The word ‘research’ is not strange to many people. At one time or another, we may have carried out research. However, not many people may be familiar with “descriptive research.”

Today, individuals and organizations carry out research for different purposes. The purpose of research often informs the kind of research to be performed. In this article, we will discuss what descriptive research is, its characteristics, methods, advantages and disadvantages, and some of its use cases. That way, you’ll be able to tell when and how to use descriptive research in your next research endeavor.

What is descriptive research?

Descriptive research is a kind of research that is used to describe the key characteristics of a sample or population. A sample or population refers to a collection of anything, whether people or objects, that has similar characteristics. 

Descriptive research helps to answer the question “what” about a population. For example, what is the percentage of male applicants who have at least a master’s degree? What kinds of analytical tools are used in understanding customers’ behaviors? What are the factors to consider when choosing an online document-signing platform?

It is important to note that descriptive research does not fall into the category of quantitative and qualitative research. However, it combines the characteristics of both. Descriptive research does not answer the “how” question. It is more suitable for understanding patterns or how often something happens.

Characteristics of descriptive research


Descriptive research is ‘quantitative’ in the sense that you can obtain quantifiable information from a population sample. For instance, the answer to the question, “How many registered car owners in Minnesota are immigrants?” is quantitative, i.e., it can be quantified.

Uncontrolled variables

Unlike other forms of research, no variables can be controlled in descriptive research. In other words, whoever is carrying out descriptive research cannot alter any of the variables. For example, let’s assume a sample class of 40 students ages 17 to 23. If we choose the variable to be “students”, then the behavior of the students cannot be altered while carrying out descriptive research.

Foundation for other research

The data collected from descriptive research is used in other research methods. Descriptive research uncovers patterns among variables. The patterns can then be further analyzed by other research techniques. This provides a springboard for clear direction and insight for further research.

Cross-sectional study

A cross-sectional study is when you look at data from a group at one specific point in time.

In carrying out descriptive research, different characteristics of a specific group are studied. For example, in studying the buying preferences of people in California, a researcher can study different segments of the same population, such as Gen Z, Millennials, and Baby Boomers. 

Methods of descriptive research

The three methods of descriptive research are::

  • Observational method
  • Survey research method
  • Case study method

Observational method

Most research has some element of observation. This method is used to collect data based on observable characteristics of a group. In the observational method, the respondents are observed closely. This observation could be quantitative or qualitative.

In quantitative observation, the researcher collects quantitative data. In other words, data in form of quantity – can be counted. Any observation related to a numerical value is said to be quantitative observation. Some examples include height, age, sex, etc. 

In qualitative observation, a researcher observes the qualitative characteristics of a group. For example, a researcher may observe how customers shop and pay for products in a shopping mall. The researcher notes qualitative characteristics. Such characteristics may include the average time it takes for a customer to shop, how the sales representatives attend to customers, the customer’s facial expressions as they exit the mall, etc.

Survey research method

Here, a researcher sends questionnaires, surveys, or polls to a group. The main objective of survey research is to collate or gather feedback from people. It allows a large amount of data can be collected in a short span of time. Additionally, survey research can be conducted offline or online. 

In carrying out survey research, it is important to have a mix of both closed and open-ended questions. This way, both quantitative and qualitative data are obtained. 

Case study method

The case study method is used for in-depth research of individuals or a group. It provides detailed information about the individual or group under study. It is used to understand a subject or topic of interest. 

The results or outcomes of case study research help establish a research hypothesis that can be built upon. For example, in an e-signature case study, a researcher may examine a case where e-signature has proved more effective than the usual wet signatures

Advantages and disadvantages of descriptive research

There is a common axiom that says “everything has both advantages and disadvantages.” This is true for descriptive research. Advantages of descriptive research

Varied data collection methods

Descriptive research uses both quantitative and qualitative data to find solutions to a topic of interest. For example, let’s consider research on job applicants for a role. Instead of focusing on one aspect of data only, say the number of job applicants for the role, some other aspects such as candidates’ ability to speak fluently can also be considered. The robust and holistic data from descriptive research can serve as the foundation for other research. 

