What is exploratory research and why is it so exciting?

Exploratory research

Discover the meaning of exploratory research, when to use it, how it can impact your design and why it can be fun to conduct.

You’re not always designing in areas that you’re familiar with, or solving problems that you’ve actually experienced. You lack first-hand knowledge and you often find yourself outside of your comfort zone. This is where the fun begins. 🙂

Enter exploratory research. It’s easily the most exciting type of research, as it slowly pulls back the curtain on a topic that you know very little about. It enhances your design, points you in the right direction and sparks ideas that you might never have even thought of before. It ensures that you build your design on a strong foundation, which is key to consistent product success.

Let’s see what exploratory research is all about and how you can have fun with it.

What is exploratory research?

Exploratory research usually starts with a general idea or problem that’s not clearly defined. For example, you might wonder, “how do people usually go about learning a new language?” (As you’ll see in a later example, this question may lead to a successful app like Duolingo.)

You use exploratory research as a tool to gain background information, define the terms of the research problem, identify issues that could be the focus of future research, establish research priorities, and clearly formulate problems that your business will strive to solve.

Exploratory research is flexible and can address research questions of all types (what, why, how) in order to give you a better idea of what you’re actually looking for. However, exploratory research is not there to offer concrete solutions. It’s all about figuring out what the problem actually is and then exploring possible solutions to it.

It’s a great tool for generating new, research-based ideas, or identifying what the problem is when something doesn’t work and you’re not sure why.

Ultimately, you want exploratory research to lead to informed hypotheses which will guide any further exploration.

Why should you conduct exploratory research?

It brings light to a dark room

Let’s say you’re creating an important questionnaire about a topic on which you have little information. You don’t want to just guess what questions might be useful and go with your gut feeling or assumptions. You want to understand your respondents’ attitudes and opinions toward the subject matter first, then craft informed questions that will provide you with actionable insights. It’s the same with design – you don’t want to search for something in a dark room, you want to switch on the lights first.

Initial research acts as a signal – it tells you what you should avoid, identifies unmet needs and unveils inspirational concepts that you can use in your work. It also indicates what audience you should target, the questions you should ask, and the answer options that need to be included when conducting additional research and data collection.

Once you’re done with exploratory research, you’ll have valuable information that paints a better picture than any persona or journey map could.

This will enable you to:

  • better prioritize your work
  • have confidence when deciding on new features or product areas
  • understand and empathize with the users’ situations

Exploratory research will pinpoint the kind of information needed to answer these crucial questions:

What questions do you want to be answered through further research?
What types of answers are you expecting or assuming?
What is the ideal outcome for you?
What decisions are you trying to make with the insights from this research project?

It’s a great way to kick off a project when there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding it.

It’s flexible, fun and beneficial

Some research methods can soon feel rigid and repetitive. You can’t wait to get it over with and consequently, you sometimes end up rushing it. Many businesses dig up some secondary research to analyze before they move onto the ideation phase. But such research, on its own, can lack context, relevance and timeliness. Most importantly, you have no influence over what questions were asked.

On the other hand, exploratory research is meant to be flexible and creative. You can pretty much do whatever you want in order to gain insights and achieve a better understanding of your users. There are no strict guidelines – just remember to be ethical and keep your target user in mind. With the right mindset, you can turn it into a fun exploration challenge. If you’re really enjoying it, you just might dig a little deeper or look at a problem from a different angle, uncovering a hidden gem that will eventually manifest into a wonderful feature or solution.

Creativity is the heart of research. No matter your field, scholarly
work prizes novelty and innovation: identifying new problems
worth solving, explaining unexplained phenomena, solving problems
that haven’t been solved before, producing new interpretations of
important cultural or historical events, or developing new methods
to study the world. While creativity is a nebulous construct (kind of
a “you know it when you see it” thing), it is generally defined as the
ability to produce new ideas or solutions.

From the book: Creativity in Research Nicola Ulibarri , Amanda E. Cravens , Anja Svetina Nabergoj , Sebastian Kernbach

I really encourage you to look at exploratory research as a mystery game or puzzle – have fun with it! It can make a world of difference.

