ENGL 235 Introduction to Technical Communication (Wilber)

Writing a Proposal for Specific Audiences - for students in Ari Wilber's 235

Things to Consider: Designing Primary Research

What is Primary Research?

Research is not limited to what has already been written or found at the library, also known as secondary research. Rather, individuals conducting research are producing the articles and reports found in a library database or in a book. Primary research ... is research that is collected firsthand rather than found in a book, database, or journal.

How primary research is defined varies widely from field to field. For example:

  • Engineers, who focus on applying scientific knowledge to develop designs, processes, and objects, conduct research using simulations, mathematical models, and a variety of tests to see how well their designs work.
  • Sociologists conduct research using surveys, interviews, observations, and statistical analysis to better understand people, societies, and cultures.

Primary research is often based on principles of the scientific method, a theory of investigation first developed by John Stuart Mill. Although the application of the scientific method varies from field to field, the general principles of the scientific method allow researchers to learn more about the world and observable phenomena. Using the scientific method, researchers develop research questions or hypotheses and collect data on events, objects, or people that is measurable, observable, and replicable.

The ultimate goal in conducting primary research is to learn about something new that can be confirmed by others and to eliminate our own biases in the process.

Common Research Methods

Three common ways of conducting primary research in first year writing classes:
  • Observations: Observing and measuring the world around you, including observations of people and other measurable events.

  • Interviews: Asking participants questions in a one-on-one or small group setting.

  • Surveys: Asking participants about their opinions and behaviors through a short questionnaire.

Most research requires a mix of primary and secondary. Ex: A nutrition major at Purdue University, wanted to learn more about student eating habits on campus.

  • His primary research included observations of the campus food courts, student behavior while in the food courts, and a survey of students’ daily food intake.

  • His secondary research included looking at national student eating trends on college campuses, information from the United States Food and Drug Administration, and books on healthy eating.

Choosing a Methodology

Choosing a Data Collection Method: Once you have formulated a research question or hypothesis, you will need to make decisions about what kind of data you can collect that will best address your research topic.

Observations: Observations can be conducted on nearly any subject matter, and the kinds of observations you will do depend on your research question.

  • You might observe traffic or parking patterns on campus to get a sense of what improvements could be made.
  • If you are observing people, you can choose between two common ways to observe: participant observation and unobtrusive observation.
  • In [participant observer] observation, a researcher may interact with participants and become part of their community.
  • Conversely, in unobtrusive observation, you do not interact with participants but rather simply record their behavior. Although in most circumstances people must volunteer to be participants in research, in some cases it is acceptable to not let participants know you are observing them. In places that people perceive as public, such as a campus food court or a shopping mall, people do not expect privacy, and so it is generally acceptable to observe without participant consent. In places that people perceive as private, which can include a … classroom, or even an intimate conversation at a restaurant, participant consent should be sought.
  • Eliminating bias: You need to be aware of the difference between an observation (recording exactly what you see) and an interpretation (making assumptions and judgments about what you see). When you observe, you should focus first on only the events that are directly observable.

Surveys and Interviews: Interviews and surveys are two ways that you can gather information about people’s beliefs or behaviors. With these methods, the information you collect is not first-hand (like an observation) but rather “self-reported” data, or data collected in an indirect manner.

Survey or Interview? How do you choose between conducting a survey or an interview?

  • You should use surveys if you want to learn about a general trend in people’s opinions, experiences, and behavior. Surveys are particularly useful to find small amounts of information from a wider selection of people in the hopes of making a general claim.
  • Interviews are best used when you want to learn detailed information from a few specific people. Interviews are also particularly useful if you want to interview experts about their opinions.

Interviews, or question and answer sessions with one or more people, are an excellent way to learn in-depth information from a person for your primary research project.

  • Choos[e] the right person to interview. Think about whom you would like to interview and whom you might know. Do not be afraid to ask people you do not know for interviews. [T]ell them what the interview will be about, what the interview is for, and how much time it will take.
  • Face-to-face interviews have the strength that you can ask follow-up questions and use non-verbal communication to your advantage. Individuals are able to say much more in a face-to-face interview than in an email, so you will get more information from a face-to-face interview.
  • You may choose to do an email interview, where you send questions and ask the person to respond.

One way of eliminating bias in your research is to record your interviews rather than rely on your memory. Recording interviews allows you to directly quote the individual and re-read the interview when you are writing.

Surveys: One of the keys to creating a successful survey is to keep your survey short and focused. [Y]ou want your survey to be something that can be filled out within a few minutes.

The target length of the survey also depends on how you will distribute the survey. If you are giving your survey to other students in your dorm or classes, they will have more time to complete the survey. Therefore, five to ten minutes to complete the survey is reasonable. If you are asking students as they are walking to class to fill out your survey, keep it limited to several questions that can be answered in thirty seconds or less.

  • Use closed questions to your advantage when creating your survey. A closed question is any set of questions that gives a limited amount of choices (yes/no, a 1–5 scale, choose the statement that best describes you).
  • [O]n closed questions you may find it helpful to include an “other” category where participants can fill in an answer. It is also a good idea to have a few open-ended questions where participants can elaborate on certain points or earlier responses.
  • To make sure your survey is an appropriate length and that your questions are clear, you can “pilot test” your survey.

Forming Research Questions 

Writing Good Questions:
  • Ask about One Thing at a Time: A poorly written question can contain multiple questions, which can confuse participants or lead them to answer only part of the question you are asking.
    • Poor question: What kinds of problems are being faced in the field today and where do you see the search for solutions to these problems going?
    • Revised question #1 : What kinds of problems are being faced in the field today?
    • Revised question #2: Where do you see the search for solutions to these problems going?
  • Avoid Leading Questions: A leading question is one where you prompt the participant to respond in a particular way, which can create bias in the answers given.
    • Leading question: The economy is clearly in a crisis, wouldn’t you agree?
    • Revised question: Do you believe the economy is currently in a crisis? Why or why not?
  • Closed questions, or questions that have yes/no or other limited responses, should be used in surveys. However, avoid these kinds of questions in interviews because they discourage the interviewee from going into depth.

Ethics in Research

  • Voluntary participation: If you are doing a survey or interview, your participants must first agree to fill out your survey or to be interviewed. Consent for observations can be more complicated.
  • Confidentiality and anonymity: Your participants may reveal embarrassing or potentially damaging information. Create a “pseudonym” (or false name) for them so that their identity is protected.
  • Researcher bias: There is little point in collecting data and learning about something if you already think you know the answer! Bias might be present in the way you ask questions, the way you take notes, or the conclusions you draw from the data you collect.

Free Online Survey Tools

Primary Research Checklist

Overview: Primary Research

For this project you will be doing a mix of primary (original) and secondary (using others' research) research.

To conduct your own primary research you may employ a range of valid methods, including: surveys, interviews,  and observations.

  • Be ready to explain, justify, and interpret your methodologies. 
  • The tools and resources on this page will help you conduct primary research.