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Understanding the Different Types of Research Methods

David Costello

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Research is at the heart of how we learn and grow as a society. It's all about digging into various topics, sparking discoveries, and shaping change. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about school, work, or personal projects—research helps us solve problems and build up our knowledge. It's not just about finding new things; it also helps us take a fresh look at what we already know.

But let's be clear, research isn't just jumping headfirst into the unknown. It requires careful planning, doing the work, and understanding the different research methods that guide us in collecting, examining, and presenting our findings.

Research methods are the techniques we use to gather and look at data while making sure we're thorough, fair, and trustworthy. These methods aren't meant to be one-size-fits-all; they offer different routes to learning, each one suited to specific research questions, goals, and resources.

In this post, we'll dive into different research methods, share examples, and give you some top tips for using them. Whether you're a seasoned researcher or just starting out, getting the hang of these methods will help you tackle your research projects with confidence and intention.

Understanding research methods

As we jump into our discussion on research methods, let's first get a handle on what they are. Simply put, research methods are the tools and tricks that researchers use to collect, analyze, and make sense of data in a clear, fair, and organized way. They're like the instruction manual for the research process, guiding us from coming up with a research question to sharing our findings.

Research methods come in all shapes and sizes, and they're as varied as the topics and fields they're used to study. They cover a wide range, each one suited to different kinds of data, research questions, and goals. The trick is to pick the right method that fits with your research aims, the resources you have, and the type of data you want to explore.

Generally, research methods come in two main flavors: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative methods are all about digging into the deeper meanings and understandings of what we're studying. On the other side, quantitative methods are focused on counting and measuring things, giving us data we can run through statistical analysis.

There's also a third approach that's becoming more popular—mixed methods research. This approach blends elements of both qualitative and quantitative methods, taking advantage of the best of both worlds. It gives us a complete, rounded way to tackle complex research questions.

By understanding these methods, their pros and cons, and how to use them, we can make smart choices about our research design, making sure it's the best fit for answering our specific research questions effectively and reliably. As we dig further into these research methods, examples of them, and tips for using them, we're setting ourselves up to handle the research journey with skill, precision, and a clear roadmap.

Qualitative research methods

A focus group
Qualitative research is a method of inquiry that focuses on understanding phenomena through the collection and analysis of non-numerical data, such as words, observations, and experiences, often used to explore concepts, theories, or experiences in depth. Image by Bernardbodo.

Qualitative research is all about getting a deep understanding of things in their natural settings. It helps researchers uncover meanings and interpretations that give us insight into people's experiences, behaviors, and social environments. These methods aren't about the big picture; instead, they offer a rich, detailed look at the subjects we're studying. They let us see things from the participants' point of view, reflecting their experiences and interpretations.

These methods are particularly handy when we want to get into the nitty-gritty of complex situations, get a handle on human behavior, or really get to know a specific context. They're often the starting point for studies that aim to guide the development of hypotheses for further research.


Interviews are a go-to method in qualitative research. They allow for direct conversation between the researcher and the participant. Interviews can range from structured, with set questions, to unstructured, allowing for open-ended exploration. They're highly adaptable and great for collecting detailed personal stories, understanding viewpoints, and finding out the how and why behind decision-making. However, they require some interviewing skills and can be time-consuming.

Focus groups

A focus group is a moderated discussion with a small group of participants. They're great for exploring group norms, generating ideas, and understanding shared experiences. They give researchers a chance to see how participants interact, giving insight into attitudes and decision-making processes within a social setting. They can be tough to manage, though, and need a skilled facilitator to balance the conversation.


Observational research means the researcher gets involved in a setting and takes notes on behaviors, interactions, and environmental details. The researcher can be a passive observer or an active participant. Observations can give authentic, first-hand data, revealing details that participants might not be aware of or able to express. However, they can take a lot of time, and there's a chance that the observer's presence might change the participants' behaviors.

By delving into qualitative research, we can discover the complex realities of people's experiences, behaviors, and social environments. Each method has its pros and cons, and the key is to choose the one that fits best with your research goals, questions, and resources. By understanding these qualitative research methods, we can really get into the heart of our research subjects, discovering truths that lie beneath the surface and painting a full, detailed picture of the situations we're studying.

Quantitative research methods

Two people performing a lab experiment
Quantitative research is a systematic method of investigation that relies on numerical data, statistical analysis, and structured research design to understand and draw conclusions about specific hypotheses or research questions. Image by the National Cancer Institute.

In contrast to qualitative research, quantitative research is all about measuring and counting. It dives into the world of numbers, providing data that can be analyzed using statistics. This approach allows researchers to test hypotheses, measure relationships, spot patterns, make predictions, and generalize findings to larger groups. Quantitative research strives for objectivity, consistency, and solid explanations.

Quantitative research methods aim to collect and analyze numerical data systematically, hoping to produce reliable and generalizable results. They work well when the goal is to measure a phenomenon, spot variations, test theories, or establish cause-and-effect relationships.


Surveys are a common way of collecting data quickly from many participants. They usually use structured questionnaires with closed-ended questions to gather specific information or measure certain variables. They can be done in person, over the phone, or online. Surveys can provide a broad picture of a population's attitudes, behaviors, or characteristics, but they can lack depth and depend heavily on the design of the questionnaire.