How to conduct exploratory research

Like we just said, exploratory research is flexible. There are no strict steps that you always have to take, no set formula to follow. There are methods that can help you and we’ll talk about those soon. For now, we’ll look at the questions that you want to answer and the general goals that you need to achieve – these should guide you when conducting your research.

Your three general goals are quite simple:

#1 Identify the problem. Exploratory research is used to condense your general topic or challenge into one or two specific problems that you’re aiming to solve. Your goal should be to define them as clearly as possible.

#2 Create a hypothesis based on the problem that you’ve identified. You can create more than one hypothesis.

#3 Prepare for further research. You’re going to use quantitative and qualitative research to test your hypothesis, ideate a concrete solution and make a plan to bring it to life through your design.

My user research guide will help you during this step.

It’s also helpful to answer some questions before starting your research. Below is a list of the most important ones. Answering them will give you a much clearer idea of how you’re going to conduct exploratory research.

  1. What are your research questions? What questions need to be answered to move the project forward?
  2. Which research activities will you use? What methods will you need to use?
  3. What participants do you need? What stakeholder groups do you need? How many people from each group?
  4. How will you find participants for each method? Can you offer an incentive?
  5. How will you account for bias? How do you identify and minimize your bias
  6. How will you capture your data? What equipment will you use? How will you store it?
  7. How will you analyze your data? What analysis methods will you use? Who will you need to seek help from to do this?
  8. What deliverables will you create? Who is the client/audience and what are their expectations?
  9. What resources do you have? What’s your budget and equipment? How much time do you have?

Exciting methods that you can use

I’d suggest using a combination of primary and secondary research for your exploratory studies. The focus should be on primary methods. You shouldn’t use only secondary research, as it has some limitations that we’ve already covered at the very beginning.

Just a quick reminder:
Primary research is data that someone collects personally, usually from a group of people gathered specifically for the study.

Secondary research is the analysis and synthesis of primary research that has already been conducted by someone else.

A quick diagram that illustrates which methods fall on which side:

Research - type - primary - secondary

You can use any number of methods when conducting exploratory research. I’ve covered some in my user research guide mentioned above, and I’ll also go through some exciting ones here. However, the sky’s the limit. If you think of an experiment that would help you to understand your problem and it’s not covered by traditional methods, by all means, go for it. That’s the beauty of exploratory research.

Leverage the power of the web

The internet can be used for so much more than just looking for sources and studies!

If you want to understand a certain problem, find a community that’s passionate about your topic. Start a discussion, ask them questions, read relevant threads from the past.

Reddit, Quora and similar discussion boards can really help you out. Be transparent, tell them what you’re trying to understand and you might find some eager ambassadors who are glad to help you design the best possible solution for them.

Another way of exploring your topic is to go through reviews of relevant products (your competition) or books about the subject. Note what people are saying and if you find a certain review particularly helpful or curious, contact the reviewer and ask them if they’d mind answering a few questions.

At the start of your research, you should also set up RSS feeds (or ask someone to do it for you) to get up-to-date info about your topic. You can also use Google Alerts to send you new major search-engine results via email.

Focus groups

Focus groups are moderated discussions involving around 5 to 10 participants, the intention of which is to gain insight into the individuals’ attitudes, ideas and desires.

Focus groups are great for various stages of user research and are still one of the most common and useful methods for exploratory research.

They show you where people stand on your issues. The open and natural discussion format of a focus group allows for a wide variety of perspectives in a short period of time. And because you are doing exploratory research, it’s perfectly fine to let the discussion run its course and see where it goes (as long as it doesn’t go completely off-topic). Exploratory focus groups can be more relaxed than usual, as you want to hear as much as possible about your specific topic.

Expert surveys

Expert surveys allow you to acquire more information on a field that you know little about. Let’s say that you want to design a solution for a certain ecological issue. The best way to go about it would be to create a preliminary expert survey for a group of ecology experts before asking your users about their opinion and stance.

It’s best to ask a broad, open-ended question if you want to receive a lot of information. Give the experts the freedom to demonstrate their knowledge and use it to create specific questions, hypotheses, and goals for further research.

This method is great for expanding your horizons and it often teaches you some fascinating things.

Contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a form of field research. It is a semi-structured interview method used to obtain information about the context of use. Users are first asked a set of standard questions, then observed and questioned while they work in their own environments.

