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How to... design a research study

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What is research design?

The design of a piece of research refers to the practical way in which the research was conducted according to a systematic attempt to generate evidence to answer the research question. The term "research methodology" is often used to mean something similar, however different writers use both terms in slightly different ways: some writers, for example, use the term "methodology" to describe the tools used for data collection, which others (more properly) refer to as methods.

The following are some definitions of research design by researchers:

Design is the deliberately planned 'arrangement of conditions for analysis and collection of data in a manner that aims to combine relevance to the research purpose with economy of procedure'.

Selltiz C.S., Wrightsman L.S. and Cook S.W. 1981 Research Methods in Social Relations,
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, London, quoted in Jankowicz, A.D., Business Research Methods, Thomson Learning, p.190.)

The idea behind a design is that different kinds of issues logically demand different kinds of data-gathering arrangement so that the data will be:

  • relevant to your thesis or the argument you wish to present;
  • an adequate test of your thesis (i.e. unbiased and reliable);
  • accurate in establishing causality, in situations where you wish to go beyond description to provide explanations for whatever is happening around you;
  • capable of providing findings that can be generalized to situations other than those of your immediate organization.
(Jankowicz, A.D., Business Research Methods , Thomson Learning, p. 190)

The design of the research involves consideration of the best method of collecting data to provide a relevant and accurate test of your thesis, one that can establish causality if required (see What type of study are you undertaking?), and one that will enable you to generalize your findings.

Design of the research should take account of the following factors, which are briefly discussed below with links to subsequent pages or other parts of the site where there is fuller information.

What is your theoretical and epistemological perspective?

Although management research is much concerned with observation of humans and their behaviour, to a certain extent the epistemological framework derives from that of science. Positivism assumes the independent existence of measurable facts in the social world, and researchers who assume this perspective will want to have a fairly exact system of measurement. On the other hand, interpretivism assumes that humans interpret events and researchers employing this method will adopt a more subjective approach.

See Empirical research – the theoretical framework.

What type of study are you undertaking?

Are you conducting an exploratory study, obtaining an initial grasp of a phenomenon, a descriptive study, providing a profile of a topic or institution:

Karin Klenke provides an exploratory study of issues of gender in management decisions in (Management Decision, Volume 41 Number 10)

Damien McLoughlin provides a descriptive study of action learning as a case study in in (European Journal of Marketing, Volume 38 Number 3/4)

Or it can be explanatory, examining the causal relationship between variables: this can include the testing of hypotheses or examination of causes:

Martin et al. examined ad zipping and repetition in (Marketing Intelligence & Planning, Volume 20 Number 1) with a number of hypotheses e.g. that people are more likely to remember an ad that they have seen repeatedly.

What is your research question?

The most important issue here is that the design you use should be appropriate to your initial question. Implicit within your question will be issues of size, breadth, relationship between variables, how easy is it to measure variables etc.

See Empirical research – the research question

The two different questions below call for very different types of design:

The example (Jiao and Onwuegbuzie, Library Review, Volume 51 Number 2) looks at attitudes and the relationship between variables, and uses very precise measurement instruments in the form of two questionnaires, with 43 and 22 items respectively.

In the example (Judy Motion et al., European Journal of Marketing, Volume 37 Number 7),  the RQs posit a need to describe rather than to link variables, and the methodology used is one of discourse theory, which involves looking at material within the context of its use by the company.

What sample size will you base your data on?

The sample is the source of your data, and it is important to decide how you are going to select it.

See Sampling techniques.

What research methods will you use and why?

We referred above to the distinction between methods and methodology. There are two main approaches to methodology – qualitative and quantitative.

The two main approaches to methodology
Quantitative methods: Qualitative methods: 
typically use numbers typically use words
are deductive are inductive
involve the researcher as ideally an objective, impartial observer require more participation and involvement on the part of the researcher.
may focus on cause and effect focuses on understanding of phenomena in their social, institutional, political and economic context
require a hypothesis do not require a hypothesis
have the drawback that they may force people into categories, also it cannot go into much depth about subjects and issues. have the drawback that they focus on a few individuals, and may therefore be difficult to generalize.

For more detail on each of the approaches, Quantitative approaches to design and Qualitative approaches to design later in this feature.

Note, you do not have to stick to one methodology (although some writers recommend that you do). Combining methodologies is a matter of seeing which part of the design of your research is better suited to which methodology.

How will you triangulate your research?

Triangulation refers to the process of ensuring that any defects in a particular methodology are compensated by use of another at appropriate points in the design. For example, if you carry out a quantitative survey and need more in depth information about particular aspects of the survey you may decide to use in-depth interviews, a qualitative method.

Here are a couple of useful articles to read which cover the issue of triangulation:

  • by John Mangan, Chandra Lalwani and Bernard Gardner (International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, Volume 34 Number 7) looks at ways of combining methodologies in a particular area of research, but much of what they say is generally applicable.
  • by Dilanthi Amaratunga, David Baldry, Marjan Sarshar and Rita Newton (Work Study, Volume 51 Number 1) looks at the relative merits of the two research approaches, and despite reference to the built environment in the title acts as a very good introduction to quantitative and qualitative methodology and their relative research literatures. The section on triangulation comes under the heading 'The mixed (or balanced) approach'. 

What steps will you take to ensure that your research is ethical?

Ethics in research is a very important issue. You should design the research in such a way that you take account of such ethical issues as:

  • informed consent (have the participants had the nature of the research explained to them)?
  • anonymity
  • checking whether you have permission to transcribe conversations with a tape recorder
  • always treating people with respect, consideration and concern.

How will you ensure the reliability of your research?


This is about the replicability of your reseach and the accuracy of the procedures and research techniques. Will the same results be repeated if the research is repeated? Are the measurements of the research methods accurate and consistent? Could they be used in other similar contexts with equivalent results? Would the same results be achieved by another researcher using the same instruments? Is the research free from error or bias on the part of the researcher, or the participants? (E.g. do the participants say what they believe the management, or the researcher, wants? For example, in a survey done on some course material, that on a mathematical module received glowing reports – which led the researcher to wonder whether this was anything to do with the author being the Head of Department!)


How successfully has the research actually achieved what it set out to achieve? Can the results of the study be transferred to other situations? Does x really cause y, in other words is the researcher correct in maintaining a causal link between these two variables? Is the research design sufficiently rigorous, have alternative explanations been considered? Have the findings really be accurately interpreted? Have other events intervened which might impact on the study, e.g. a large scale redundancy programme? (For example, in an evaluation of the use of CDs for self study with a world-wide group of students, it was established that some groups had not had sufficient explanation from the tutors as to how to use the CD. This could have affected their rather negative views.)


Are the findings applicable in other research settings? Can a theory be developed that can apply to other populations? For example, can a particular study about dissatisfaction amongst lecturers in a particular university be applied generally? This is particularly applicable to research which has a relatively wide sample, as in a questionnaire, or which adopts a scientific technique, as with the experiment.


Can the research be applied to other situations? Particularly relevant when applied to case studies.

In addition, each of the sections in this feature on quantitative and qualitative approaches to research design contain notes on how to ensure that the research is reliable.