and analyzing data. Developing your research methods is an integral part of your research design . When planning your methods, there are two key decisions you will make.

First, decide how you will collect data . Your methods depend on what type of data you need to answer your research question :

  • Qualitative vs. quantitative : Will your data take the form of words or numbers?
  • Primary vs. secondary : Will you collect original data yourself, or will you use data that has already been collected by someone else?
  • Descriptive vs. experimental : Will you take measurements of something as it is, or will you perform an experiment?

Second, decide how you will analyze the data .

  • For quantitative data, you can use statistical analysis methods to test relationships between variables.
  • For qualitative data, you can use methods such as thematic analysis to interpret patterns and meanings in the data.

Table of contents

Methods for collecting data, examples of data collection methods, methods for analyzing data, examples of data analysis methods, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about research methods.

Data is the information that you collect for the purposes of answering your research question . The type of data you need depends on the aims of your research.

Qualitative vs. quantitative data

Your choice of qualitative or quantitative data collection depends on the type of knowledge you want to develop.

For questions about ideas, experiences and meanings, or to study something that can’t be described numerically, collect qualitative data .

If you want to develop a more mechanistic understanding of a topic, or your research involves hypothesis testing , collect quantitative data .

You can also take a mixed methods approach , where you use both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Primary vs. secondary research

Primary research is any original data that you collect yourself for the purposes of answering your research question (e.g. through surveys , observations and experiments ). Secondary research is data that has already been collected by other researchers (e.g. in a government census or previous scientific studies).

If you are exploring a novel research question, you’ll probably need to collect primary data . But if you want to synthesize existing knowledge, analyze historical trends, or identify patterns on a large scale, secondary data might be a better choice.

Descriptive vs. experimental data

In descriptive research , you collect data about your study subject without intervening. The validity of your research will depend on your sampling method .

In experimental research , you systematically intervene in a process and measure the outcome. The validity of your research will depend on your experimental design .

To conduct an experiment, you need to be able to vary your independent variable , precisely measure your dependent variable, and control for confounding variables . If it’s practically and ethically possible, this method is the best choice for answering questions about cause and effect.

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concept of descriptive research

Your data analysis methods will depend on the type of data you collect and how you prepare it for analysis.

Data can often be analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively. For example, survey responses could be analyzed qualitatively by studying the meanings of responses or quantitatively by studying the frequencies of responses.

Qualitative analysis methods

Qualitative analysis is used to understand words, ideas, and experiences. You can use it to interpret data that was collected:

  • From open-ended surveys and interviews , literature reviews , case studies , ethnographies , and other sources that use text rather than numbers.
  • Using non-probability sampling methods .

Qualitative analysis tends to be quite flexible and relies on the researcher’s judgement, so you have to reflect carefully on your choices and assumptions and be careful to avoid research bias .

Quantitative analysis methods

Quantitative analysis uses numbers and statistics to understand frequencies, averages and correlations (in descriptive studies) or cause-and-effect relationships (in experiments).

You can use quantitative analysis to interpret data that was collected either:

  • During an experiment .
  • Using probability sampling methods .

Because the data is collected and analyzed in a statistically valid way, the results of quantitative analysis can be easily standardized and shared among researchers.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Chi square test of independence
  • Statistical power
  • Descriptive statistics
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Pearson correlation
  • Null hypothesis
  • Double-blind study
  • Case-control study
  • Research ethics
  • Data collection
  • Hypothesis testing
  • Structured interviews

Research bias

  • Hawthorne effect
  • Unconscious bias
  • Recall bias
  • Halo effect
  • Self-serving bias
  • Information bias

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses . Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.

In mixed methods research , you use both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis methods to answer your research question .

A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population . Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research. For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.

In statistics, sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population.

The research methods you use depend on the type of data you need to answer your research question .

  • If you want to measure something or test a hypothesis , use quantitative methods . If you want to explore ideas, thoughts and meanings, use qualitative methods .
  • If you want to analyze a large amount of readily-available data, use secondary data. If you want data specific to your purposes with control over how it is generated, collect primary data.
  • If you want to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables , use experimental methods. If you want to understand the characteristics of a research subject, use descriptive methods.

Methodology refers to the overarching strategy and rationale of your research project . It involves studying the methods used in your field and the theories or principles behind them, in order to develop an approach that matches your objectives.

Methods are the specific tools and procedures you use to collect and analyze data (for example, experiments, surveys , and statistical tests ).

In shorter scientific papers, where the aim is to report the findings of a specific study, you might simply describe what you did in a methods section .

In a longer or more complex research project, such as a thesis or dissertation , you will probably include a methodology section , where you explain your approach to answering the research questions and cite relevant sources to support your choice of methods.

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Existential Well-Being in Nature: A Cross-Cultural and Descriptive Phenomenological Approach

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  • Published: 13 April 2024

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  • Børge Baklien   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-1494-2838 1 ,
  • Marthoenis Marthoenis   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-7322-2585 2 &
  • Miranda Thurston   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-7779-3836 1  

Exploring the putative role of nature in human well-being has typically been operationalized and measured within a quantitative paradigm of research. However, such approaches are limited in the extent to which they can capture the full range of how natural experiences support well-being. The aim of the study was to explore personal experiences in nature and consider how they might be important to human health and well-being. Based on a descriptive phenomenological analysis of fifty descriptions of memorable moments in nature from England, Indonesia, and Norway, our findings illustrate a common structure presented under three themes: 1. serenity that gives rise to a growing awareness of how the body is stimulated by the senses; 2. admiration and appreciation for the sensation of beauty; 3. an emerging sense of togetherness and deep emotional bonding. The findings are discussed using the concepts of ecological time and the ecological body, which foreground being in nature as constituted as an interdependent and dynamic human process. We conclude by understanding well-being in terms of human responsiveness to their surroundings and thus as rooted in the human condition.

