A survey design provides a quantitative description of trends, attitudes, and opinions of a population, or tests for associations among variables of a population, by studying a sample of that population. Survey designs help researchers answer three types of questions: (a) descriptive questions (e.g., What percentage of practicing nurses support the provision of hospital abortion services?); (b) questions about the relationships between variables (e.g., Is there a positive association between endorsement of hospital abortion services and support for implementing hospice care among nurses?); or in cases where a survey design is repeated over time in a longitudinal study; (c) questions about predictive relationships between variables over time (e.g., Does Time 1 endorsement of support for hospital abortion services predict greater Time 2 burnout in nurses?).
An experimental design systematically manipulates one or more variables in order to evaluate how this manipulation impacts an outcome (or outcomes) of interest. Importantly, an experiment isolates the effects of this manipulation by holding all other variables constant. When one group receives a treatment and the other group does not (which is a manipulated variable of interest), the experimenter can isolate whether the treatment and not other factors influence the outcome. For example, a sample of nurses could be randomly assigned to a 3-week expressive writing program (where they write about their deepest thoughts and feelings) or a matched 3-week control writing program (writing about the facts of their daily morning routine) to evaluate whether this expressive writing manipulation reduces job burnout in the months following the program (i.e., the writing condition is the manipulated variable of interest, and job burnout is the outcome of interest). Whether a quantitative study employs a survey or experimental design, both approaches share a common goal of helping the researcher make inferences about relationships among variables, and how the sample results may generalize to a broader population of interest (e.g., all nurses in the community).