Exploratory Research: A Guide to Unlocking Insightful Data


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You can’t just develop a new product without understanding the need or interest for it in the market. So how do begin with such research? Which research should you even conduct?

This brings us to the topic of exploratory research. Exploratory research helps us gain an understanding of a topic, defines the variables of the problem, and establishes a basis for a more specific research question. 

Read the article to learn what exploratory research is, its characteristics, & the methods used to perform it.

What is Exploratory Research?

Exploratory research investigates problems that are not clearly defined. It is conducted to gain insight into the existing problem, however, exploratory research does not provide a conclusive answer to these problems. 

A researcher starts with an idea that is general in nature and uses this as a means to recognize issues that can become the focus of future research. An important feature of exploratory research is that the researcher should keep an open mind and be willing to change the direction of their research as they collect more and more insightful data.

Exploratory research uses the grounded theory approach, also known as interpretive research. It aims to answer questions such as: “What is happening?” “Why is this happening?” “How is this happening?”

For example, if a researcher wants to know how the target audience of their app perceives a particular filter, they can first find out which section uses their app. Then proceeding to find out which filters are most used, why they are used, and decide whether adding an additional filter similar to the existing ones will be a good idea.

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What are the Characteristics of Exploratory Research?

Now that we have defined exploratory research, it is important to be familiar with its attributes. Exploratory research has several features that researchers need to learn to understand when to use it. 

The following are the characteristics of exploratory research: 

1. They are not structured in nature.

2. Exploratory research design is interactive, open-ended, and usually accessible within the budget of the organization.

3. It helps researchers uncover answers to questions such as: what is the problem being studied? What is the need for this study? What topics should be included in the study?

4. It is time-consuming and thus requires patience and persistence on the part of the researcher.

5. Exploratory research is broad, flexible, and adaptive in nature.

6. The researcher needs to go through all the information and data collected through the research.

7. Exploratory research needs to have an important cost or value; if not, it is ineffective.

8. The researcher should have some theories that will help in supporting the findings uncovered during the exploratory research.

9. Exploratory research generally produces qualitative data.

10. In some instances, where the study sample is large, and data is collected through surveys and experimentation, explorative research can be quantitative.

Now, that we have cataloged the characteristics, the question is how to go about collecting the data for your exploratory research. The following section explains the two methods you can use to conduct your research.

What are the Types of Exploratory Research?

Carrying out research on something that one has limited information about sounds and feels difficult. However, several methodologies can help you decide the best research design, how to collect data, and the variables to study. 

There are two main methods of conducting exploratory research – primary research and secondary research. Under these two broad types, various methods can be used depending on the nature of your study. 

The data can be of quantitative or qualitative nature. Let’s look at each of the research methods in detail.

1. Primary Research Methods 

In the primary research, the information is collected directly from the respondents. This data can be collected from a group of people or just an individual.  It is usually done to explore a problem that needs in-depth analysis.

A) Surveys:

Surveys or polls can gather large amounts of data, usually from a predetermined group of respondents. They are one of the most popular quantitative research methods. Surveys or polls are used in exploratory research to explore the opinions, trends, or beliefs of the target population. 

Surveys can now be conducted online and thus be made more accessible, thanks to technology! Nowadays, organizations have started offering shorter surveys and rewards to the respondents who fill them to increase the response rates and gain more insights. Short surveys can be sent to respondents through text messages right after they make a purchase and are asked to fill it for a coupon/discount in return, so organizations can understand their views on the product under study. 

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B) Focus Groups:

Another widely used methodology in exploratory research is focus groups. In this method, a group of respondents is chosen and asked to express their opinions on the topic of interest. One important consideration when making a focus group is choosing people with a common background and similar experiences to get unified and consistent data. 

An example of a focus group would be when a researcher wants to explore what qualities consumers value when buying a laptop. This could be the display quality, battery life, brand value, or color. The researcher can make a focus group of people who buy laptops regularly and understand the dynamics a consumer considers when buying electronic devices.

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C) Observation:

Observational research can be quantitative or qualitative. It involves observing an individual and making inferences from their reactions to certain variables. 

This research does not require direct interaction with the participants. For instance, a researcher can simply record the observations of how people react at the launch of a new product.

D) Interviews:

Surveys provide huge amounts of information in a relatively short period of time, but an interview with one person can provide in-depth information that can otherwise be overlooked in surveys. Interviews are a methodology for collecting data for qualitative research. 

You can conduct the interview face-to-face or even on the telephone. For example, an interview with an employee about their job satisfaction can offer valuable insights that would otherwise go unnoticed in the closed-ended questions asked in a survey.

2. Secondary Research Methods:

In secondary research, information is gathered from primary research that has been published before. For instance, gathering information from case studies, newspapers, online blogs or websites, or government sources.

A) Online Resources:

The quickest way to find information on any topic is through the internet. A huge amount of data is available on the internet that you can download and use whenever you need it. One important factor to consider when acquiring data online is to check the authenticity of the sources provided by the websites. 

