Exploratory Research: What is it? And 4 Ways to Implement it in Your Research!

Hey guys! Last week we took a quick look at the different types of research and where they fit into an organization’s overall research plan. Today, we will discuss exploratory research, its unique characteristics and the various ways it can be implemented into your research design.

Get a Grip of the Issue with Exploratory Research

Just as you wouldn’t want to cross a road blindfolded, you also wouldn’t want to arbitrarily create your questionnaire structure and survey design without a firm understanding of your target respondents’ attitudes, opinions and behaviour associated with your survey’s subject matter. Exploratory research is the researcher’s tool to understand an issue more thoroughly, before attempting to quantify mass responses into statistically inferable data.

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 goals 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. However, without any preliminary exploratory research to identify this, our survey will miss these issues.

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 use exploratory research in their projects.

4 Ways to Implement Exploratory Research into a Research Plan

1) Focus Groups: 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 groups allows for a wider variety of perspectives in a shorter period of time.

2) Secondary Research: 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 not best 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 behaviours that go along with your research’s subject matter.

3) Expert Surveys: Expert surveys allow us to gain information from specialists in a field that we are less qualified or knowledgeable in. 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 receive large amounts of content, providing the freedom for the experts to demonstrate their knowledge. With their input, I would be able to create a survey covering all sides of the issues.

4) Open-Ended Questions: 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 analysing 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.

Our Research Overview Continues

So we learned how exploratory research works to give your survey and research design a better focus and significantly limits any unintended bias. As shown through our four different examples, this form of research functions best as a starting point for descriptive research. Descriptive research, on the other hand, can measure your data statistically. That is why descriptive research is the next stop on our train ride through the different research methods. See you there!

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  • sadia hussain says:

    Hi.its very informative and helpful post for me. i am going to start working on exploratory research.. hope fully if i need any more help people with this platform will help me. thanks

  • Jasmine says:

    Very insightful and timely for my research . Thank you so much

  • Yusuf says:

    Thank you Rick,

    My question is would a study on customers’ perception about an event by a firm fall within an exploratory research focus?

    • RickPenwarden says:

      Hi Yusuf,
      The answer to your question is that it depends on what your research goals are. Are you attempting to quantify your customer’s perceptions with closed-ended questions? Or are you asking open-ended questions to gain information on customer perception?
      Exploratory research is not defined based on the topic of your study, but instead on the information you are trying to find. If you want to do exploratory survey research on the topic, ask respondents to share their favourite parts of the event and areas where the event can be improved. This is opposed to writing multiple choice questions that force the respondent to choose from a premade list of answers.
      Hope this helps!

  • Christian says:

    Dear Rick,

    Thank you so much,

    This is extremely informative and so simple to understand for novice researchers like myself – I am currently working on my Msc dissertation proposal and the goal of my study is to generate data from nurses and explore their knowledge, perceptions, attitudes and beliefs in the use of music in an emergency department..I have decided to use two focus groups with 8-10 participants in each..In the country I am living in such study has never been done and overall there is a dearth in European literature addressing this topic..After reading your article my mind is clear that the most suitable design would be exploratory..I am writing this first of all to thank you for your post and to please ask for your opinion on whether you feel I am on the right track?

    Kindest Regards,


    • RickPenwarden says:

      Hi Christian,

      I am glad that you found the article so helpful! Sounds like you are right on track in your exploratory research. Focus groups are definitely a great way to develop a better understanding of how a group feels on a topic.
      After you receive all your valuable feedback, remember that the information is still exploratory. To quantify your findings, you will have to journey to the descriptive or causal forms of research.
      But for now your focus groups will be a great starting point to gather general sentiments on the subject, giving you direction for follow up studies. When setting up your focus groups remember to find a good mix of nurses based on different descriptors like age, years employed, gender, location of work, etc.

      Best of luck on your research!


  • sha sha says:

    i learnt alot from the topic and dont mind having more on research designs and their applications

    • RickPenwarden says:

      Glad to hear you liked the topic sha sha! I will try to satiate your appetite for research design topics by pumping out more articles! 🙂

  • Faiza Ben says:

    Hi Mr Rick
    First of all , I would like to thank you for the insights you provide us with , concerning the exploratory research . I’m conducting a research and Im the first one who’s working on in my country too ( seems like Christian case ) , the topic is about Neurolinguistics and it is very new , even in the USA , well , my problem is that I can’t provide my supervisor with data at the end of my research , that’s why I need your help to suggest some points to follow when conducting the research ! mine is for heuristic purposes , to raise awareness ! so which methods should I follow to conduct this research ?
    very grateful I am , Thank you , Peace

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