Research Methods: How and When to Use Primary and Secondary Research

April 26, 2018

What is Primary Research?

Primary research is research conducted by you or your team that examines and collects information directly from the context of the design problem. 

Simply put, primary research is research that is your own original work.

For example, if a researcher is interested in learning about the dietary habits of people in a particular region, he or she could administer a survey to residents of that region inquiring about what types of food they typically eat. 

Here, the researcher would be performing primary research.

What is Secondary Research?

Contrary to primary research, secondary research is research that was originally conducted by someone else.

Using our example from above, if after doing some investigation the researcher learns that a similar study has already been performed, he or she could utilize the results and findings from that study to assist him with his overall goal. 

Here the researcher would be performing secondary research.

Related: Why You Should Consider Secondary Data Analysis for Your Next Study 

Secondary research can be performed by leveraging the following sources:

  • Academic peer-reviewed journals

  • Magazines

  • Books

  • Market research reports

  • Any other form of publicly available and accessible information

When to Use Secondary Research

Use secondary research as a starting point for your research process. 

Imagine that you’ve been tasked with developing an exercise program for elderly people. 

The goal of the program is to outline and schedule exercises and workouts in order to promote healthy lifestyles amongst senior citizens. 

But there’s a catch — You don’t have any experience in exercise science or developing this kind of program. 

The best place to start in order to kick off the project would be to leverage existing research.

You could review publicly available materials on exercise regimens optimized for the age of your target audience. This could involve reading published research reports, books, or articles.

Your findings from this secondary research could then help you define your own approach for how you plan to create the fitness plan for senior citizens. Additionally, starting with secondary research gives you an understanding of what's already been done, and it alerts you of where there may be gaps. 

Secondary research can help you understand what you don’t know.

Continuing on with our example above, you may realize that after researching existing materials on senior citizens and exercising that you know very little about what will motivate elderly people to exercise. 

If you find yourself in a similar situation, continue to identify resources to educate yourself on the matter at hand. 

In this case, secondary research has already saved you some time. If you had opted to not perform secondary research, and instead had made an attempt to build the exercise program from scratch using gut instinct, you would have spent a considerable amount of time banging your head against a theoretical wall to no avail.

If after digging into the available secondary sources, you realize that you still don’t have the precise knowledge needed to develop an effective program, you might then decide that primary research is the only viable way for you to move forward. 

Using Primary Research and Secondary Research Together

Once you have a deep understanding of the problem at hand thanks to your secondary research, you can then plan your primary research efforts accordingly, so that you can fill in any gaps and obtain any information that was previously missing.

Both methods are most effective when they work together.

Surveys Are Great Tools for Performing Primary Research 

Surveys are one of the most commonly used ways in which original data not found through secondary research is collected. 

This is because surveys are context-specific, meaning that the data collected from the survey comes directly from your exact target audience. Plus, there are essentially limitless ways to customize and tailor your survey to resonate with your target audience, which allows you to collect only the most pertinent data for your project.

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