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Types of research: A deep dive

Last updated

19 January 2023

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

All businesses must continually take informed actions in their market, but the quality of their information limits the quality of their actions. Even before taking decisive steps toward optimizing revenue, cutting costs, and solving challenges, businesses require ever-improving knowledge of their field to stay competitive.

Research helps companies accomplish these tasks. It builds their expertise and reveals the most effective way forward. Understanding the different types of research is essential to selecting the right research methods according to your exact needs.

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Classification of different research types

We classify research according to the needs of the researchers. Before delving into the specific types of research, become clear about what you and your organization need. 

When considering research types, reflect on how you could classify your needs for research and information. That goes for the type of information, what you hope it will do for you, how you wish to apply it, and how you'll need to obtain it.

We can classify research according to:

  • Its purpose

  • How you can use it

  • The type of data you’ll use

  • The required depth of scope

  • How you obtain the data

  • When you can carry it out

  • What information sources you’ll use

  • The type of inferences you’re making

  • How much you’ll manipulate the variables

Main research categories

Research falls into two main categories:

  1. Fundamental

  2. Applied

Fundamental research

Fundamental (aka "basic" or "theoretical") research studies how things work without trying to alter them. The goal is simply to broaden your understanding of a topic. You'll then be better able to explain processes and put forward improved explanations or theories about them.

Studies relying on fundamental research are information-based, which builds an organization's knowledge. Businesses can use fundamental research studies to learn more about things like customer behavior, cash flow, and other activities essential to the business's function.

Applied research

Applied research is based on problem-solving and achieving a goal. It differs from fundamental research, as there's a purpose beyond gaining understanding. It applies knowledge to achieve a desired outcome.

We can further categorize this type of research into:

  1. Technological research aimed at improving processes or product efficiency

  2. Scientific research that you apply to predict and control outcomes

Organizations use solution-based applied research to resolve a defined problem.

Additional types of research

A greater understanding of the many types of research helps you better select research methods according to your needs. As you'll see, some of these methods overlap, some are diametrically opposed, and some must work alongside others.

Exploratory research

By delving into existing knowledge on a topic, valuable sources of additional knowledge become more obvious. There's little to no question involved—rather, the researcher explores existing knowledge to establish solid foundations on a topic.

Use case: When delving into uncharted territory, compiling what's already known into user-friendly research feeds is incredibly useful.

Evaluative research

This type of research examines the impact of policies on groups or other subjects. These often result in a particular use or distribution of resources according to a specific agenda or overall aim.

Use case: Evaluating how certain organizational policies impact costs, people, program performance, and other factors. The hallmark of evaluative research is capturing data openly but within a predetermined framework.

Field research

This is research you gather onsite or "in the field." You use it when location-based observations and data collection are necessary.

Use case: Taking photographs during a property inspection, which you can remotely compile into a cloud-based research repository.

Laboratory research

Unlike field research, laboratory research takes place in a tightly controlled, closed setting. It usually involves fixed procedures and strict control over lab conditions to reduce variables.

Use case: Eliminating every possible variable while tracking the exact procedure of a lab experiment to ensure you can replicate it. Here, lab reports must be as lean and unbiased as possible.

Fixed research

To reduce variables, researchers will fix their procedures according to standardized tests. You predetermine the duration and frequency of testing, location, type, and quantity of data subjects. Fixed research methods are without variation.

Use case: Analyzing highly sensitive electronic equipment in a "cleanroom," where project access control is necessary to ensure proper procedures at every stage.

Flexible research

In flexible research, procedural changes are acceptable (such as for individual case studies) or the only way to proceed (such as ethnographic studies).

Use case: Behavioral research involving a research diary study to discover unknown behaviors. These unknowns, once known, might guide how you conduct the research further.

Classification research

By classifying data elements into categories, you're better able to navigate that data for various other purposes. Breaking groups down into subgroups or classifying groups as part of a larger grouping improves basic understanding of a subject.

Use case: After breaking down a huge data silo, classification is an option to create order from research that hasn't yet seen the light of day.

For example, we have a classification system for animals. Should we discover a slew of species, classification into existing or new categories would be a great next step to determine how they fit into our existing world.

Comparative research

Comparative research reveals how different data elements, individuals, or groups relate to each other. This research points to where data elements overlap and where they differ.

