How to Conduct Exploratory Research for Your Early Research Needs

Exploratory research is one of the main types of general and survey research. It works to investigate an issue, occurrence or phenomenon that is not clearly defined.

The most preliminary form of research, exploratory precedes descriptive research, another early survey research campaign.

As such, market researchers and virtually all other researchers need to incorporate exploratory research in their market research campaigns, as they would be remiss to not fully comprehend a problem before probing further into it or attempting to fix it. 

This article examines exploratory research, what makes it up, how to conduct it, how it differs from the other main forms of research and the kinds of surveys to use to carry out this research.

Defining Exploratory Research

Exploratory research is defined as an initial form of research that studies a hypothetical or theoretical idea, that is, one which has not yet been fully developed, let alone proven.

As such, this research begins with a researcher’s idea about something within their sphere of study; for example, they’ve noticed interest around their brand has fallen in a particular quarter. 

The researcher will thus use exploratory research to gain a better understanding of this unexplored idea, prove that it exists in significant ways/amounts and study other issues surrounding it.

The issues and other details that they discover can be carried over as the focus for future research campaigns, namely descriptive research, as the next logical type of research.

Exploratory research is defined as a research used to investigate a problem which is not clearly defined. It is conducted to have a better understanding of the existing problem, but will not provide conclusive results.

Also called grounded theory approach or interpretive research, exploratory research helps answer questions like the “what,” “why” and “how.”

The Key Aspects of Exploratory Research

Now that we have established the core meaning and function of exploratory research, it is critical to understand its makeup. This form of research has various qualities researchers ought to look into, to better understand its characteristics.

The following enumerates the key features of this research:

  1. The initial form of research around a particular subject of study.
  2. Lays the groundwork about a study for future research.
  3. Investigates an issue that is not fully defined.
  4. Gathers information that can be explored in more depth in descriptive research.
  5. Exists in two forms: Via a new topic or via a new angle
    1. A new topic is usually unexpected and provides startling findings.
    2. A new angle arises from different ways of looking at things, either from a theoretical perspective or a new way of measuring something.
  6. Enables a researcher to answer foundational questions such as: What is the problem? What is the purpose of the research? What topics should be studied?
  7. Exploratory research uses unstructured studies.
  8. Involves forming a few theories which can support its findings to make it easier for the researcher to assess them.
  9. Typically involves yielding qualitative research.
  10. Can produce quantitative research that can be used to generalize larger samples in certain cases, such as through the use of experiments and quantitative surveys.

Why Your Business Needs Exploratory Research

Businesses need exploratory research for a variety of reasons. Firstly, this research method uncovers details and facts about a murky subject — the kinds that a business hasn’t previously known about. 

It sets the foundation for understanding a problem, occurrence or phenomenon by finding its basic properties. This ensures that a business finds the right information (such as the variables) which can be further studied in descriptive, correlational and experimental research.  

Although it rarely provides enough insights to make conclusive business decisions, it forms the basis of a research issue on which businesses can set up objectives and requirements for continual studies. 

After all, a company cannot conduct further research around a topic, without assuredly knowing about its existence and certain characteristics that warrant further exploration.

With exploratory research, businesses extract:

  • The groundwork for other types of research
  • Key facts about matters critical to their business
  • Opinions from their target market
  • The existence of specific market segments (via market segmentation)
  • An understanding what is worth pursuing for survey studies and other research 

Exploratory Research Survey Examples

  1. The qualitative survey
    1. Helps answer the what, why and how with open-ended questions.
    2. Extracts key high-level information in depth. 
  2. The cross-sectional survey
    1. Studies a particular population at one particular point in time.
    2. Can help form a hypothesis of for example, shopping behavior during a seasonal campaign.   
  3. The customer experience (CX) survey
    1. Finds foundational insights on customers’ CX.
    2. Finds glitches and other issues in a customer journey that a business was not aware of.
  4. The employee feedback survey
    1. Finds unknown employee sentiment around various areas of business.
    2. Useful during mergers, acquisitions, growth spurts or simple quarterly reviews.
  5. The business survey
    1. For general inquiries, understanding the high level details.
    2. Although it can be used for other forms of research, this survey can help identify a problem.

How Exploratory Research Differs from Correlational, Exploratory and Experimental Research

Exploratory research differs significantly from the other main types of research methods such as correlational research and experimental research.