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Societal shifts over several decades continue to reconfigure people’s relationship with the natural environment, shifts which have been amplified in recent decades. The migration of people to cities, alongside the attendant urbanization, has distanced many people from nature, a trend that is set to continue (Soga and Gaston 2023). In the same vein, the expansion of technology relating to the consumption of media has contributed to the rise in sedentary lifestyles that are increasingly home-based (Woessner et al. 2021). A consequence of these trends is not just that many people have been physically repositioned away from the natural environment (Pritchard et al. 2020; Nisbet, Shaw, and Lachance 2020; Rosa, Profice, and Collado 2018) but that our collective imagination and cultural conversations about nature have also declined since the 1950s (Kesebir and Kesebir 2017). At the same time, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in human-nature relations from both the public health and the environment fields. For example, there is now a substantial body of evidence that supports the long-standing view that being in the natural environment promotes mental health (in terms of psychological struggles and challenges) and well-being (in the sense of thriving and/or flourishing as conceptualized by Westerhof and Keyes [2010]) (Zylstra et al. 2014; Ives et al. 2017; Soga and Gaston 2016; Richardson, Passmore, et al. 2021; Baxter and Pelletier 2019; Hurly and Walker 2019). There is also an emerging body of evidence that indicates that enhancing people’s connection with nature can increase the likelihood that they support biodiversity and pro-nature policies and actions (Soga and Gaston 2023). While many researchers have tended to rely on biomedical, reductionist approaches to the study of human connection with nature, we view this emerging body of work as raising some important ecological questions about purpose and meaning in humans’ relations with nature. Thus, we position our study within the health humanities field, contextualizing wellbeing as rooted in the human condition as circumscribed by modernity (George et al. 2023), of which relations with nature are a part. Our specific interest and departure point is to understand how people perceive and experience being in nature. We use a qualitative phenomenological approach to generate rich and detailed accounts that can give insight into the existential dimensions of human-nature relations. We start by reviewing the extant research in the field to provide a rationale for our approach.

Conceptualizing Human-Nature Relations Phenomenologically

Much of the empirical research to date—for example, in the field of environmental psychology—has tended to rely on a quantitative paradigm to describe and explain human-nature relationships. This has involved measuring contact with nature—conceptualized as an “exposure” to, for example, the sea, forest, or countryside—and using various psychometric scales to measure various psychological and health outcomes (Muhr 2020; Ives et al. 2017; Zylstra et al. 2014; Barragan-Jason et al. 2023). This type of research has given rise to questions of how much contact with nature is needed if benefits are to be realized, in keeping with a quantifiable “dose-response” framing of “exposure” to nature. For example, visiting nature more than once a week or watching nature documentaries has been linked to health and eudaimonic well-being (relating to a meaningful life in terms of fulfillment and purpose, again as conceptualized by Westerhof and Keyes [2010; Martin et al. 2020]), while spending two hours a week in nature has been related to better health and well-being (White et al. 2019). The theoretical underpinning of many of these studies has largely been in terms of cognition (for example, cognitive restoration in Attention Restoration Theory [Kaplan 1995] and affective, cognitive, and psychological restorative processes in Stress Recovery Theory [Ulrich 1984]). Likewise, being attuned to natural beauty has been related to affect regulation and well-being outcomes such as happiness through cognitive mechanisms (Richardson and McEwan 2018). This type of empirical and theoretically driven research has given rise to a broad consensus across the natural, social, and health sciences that being connected to nature can have an impact on various dimensions of mental health, including cognitive function, emotional and subjective wellbeing, psychological connectedness, and, physical health (Bratman, Daily, et al. 2015; Martin et al. 2020; Bratman, Anderson, et al. 2019; Olivos and Clayton 2017). Consequently, nature has been increasingly viewed as having the potential to be used in the treatment of depression, stress, negative emotions, cognitive challenges, and anxiety (Ulrich 1984; Martyn and Brymer 2016; Marselle, Irvine, and Warber 2014; Mayer et al. 2009). Thus, Barton and Pretty (2010) conclude that the question is no longer whether connectedness to nature improves health but rather how nature is beneficial and how it might be utilized in health promotion.

Framing human-nature relations in this way crowds out broader understandings of human experience that are better viewed as holistic, dynamic, and contextualized. From an empirical point of view, quantitative studies based on a cross-sectional study design can only capture brief and localized episodes and cannot explore how human-nature relations might be understood as cumulative (Krekel and MacKerron 2020). Moreover, they tend to fragment and reduce human experiences to specific variables, captured at one point in time and linked statistically to specific impacts. In recent years, there has been an emphasis in the field on the development of measurement tools (Restall and Conrad 2015) relating to three interacting dimensions: cognitive, affective, and experiential connections (Muhr 2020). This implies that the concept of “well-being” is a construct that can be measured rather than as an experience that can be expressed in more complex and multilayered ways. Similarly, theoretical departure points also contribute to narrowing conceptualizations of human-nature relations. For example, some studies have framed nature as a psychological human need, the satisfaction of which is viewed as a pre-requisite for experiencing well-being (Baxter and Pelletier 2019; Hurly and Walker 2019). In the same vein, the biophilia hypothesis is based on the premise that humans have an innate bond with nature rooted in our evolutionary history, and thus, humans, by instinct, are attracted to and seek out nature (Wilson 1984; Selinske, Harrison, and Simmons 2023). While this body of research is extensive and informative, its tendency to fragment and narrow human experience and subjectivity leaves unanswered how we can better understand human experience in terms of the purposes and meaning of being in nature (van Spijk 2015). Thus, as far as we can see, it is still rather unclear what constitutes “experience in nature” (Hartig et al. 2014, 209; Trigwell, Francis, and Bagot 2014) and how this might be related to well-being.

