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Imagine you’re considering developing a new product and want to find out whether there’s any interest in it. Or, your product is already developed, and you want to find out whether there are any existing competitors (and who they are!). How would you start with research like this? How would you even know what kinds of questions to ask?

The answer is exploratory research, which is research undertaken to gain a better understanding of a problem or issue, to clarify or define parameters of the problem, or to refine a general idea into a more specific research problem. Read on to learn more about exploratory research, how to conduct it, and the research methods used to perform it. 

Exploratory research is the researcher’s tool to understand an issue more thoroughly, before attempting to quantify mass responses into statistically inferable data.

Exploratory research is research conducted to investigate a problem that is not clearly defined, has been under-investigated, or is otherwise poorly understood. Often described as grounded theory research, or interpretive research, the approach is not designed to derive conclusive results, but rather to glean insights that can form the foundation of future, more specific research. Using the revelations provided through exploratory research, you can develop research hypotheses and questions for future investigation, and narrow down the data that you need. For this reason, for exploratory research to be of the best use, you will need to adopt an open mind, and be willing to change your research approach and directions accordingly.

Look at it this way, when you ask a closed-ended question (ex: multiple choice) your list of options should be exhaustive to any possible answer a respondent may have. 

Forcing respondents to pick between the options the researcher comes up with off the top of their head is one of the leading causes of surrogate information bias (a nasty form of researcher bias). Adding an “Other, please specify:” option may help pick up any outside answers, but its answers probably won’t be statistically useful and therefore defeat the purpose of using a closed-ended question.

Furthermore, without using exploratory research to guide the survey design and question building process, your entire research goal may be heading in the wrong direction. Let’s say we are creating a restaurant feedback survey with the end goal of identifying and improving upon our restaurant’s weak points. We may decide to make respondents rate their level of happiness with our restaurant’s customer service, menu selection, and food quality. Though this list may seem extensive to us, it is completely possible for a significant portion of respondents to be most dissatisfied with ulterior issues like the restaurant’s atmosphere or location.

  1. When problems are in their preliminary stages. If you haven’t yet quite gotten a handle on a problem, or are not even sure whether an issue is worthy of detailed research, consider an exploratory approach. For instance, if you’re unsure why a certain product isn’t selling, you could first perform some preliminary exploratory research into possible reasons for poor sales before conducting deeper, explanatory research that compares the relative importance of different factors among a target audience.
  2. When the issue being investigated is new and it is difficult to gather data. Imagine you want to conduct research on how to price a new product or service. A common approach might be to look at how competitors are pricing comparable goods and to use that information as a guideline. But, what if your product is brand new, innovative and never before seen on the market? In cases like this, exploratory research can be used as a starting point to capture insights into things like the prices that customers might be willing to pay, or their perceptions of the value of the product. You then might use a more specific procedure like a Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter to further narrow down the optimal price. 
  3. To generate formal hypotheses. If you want to do some hypothesis testing, but aren’t quite sure how to formulate your hypothesis, exploratory research can help you to narrow your focus, by giving you preliminary insight that be used to generate predictions and expectations.

To better understand what exploratory research is, let’s take a look at some of its key characteristics:

Unstructured in nature. Exploratory research rarely uses structured or standardized data collection tools like closed-ended surveys. That’s because those forms of data collection restrict the nature of the data to be collected. A more unstructured approach, for example involving open-ended questions, will facilitate the exploration of different dimensions of interest, and allow you to find out novel information you might not have expected to learn.

Low cost and interactive. Exploratory research methods tend to be cheap, and simple to carry out. At the same time, they facilitate a high degree of interactivity between the researcher and the research subjects or participants though prompting or motivation them to provide in-depth information.

May be time consuming. Since exploratory research is looking for new insights, or depth of information, it may be time consuming. One of the most time consuming aspects involves finding the right people to take part in the research and motivating them to share the level of insight you’re looking for. If you’re planning to use a survey, SurveyMonkey Audience can construct a suitable audience in a matter of minutes. 

Put together your survey panel, then get the insights you need in minutes—not months.

Focuses on the what rather than the why. Exploratory research enables you to answer questions like “what is the problem? What is the purpose?”. It does not seek to explain phenomena (that is the main purpose of explanatory research), but rather to elucidate them.

Usually qualitative, but sometimes quantitative. Since standardized approaches tend not to be used, exploratory research is often qualitative in nature. However, in some cases, quantitative data can be gathered and generalized for a larger sample through use of surveys and experiments.

The first stage in the process. Generally, there is no prior research done or the existing research that has been carried out does not answer the problem precisely enough. Therefore, exploratory research is usually the first step in a longer research journey. Usually, exploratory research is followed up with explanatory research or research involving more structured tools of data collection. Exploratory research should also have a few theories which can support its findings as that will make it easier for you to evaluate the findings and move ahead with further research.

Has no processual rules. There are no hard and fast rules to carrying out exploratory research. As long as the research has importance or value, any approach, or combination of approaches can be used to gather the data. What is crucial is that you are flexible, pragmatic and open-minded when carrying out this kind of research. 

Used properly, exploratory research will provide rich quality information that will help identify the main issues that should be addressed in our surveys and significantly reduce a research project’s level of bias. For the rest of the article, we’ll go over the different ways people can incorporate exploratory research in their projects.

Primary research is research carried out by you, the researcher, or someone working on your behalf, to explore a certain problem which requires an in-depth study. Let’s take a look at some of the specific strategies you can use to carry out exploratory research using primary research methods. 