Relatively easy to perform

In descriptive research, resources and time are not spent setting up and conducting experiments. Descriptive research is performed in the natural setting of the people or object under study. 

Through observation, surveys, and case studies, different forms of data can be collected. Also, the collection of data is quick (e.g., a short survey or mere observation). The data collected are relatively easy to analyze since statistical tools are not used. 

Basis for decision making

Descriptive research is designed to collect useful information. The data collected provide insight into specific areas of concern or interest. For instance, a fintech company may decide to know which segment of its market are top consumers of a certain product. With descriptive research (survey and observation methods), the company will be able to determine all its customer segments, the number of purchases per segment, and why customers like a certain product more than others. The variety and richness of data gathered can be used in making an informed decision. 

Natural settings

In observing a phenomenon, some external conditions may be put in place. This is not the case for descriptive research. Descriptive research is conducted in natural settings. The natural environment of the target object, individuals, or groups is often used. 

Disadvantages of descriptive research

Absence of a statistical test

In descriptive research, statistical tools and techniques are not used to verify underlying problems or issues. One way to overcome this challenge is to ensure that objective of the descriptive research is clear enough. This helps inform the approach and method to be used in carrying out the descriptive research. It is important to note that not all research requires the use of statistical tools. If a statistical tool will be required, then other forms of research can be used. 

Not suitable for determining cause and effect relationships

Due to the limited nature of descriptive research, it is not suited for finding cause-and-effect relationships. Descriptive research only answers the question “what”. It does not answer the “why” question. As as much possible, descriptive research can be structured in a way that provides clues to “why” questions. 

Not scalable

In descriptive research, the findings are often not generalized to other similar groups. This is due to the limited nature and peculiarities of each group object. In addition, standardized statistical tools and techniques are not used in descriptive research. To scale descriptive research to other groups, more research methodologies and tools are required.


Everyone has a bias towards something. In descriptive research, researchers have their own biases, too. This often affects the outcome of research results. In carrying out descriptive research, it is important for the researcher to reduce personal biases. Some ways to reduce personal biases include:

  • Verify your data with other data sources.
  • Let participants review your findings.
  • Review your data with others (peers, third-party, etc.
  • Check other sources for explanations of similar findings.

Use cases

New product catalog launch: customer buying preferences

A candy manufacturing company is launching a range of products for its customers. They would like to know what flavors of candy are loved by customers.  

To carry out this research to understand the preferred flavors, the company conducts descriptive research. Here, they use various methods, like observation in shopping malls – observing which products make the most sales. In addition, they also carry out an in-depth customer survey to gather demographic information. This helps them segment their customers appropriately as well as understand their buying preferences. 

With the collected data, using different methods of descriptive research, the company can then understand which segment of the market loves a particular brand. With this insight, the company can then adjust its business model and prominently highlight the most popular candy flavors in its marketing. 

Evaluation of teachers’ attitude to technology

Another example of using descriptive research is the use of technology by teachers in a town. Using descriptive research methods (surveys and observation), a researcher is able to assess how comfortable the teachers are using the new technology. For instance, survey questions could be both closed-ended and open-ended, such as:

  • On a scale of 1–5, how comfortable are you with typing on your device? (1-Not at all comfortable, 2-Not comfortable, 3-Somewhat comfortable, 4-Comfortable, 5-Very Comfortable)
  • Do you think this new device helps you to complete your lessons effectively? (A) Yes (B) No (C) I don’t know
  • What do you like the most about your new device?

By conducting the descriptive research above, the researcher is able to understand teachers’ challenges using the new technology. In addition, the impact on students is also understood. 


Descriptive research provides a holistic view of the “what” about a group or object under study. It serves as the foundation upon which other research methods are built. Without the “what,” the “why” and the “how” may become elusive.

Before undertaking your next research, try to ask yourself if you have considered all the important elements of descriptive research discussed above. You’ll save a lot of time and effort by using some of the methods above.

Take a deep dive into descriptive research. Use it to understand your customers better and meet them at the point of their needs.