Philosophical approaches such as eco-psychology and eco-phenomenology may offer a helpful entry point for understanding connectedness with nature in experiential terms (Abram 1997; Toadvine 2005; Fisher 2013; Vakoch and Castrillón 2014). This work reveals that nature can be experienced as a sense of peacefulness and spiritual well-being (Heintzman 2009), as human well-being (Schweitzer 2021), and as a peak transformative experience (Naor and Mayseless 2020). At a more descriptive level, nature is appreciated for its scenic values (Dorwart, Moore, and Leung 2009) and as a setting for recreation (Haaland and Tønnessen 2022), such as when families hike together in nature (Baklien, Ytterhus, and Bongaardt 2016), while children express their love for nature (Kalvaitis and Monhardt 2015). This body of research suggests that phenomenology offers a potentially fruitful way of generating insights that can help us capture a wider breadth of meaningful experiences in nature as well as illuminate how such experiences might support well-being (Schweitzer 2021). In other words, phenomenological approaches ask how we experience moments in the natural environment as health and well-being (Grant and Pollard 2022). Because phenomenological research explicitly attempts to understand the world of another by framing experiences as they relate to the whole person situated within the context of, in this case, nature, it potentially addresses the limitations of the extant research outlined above. In this regard, the bodily aspects of experiencing nature and how these relate to meanings and purposes—and, thus, well-being—have been little explored in previous research, which has tended to separate the senses and feelings from the body. Phenomenology unites the corporeal body with the lived body (Orphanidou, Kadianaki, and O’Connor 2023), avoiding objectification and focusing on understanding embodied experience as one’s experience: while the “corporeal body senses … the lived body understands” (Rentmeester, Bake, and Riemer 2022, 445). Informed by the health humanities field (see, for example, Coope 2021; George et al. 2023; Valtonen and Lewis 2023), we conceptualize human connection with nature and well-being phenomenologically and, thus, in existential terms—that is to say, in terms of human everyday lived existence. Thus, we explore, describe, and clarify how well-being is lived within an ecological and cross-cultural context. This offers the prospect of gaining a better understanding of how nature might be beneficial and might be used within an ecological public health perspective (Lang and Rayner 2012).

In choosing phenomenology as an approach, we give emphasis to people’s lived experience and subjectivity. To date, research on connectedness to nature has largely been undertaken in post-industrial Anglo-Saxon countries (Ives et al. 2017; Restall and Conrad 2015). Our research takes a cross-cultural perspective and explores participants’ experiences of being in nature in three diverse countries, namely, Indonesia, Norway, and England.

Students from England, Indonesia, and Norway were asked to write down descriptions of a memorable moment they had experienced in nature. The aim was to generate descriptions of their lived experience rather than analytical accounts of their experience. Thus, the purpose of using this method was to generate descriptions of subjective experiences of nature, not opinions, beliefs, or accounts about experiences (van Manen 2016, 299). Due to our experiential approach, a descriptive phenomenological method was chosen to allow a deeper insight into memorable moments in nature by staying close to the experience.

The phenomenological method involves adopting an “attentiveness and wonder” towards the world and making an effort to relearn how to look at the world. As such, our attention was on how the world was present to us (Merleau-Ponty 2012). In the phenomenological literature, this is called bracketing and may be understood as an act of suspending the tendency to objectify the world (van Manen and van Manen 2021, 13). In other words, the researcher tries to put aside theoretical or ideological assumptions during data collection and analysis by withholding any existential positing of the truth and how it is classified in the objective world. Rather, the focus becomes the phenomenon and meaning and how they appear to the research participants.

However, as qualitative researchers, we recognize that we are not neutral observers; we are narrators and meaning-makers inspired by and involved in the literature and the relation between phenomenology and nature. Through our data analysis and presentation of findings, we engage in storytelling by weaving our students’ descriptions into a narrative about meaningful moments in nature. Thus, at some level, we are constituting the meaning we find in our data (Churchill 2022, 48,73) in order to provide an interpretivist account. Bracketing out was an ongoing process of seeking to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions and ways of viewing the world by questioning how we understood the descriptions from our students.

Participants and Data Collection

In common with other qualitative methods, phenomenological research works with small samples rather than representative samples as it is primarily concerned with a rich, detailed account of individual experience. The backdrop to this study was an established research collaboration between Norway, England, and Indonesia and our shared interest in nature-based services in mental health, especially with regard to how being in nature may be experienced as well-being. Given the differences in landscape between the countries, experiences were expressed in relation to the sand and sea, the mountains and fjords, as well as the rolling hills of more gentle countryside. We invited university students in diverse master’s programs from England, Norway, and Indonesia during normal class time to participate in the study. All students who were present on the day the research took place were invited to participate, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic background. Overall, eight students from England, 20 from Norway, and 22 from Indonesia participated. Given our descriptive approach, we started by asking research participants to write experiential descriptions of memorable moments in nature. We gave the participants a simple instruction: “Please describe a moment in nature that has meant something special to you or as you remember it.” Each student wrote their experiential description on their computer and sent it to the researchers. Descriptions varied in length from half a page to two pages. All descriptions written in Indonesian and Norwegian were translated into English by professional translators before the data analysis. In each of the three countries, the appropriate ethical review processes were followed. Participation was by written informed consent.