Experimental research involves changing one variable to see if it causes a change in another. It allows researchers to establish cause-and-effect relationships and test theories under controlled conditions. Experiments are often used in fields like psychology, medicine, and the natural sciences. But they can be complex to design and conduct, and they require careful consideration of controls, randomization, and ethics.

Longitudinal studies

These studies collect data from the same subjects over a long period of time. They're useful for studying development, change, and trends over time. However, they can be costly, time-consuming, and subject to issues like participants dropping out.

In the precise world of quantitative research, we can measure phenomena, spot patterns, and draw conclusions that apply to larger groups. Each method has its pros and cons, and the choice depends on your research question, goals, and resources. By understanding these quantitative research methods, we can conduct solid, reliable research that contributes valuable knowledge to our field.

Mixed methods research

Strings representing blended qualitative and quantitative research
Mixed methods research is a research approach that combines both qualitative and quantitative methods, aiming to leverage the strengths of each to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the research problem. Image by Aleksandarfilip.

Mixed methods research is like getting the best of both worlds. It blends qualitative and quantitative research, giving a fuller picture of what's being studied. This approach recognizes that both types of data—the deep, rich descriptions from qualitative research and the precise, numerical data from quantitative research—offer valuable insights. By bringing both together, we get a more complete understanding of our topic.

Mixed methods research leverages the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative approaches, and at the same time, helps balance out their limitations. This approach encourages us to look beyond the "either/or" mindset, recognizing that complex research questions often need a varied approach for a full understanding.

There are multiple types of mixed methods research, each one serving different research goals and offering unique ways to bring together qualitative and quantitative data. Here are a few of the most common:

Sequential explanatory design

This design has two clear phases. First, the researcher collects and analyzes quantitative data. Then, they collect and analyze qualitative data. The qualitative phase is designed to help explain or expand upon the initial quantitative results. This design is particularly useful when unexpected results pop up from the quantitative phase that need further exploration.

Sequential exploratory design

This design flips the script, starting with qualitative data collection and analysis, followed by a quantitative phase. This design is usually used when a researcher wants to explore a phenomenon, create an instrument, or test elements that aren't well-understood or defined.

Concurrent design

In concurrent design, qualitative and quantitative data are collected at the same time but analyzed separately. The researcher then compares and contrasts the results to provide a comprehensive understanding of the research problem. This approach saves time and gives well-rounded findings.

Mixed methods research needs careful planning to effectively integrate qualitative and quantitative data and to make the most of each type's strengths. It requires flexibility and creativity from the researcher. When done well, it can give rich, detailed, and all-encompassing insights into the research problem. Despite the challenges, the value of mixed methods research lies in its ability to provide a more detailed and complete picture, leading to a deeper understanding of complex phenomena.

Tips for choosing the perfect research method

Choosing the right research method can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming. You need to choose the one that will best match your research goals, the questions you want to answer, and the resources you have available. Here are some tips to help you decide which method to pursue:

Match with your research question

The kind of question you're asking should guide your choice of method. If you're interested in understanding people's feelings, experiences, or how they make sense of things, qualitative methods like interviews or focus groups might be the best fit. If you're aiming to measure something, see if a pattern exists, or test an idea, quantitative methods like surveys or experiments might be more suitable. If your question needs a comprehensive answer that combines numbers with depth, mixed methods could be the way to go.

Check your resources

The resources you have at your disposal can really shape your choice of method. For instance, experiments might need special equipment or software, while interviews and focus groups need time and skill. Always choose a method that is doable with your resources but doesn't compromise the quality of your research.

Think about ethics

Every research method comes with ethical considerations. Make sure the rights, privacy, and well-being of your participants are at the forefront of your decision-making.

Look at past research

Review research that has been done on your topic to see what methods have been used before and how well they worked. Past studies can give you valuable insights into which methods might be suitable for your topic.

Ask for advice

If you're unsure, don't hesitate to ask for guidance from mentors, colleagues, or other researchers in your field. They can offer valuable insights and share their own experiences to help you make a well-informed decision.

Choosing the right research method is a crucial step in your research journey. By thinking through these factors, you can select the method that best fits your project. This will make sure your research is well-designed, ethical, and capable of answering your research questions effectively and reliably. Think of this process as laying a solid foundation for your research project, setting you up for discoveries and insights in your field of study.


Wrapping up our deep dive into research methods, it's clear how vital they are in shaping our research efforts and what we get out of them. Whether we're talking about qualitative, quantitative, or a mix of the two, each approach offers a unique way to get to grips with and dig into our research topics. They help guide us to findings that are both solid and have a real impact.

Choosing the right research method can be a bit tricky, kind of like picking the right tool from a toolbox. There's a lot that goes into this decision, from what kind of question we're trying to answer, to what resources we have at hand, the ethical considerations, and how comfortable we are with the method itself.

The process of doing research is just as important as the end results. The method we choose shapes our entire research journey and opens the door to meaningful discoveries that can make a difference in our fields. By putting time and thought into this process, we set ourselves up for success.

Header image by Tadamichi.

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