4.1 Choosing a Research Methodology

Learning Objectives

Target icon


After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • determine the appropriate research methodology that meets the needs of the audience
      • distinguish between formal and informal research


The first step in research is to know what the situation calls for in terms of the formality or rigour of research required. Although formal research carefully documents sources with citations and references, most messages relay informal research such as when you quickly look up some information you have access to and email it to the person who requested it. Either way, you apply skills in retrieving and delivering the needed information to meet your audience’s needs, often by paraphrasing or summarizing, which are extremely valuable skills coveted by employers. Knowing what research type or “methodology” the situation calls for—formal or informal research, or primary or secondary research—in the first place will keep you on track in this still-preliminary stage of the writing process.


Research Methodology

Informal Research

You conduct informal research when you look up information and deliver share that information in an email or letter without the need to formally cite the source is informal research. It is by far the most common type of research in business.  Every professional conducts informal research several times a day in routine communication with various audiences. Say your manager emails asking you to recommend a new printer to replace the one that’s not working. You’re no expert on printers, but you know who to ask. You go to Erika, the admin. assistant in your previous department and she says to definitely go with the Ricoh printer. You trust what she says, so you end your research there and pass along this recommendation to your manager.  This type of research will is information.

Formal Research

On the other hand, formal research takes a more systematic approach to collect information. Formal research requires the source of information compiled during the research phase is documented using a conventional citation and reference system designed to make it easy for the audience to verify information credibility.

Formal research is more scientific.  Let’s return to the Ricoh example.  Using formal research to find out which printer is best now involves determining printer criteria including capabilities, cost, warranty, service plan, and availability. Next, you may read the product webpages, specification manuals, customer reviews, and reviews on several printers to get a clear idea of the pros and cons. Finally, you test the printers yourself, score them according to your assessment criteria, rank the best to worst, and report the results.

Formal research requires more time, labour, practice, skill, and resources. But why go to so much trouble? Why not just look briefly at all the options and follow your gut? Well, your gut isn’t much help when you’re in a difficult situation. If you’re going to spend a few thousand dollars on the best printer, you’re going to want to do it right. You don’t want to waste money on one that has several problems that you could have known about beforehand had you done your homework. In this case, formal research (“homework”) protects you against preventable losses.

Primary Research

Like formal vs. informal research, primary vs. secondary has much to do with the level of rigor. Basically, primary research generates new knowledge and secondary research applies it. In the above case, the authors of the Consumer Reports article conducted primary research because they came up with the assessment criteria, arranged for access to all the printers, tested and scored each according to how well they performed against each criterion, analyzed the data, determined the ranking of best to worst printer on the market, and reported it in a published article. If you can’t conduct primary research yourself because you don’t have easy access to all the printers worth considering, you are thankful someone else has and would even pay money for that information.

Figure 7.1: A brief overview of the characteristics of primary and secondary research (The Balance, 2019)

Other forms of primary research include surveys of randomly sampled people to gauge general attitudes on certain subjects and lab experiments that follow the scientific method. Primary research is labour-intensive, typically expensive.

Secondary Research

What most people do—especially students—when they conduct research for an academic or professional tasks is secondary research.  Secondary research involves finding and using information that already exists.  To use the printer example above, accessing the Consumer Reports article and using its recommendation to make a case for office printer selection is secondary research.

The easiest, most common, and most expedient research, the kind that the vast majority of informative workplace communication involves is informal secondary research. However, when you do a school research assignment or if your manager requires you to cite the source, then formal secondary research is required. In business, formal secondary research is best for ensuring that company resources are used appropriately and can be supported by all stakeholders. In other words, formal secondary research is a necessary part of a business’s due diligence. In the following section, we will break down the labour-intensive process of building a document around source material collected through formal secondary research.

Key Takeaway

key iconDetermine the most appropriate research methodology—informal or formal, primary or secondary—for your audience and purpose depending on the level of rigour required.


1. Use your college library account to access Consumer Reports and find a report on a product type of interest to you. Assuming that your audience’s needs are for informal secondary research only, write a mock (pretend) email making a recommendation based on the report’s endorsement.
2. Now, for the sake of comparing sources, search for recommendation information on the same product type just by Googling it. What are the top search results? Going down the results list, did you find any unbiased sources that you could use in your recommendation email? What makes these sources biased or unbiased?


Bahir, F. (2015). Intro to research methods [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB4gKoS4MNw.

Figure 7.1. Infographic. Adapted from “Two types of market research,” by M. Buttignol, 2019, The Balance. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancesmb.com/differences-primary-and-secondary-research-2296908. Copyright 2019 by The Balance.


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