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Primary and secondary research

There is a variety of of research methods that you can use when developing your design projects. These may assist you in the investigation stage of a Preliminary course design project or for your Major Design Project (MDP). Not all of the methods may be suited to your project. It is important to understand what each one involves and how to use it and then choose the most appropriate for you needs.


This material addresses aspects of the following syllabus outcomes:

P5.2 The student communicates ideas and solutions.
P5.3 The student uses a variety of research methods to inform the development and modification of design ideas.

Source: Board of Studies NSW, Stage 6 Design and Technology Syllabus, Preliminary and HSC Courses (2007)

Research can be described as primary or secondary research.

Primary research

Primary research is the research you generate by asking questions, conducting trials and collating results. This research can take the form of quantitative or qualitative research.

Quantitative research
Quantitative research uses a scientific approach. An hypothesis may be stated and the researcher attempts to prove or disprove that hypothesis. The techniques used are usually easy to measure. The data generated can be analysed mathematically.

Qualitative research
Qualitative research on the other hand is more concerned with opinions and feelings. The data does not necessarily end up as a set of numbers that can be analysed. It looks at the total picture rather than the separate components.

Secondary research

Secondary research is based on the findings from other people's research. It involves the gathering of the results of other's research from books, reports or the Internet. Selections or summaries are made of the research allowing for evidence to be gathered to support your conclusions.

Activity 1

  1. Explain the difference between qualitiative and quantitative research.
  2. Give some examples of research problems that could be answered using qualitative research
  3. Give some examples of research problems that could be answered using quantitative research.
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Ethics in research

Ethics are moral principles accepted and practiced by the community. Some are even upheld by law. To ensure you conduct research in an ethical way:

Primary research methods

Surveys and questionnaires

Among the most commonly used forms of social research are surveys and questionnaires. This type of research collects primary data. Primary data includes any data collected from an original source. Secondary data is data that already exists, for example, from data bases, records, Australian Bureau of Statistics or other texts.

We often refer to surveys and questionnaires as being the same thing when in fact they are different.

A survey is usually general and covers a wide range of issues. It is designed to find information rather than to investigate specific questions about an issue. We tend to use surveys when we don't know about something and we want to identify the most important ideas, questions and issues.

A questionnaire usually focuses more on a particular topic or issue. We tend to use these when we know something about the topic and we have some hunches about what might be the most important issue or questions to investigate.

Advantages of using these research methods

Some of the advantages of using surveys and questionnaires are:

  1. You can easily collect a lot of information from a large number of people.
  2. The researcher does not necessarily have to be involved in the data collection process. You may use a proxy (another person) to gather a sample of opinions and views and then select some of these for follow up interviews for more depth.
  3. Results from surveys and questionnaires, if the forms are designed well, can be collated and analysed quickly, especially using numerical techniques, such as spreadsheets.

Preparing a survey or questionnaire

The secret of a successful survey or questionnaire is the time you take to develop the forms and making sure the questions collect the data you are looking for. Preparing an effective form takes time if you want to make analysis easier. The main stages in preparation are:

The six stages of constructing a survey or questionnaire:

  1. Deciding upon the areas you want to investigate
    You cannot fit onto a form all the facets of a project. Remember the more questions you select the longer it will take to fill out and hence the less likely people will want to take part. On the other hand you don't want to make it too short, so that it becomes a wasted exercise. Consider your audience. Young children, elderly people and working mothers and fathers for example, may not be able to give you detailed written responses.

  2. Collecting and drafting possible questions
    This is the first attempt at trying to write questions, which will get the information you want. Try to be as clear as you can about the area you have decided to investigate. Background reading on your project topic may suggest important issues and questions that should be included. There are two types of questions you can use: closed and open.

    Closed questions
    Closed questions have a choice of definite responses, such as yes or no or an answer can be ticked. For example:
    Gender: Male_________Female__________

    They are much easier to collate and analyse than questions which allow respondents to use their own words. Multiple-choice questions are another example of closed questions, for example:

    Does any member of your family participate in a team sport:
    1. Weekly
    2. Fortnightly
    3. Monthly
    4. Never.

