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The Ultimate Guide to Exploratory Research


Imagine you want to launch a new parcel pick and drop app and want to find out if people would find such a service valuable. Or what challenges do people face with existing services, if they use any of them. How would you conduct a research task like this? How would you even determine what questions to ask potential users?

You would use a type of research called exploratory research, which is conducted to get a better understanding of the problem, investigate a problem that is not clearly defined or refine a generic hunch into a specific research problem. Exploratory research demands researchers delve into the process with an open mind, and be willing to change the direction of the research if required. 

Due to a high degree of flexibility and open-endedness, Exploratory research is also called interpretative research or grounded theory approach. 

Now that we have understood what is exploratory research, I will take you through the following 

Characteristics of Exploratory Research

Unstructured Data Collection: Exploratory research takes an unstructured approach that involves asking open-ended questions. Many times, this unstructured approach helps discover new and unexpected information. Exploratory research does not use structured data collection methods like closed-ended surveys due to their restrictive scope. 

Low Cost: Generally speaking, exploratory research methods are less expensive

Highly Interactive: Exploratory research is a highly interactive research methodology as it involves probing the participants with deeper questions in order to reveal implicit motivations. 

Time Consuming: The first step that consumes much time of the researcher is finding the right people to participate in the research. The process itself also goes deep in search of new information, making it even more time consuming. 

“What” not “Why”: Exploratory research is more concerned with “What is the problem” rather than why something is the case. It does not attempt to explain situations but describe them.  

Qualitative Nature: Due to its flexible and open-ended nature, Exploratory research usually does not use close-ended approaches, making the research more qualitative in nature. 

Initiates the Research: Generally speaking, exploratory research is the first step in the process with no prior research being done earlier. In some cases, exploratory research is employed when the research carried out earlier has not clearly established the problem. Exploratory research is usually followed up by explanatory research. 

No fixed rules: Due to its flexible nature, there are no fixed set of rules that need to be followed specifically while conducting exploratory research. If the research demands, researchers any approach they see fit to initiate the process and collect data. 

Exploratory Research Methods ( Types & Methodologies of Exploratory Research )

Generally, the two primary types of exploratory research and data gathering methods employed are primary research and secondary research. Let’s take a look at each one of these methods in detail:

Primary Research: 

In this type of research, data is collected directly from the subject of investigation, which could be either an individual or a group of people. As long as the key purpose of the research is fulfilled, the data can be collected by either researcher or a third party. 

Here is a brief explanation of some of the primary research methods: 


In this method, the researcher does not directly ask questions. Instead, they observe the behaviour of the subject from afar. The people being observed could either be aware or remain unaware that they are being observed. Many researchers prefer not to inform subjects that they are being observed since their behaviour could change if they know someone is observing them. 

Interviews: Personal interviews function as a great means to collect comprehensive information from one individual or a small group of people. While taking interviews, researchers can not only make note of the responses but also the facial expressions of interviewees. 

Surveys: The goal of surveys is to collect information from specialists or to collect information from a general audience at a large scale. Surveys are a useful tool in understanding the opinions and behaviour of participants, as well as identifying & studying trends. 

Focus Groups: A focus group contains a small number of people, often ranging from 5 to 10 that embody the characteristics of the target group. Once the people of the group are selected, researchers host interactive sessions to collect a wide variety of perspectives in a limited amount of time. 

Secondary Research: 

In this type of research, information is collected from existing sources like newspapers, magazines, articles, papers, government agencies etc. In other words, secondary research is basically collecting information from other available primary research.

Here is a brief explanation of some of the secondary research methods: 

Literature: One of the most inexpensive research methods, the Literature method of secondary research collects data from existing published sources like textbooks, journals, magazines, articles. For example, if you want to develop an impactful vision and mission statement for your company, you might refer to the annual reports of companies you admire to try and understand their approach. 

Online Research: The internet is probably the largest database of information to have ever existed. For someone who lives in a place where the internet is easily accessible, it is one of the fastest and cheapest ways of collecting information. However, the information available online can also be misleading, so one should always be careful while conducting research online. 

Case Studies: A case study is simply a comprehensive written examination of a particular case in the context of a real world setting. Case Studies empower researchers with information of existing phenomena related to the research problem they are attempting to study. 

Advantages & Disadvantages of Exploratory Research

Advantages of Exploratory Research

Open-Ended Nature: Due to its flexible nature and open ended approach, researchers are free to change direction and approach if required. 

Inexpensive: Exploratory research is particularly low cost when secondary research methods are employed. In cases where primary research methods are employed, cost is still on the lower side.  

Time Saving: Exploratory research helps the identify and understand the problem better, saving precious time that could have possibly gotten wasted solving a misleading problem. 

Rich Information:  Exploratory research helps build a deeper understanding of the problem, and more often than not, directs future research in the right direction. 

Disadvantages of Exploratory Research

Small Samples: Many times, exploratory research considers small sample sizes, making it difficult to determine if the research is an accurate representation of the general population. 

Inconclusive: The nature of exploratory research is such that even though it can point you in the right direction, the result might still be without any firm conclusions. 

Incorrect Information: If secondary research methods are employed for exploratory research, there is a risk that information obtained can be misleading or outdated. 

Biased: One of the characteristics of exploratory research is that it mostly deals with qualitative data, making the interpretation of the data can be biased in some cases.

Steps to Conduct Exploratory Research

As Exploratory research is unstructured and flexible in nature, there is no fixed method to conduct this type of research. However, the following three step approach can serve as a generic starting point:

Step 1: Identify the Problem: The first step is to identify the problem you are trying to solve. However, you need not be very specific since Exploratory research itself could also point you in the right direction. 

Step 2: Define Your Hypothesis: After identifying the problem, the researcher checks if there has been any previous study of the subject matter. If not, then the researcher comes up with a hypothesis based on the information at hand. 

Step 3: Do Further Research: To conduct further research, the investigator needs to obtain data that will be helpful. In this process, the researcher can use primary research methods like surveys, interviews etc and secondary research methods like literature, case studies and online research. 

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The Ultimate Guide to Exploratory Research
Exploratory research is conducted to get a better understanding of the problem, investigate a problem that is not clearly defined or refine a generic hunch into a specific research problem. Exploratory research demands researchers delve into the process with an open mind, and be willing to change the direction of the research if required. 
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