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Business: Doing Primary Research

Your comprehensive station for UCI's business research content and beyond!


What's secondary vs. primary research?  Let's use cake as an analogy for information.

You need a cake. 
You go to a grocery store and get a pre-packaged, one-layer, chocolate cake, with white frosting.  
That's secondary research; someone else worked to produce and package the info.  
Is it easy and fast?  Yes.  Is it customized?  Nope.

What if the grocery store cake doesn't meets your needs? 
What if you need a three-layer, vanilla cake, with a fruit filling and yellow frosting?  
You must make the cake from scratch, or pay someone to make it to your specifications.  
Gathering and analyzing info 'from scratch' is primary research

First, do secondary research to see what information is already available. 
Next, do primary research to fill in the gaps and answer the questions you still have.


Top 5 Ethical Research Guidelines

1. Think from the participant's perspective.

  • What information would you be willing to share, about either yourself or your company/organization?  
  • What would make you feel comfortable with answering the questions that a researcher is asking?​
  • How would you feel if you work at Company X, and you learn that the information being gathered will benefit your competitor, Company Y?

2. Introduce yourself and the research.

  • Identify yourself honestly, and explain your objectives for conducting the research, including:  
    • how the information collected will be used.
    • who will benefit from the information (e.g. students, a professor, a client company).
    • whether participants will remain anonymous.  If not, why? 
  • Do not misrepresent yourself as a customer or client, especially if seeking information from a competitor company.

3.  Be careful with personal health questions!

  • Avoid asking directly about a person's physical or mental health status.
  • Avoid asking directly about a person's health condition(s), medication(s), etc. 
  • Avoid combining health questions and questions that ask for personally identifiable information.
  • See also:  HIPAA protects the confidentiality and security of personally-identifiable information that arises in the course of providing health care.

4. Consider confidentiality and data security.

  • Protect participants’ responses and personal information (see: Working with Sensitive Data).
  • Only collect Personally Identifiable Information (PII) if it is absolutely necessary.
    • PII refers to “information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, such as their name, social security number, biometric records, etc. alone, or when combined with other personal or identifying information which is linked or linkable to a specific individual, such as date and place of birth, mother’s maiden name, etc." (Source)

5. You might need Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval.  

  • If you are doing primary research for a class assignment or an entrepreneurial project, you probably don't need IRB approval.  If you plan to publish your research (i.e. develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge), talk with your professor(s)/advisors. 
  • The IRB is responsible for reviewing human subject research and ensuring compliance with federal regulations, state laws, and UC/UCI policies, to protect the safety and welfare of human subjects. (Source)


Comparing 3 Research Methods

Three common research methods are surveys, interviews, and focus groups. For more information on these, and other research methods, see: Chapter 2 of The Handbook for Market Research for Life Sciences Companies.

Method Definition Pros Cons
Survey Participants are asked to respond to a pre-defined series of questions. Can include both open- and closed-ended questions. Can yield a mix of quantitative and qualitative feedback, depending on how the survey is designed. Can be conducted in-person, by telephone or mail, or online.
  • Cost-effective way to reach greater number of participants.
  • Option for participant anonymity.
  • The rise of “survey fatigue” – the frequency with which individuals receive surveys may reduce response rates.
Interview One-on-one conversation between the researcher and the participant. Usually involve open-ended questions. Yields mostly qualitative responses. Can be conducted in-person or virtually. Option for audio/video recording of responses.
  • Can explore topic more in-depth.
  • Flexibility - can adjust questions based on participant’s responses.
  • Can involve substantial time and/or money.
Focus Group Discussion of a topic amongst a small group of participants. The researcher facilitates the groups’ discussion by asking questions and observing responses. Yields mostly qualitative responses. Can be conducted in-person or virtually. Option for audio/video recording of responses.
  • Receive feedback from multiple participants at one time (can be more efficient than one-on-one interviews).
  • Interactions among participants can provided additional insight for the researcher.
  • Potential for “group think” – the desire to conform to the opinions of the group may reduce the quality of participant responses.
  • One participant may dominate the session, preventing others from sharing their opinions.
  • Participants may be less forthcoming in a group setting.