Data Analysis

Fifty descriptions from half a page to two pages were analyzed using Giorgi’s (2009) five-step descriptive method. The findings in the descriptive phenomenological method are the meaning structure of the phenomenon, which is expressed as a consistent statement. In the analysis, we initially differentiated between the three countries and thus went through all five steps three times. However, comparing the meaning structure of these three countries, they were similar in how the sensual body experiences being in nature. Thus, we integrated the three meaning structures into one, which we present in the findings.

The first step in the analysis was an initial reading of all the transcribed descriptions, which gave a sense of the whole experience.

In step two, we tried to “bracket” or “take out of play” our preconceptions about the phenomenon to lessen the influence of our knowledge, beliefs, and theoretical assumptions to prevent us as researchers from mistaking our beliefs as scientific findings (Churchill 2022, 83). Using this kind of thinking, all transcriptions were read with an effort to apply a phenomenological attitude to develop a preliminary sense of the whole and some idea of how the description proceeds and ends (Giorgi 2018, 98).

In step three, we re-read the descriptions, dividing them into smaller manageable parts or meaning units by setting a slash when we experienced a transition in the meaning. Such meaning units can be a sentence or a paragraph and allow for a more detailed focus later in step four. We modified the descriptions into third-person expressions by replacing I with P (participant) and with she or him to be better able to see the differences between the individual and the phenomenon (Giorgi 2009).

The fourth step was a process called imaginative variation, in which the researcher tried out different formulations of each meaning unit at various levels of generalization into a transformed meaning unit. This involved finding ways of expressing the implicit meaning in a more direct and explicit form by extracting and reflecting upon each of the delineated meaning units without using theoretical terminology. All the meaning units were re-read to formulate what they reveal about the participants’ experience in meaningful moments. No coding was undertaken; rather, all the meaning units were interrogated for their relevance and transformed to highlight the psychological meaning attached to them. This transformation process step lies at the heart of the method of phenomenological descriptive analysis, where the psychological meaning must be “detected, drawn out and elaborated” (Giorgi 2009, 131). Table 1 gives an example of this transformation process.

In step five, and based on the transformed meaning units, we synthesized all the descriptions into the general meaning structure. We did this by synthesizing the transformed meaning units into a consistent statement to give the general meaning structure of the experience of memorable moments in nature, thus capturing the experience across participants. The structure must be found in all the descriptions to be part of the essence of the experience of the phenomenon. According to Giorgi (2009, 200), it is not “a matter of simply listing the meaning units together but to bring a holistic perspective on them.” In this way, all the participants’ experiences of the phenomenon were included by reviewing all the transformed meaning units and comparing and contrasting them to decide which ones were necessary for describing the general meaning structure. In essence, in this step, we tried to determine what was essential to the description by moving from the individual to the general level.

Through descriptive phenomenological analysis, we revealed a general meaning structure of the experience of meaningful moments in nature for each country. By comparing the three meaning structures, we concluded that, despite some cultural differences in how to be out in the natural environment between the countries, the meaning structures were similar. The one noticeable point of divergence was that the Norwegians tended to enjoy such moments with others but also alone. In the following, we first present the common essential meaning structure and then clarify it.

Meaning structure for the phenomenon of memorable moments in nature. In situations where memorable moments are experienced, P feels present where she is and does not think about the rest of the world, her worries, or time. Instead, she feels how she becomes drawn into the view, the smells, the sounds, and how the air, water, and ground touch her skin. P’s body feels peaceful, and she lets go of her concerns which brings a sense of relief. P experiences the moment as if a veil of thoughts and tasks that occupy her in everyday life is lifted and she feels how her senses become aroused by the surroundings here and now. In such a moment, P becomes aware of how the beauty in nature touches her and how she feels some deep emotional connection and togetherness with those who are with her and with the more-than-human world. It is as if the arousal of her senses is related to “letting go” of thoughts and worries from everyday life, which gives the body and mind space to open up further and deepen the sensual and emotional experience of being in nature with no distraction.

The Serenity that Gives Rise to a Growing Awareness of How the Body is Stimulated by the Senses

When memorable moments emerge in an aesthetic landscape of serenity, it is felt and experienced as letting go of the stresses and strains in everyday life, which brings a sense of relief. This peacefulness is transmitted to the body, and it feels like “letting go” in such a way that thoughts and worries from everyday life are released from the mind. Without these distractions, outer peacefulness becomes or gives rise to an inner peacefulness that enables the senses to be aroused. As such, the moment evokes a sensual embodied awareness where the present becomes primary while the rest of the world—worries, school, work, or time—recedes into the background. When compared with their everyday life, they become aware of how they are “released from all everyday worries” and more open to seeing the details and richness in their surroundings. A student from England describes how she became aware:

The path we took was well-trodden, compiled of small pebbles, and made the ground slip and compress as we walked making soft crackling sounds combined with the sounds of waves which I found soothing. I had just finished a long and stressful final year at university, having only completed my undergraduate a week or two before. It was nice to be active and free after being constrained to a library for months.