    Likert scales are useful for collecting people's perceptions or attitudes to an issue or project.

    Type A Likert scales have a clearly graded scale of response, for example,
    Excellent Very good Good Poor Unsuitable
    Strongly agree Agree Undecided Disagree Strongly disagree

    Type B Likert scales ask people to allocate their attitude on a continuum between two extreme alternatives, for example from most desirable to least desirable:

    1 2 3 4 5 6

    Ranked priorities or choices for a given situation allow people to list their preferences in order. The respondent, for example, places numbers from 1­10 to indicate their preferences from most favourite to least favourite. This is useful for deciding between options in your project, for example, the finish of a component.

    Open-ended questions
    These invite a more lengthy answer from the respondent and the answers will be more individual. They are not as easy to collate and represent in graphical form. The respondent must provide their own answer and does not receive any possible scenarios. You can record their answers using tables or include or refer to them in your written text. For example, "Do you believe our current recycling program is effective? Why or why not?"

    The amount of space you leave on the form for your answers should indicate the amount of detail you require.

    One of the dangers in framing questions is the chance that you will make them leading questions, that is, one that leads a person to a particular response. For example, "Do you think that all students should be provided with laptops by the government?"

  3. Trialling the questions
    After you have done your first draft you should trial your survey or questionnaire with your friends, family or teachers in an informal way. During this stage you can check:

    1. Are the questions clear in their intent?
    2. Can people follow your instructions?
    3. Are the words simple enough to understand?
    4. Are people interpreting your questions in the same way?
    5. Is the survey too long or too short?
    6. Are the answers you are getting, the kind of answers that you want to get?

  4. Refining and polishing the questions
    Time to make alterations, replace questions, add extras etc., based on your answers from family and friends.

  5. Conducting a pilot survey
    This trial is more formal than the first one. This time you are trialling your questions on the full range of people who are going to be included in the final sample. You do not need to survey a large number, as one person from each category should be sufficient.

  6. Presenting the final form
    After your pilot study you should have a good idea as to whether your survey or questionnaire will gather the information you need. If not you may need to add new questions or perhaps modify your project. You should now be ready to administer your survey.

The sample

Your sample will depend on the following:

Your sample should be adequate. Make sure your sample contains a variation in the type of people. This means there should be a representation from different ages, sex and occupational groups. Avoid bias by selecting a group known to have certain views on a subject.

Suggestions for distributing your survey or questionnaire

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Checklist for your survey or questionnaire

And remember, never comment on the respondent's responses in front of them. If someone refuses to complete the survey don't take it as a personal rejection and remain positive.


These can be face-to-face or over the telephone or Internet. It is crucial to have a list of questions prepared. This helps prevent being side tracked and ensuring the information you require is collected. These questions may provide insight into the development of your project, as you should endeavour to seek expert advice. After all designers often work as part of a team when brainstorming ideas and solutions to problems. Many have spent their lives building up knowledge in specific areas. The yellow pages are an easy way to get in touch with such experts.


Observing people in their environment can often provide insight or assist you in gaining specific information. Common areas that this type of research is used are hospitals and child-care situations. Observational checklists are used as a tool for gathering profiles to work out what the person's needs are and what they require in their environment.

Tests and experiments

Selecting and applying appropriate research methods is an area that requires vigilance. Tests and experiments must be relevant to the data required for the design project. For example, be wary of just following tests you may see in texts. There is little to be gained from undertaking a burn test on fabrics for a formal dress unless the wearer plans to leap through lighted hoops continuously.

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Secondary research

Secondary research may include:

Secondary research can save time, you can easily incorporate your sources from Internet searches into your folio. However these need to be referenced, commented upon and analysed. Avoid plagiarism. Internet sources may also assist you in development of relevant tests and provide clues for how to collate and present data.

Choosing the appropriate research method and collecting data is the first stage of research. The next stage is presenting the data, interpreting the results and analysing the data and identifying any trends that may become evident.Go To Top

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