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The Ultimate Guide to Descriptive Research


Imagine you are a policeman that has been summoned to investigate a house robbery. Your first task is to study the room where the robbery took place and report your findings, which includes a message left on the wall by the thieves, a handkerchief that the house owner does not recognize as his own & the items stolen from the house. Put simply, all this preliminary information gathering is descriptive research. 

Descriptive research is often done by researchers before they attempt to put their minds in solving the problem. In many cases, descriptive research also helps identify the problem if it is not as explicit as in the case of the robbery example.

In this guide, I will take you through the following:

What is Descriptive Research?

Descriptive Research describes the characteristics of the subject under study, where the subject under study could be any of the following: problem, phenomenon, situation, incident or a group. 

This type of research does not concern itself with answering questions about how/why the characteristics occurred. Instead, it chooses to focus on the “what” are the characteristics of the problem, phenomenon, situation, incident or group being studied. 

Due to this focus on the “what/when/where” and not the “how/why”, Descriptive research is not used to determine what caused a situation or cause and effect relationships (where one variable affects the other). 

An example of descriptive research would be the government conducting a census to understand the demographics of the population. In this exercise, the purpose could be to figure out the percentage of people who are either children, young adults or old folks. Suppose the research leads to the finding that 25% of the people are children, 25% are adults and the remaining 50% are old. Descriptive research would only entail this “what” aspect of population belongs to what age group and not delve into the “how/why” of the population breakup. 

Characteristics of Descriptive Research 

Extensively Applicable: Has broad applicability across different industries like political studies, population studies, education healthcare, psychology, SaaS & more. 

Gives Direction:  Helps nudge the research process in the right direction by helping researchers delve deeper into the topic of research at hand and equips them with comprehensive descriptive data that later becomes the input for further research. 

Quantitative & Qualitative: Researchers can get a healthy mix of numerical data (quantitative) and experiential answers(qualitative) 

No Manipulation with Variables: Researchers simply observe and report on variables, making the process entirely free from interference.  

Natural Setting: The results obtained are generally authentic since descriptive research is done mostly by speaking to the audience, observing their behavior and surveying them. For example, suppose a cold drink brand planning to launch a new flavour shares a free sample with potential buyers. In this case, the brand would make note of their natural reactions and probe them further with questions related to taste. 

Descriptive Research Methods

There are three main methods of conducting Descriptive Research: Survey, Case Studies & Observation. Let’s take a look at each one of these individually.

Survey: Surveys serve the function of having a conversation with a group of people but in an asynchronous fashion. 

It entails creating a questionnaire and sharing it with the audience to collect their responses. Surveys can include both open-ended and closed-ended questions.

One of the main benefits of surveys is that they can be conducted either online or offline. Surveys are also easy to automate and allow researchers to collect huge amounts of data in a limited time.

Case Studies: Case Studies involve conducting a deep and detailed study of a particular individual, a  specific group, or an event. They usually help develop a hypothesis for further exploration. 

One of the main benefits of case studies is that they shed light on a huge amount of information as their focus is narrow. However, arriving at conclusions on the basis of case studies with a narrow focus can also be a challenge because experiences can differ. 


As is obvious from the name, the observational method of descriptive research involves the researchers observing the behaviour of the individual or the group.  Researchers can make observations in overt, covert or participatory fashion depending on the requirement. 

One of the main benefits of the observational method is that data is collected in a natural setting, so researchers need not rely on people’s willingness to share information. 

Types of Descriptive Research

Cross-sectional Research: Studies particular sections of the same group. For example, a cold drink brand doing market research can choose to focus on responses from Gen Z, not millennials. 

Longitudinal Research: Studies a group of people for an extended time duration. For example, tracking the fertility rate of a country over a decade.

Normative Research: Compares a result of the study with the existing norms. For example, comparing the verdict of a legal case with similar cases of the past.

Correlational/Relational Research: Investigates the type of relationship or correlation between two variables. For example, the relationship between playing violent video games and aggression. 

Comparative Research: Compares two or more people or group basis to a specific aspect. For example, comparing the GDP per Capita of the United States with India. 

Classification Research: Arranges the collected data into segments according to some specific criteria for better analysis. For example, the classification of newly released books as per their genre.

Archival Research: As is obvious from the name, this type of research involves revisiting and studying past records to extract information. For example, checking census data from past decades. 

Examples of Descriptive Research

Example 1: A US based restaurant chain planning to launch its first outlet in India will try to understand the eating habits, preferences and cultural nuances of the local people. This information will come handy to give the menu, restaurant design and serving mannerism a local style that would seem more organic to the customers. 

Example 2: Suppose an FMCG brand is planning to expand its line of products. To figure out what product it should launch, it will study which products are selling the most in the market and which demographics are using these products. 

Example 3: Suppose an app development company wants to launch an app to help familiarize the older population with technology. Before launching the app, the company will conduct interviews with older folks to get to the root of the problem and understand their pain points in a detailed fashion. 

Advantages & Disadvantages of Descriptive Research

Advantages of Descriptive Research

Diversified Data: As we saw earlier, Descriptive research involves collecting both quantitative and qualitative data, making the data diverse in nature. 

Directional Nature: The focus of descriptive research on making observations and collecting data helps develop a better understanding of the subject at hand, and leads in the right direction for solving the problem. 

Cost Effective: Since its data collection can be done either online or offline and it takes a moderate amount of time, this type of research does not require exorbitant money.

Disadvantages of Descriptive Research

Limited Scope: Descriptive research does not give any insight into the “how/why” due to its focus on the “what/when/where”.

Inaccurate Sampling: As Description research concerns itself with either individuals or a group of people, the information gathered might not correctly represent the population. 

Researcher Bias: The researchers bias can affect the designing of information gathering, which can ultimately end up affecting the results of the study. Researchers can also choose to cherry pick data and arrive at predetermined conclusions. 

Step by Step Guide on How to Conduct Descriptive Research

Step 1: Define the Objective of conducting the study

Step 2: Figure out the tools and techniques (surveys, interviews, observation schedules, reaction scales, etc ) required for data collection. 

Step 3: Define the Sample Audience (Individuals, Groups or Large Population Sets) 

Step 4: Initiate the Data Gathering Process

Step 5: Analyze the Data Collected. 

Step 6: Write a Detailed Report explaining the finding of the research. 

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The Ultimate Guide to Descriptive Research
Descriptive Research describes the characteristics of the subject under study, where the subject under study could be any of the following: problem, phenomenon, situation, incident or a group. This type of research does not concern itself with answering questions about how/why the characteristics occurred. Instead, it chooses to focus on the “what” are the characteristics of the problem, phenomenon, situation, incident or group being studied. 
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