Without all the distractions and constraints of everyday life, they experience a sense of presence that is mentally refreshing. The serenity allows them to become more aware of how their bodily senses are stimulated. The temperature, the sight of the water, the feel of the ground, the various sounds and smells envelope them in such a moment, and a deeply emotional sense of serenity appears. As a student from Indonesia describes a moment on a hiking trip:

Along the way [to the top of a mountain] I paid attention to whatever was coming. I felt peaceful when I saw a sight that rewards my eyes, and comfortable with the cool air that I feel, the breeze that always makes me not want to go home. Supported by a whispered voice of leaves that did not allow me to leave. All of that makes my body very relaxed. This feeling of peace and comfort is like nothing can disturb it.

In such a moment, nature is in various ways beautiful; however, what they specifically describe as beautiful varies between the countries—from Indonesia with the beaches, the rice fields, green mountains, and the cool breeze, in England with the countryside, national parks, cliffs, and the beaches; and, in Norway with the mountains, forest, sea, and lakes. Nevertheless, they all bring forth their bodily senses, which they draw on to describe the setting and the evocation of serenity and delight of being present in the moment. More specifically, they feel relaxed and attentive at the same time and, as such, feel a bodily refreshment. By feeling relaxed, they become alert and open to perceiving their surroundings, and by being attentive, they notice such details as the color of the leaves or the silence. They are attuned to themselves and their surroundings and open their senses, letting the landscape “enter in.” It is an immediately embodied response to the shapes and natural forces around them. This student from Norway describes a moment in the forest in poetic language:

Then a light drizzle began to whisper through the wood. The leaves on the birch trees were still almost completely green, even though they had noticeably faded. Only here and there were some red and yellow leaves twinkling in the sun when the rays suddenly slid down through the dense network of thin branches just washed by the falling rain. Not a single bird could be heard; they had all sought shelter and calm. Just the occasional cheerful sound of a titmouse could be heard like a tinkling bell through the birch grove.

Admiration and Appreciation of the Sensation of Beauty

Many of the descriptions are similarly poetic rather than explanatory. The experience of the sunset, the ocean, the rice field, the mountains, the chilly air, and the green forest is aesthetic and evokes emotions. For example, the rice field is not just food or work; it is something more; it is experienced in a deeply moving way where the whole body is active and absorbed in the beauty, as this Indonesian student describes.

I live at home in the middle of a wide expanse of rice fields. The rice fields are green and soothing. Every morning, the rice fields are foggy. During the day, there are a lot of breezes. And in the afternoon the rice fields look very beautiful because of the added reflection of the sunset. Especially during the harvest season, the rice began to turn yellow, and the rice fields were full. This is a beautiful sight to the eye. Every morning I like to go out to see the fog covering the rice fields. It feels cool and serene, except for the sound of birds singing. Every morning, farmers started arriving and descending into the fields. There you can often hear the sound of many iron cans tied to the rope and then shaken to keep the birds from eating the rice.

Such meaningful moments happen when the body feels undistracted by the routine of everyday life and especially attentive to the surroundings, which they thus perceive as particularly beautiful. In such a moment, which can last for seconds or persist for some hours, they feel a sense of warmth, admiration, joy, and appreciation for what they are experiencing. They highlight the sensuousness in their descriptions, such as the sound of the leaves, the smell of the ocean, the feel of the cooling wind, and the view from a mountain. Becoming attentive brings forth an appreciation of something beautiful, which rests on an emotional and bodily sense of being touched by it.

Although what is perceived as beautiful may vary, the experience is described in a similar vein. In Norway, beauty is described as when the sunshine colors the natural environment, the firmament on a clear winter night, embraced by the forest and the stunning view from the mountains. This student captures how such moments give them a warm, deeply moving feeling.

As we move on up, our view changes to lush hills with autumnal trees, while lakes reflect nature in all its glory and look like paintings as they shimmer in the calm landscape with the sun shining between the clouds, creating a magical image of our country. I feel touched by how beautiful Norway is in its autumn colors. I get a nice warm sentimental feeling in my chest and feel very lucky and privileged to be able to have such an experience.

In England, the beauty is described in similar ways with the stunning view of the countryside, the cliffs, the beaches, the ocean, the waterfalls in Wales, or the spectacular view when hiking around in the world that brings forth a deep sense of awe imprinting this as a long-lasting memorable moment. It is a sense of gratefulness, as this student describes:

Throughout the pleasure ride there were moments when I was left by myself as my partner and horse galloped off into fields. During this time, it was nice to reflect on how lucky I feel to have access to such beautiful scenery, environments, and a horse. Something that I have always wanted in life was happening at that very moment, and as cliché, as it sounds, I think it will always be unforgettable. It was peaceful to just stand there and take in the scenery and simply be present, happy, and grateful, even though I was giving appreciation to one particular person.

In Indonesia, the aesthetic is described similarly with the beaches that offer extraordinary beauty, the rice fields, and the mountains wrapped in a green carpet of plants and trees, which brings forth a sense of gratefulness. As this student from Indonesia describes, it is as if the peaceful movement of the sea, the chilling breeze, and the salty smell all together capture the mind and body.

When looking at the beach I feel calm and cool, as if all the burdens of my mind have temporarily disappeared. The blue color of the sea is very beautiful and soothing to the eyes, and the sound of the waves and the wind fills my mind. The beauty, smelling the salty aroma of the sea, and hearing the waves breaking on the shore, made my heart and mind calm again. It evokes gratefulness to Allah the creator for the beauty of nature.

An Emerging Sense of Togetherness and Deep Emotional Bonding

In memorable moments, they are seldom alone. However, the descriptions refer to their emotional attachment to being in nature. Often, they are with family, friends, or their lover, and in such moments, they appreciate their feelings towards them. They start to see the people around them more clearly and with affection. Feeling serene and letting go of tensions brings greater visibility to other people while, at the same time, sharing the experience with others creates an emotional sense of togetherness. As this student from England describes, during such undisturbed moments in nature, her relation to her partner is intimate and experienced as closeness.

