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What Is Experimental Research Design?

by Shane Hall, studioD

Most experimental-research designs occur in laboratory settings.

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In scientific studies, experimental design is the gold standard of research designs. This
methodology relies on random assignment and laboratory controls to ensure the most valid,
reliable results. Although researchers recognize that correlation does not mean causation,
experimental designs produce the strongest, most valid results. However, experimental design is
often not practical for many studies in social science, education and business because researchers
cannot, in many instances, exercise laboratory controls in natural-world settings or randomly
assign subjects.

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Research designs range from descriptive case studies, often employed in anthropology, to the
experimental approach. An experimental design consists of two groups of subjects: an
experimental group and a control group. The experimental group undergoes the treatment,
program or intervention of interest. Researchers then measure the differences between the two
groups on a particular outcome. For example, an experimental-research study in business could
examine the impact of a new marketing strategy on consumer spending between two groups of
shoppers. One group would be exposed to the marketing techniques. The researchers would then
measure consumer spending by the two groups to see if the two differ significantly, analyzing the
results to determine the extent to which the marketing strategy caused consumers in the
experimental group to boost their spending.

The chief characteristic of experimental design is its use of random assignment; namely,
randomly assigning subjects to treatment and control groups. Random assignment in the
consumer-spending study described previously means that the two groups would be equal on
characteristics that may influence consumption patterns, such as income and education. Because
subjects, regardless of these characteristics, stand an equal chance of being assigned to either
group, experimental design greatly reduces the chance of bias in the study, according to Paul
Vogt, author of the Dictionary of Statistics and Methodology.

The greatest strength of an experimental-research design is the high level of certainty with which
changes in the outcome of interest consumer spending in the business study described earlier
can be attributed to the independent variable or treatment in this case, a marketing strategy.
By controlling study bias through random assignment, it is more likely that differences in
consumer spending can be attributed to the effects of the marketing strategy rather than other
variables that affect differences in spending, such as income. In addition, research studies using
an experimental design can be replicated more than once, using different groups of subjects,
according to sociologist Earl Babbie, author of The Practice of Social Research.

The greatest drawback of experimental-research design is its artificiality, according to Babbie.
He points out that effects occurring in an experiment under research controls might not take
place in more natural settings. A new marketing strategy may increase consumer spending among

a group of research subjects, but may not have the same effects among consumers nationwide.
The difficulty in imposing laboratory controls in a natural setting leads many researchers in
business, education and social sciences to rely on quasi-experimental designs, which do not
randomly assign subjects.