A focus group most commonly contains 8 to 12 people fitting the description of the target sample group and asks them specific questions on the issues and subjects being researched. Sometimes, focus groups will also host interactive exercises during the session and request feedback on what was given. This depends on what is being researched, like a food sampling for a fast food chain or maybe a presentation of potential advertisements for an anti-smoking campaign.

Focus groups continue to be one of the most common uses of exploratory research, providing researchers with a great foundation on where people stand on an issue. The open and natural discussion format of a focus group allows for a wider variety of perspectives in a shorter period of time.

Expert surveys allow us to gain information from specialists in a field that we are less qualified to understand, or to gather large amounts of content, while providing the freedom for the experts to demonstrate their knowledge. For example, if I was tasked with surveying the public’s stance and awareness on environmental issues, I could create a preliminary expert survey for a selected group of environmental authorities. It would ask broad open-ended questions that are designed to examine different sides of the issues.

All open-ended questions in your survey are exploratory in nature. The mere fact that you allow respondents to provide any feedback they please, gives you the opportunity to gain insights on topics you haven’t previously thought of. Adding a few open-ended questions in surveys with large amounts of respondents can be somewhat difficult and time-consuming to sort through, but it can indicate important trends and opinions for further research.

For example, let’s say we own a news website and asked our visitors the open-ended question, ‘What would you like to see improved most on our website?’ After analyzing the responses, we identify the top three discussed areas:

1) Navigation

2) Quality of Information

3) Visual Displays

We can then use these three topics as our main focus or research objectives for a new survey that will look to statistically quantify people’s issues with the website with closed-ended questions.

Explore flexible solutions that incorporate guided methodologies and AI-Powered Insights to uncover meaningful trends, quickly.

Observation means observing subjects or a research phenomenon of interest in the field, and may involve the use of qualitative or quantitative methods, or both. There is usually no direct interaction with the subject. For example, if you are trying to develop a placement strategy for a new retail product, you might observe the way that shoppers interact with the aisles and shelves at a local supermarket. You could count how long they spend in each aisle (a quantitative approach), or take notes on the direction they take when walking around the store (a qualitative approach).  Based on your observations, you might then develop some follow-up research.

Secondary research involves the analysis of data that is already in existence, either through being naturally generated (such as historical sold prices of a certain item on eBay), or having been collected by another individual or institution for a different purpose. 

It is almost impossible to come up with a research topic that hasn’t been conducted before. Beyond this, when it comes to designing your survey and research plan, it is usually best not to reinvent the wheel. All research strategies can benefit from reviewing similar studies taken and learning from their results. Consider your organization’s previous research as free direction on how you should design your present research goals. For example, if you are running your second annual customer feedback survey, look at the questions that were provided the most useful information and reuse them in your new survey.

External secondary research can also help you perfect your research design. Beyond reviewing other organizations’ research projects, social media like blogs and forums can give you a better sense of the issues, opinions and behaviors that go along with your research’s subject matter. Key sources of secondary research include:

  • Syndicated data sources like agencies that provide retailer and market information
  • Case studies of specific organizations or issues
  • Business journals in the relevant field
  • Newspapers
  • Government agencies, including intergovernmental agencies like the World Bank

Literature research is the process of gathering data from published sources like textbooks, journals, magazines, and the like. This information might be available in hard copy, or you may be able to conduct your research through the Internet. For example, if you want to develop your own sustainability statement, you might gather the annual reports of a few businesses operating in your industry as these reports are usually readily available online.

Other online sources of information include statistical information, the websites of competitors, and social media platforms, where prospective customers might be talking about your products or those like it. Online research sources are the cheapest and easiest method of research. 

While there are several different methods for undertaking exploratory research, we recommend the following broad, three-phased approach:

First, identify the problem you are trying to solve, or the research question you want to address. Remember: this doesn’t need to be very specific. Exploratory research is not about specifics, but more about generating knowledge and insight.

After you have conducted your research, use the findings to create a hypothesis. For instance, if you’re interested in learning how customers perceive your product relative to competitors’, you might first conduct some exploratory research to identify the products that customers view as rivaling yours, and then develop a hypothesis about customers’ preferences for yours versus those goods.

Finally, conduct follow-up research based on the insights gleaned earlier. In our above example, you might develop a market research survey on customers’ perceptions of the various products in order to test your hypothesis. 

Exploratory research has many advantages. 

  • Flexible. The flexibility of exploratory research is a huge advantage, since you can change direction and approach depending on the insights you pick up on the way.
  • Low cost. There are no standard tools or processes for conducting exploratory research, which makes it one of the lower cost approaches to research.
  • Insightful. Exploratory research helps lay the foundation of investigation, which can lead to further research.
  • Sound investment. It also helps you to understand at an early stage if the topic is worth investing the time and resources.

As with all kinds of research, there are also disadvantages. 

  • Often inconclusive. Oftentimes, researchers are frustrated with exploratory research because they don’t reach firm conclusions. However, remember that exploratory research should never be pursued when looking for definite answers. The main purpose of exploratory research is to help you define what you should be looking for.
  • Subjective. Since qualitative data is often gathered, objectivity may not be possible, because the interpretation of qualitative data can be subjective, judgmental, and biased.
  • Small sample sizes. Most of the time, exploratory research involves a smaller sample, hence the results cannot be accurately interpreted for a generalized population. View our sample size calculator

So now you know what exploratory research is, what is used for, and how to conduct it. Have a research question or two ready to go? SurveyMonkey Audience can craft a research panel to help you address them in just a flash. Get started today.

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