I was able to see my partner properly without work or stress crossing my mind and I was fully immersed in the “moment.” We went “shell collecting,” investigated the rock pools for creatures along the shore, and childishly pushed each other in the water and quicksand—it was a freeing experience to just be silly for a while. We laughed and joked as well as had more serious conversations reaffirming our relationship and how we saw our future together.

Such a moment in nature gave rise to a deepening of feelings towards others they were with and a strengthening of emotional bonds that could last for a lifetime. In such a moment, they were touched by the beauty of something bigger than themselves, which they could share with somebody close. Sharing these kinds of meaningful experiences amplified the enjoyment of the situation, and a deep feeling of gratitude for the experience and a sense of bonding emerged. Sharing such moments with persons they were attached to, as this mother from Norway describes, contributed to a sense of deep emotional bonding.

We came to a small pond and the sight almost took my breath away. The sky was reflected in the water with its pink clouds and the bluish twilight. It was just like a painting. I felt a shiver of happiness run through my body. Partly because of the beautiful view, but also because I could share that moment with my family.

It is not only families or lovers that feel such emotional bonds. Sharing such moments of awareness and serenity with friends, as this description from Indonesia illustrates, a sense of ease and togetherness emerge.

During the climbing trip from the foot of the mountain, it was very cool with the sky that was getting dark and a little drizzle. We reached the top at night, then my friends and I built a tent together and cooked around the tent. When you are at the top with friends is the most exciting time.

It is striking how such moments created memories that linked pleasant feelings of the environment with sound, smell, and temperature, together with pleasant feelings of just being with others. For example, this description from England illuminates the feeling of sitting under a blanket with someone on the beach on a windy day.

Reasonably strong wind, I could see the sand moving across the surface of the beach. Seeing the sand blow onto our shoes and seep into our socks. Taste the sea salt in your mouth, and feel the sand hitting your face. See the beach grass bending over sideways due to the force of the wind. Seaweed rolled across the sand gathering debris as it went. Pools of seawater with surface rippling as buffeted by the wind. Laughing, giggling, huddled together very close to keeping warm. Sitting on one blanket and wrapped up in another tartan, a woolen blanket that smells slightly of an old damp Welsh cottage. Hair flying about, whipping you in the face. Holding on tight to the blanket so it didn’t get pulled from us. Occasionally burying our heads inside the blanket to get a break from the salty wind.

The description conveys a closeness that requires few words to be spoken. Together, they have a shared world, experiencing the same things, sometimes teasing each other, and, at other times, they become occupied by focusing deeply on the things around them. The value is just to be together and feel close to those they are with. In the same manner, this student from Norway describes how such moments are about a sense of togetherness:

These were magical experiences for us and the children. We made a bonfire by the river, as it was often a bit dark and chilly outdoors. The bonfire gave us warmth and light, we could feel its heat and we grilled sausages to fill our stomachs. The children shifted between fishing and sitting by the bonfire, and sometimes they played a bit in the water as well. If they caught a fish, their happiness was indescribable. They almost jumped for joy, cheered with their whole bodies, smiled from ear to ear, and were just so happy and proud.

The moment could also involve contemplation and wonder about life because being together in nature created space for these deeper kinds of thoughts. They involved each other in their reflections and thoughts about life. Such moments were felt to be deeply meaningful, and they connected at an emotional level to others and themselves. Sharing personal thoughts about life gave rise to feelings of bonding, which contributed to emotionally forging their relationship. This description from England describes how nature almost brings out situations that bring forth closeness and a sense of emotional bonding.

The sun was still awake, but it was getting to the point where it was almost time for it to start descending. We got to the top and we all decided to take a break, eat, and chat. I will always remember this day because as we were watching the forest and sun beyond us, we started talking about our future goals and aspirations. It was almost like nature itself was bringing it out of us. Personally, I felt at inner peace and had forgotten all that was wrong with the world. Hear the wind whistling, seagulls shrieking, trying to fly to safety.

By exploring memorable moments in nature, our findings support the overall conclusion of previous research that “contact” with nature can contribute to well-being. However, using a qualitative phenomenological approach to conceptualize human beings holistically and contextually has allowed us to present new ways of understanding such a relationship. Based on our empirical findings, here we discuss our preliminary theoretical ideas to account for how nature supports a sense of well-being, at least in the here and now. We use the term ecological to foreground the notion that being in nature is constituted as an interdependent and dynamic human process. We thus develop our theoretical account of how being in nature contributes to well-being using two interrelated ideas: ecological time and the ecological body, both of which we explain further below. Importantly, this theoretical account is relational in the sense that being in nature is juxtaposed with being in everyday life, which is likely to be quite different, particularly in terms of being disconnected from nature, especially immersive experiences in nature.

Nature and Well-Being: Ecological Time

As we outlined earlier, societal shifts over several decades have contributed to a structuring of people’s daily lives that are harried and in which their rational selves are emphasized at work and home. Life thus becomes routinized through obligations and other distractions, a consequence of which is that senses and emotions are often constrained (Elias and Dunning 1986). Our opportunities for mental refreshment that are intensely meaningful and give us purpose may be few (Jackson 2011). Our findings suggest that being in nature stands out as being different in this regard because being in nature can lead to purpose and meaning on which our well-being pivots.