For this one, you need to know who your users are and have an idea about what it is you’re looking for. Participants need to feel comfortable around you. Invite them for a coffee, discuss the topic at hand and then observe them as they go about their work.

Write down any interesting observations and questions and discuss them with the user after you’re done observing.

Contextual inquiries are really insightful and if it’s a method that you’re able to use in your research, you really should. It might help you to notice things that you’d never think about otherwise.

In-depth interviews

The good old in-depth interview. It’s one of the most common user research methods and for good reason – it is both cost-efficient and can gather a great amount of insightful data within a short period of time.

When doing exploratory research, think about using the 5 whys method. It’s as simple as it sounds – when the user is talking about a problem or a certain point of interest, ask “Why?” five times to get to its core.

Example:

We need to design a new website. > WHY? > Because our current website doesn’t convert. . > WHY? > It is very slow and ugly. > WHY? > We didn’t have money to invest in. > WHY? > We were’t profitable yet and we were not aware of the importance of the speed + design. > WHY? > Our CEO was micromanaging our decisions. And so on … 

Doing this might lead you towards the solution that you’re searching for.

As in-depth interviews can be time-consuming, you need to take extra care in selecting experts or users who you’re fairly certain are in your target market. As valuable as interviews are, they might not provide you with useful insights if you miss the mark with your interviewee choice. That’s why you might want to carry out another preliminary method first.

However, once you get a passionate person going about the topic in question, they can be a goldmine of insights. If you get the chance, conduct a few yourself and see what happens.

Exploratory research example: Duolingo

Duolingo-logo

Let’s see what exploratory research can lead to by looking at a very quick case study.

Imagine yourself wondering: “Why don’t people learn more foreign languages? What’s the problem?”

First, you’d do some preliminary research and come up with a list of insights similar to this one:

It’s important to learn and practice a new language as often as possible.
People stop learning because they don’t have time.
People stop learning because it starts to feel like a chore.
People stop learning because they lack motivation.
People stop learning because they don’t see short-term improvement.

I’m pretty sure that Duolingo, one of the most widely used language-learning apps with millions of downloads, had a similar list at the beginning.

There are no conclusive answers here, but the company probably created a hypothesis stating that most of the problems could be solved via gamification or gamified design.

Let’s see how this new information affected their design choices and the final product.

On downloading the app, Duolingo asks you to set a goal. A ‘regular’ goal is only 10 minutes of learning per day. Not bad, right? Suddenly, the “I don’t have time” excuse is hardly valid.

Duolingo - first

They designed the learning process to be as simple and intuitive as possible. Learning itself can be a chore, so using the app really shouldn’t be. This makes it easier to launch the app on a daily basis and breeze through the tasks given to you.

Duolingo . learning

Once you finish a lesson, the app shows you whether or not you’ve reached your daily goal. You also earn XP. These are both short-term progression trackers, but the best stat is the “fluency percentage”. Duolingo tells you that “You are now 7% fluent in Spanish!”. What does this even mean? Hard to say, but it sure feels good when that number increases and you can see a tangible, short-term progression towards your goal. That’s what keeps you going.

Duolingo completion rate

The most genius feature is probably the implementation of a daily streak. It persuades you to return every day and learn something new. Once you get a streak going, it fills you with pride. You’ve been learning Spanish for 30 days straight! It’s a nice feeling. You don’t want to break that streak and because you only need to spend 10 minutes maintaining it, you’re more likely to use Duolingo on a daily basis.

If you want to take a break, you can purchase an item that keeps your streak alive with your in-game currency (lingots). This ensures that you don’t accidentally break the streak and quit because you feel demotivated.

Duolingo app

Now, take a look back at the initial insights and see how they’re woven into the design. This is the difference that exploratory research has the potential to make. It can point you in the direction of a certain path – in Duolingo’s case, this was gamification – and affect your design and solution from the get-go.

I hope that this article has demonstrated why exploratory research can be both important and fun. It’s the most flexible stage of research, where you can experiment, look at a challenge from various angles, and get different opinions before you eventually choose which direction you want to pursue.

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👋 Oh hey,
I’m Romina.

Design strategy consultant. Founder of DesignStrategy.guide and NUEVA / design studio. Wife. Mother.

I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 15+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.

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