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Exploratory Research: Definition & How To Conduct This Research

Updated: 19 hours ago

Exploratory research - what it means and how to conduct this type of research

If you have a lack of understanding of a topic of interest and nothing is known about it or is a challenging process in data collection. This is where exploratory research comes in.

Table of contents:

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What is meant by Exploratory Research?

Exploratory research allows for a better understanding of topics or areas that have limited or no information but will not provide final conclusive evidence for research questions or solutions to issues. This often occurs when phenomena are difficult to measure.

By conducting this kind of research will allow for the subject matter to be more clearly defined, so further research may be carried out that is measured and final. Otherwise, you can explore and understand areas that you are unable to measure such as the atmosphere at an event, looking at things like sound, décor, location, colours and people.

Exploratory Research methods

The type of exploratory research methods is split between quantitative research and qualitative research, where the latter is used more often for this type of research. Firstly, quantitative research will be methods like pilot or expert surveys and secondary research (published literature, case studies of similar instances, online sources), while qualitative research will be in-depth interviews, focus groups and observational research. So, as you can see both primary research and secondary research methods are used in exploratory research.

If you want to know more about quantitative and qualitative research methods, this is explained in much more detail in this interesting post – pros and cons of qualitative research vs quantitative research.

Quantitative Research Methods:

  1. Surveys: Using paper or online questionnaires to collect numerical data.

  2. Experiments: Conducting experiments under controlled conditions to observe effects of manipulated variables.

  3. Observational Studies: Observing and recording specific behaviours.

  4. Longitudinal Studies: Long-term studies often conducted over several years or decades.

  5. Cross-sectional Studies: Examines data from a population at a specific point in time.

  6. Correlational Research: Examining relationships between multiple variables.

  7. Causal-comparative Research: Establishing cause-effect relationships among variables.

  8. Secondary research: is a review of existing materials or secondary sources like books, articles, and online resources that give you an insight into the subject of interest and helps build the foundation of further research.

Qualitative Research Methods:

  1. Interviews: Conducting one-on-one or group interviews to gain insights into respondents’ experiences and perspectives.

  2. Focus Groups: Gathering a group of people together to discuss specific topics or issues.

  3. Ethnography: Studying individuals in their natural settings.

  4. Case Studies: In-depth studies of a single individual, group, or event.

What is the main purpose of Exploratory Research?

The purpose of exploratory research is broken down into three main elements to gain a better understanding of topics or problems that are vague and not clearly defined, to form hypothesises to be examined and test the feasibility of ideas.

The following are 7 reasons for using exploratory research:

1. To identify new opportunities

Exploratory research can help a company to identify new business opportunities. For instance, through exploratory research, a beverage company may discover a growing trend of health-conscious consumers leading them to launch a new line of organic, sugar-free beverages.

2. Understand consumer behaviour

It can also be used to understand consumer behaviour, attitudes, and preferences, enabling organisations to adjust their strategies accordingly. For example, a hotel chain may use exploratory research to find out what amenities or services customers value the most, leading to improvements that increase customer satisfaction and loyalty.

3. Support in diagnosing problems

It can assist in diagnosing a problem in a specific market or business operation. A failing product or a decline in sales might be due to several factors, and exploratory research can help identify those factors. For instance, a tech company witnessing a drop in their software sales might conduct exploratory research and find out that bugs and inefficient customer support are the reasons for the decline.

4. Help to formulate hypotheses

Exploratory research fuels hypothesis generation for future, confirmatory research by revealing tendencies and patterns. For example, researchers might initially explore the effects of social media usage on mental health, noting potential associations which can then be further tested in future research.

5. Assist in market segmentation

It can also aid in market segmentation by exploring customer behaviour and preferences in-depth, companies can identify distinct customer segments and tailor their marketing efforts accordingly. A car manufacturing company, for example, might conduct exploratory research to understand customer preferences regarding electric vehicles. The findings may then be used to segment the market based on environmental awareness, technology inclination, or income levels.

6. Testing feasibility of new ideas

Exploratory research can be used to test the feasibility of new product ideas or concepts before investing significant resources. For example, an e-commerce company might use exploratory research to gauge users’ responses to a proposed new feature before implementing it on their platform. It's also used to identify and explore concepts for different forms of marketing communications.