Use case: As you acquire new information, you'll want to efficiently correlate data with existing data to understand it contextually and develop new, data-driven theories.

Cross-sectional research

Also known as "synchronous" research, cross-sectional research studies a group (or, more often, a subgroup) at a single point in time. This research gives detailed insight into the condition of a particular subject of study. You can also view a cross-section as representative of a larger group.

Use case: Which research participants will represent a cross-section of people experiencing the issue you're researching?

Longitudinal research

Distinct from cross-sectional research, longitudinal research tracks how measurements change over time. True longitudinal research will not manipulate variables, allowing them to unfold independently over the study period. Longitudinal studies include:

  • Panel studies to trace the same sample group over time

  • Cohort studies to trace subpopulations either forward or backward in time

  • Trend studies to track how characteristics change in a group, when they change, and the rate of change

Use case: Studying the long-term effects of a pharmaceutical drug in the same group at different intervals. This requires long-term management of research participant data.

Inductive research

Researchers also refer to inductive research as "theory-building" because it offers hypotheses to explain patterns driving a process. It does so via broad observations while setting the groundwork for detailed testing through related deductive research.

Deductive research has a narrow focus, whereas inductive research takes a broad view.

Use case: When an organization struggles, it's often because its theory doesn't apply to real-life conditions. It needs a new, more reliable theory.

Deductive research

With deductive research, you test a chosen theory through research that determines its accuracy. This requires experimentation or observation that previous inductive research often guides.

Use case: What experiments can help a marketing team determine the kinds of messages their audience will favorably respond to?

Causal research

Causal or explanatory research analyzes the cause-and-effect relationship between variables. Researchers most often use it to assess a procedure and determine how certain changes may affect it.

Use case: What recommendations should you give if you discover a significant change in product performance? What's causing it, and why?

Action research

This research examines people's actions and determines how effective they are for a desired outcome. You can apply this technique organization-wide or to individuals. The goal is to discover the most effective course correction.

Use case: If you discover customer engagement levels are dropping, how will you determine which new actions will be more effective?

Quantitative research

Here, you quantify and represent data numerically, such as by statistics and measurements. Researchers often display it in graphs, tables, ratios, and other formats based on numerical values. Quantitative research seeks to answer specific questions or represent the field of study using objective data. Because you’re measuring data objectively, it speaks for itself without qualification.

In limited circumstances, language that you can measure as a number may be quantitative, such as yes-or-no answers. To a data scientist, these are as good as 1 for "yes/true" and 0 for "no/false."

Use case: Comprehensive analytics can help businesses zero in on the best KPIs for maximizing ROI when developing new products.

Qualitative research

Strictly speaking, qualitative research involves any data not measurable as a number. It includes opinions, surveys, and descriptions using language. The data is inherently qualified, and its value is based on the speaker's subjective frame of reference.

If you find something that appears as a number but has a description to qualify it, don’t assume it is purely quantitative—e.g., "X number of products are defective in the event that Y is true."

Use case: Analyzing customer comments, reviews, and discussions about your brand will require an end-to-end qualitative research process.

Mixed research

You can group quantitative and qualitative data together with a mixture of graphs, words, and images. This is useful to show how measured and descriptive data may relate to each other. 

Where quantitative shows us “what happened” and “when it happened”, mixing qualitative can support and color the same findings with “why it happened” and “how it happened”. Qualitative can add personal stories and human behavior evidence that often show how to solve the problem. 

Use case: Research deliverables or mixed media reports, which can include annotations, photos, and videos alongside infographics, statistics, and other metrics. These types of reports are more engaging and often improve the conversion of research into new decisions.

Choosing the right type of research

You've already taken a major step towards being able to choose the correct research type by learning about them. Research is much more effective and easier when it's clear what you can use different types of research for.

To zero in on the best research for your needs, ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Are you trying to take some kind of action?

  • Do you need a greater understanding of a topic before anything else?

  • Are you looking at quantitative (objective) or qualitative (subjective) data?

  • Will you need to replicate the research later?

  • Is your research project open-ended?

  • Do you wish to analyze changing factors over time or purely historical data?

  • Who else will use this research, and what are their purposes?

  • How will you compile your research and keep it organized?

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