What should my sample size be?

A sample is a portion of the larger population that you are researching. There is not one, “standard” sample size that applies to all primary research projects. A sample size that is too large may present issues regarding time and money, while a sample size that is too small may invalidate your results.  Use your best judgment when determining your sample size.

For more information, see: Chapter 1 of The Handbook for Market Research for Life Sciences Companies


Top 5 Survey Tips

How do I get people to take my survey?

Consider these tips to avoid common pitfalls and design a survey that increases the response rate:

  1. Limit the number of questions
    • Ask only what is absolutely necessary – the shorter, the better!
  2. Ensure that the survey can be completed in under 10 minutes (less is better!)
    • Inform participants upfront about the time involved and, if using an online survey, include a progress bar.
  3. Consider the ratio of closed- to open-ended questions
    • Closed-ended questions are quicker to answer and participants are more likely to skip open-ended questions if there are too many.
  4. Consider mode of delivery
    • Online surveys are easier to complete than paper-based surveys and more efficient for the researcher (most online survey tools offer report generation and analysis features).
  5. Don't ask for personal information
    • If necessary, allow participants to "opt-in" for a follow-up by providing the opportunity to share their contact information.

For more information, see: Questionnaire Design: How to Plan, Structure and Write Survey Material for Effective Market Research


Primary Research Tools

Access: UCI - Current Affiliates
Provided by UCI's Office of Information Technology (OIT). A sophisticated survey solution available at no cost for current UCI faculty, staff, and students. With Qualtrics, people can easily create, manage, and share surveys; collect, analyze, and export data; and produce reports.

Google Forms
Access: Public
Included in the Google Drive office suite, Google Forms features all of the collaboration and sharing features found in Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Choose from a range of question options, from multiple choice to drop-downs to a linear scale. Add images and YouTube videos, or page branching and question skip logic.

Survey Monkey
Access: Public
"Basic" plan features allow you to create an unlimited number of surveys with up to 10 questions and 100 responses per survey. Choose from 13 different formats for your survey questions, including multiple choice, text box, matrix, NPS, and A/B comparisons.

Multimedia Resources Center (MRC)

Access: UCI - Current Affiliates

A/V equipment & mobile devices for recording interviews, available for check out by UCI students, faculty, and staff.


How-to eBooks


The Handbook of Market Research for Life Science Companies [eBook]
Access: UCI

(Don't let the title fool you! This book is helpful for ALL industries, not just life sciences.) Tips, models, and tools entrepreneurs can use to collect, interpret, and present their market and integrate it into their business plan. (Copyright 2017)

Questionnaire Design: How to Plan, Structure and Write Survey Material for Effective Market Research [eBook]
Access: UCI

Explains how to plan, structure, and compose the right questionnaire for the research you are undertaking. (Copyright 2018)

Market Research in Practice: How to Get Greater Insight From Your Market [eBook]
Access: UCI

Introduction to market research tools, approaches, and issues. Offering a clear, step-by-step guide to the whole process(Copyright 2013)

Understanding Business Research [eBook]
Access: UCI

A comprehensive introduction to the entire process of designing, conducting, interpreting, and reporting findings in the business environment. (Copyright 2012) 

Encyclopedia of Research Design [eBook]
Access: UCI

Covers the spectrum of research design strategies, from material presented in introductory classes to topics necessary in graduate research. Provides summaries of advantages and disadvantages of often-used strategies. Uses hundreds of sample tables, figures, and equations based on real-life cases. (Copyright 2010)

Talking to Humans [eBook]
Access: Public

Offers a practical guide to the qualitative side of customer development, an indispensable skill for vetting and improving any new startup or innovation. Explains how to structure and run effective customer interviews, find candidates, and turn learnings into action. (Copyright 2014)

Testing with Humans [eBook]
Access: Public

The follow-up to Talking to Humans (above), this book takes you beyond customer discovery, teaching entrepreneurs, innovation teams, and product teams how to use experiments to drive faster, more informed decision making. This concise, practical guide will help you answer the questions “Should we do this?” or “Am I right about this?” (Copyright 2018)


How To Connect

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