7. Helps to prepare for large scale research

It often serves as the foundation to larger, more detailed studies. It enables researchers to refine their research questions and select the appropriate research methods for subsequent stages. For example, before launching a nationwide survey on public opinion towards immigration policies, a research organisation might first conduct exploratory research on a smaller scale to fine-tune the survey design and questions.

Characteristics of Exploratory Research

  • Offers valuable insights: Exploratory research is frequently utilised to gain valuable insights into the underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations.

  • Embraces both qualitative and quantitative approaches: This type of research can encompass qualitative techniques such as focus groups and in-depth interviews, as well as quantitative methods like surveys for statistical analysis.

  • Uncovers fresh perspectives: It is employed to uncover new ideas and hypotheses for future, quantitative research.

  • Limited knowledge exists: Exploratory research is conducted when there is limited understanding or when a problem area has never been addressed before.

  • Prone to changes: As the research progresses, the direction and focus of the investigation may undergo significant changes.

  • Less formal procedures: The procedures used in exploratory research are typically less rigidly structured compared to conclusive research.

  • Initial phase of research: It usually serves as the first step in the research process, setting the foundation for further studies and experiments.

  • Utilises smaller sample sizes: Due to its qualitative nature, exploratory research often involves smaller sample sizes.

  • Not intended for definitive conclusions: The objective of this research type is to explore rather than draw definitive conclusions or make final decisions.

  • Shapes research questions and hypotheses: The findings of exploratory research are frequently used to define the research questions and hypotheses of larger, more conclusive studies.

Advantages of Exploratory Research

1. Helps to uncover new insights

Exploratory research is advantageous because it can uncover new ideas and patterns. For example, a cosmetics company could use this research to discover unexpected trends or attitudes towards skincare among men, helping them develop more targeted marketing strategies and products.

2. Provides flexibility during the research process

This type of research has high flexibility. Researchers can alter their direction based on findings as they progress. For instance, an automobile company might initially be exploring customer preferences for car colours, but upon discovering an interesting trend in preference for electric cars, they might shift their investigation towards this new direction.

3. Gain a deep understanding of motivations and behaviours

Exploratory research dives deep into understanding behaviours and motivations, providing a rich, qualitative perspective. A clothing company could use interviews or focus groups to understand the emotional connections customers have with certain types of clothing.

4. Opportunity to refine research questions

If researchers are unsure what they're looking for, exploratory research allows them to define their research questions more clearly. For example, a tech start-up might start investigating general user behaviour, but through exploration, they can refine their research question to be about user interaction with a specific feature.

Disadvantages of Exploratory Research

1. Can be very time consuming

This research is often open-ended and requires significant time to be spent on data collection and interpretation. For instance, a company studying consumer shopping behaviours might need to collect data over a long period to see trends and patterns.

2. It can lack representativeness of a larger target population

Since exploratory research often involves a smaller sample size, it may not represent the larger target population accurately. For example, a study of coffee preference involving a small, localised group may not accurately reflect the preferences of coffee drinkers nationwide.

3. There can be potential bias drawn from the data

Since this research often requires subjective interpretation from the researcher, it is susceptible to bias. For example, a researcher studying company culture might interpret results based on their own perspective or experiences, skewing the findings.

4. No concrete conclusions

Due to its qualitative and investigative nature, exploratory research often cannot provide definitive answers or statistical proof. For instance, a study exploring why a product is failing in the market might raise several probable reasons, but it may not pinpoint the exact cause.

Examples of Exploratory Research

An example of exploratory research is where a brand is looking to change the packaging for an existing ready meal product to make it more appealing, so gets the thoughts and views from customers and buyers of ready meals in general, on what they think of the current design, things they don’t like, the things they look for or appeal to them and the aesthetics. This is done via focus groups and the feedback from this will help to mock -up new concept designs, which can then be tested in further research in deciding which packaging design to go for.

Another example of exploratory research is in new product development of a new smart phone, where there are a large number of concept ideas that have been drawn up but now need to be scaled down by using both focus groups and an initial pilot survey, so then a couple of popular concepts can then be fully examined and compared in additional research.