For example, a researcher can find out the number of people using a preferred brand of clothing through a poll conducted by an independent website online.

B) Literature review:

Reviewing the existing literature on a particular topic from online sources, libraries or commercial databases is the most inexpensive method of collecting data. The information in these sources can help a researcher discover a hypothesis that they can test. 

Here, sources can include information provided by newspapers, research journals, books, government documents, annual reports published by organizations, etc. However, the authenticity of the sources needs to be considered and examined. 

Government sources can provide authentic data but may require you to pay a nominal price to acquire it. Research agencies also produce data that you can acquire at a nominal cost, and this data tends to be quantitative in nature.   

C) Case studies:

Another way researchers can gather information for their exploratory research design is by carefully analyzing the cases that have been through a similar problem the researcher wishes to study. These cases are important and critical in the business world, especially. 

The researcher should be cautious in reviewing and analyzing a case that is similar to the variables of concern in the present study. This methodology is commonly used in the health sector, social sciences, and business organizations. 

For example; let’s assume that a researcher is interested in understanding how to effectively solve the problems of turnover in organizations. While exploring, he came across an organization that had high rates of turnover and was able to solve the problem by the end of the year. The researcher can study this case in detail and come up with methods that increase the chances of success for this organization. 

[Related read: Primary Vs. Secondary Research]


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What are the Steps to Conduct Exploratory Research?

What is Exploratory Research? Exploratory research

Let’s explore the practical aspect of how you can conduct exploratory research from design to data analysis. Follow the steps as per your research requirements to uncover insights and validate your research question. 

1. Identifying the problem area – 

The very first step is for the researcher to identify the area of research and the problem can be addressed by finding out ways to solve it.

2. Creating a hypothesis – 

If the researcher is aiming to solve a problem for which there are no prior studies or the problem has not been resolved efficiently in previous research, then the researcher creates his/her own problem statement. This problem statement, also called a hypothesis, will be based on the questions that the researcher came up with while identifying the area of concern.

3. Determining data collection methods – 

While planning your research design, it is important to select the proper data collection methods. In this blog, we have explored the various methods of data collection so you can determine which method aligns with your objective. 

Consider the nature of your research goal and identify the source of data you want to explore. Determine the data collection tools you need, which may include an online survey tool or a phone survey tool. 

4. Choosing sampling method – 

In order to ensure your research findings represent the target population, you need to choose the appropriate sampling method or leverage a market research panel. This step will help you gather data from the audience who have knowledge or experience about the subject, thus allowing you to gather relevant and accurate insights. 

5. Analyzing data and identifying patterns – 

Leverage a survey software that enables you to store and analyze data seamlessly. Conduct quantitative data analysis, text, and sentiment analysis to identify patterns, reveal trends, and discover key findings. By utilizing a robust tool, you can unveil meaningful insights to guide your future research. 

6. Advancing future research –  

Once the data for the current problem has been obtained, the researcher will continue the study through a descriptive investigation. Generally, qualitative methods are used for a detailed study of the data to find out if the information gathered through exploratory research is true or not.

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When to Use Exploratory Research?

Exploratory research design helps you investigate a subject that is vague, new, or poorly understood. Often referred to as grounded theory research, the insights help strategies the foundation of future research.  

1. Define a vague topic: 

This research design is an ideal choice when you have a poorly defined research problem. The exploratory method helps you gain clarity on the subject before you dive deeper. 

2. Explore unexplored topics: 

The research method helps brands delve into emerging or new markets with limited prior data. It helps identify variables, trends, and characteristics. 

3. Conduct market research: 

Brands can utilize exploratory research to gauge market trends, customer preferences, behaviors, and needs. You can use the feedback to guide your marketing strategies and product/service developments. 

4. Study diverse population: 

The research method is valuable in gathering knowledge on diverse cultural groups. It can help you understand the nuances of different cultures, behaviors, needs, and more. 

Advantages of Exploratory Research

Exploratory research provides the researcher an opportunity to keep an open mind and explore the variables affecting their area of interest. Some of the advantages of exploratory research are:

  • It allows researchers to be flexible and change their stance on the problem being studied as the research progresses.
  • It is cost-effective.
  • It lays a foundation and structure for future research.
  • It can help researchers find out the causes of the problem being studied, which can be elaborated on in future studies.
  • It allows you to adapt the method of data collection as required by the research. 

Now that we have listed the benefits, we can’t forget the limitations. It is important to learn about both before you jump into the research mode. 

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Limitation of Exploratory Research

Exploratory research is not without its limitations.

  • The research findings are usually inconclusive. 
  • Some of the data collected can be biased or subjective as it is mostly qualitative in nature. 
  • Since exploratory research has a smaller sample size, there is hesitancy in generalizing the findings to the whole population. 
  • If data is collected through secondary sources, there is a chance that the data will be old or outdated.

Wrapping up;

Exploratory research helps you form the foundation of your research project. It lays down the groundwork for a research question you can explore in the future. Exploratory research design is best used when you need insights into a problem or phenomenon before you begin to conduct further research.

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