However, our findings suggest that being in nature is experienced subjectively rather than objectively as if it exists independently of human experience. The English author and poet Thomas Hardy, writing in the nineteenth century about his home county of Dorset in the south of England, said that “experience is as to intensity and not to duration” (Hardy 2008). Similarly, Merleau-Ponty (2002) compares time to the perception of the moving landscape:

If the observer sits in a boat and is carried by the current, we may say that he is moving downstream toward his future, but the future lies in the new landscapes which await him at the estuary, and the course of time is no longer the stream itself: it is the landscape as it rolls by for the moving observer. Time is, therefore, not a real process, not an actual succession that I am content to record. It arises from my relation to things. (Merleau-Ponty 2002, 478; original italics)

We interpret our findings as revealing that people experience time somewhat differently when in nature because of the intensity of their experiences, as Hardy reminds us. This gave rise to a feeling of being in the “present” such that time seemed to stand still. We might view this as being in nature’s unfolding rhythms in what is called “soft fascination” (Kaplan 1995). Put another way, the complexity of everyday life is replaced by simplicity in nature (Baklien, Bongaardt, and Ytterhus 2016). Intense experiences that are suspended in time displace the stresses and strains experienced in everyday life, which thus recede to the background and become merely a “storm on the horizon.” Experiencing time in this way gives space to feel alive and refreshed. In other words, being in nature is a way of circumventing what has been called the “social malaise associated with modernity” (George et al. 2023), and it is this that gives rise to expressions of well-being.

Nature and Well-Being: The Ecological Body

The attraction to nature’s beauty and aesthetics is well-documented and a central dimension to understanding well-being (Kaplan 1987; Ulrich 1984; Richardson and McEwan 2018). However, what a health humanities perspective adds is the way it positions well-being in terms of human responsiveness to surroundings and, therefore, as rooted in the human condition (George et al. 2023). This means that understanding how people interpret and create meaning in their experiences is central to understanding well-being (Valtonen and Lewis 2023). Such a perspective opens up possibilities for providing a more multifaceted understanding of well-being than has hitherto been the case. Our findings reveal that human responsiveness to being in nature primarily involves the evocation of the senses—not just sight, but sound and touch, too—alongside an enhancement of the awareness of those with whom they are. Responsiveness was also related to surges of a range of emotions. Whilst being in nature is often viewed as leading to calmness, we view these responses as giving rise to feelings of mental refreshment and heightened awareness; not only have they “let go” of thoughts and worries from everyday life that typically distract their attention, in doing so they have space to be open to nature and what it offers. When human beings allow their senses to be captured by the surrounding nature and its beauty, it enriches the present. Critically, we also interpret responsiveness as having a bodily dimension—such that being in nature is an embodied experience. Thus, in common with others in the mental health field (see, for example, Orphanidou, Kadianaki, and O’Connor 2023, 516), we view the body as an active agent in shaping experiences and as “critical in ascribing meaning to … experiences.”

The concept of the ecological body supports this form of theorization in the sense of an “immanent, co-creating, moving body: a body constantly becoming within a changing environment, where the body and the spaces in between and around bodies are considered as equally dynamic” (Reeve 2008). Thus, the ecological body moves and sensually experiences being close to nature rather than as an objectified unit acting on nature as a static entity. Perception of nature is thus viewed as a lived dynamic between the body and the world mediated through the senses: we immediately hear the soft wetness of the ocean, see the hardness of a stone, and smell the dryness in a dessert as nature speaks to all our senses at the same time (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 238). In this interpretation, the ecological body responds to the perception of communal sharing with nature through emotions. Sensing nature alone or with friends, families, or loved ones gives rise to pleasant sensations of warmth from the inside. Such emotion can be described as “ moved, touched, stirred, heart-warmed , experiences rapture , gets the feels , or has tender feelings,” which are captured in the concept of “kama muta,” which conveys how moments in nature are intensified and when the sense of being moved is strong, it becomes memorable (Fiske 2019, xviii; original italics). In our findings, while it varied how strongly emotions were experienced, they were an essential part of how memorable moments were experienced. When the richness of the natural surroundings “assaults” the senses and gives rise to an embodied sense of transformation, then people are drawn out of their usual way of life into a sense of mental uplifting and refreshment.

In everyday life, experience is often characterized by an absence of bodily awareness (Csordas and Harwood 1994). Our analysis illustrates that bodily awareness emerges when human beings practically engage with the world, and the strains and stresses of everyday life recede into the background. Thus, when in nature, our students described the sensuous lived body “which we are” (Van den Berg 1972, 54). Furthermore, we interpret experiences in nature as relating to the whole social situation wherein we find ourselves without everyday distractions. The embodied response to nature creates an existential sense of well-being, that is to say, of “letting be.”

Ostensibly, mindfulness may seem to capture the experience of connectedness to nature as “being attentively aware of what is taking place in the present” (Brown and Ryan, quoted in Howell et al. 2011, 167; Schutte and Malouff 2018). However, mindfulness as a concept has limited explanatory power in terms of our findings, given that it individualizes the capacity to sense, feel, and notice what is going on within oneself. We interpret our findings as pivoting on the concept of responsiveness and a more expansive view of the mind, the “mind as released from the confines of the body into our relational patterns of engagement” (McNamee 2021). Thus, sensory pathways are involved in the surroundings (Bateson 2000). The beach, the countryside, and the mountain give rise to different sensory pathways and engagement with the environment. It is a movement into serenity with an awareness of the possibilities of engaging with others and nature with a sense of vitality or existential well-being (e.g., Dahlberg, Todres, and Galvin 2009). It supports the argument that to become sensitive to the beauty in nature it is not just about visiting or exposure to nature, but rather, one needs to engage in an affective relationship if well-being is to emerge (Richardson and McEwan 2018; Richardson, Hamlin, et al. 2022). Moreover, we conclude that well-being is experienced within this process when the body, the mind, and the world become aligned as though they were three characters participating in conversation together—“three notes suddenly making a chord” (Solnit 2001, 5).