However, exploratory research is often conflated with descriptive research. Although both forms of research are conducted in the early stages of the entire research process, they are not the same, as they bear key differing qualities.

Exploratory research provides the foundation, hypothesis or discovery about a problem the researcher suspects is present. Thus, it is the very first form of research required to conduct over an unstudied or unknown topic. 

Descriptive research, on the other hand, is predicated on describing something already established, discovered or suspected in exploratory research. Thus descriptive research follows exploratory research in the overall research process. It describes characteristics, functions, occurrences, frequencies and other required key facts before the researcher moves to correlational or experimental research.

Descriptive research, as opposed to exploratory research, is conclusive. It is predominantly quantitative and fixed on creating statistics. It is also rigid and structured, while exploratory research is flexible and unstructured. 

Correlational research differs from exploratory research in that it is one of the latter forms or research, whereas exploratory is the most preliminary kind. 

It processes well-established information that exploratory and descriptive research have found. Its primary function is to uncover relationships among variables to see how one may affect another or others. 

The results of correlational research can be used to make predictions of future events from present insights.

Experimental research contrasts with exploratory research, in that it is also one of the latter forms of research, if not the very final. Unlike exploratory research, experimental research is far less observational or passive. Rather, as its name hints at, it is highly experimental, as it uses a scientific approach on two sets of variables.

Using a scientific research design, it forms experiments to find cause-and-effect relationships between defined variables. Also called hypothesis testing or a deductive research method, itis conducted in a controlled environment so that variables can be measured, calculated and then compared. .

Experimental research involves manipulating variables to come to a conclusion or finding. It helps find conclusions to an original subject of research or answers to a previously discovered problem in exploratory research. 

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Exploratory Research

Exploratory research offers several benefits for researchers and businesses. However, as with all other research methods, there are a few setbacks to this type of research. 

The Advantages

  1. Enables further research on an established issue.
  2. Unstructured, allowing the researcher to be flexible in their study.
  3. A low-cost form of research.
  4. Allows researchers to decide whether a topic is worth studying further or not.
  5. Can save valuable time, money and resources, if a discovered topic is deemed unnecessary for further research.
  6. Helps researchers in the early stages of discovering the cause of a problem.
  7. Points researchers to an objective or signals researchers to avoid some.

The Disadvantages

  1. Qualitative data, the main kind of data derived from exploratory research, can be easy to misinterpret when generalizing a population.
  2. Although it steers further research, it is inconclusive. 
  3. Although it can be used in different survey sampling methods, it usually involves using a smaller sampling pool, making it inept at generalizing populations.
  4. When collected via secondary sources, the data may be outdated and thus not fully accurate with the present.

How to Conduct Exploratory Research

This form of research is known to be unstructured, so there are no hard and fast rules on how to conduct it, as long as it adheres to its key aspects. The following explains the basic universal approach for conducting exploratory research.

  1. Identify the problem: The core of the research, this may take a few brainstorming sessions.
    1. Accrue secondary research that relates to your suspected problem, issue or phenomenon.
    2. Conduct a basic survey to see if there is any truth to your identified issue.
  2. Create the hypothesis: If there are no prior studies or the problem is not fully under control or has a workaround form a hypothesis based on research from the previous step.
  3. Conduct further research: Continue researching to see if there is any truth to the existence of the problem and its possible solution/hypothesis.
    1. Conduct surveys, focus groups, interviews and more secondary research.
    2. Decide whether the subject at large and its hypothesis are worth delving into further in descriptive research.

Excelling in Exploratory Research

Exploratory research forms the building blocks of an overall research project, as it constructs the groundwork of a research subject that will later be explored (in descriptive research), tested (in correlational research) and manipulated in (experimental research).

As a researcher, perhaps there will be times that you won’t need to conduct much exploratory research. This is true in cases where you have some familiarity with a subject or are certain of its existence in your business, in which case, you can proceed to descriptive or experimental research. 

In any case, you need to be fully aware of a problem or other phenomenon before conducting any further research on it. This is where exploratory research excels.

In order to be skillful in exploratory research, you need to turn to several resources, such as secondary research, case studies, literature within your industry/niche and finally, surveys. Although surveys ask for specifics, they too are invaluable for conducting exploratory research, as they help uncover the what, giving credence to any suspicions you may have had prior to endeavoring in research.

As such, using a potent online survey platform will assist, guide and launch the key tool in your exploratory research.