This just illustrates the many examples of how exploratory research can be used.

The following are 6 real life examples of exploratory research in practice:

1. Airbnb

In order to expand and improve its services Airbnb had to conduct exploratory research on potential markets. They looked into different countries and cities, analysing cultural attitudes towards short term rentals, legal constraints, and potential demand. They also researched prospective host communities and their potential needs and concerns. This research was crucial in helping Airbnb identify new markets, understand how they could be competitive, and find ways to ensure their service was attractive to both hosts and guests.

2. Spotify

When Spotify wanted to create a personalised playlist feature, ‘Discover Weekly,’ they used exploratory research to understand the listening behaviours and preferences of their users. They analysed listener’s habits, genres, and artists popularity, and song frequency to develop a unique, customized algorithm. This research allowed Spotify to create a highly successful feature that significantly increased user engagement.

3. Coca Cola

Coca Cola has used exploratory research numerous times to develop new products and marketing strategies. For example, in an effort to appeal to a younger demographic, they conducted research on youth lifestyle trends, tastes, and preferences. This research led to the development of Coca Cola Zero, a drink aimed specifically at millennials and Gen Z.

4. Toyota

Toyota conducted exploratory research when it was planning to develop and launch its hybrid vehicle, the Prius. The company needed to understand if there was a market for a car that used a different form of technology. They explored consumer concerns about the environment and energy costs, government regulations, and the development in technology. This research enabled Toyota to launch the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, which was a great success.

5. Facebook

When Facebook planned to introduce the 'Like' button, they used exploratory research to anticipate how it might be received by users. They conducted surveys and interviews, observing how people interacted with the platform and they explored their feelings about different features. This research helped Facebook in refining the 'Like' button concept and eventually in launching it effectively and successfully.

6. Microsoft

Microsoft frequently uses exploratory research to develop and improve its products. For instance, when creating their adaptive controller for the Xbox, they carried out research into how people with mobility limitations interact with technology. They invited people with a range of physical disabilities to participate in trials, working with them to find ways to make gaming more accessible. The insights gained from this research led to a controller that has opened up gaming to a wider audience.

How to conduct Exploratory Research

The following are 5 common steps in how to conduct exploratory research:

Step 1: Identify the problem

The very first step in conducting exploratory research is identifying the problem in a clear and concise manner that needs to be addressed and decide if this is the most suitable approach to take, which is most likely if there is little or no information readily available. For example, in designing a new logo and coming up with draft concept ideas that will appeal to customers. So, what kind of things to include in the logo that will have a positive impact, while still retaining the values of the brand.

Step 2: Hypothesis for a possible answer

After you identified the problem and decided this is the correct path to take, you will need to formulate a hypothesis on what the possible answer could be in order to help you manage the research you are doing such as customers will prefer more of a modern type of logo design of the brand.

Step 3: Design the methodology that will be used

Design a research approach that will incapsulate how you envisage the analysis will be and how that will tie in with the chosen data collection method that will be used like in-depth interviews, focus groups or desk research. For example, conducting in-depth interviews with internal stakeholders (suppliers, distributors, staff) and focus groups with customers to discuss whether the brand logo needs modernising.

Step 4: Gather feedback for analysis

Now moving onto collecting the feedback allows you the opportunity to then analyse this information and see if there are common patterns or themes that are emerging. Plus, exploratory research gives you the flexibility to change your initial hypothesis if the results are different to what you were expecting. Using the logo design example, this would be seeing if the common consensus should be moving the brand logo design to a more modern style or does it differ between different groups (customers, non-customers, stakeholders).

Step 5: Possibility of further research

After the results have been analysed, you may decide follow-up research is needed to get a fuller picture and answer the research questions you may have, which could lead to a survey with a large sample of respondents to give something that is more measurable and also statistical comparisons can be made. For example, a concept test survey can then be used to compare the current and new potential logo designs and see which is most preferred.

You can use a simple and inexpensive (from $15) service like PickFu to run a poll across 9 countries like the US, Canada, Australia and the UK to compare, rank and comment on different designs, logos, book covers, webpages, apps and advertising messaging to help you make informed decisions.



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