Although well-being is a contested concept, there is some consensus that it is best viewed as an existential construct related to the purpose and meaning in life (Ryff 2014). We conclude that being in nature can give rise to existential experiences that contribute to a sense of well-being. Furthermore, our paper contributes to developing a better understanding of the ecological dimensions of well-being (Coope 2021). Notably, qualitative research underpinned by phenomenology can inductively inform how we understand well-being. It highlights how studying people’s experiences can contribute to developing a more complex, multifaceted understanding of well-being, which unfolds in everyday life. Quantitative research, on the other hand, conceptualizes contact with nature in terms of exposure, dose, and effects, overlooking the ecological—that is to say, interactive character—of being in nature, during which all the senses (not just the visual) play a part in generating an overall experience (Conniff and Craig 2016). At the same time, quantitative research tends to fragment these sensory experiences into measurable variables that objectify phenomena as outside of human meaning and, in so doing, obscure the multiple pathways and mechanisms that might occur in the same natural environment (Bratman, Anderson, et al. 2019). However, our conclusions need to be interpreted with caution, given the limitations of the qualitative phenomenological approach used in this study. While we offer an interpretation of our participants’ perspectives that we believe to be trustworthy (Lincoln and Guba 1985), the methodology has the potential for various forms of bias that include our own preferences and expectations regarding the phenomenon, which may not have been fully bracketed out. There are also limitations relating to the composition of the sample and the countries in which participants resided. Future research can test the extent to which the findings and interpretations might be valid in other contexts. Further research might also combine and integrate quantitative and qualitative methods through a process of triangulation, which might clarify which dimensions of existential experience are closely related to experiences in nature. In addition, future studies could more fully explore how sharing experiences in nature with family and friends might contribute to individual and group existential experiences, something that was apparent in our data but not fully explored. Walking and talking methodologies would be a useful way of generating communal stories, while quantitative approaches could clarify which social and interpersonal variables are associated with well-being. Thus, the findings from the current study can be used to inform better ways of studying human contact with nature. In the contemporary public health landscape, this seems important given that experiences of nature may well be restorative for mental health and well-being.

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    As such, descriptive design is great for¹: Case reports and surveys: Descriptive research is a valuable tool for in-depth examination of uncommon diseases and other unique occurrences. In the context of surveys, it can help researchers meticulously analyse extensive datasets. A survey conducted to measure the changes in the levels of customer ...

  14. Descriptive research: What it is and how to use it

    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 ...

  15. Descriptive Research

    Descriptive studies have the following characteristics: 1. While descriptive research can employ a number of variables, only one variable is required to conduct a descriptive study. 2. Descriptive studies are closely associated with observational studies, but they are not limited with observation data collection method.

  16. Descriptive Research and Qualitative Research

    Abstract. Descriptive research is a study of status and is widely used in education, nutrition, epidemiology, and the behavioral sciences. Its value is based on the premise that problems can be solved and practices improved through observation, analysis, and description. The most common descriptive research method is the survey, which includes ...

  17. What Is a Research Design

    A research design is a strategy for answering your research question using empirical data. Creating a research design means making decisions about: Your overall research objectives and approach. Whether you'll rely on primary research or secondary research. Your sampling methods or criteria for selecting subjects. Your data collection methods.

  18. An overview of the qualitative descriptive design within nursing research

    Qualitative descriptive designs are common in nursing and healthcare research due to their inherent simplicity, flexibility and utility in diverse healthcare contexts. However, the application of descriptive research is sometimes critiqued in terms of scientific rigor. Inconsistency in decision making within the research process coupled with a ...

  19. Understanding Descriptive Research Methods

    Descriptive research has limited scope, wherein it only analyzes the "what" of research, it does not evaluate the "why" or "how" questions of research. ... So that sums up our descriptive research guide. It is a wide concept that demands a conceptual framework for descriptive design and a thorough understanding of descriptive survey ...

  20. What is descriptive research: Methods & examples

    Descriptive research is a type of research where researchers try to "describe" the characteristics of the problem, phenomenon, or subject. The researcher studies the details and background information related to the subject. Therefore, this research type deals with the questions of what, when, and where and try to find answers to these ...

  21. Characteristics of Qualitative Descriptive Studies: A Systematic Review

    Qualitative description (QD) is a label used in qualitative research for studies which are descriptive in nature, particularly for examining health care and nursing-related phenomena (Polit & Beck, 2009, 2014).QD is a widely cited research tradition and has been identified as important and appropriate for research questions focused on discovering the who, what, and where of events or ...

  22. Research Methods

    Research methods are specific procedures for collecting and analyzing data. Developing your research methods is an integral part of your research design. When planning your methods, there are two key decisions you will make. First, decide how you will collect data. Your methods depend on what type of data you need to answer your research question:

  23. Existential Well-Being in Nature: A Cross-Cultural and Descriptive

    Exploring the putative role of nature in human well-being has typically been operationalized and measured within a quantitative paradigm of research. However, such approaches are limited in the extent to which they can capture the full range of how natural experiences support well-being. The aim of the study was to explore personal experiences in nature and consider how they might be important ...