An exploratory study: definition, features and an example

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When researching a topic, it's essential to use the right technique to ensure the information you collect is accurate and relevant. Certain research projects are very broad and require additional research before fully addressing the topic. Using exploratory research studies enables you to investigate a topic that other researchers may not have studied in depth. In this article, we define exploratory studies, provide an overview of the typical features and research techniques and outline the steps you can take to perform an exploratory research study, with an example study for you to review.

What is an exploratory study?

An exploratory study is a research process that investigates topics or subjects other researchers have not yet studied in depth. It's often qualitative, though exploratory studies with a large sample can also be quantitative. Exploratory research is critical for numerous fields, such as medical and scientific research.

Exploratory studies are generally not conclusive but help form a basis for subsequent investigations into new topics or subjects and allow other researchers to find more specific data in the future. Another name for exploratory research is interpretive research due to its flexible and open-ended nature. When researchers come across new data or insights, it may be necessary to change the research methodology to accommodate changes when they arise.

Related: What are the different types of research methodology?

Features of exploratory studies

Exploratory research differs from other forms of scientific research, and recognising this methodology's particular features can help you establish which type of research a topic may require. Here are some of the traits of an exploratory study:

  • generates non-conclusive results

  • adapts to new information

  • explores new or vague topics or phenomenon

  • is flexible and adaptive

  • produces qualitative or subjective data

  • provides a foundation for future research

  • requires little monetary investment

  • has no definite structure

  • answers questions such as 'Why?' and 'How?'

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Exploratory research techniques

Conducting exploratory research requires a particular methodology and understanding of a subject. Researchers typically separate exploratory research into two categories: primary and secondary research methods. Primary research is data that researchers collect directly from an experiment or topic, while secondary research is information from a secondary source such as a case study. Here are some of the main exploratory research techniques for both primary and secondary research:

Primary research techniques

Here are some primary research techniques:

Observation

Observation is the direct study of a subject or event to gather qualitative data. Qualitative data is subjective as researchers collect this information using their judgement. Using the above example, a doctor may observe the patient and notice that the patient has a fever but no longer has a rash, or they may notice a behaviour change when prescribing a higher dose of the drug. Observation can help you understand more about how objects or subjects react to factors such as their environment or physical characteristics.

Related: What is primary research? (A definitive guide with tips)

Interviews

An interview is a personal meeting with a subject in which one person asks another individual research questions. For example, a patient taking part in an experiment to test new drugs may experience side effects. The doctors researching the drug may interview the patient to understand more about the drug's effects according to the patient's opinion. This equips you with direct, subjective data on the topic. Researchers can use this data to form conclusions, identify patterns and recognise potential problems that may arise.

Surveys

Surveys enable you to collect data from multiple subjects. Surveys can be brief or detailed, according to the requirements of the study. When testing a new drug, for example, it may be necessary to send people a survey if they cannot visit the lab for direct observation.

Focus groups

A focus group is a research tool where you gather information from a moderated group discussion. Researchers typically group individuals to form focus groups or subjects according to the characteristics or traits they share. A focus group enables you to collect data on behavioural patterns or characteristics. They're also helpful in understanding why particular groups may display noticeable traits, such as specific behaviours or characteristics. For example, you may study the effects of the same drug on only men under 35 or women over 40 to better understand how age and gender influence the drug's side effects.

Related: How to conduct action research (including best practices)

Secondary research techniques

Here are some secondary research techniques:

Literature

Literature is an important secondary source of information. Researchers may use literature to understand more about a topic and learn about the previous work of other researchers. Literature can be more reliable than some online resources and allow you to review the bibliography and examine its sources.

Digital resources

Researchers frequently use digital or online resources to investigate a topic. This may include e-books, web archives, active websites, databases or other resources they can access online. There are many useful resources and information you can find on the internet. It's also useful to connect with subjects or other researchers worldwide.

Case studies

A case study is an in-depth analysis of a person, group or event. You can review existing case studies to form a conclusion about any likenesses or dissimilarities in control groups. Case studies help to develop a basis for research and discover existing trends. You may even share the findings from your research in a case study for subsequent researchers to use in the future.

How to conduct exploratory research

When conducting exploratory research, it's essential to follow a particular set of steps. This helps you to ensure that you employ the correct techniques and adhere to a scientific methodology. Here are the steps to conduct an exploratory study:

1. Determine the problem

Determine the problem or subject you're going to explore. This may be to find a solution to a complex problem, develop a methodology or discover patterns and trends in particular groups of data sets. Answer to the what question, 'What is it you aim to achieve with your study?'

Related: A guide to interview methods in research (with examples)

2. Form a hypothesis

Once you're clear about what you hope to achieve with your research or determine which problem you hope to solve, you can form a hypothesis. It's necessary to include details of what you think may occur during the study or what questions you can answer in your hypothesis. For example, if you would like to understand which type of customer purchases a company's products, you may ask questions like, 'What comparable products does the ideal customer buy?' or 'Who is our ideal customer?'

Asking questions can help you to form a hypothesis, which provides a basis for how you can measure the success of your research. If you state in your hypothesis that the company's customer base is women over 40, you can compare that with the actual results to reinforce or redefine your initial hypothesis.

Related: What is research design? (With a step-by-step guide)

3. Conduct research

The next step is performing primary and secondary research on your subject matter. Collect all the data you gather in a document you and others can review. Research studies typically require review by other researchers or an impartial group to confirm their accuracy and establish their validity in the larger scientific and research community.

Related: How to conduct market research (with types and benefits)

4. Form a conclusion

The conclusion of your study may either support your original hypothesis or require that you form a new one. Though an exploratory research study may produce superficial conclusions, you can use these as a tool to gather more definitive results in the future using a quantitative approach. You can compare your conclusions and compare them with your original hypothesis to determine if it's necessary to conduct further research.

Related: What is quantitative research? (With definition and uses)

Exploratory research example

Here is a short example of what exploratory research looks like:
Problem
Thirty per cent of the company's customers dislike the latest line of products.

Hypothesis
The new product line has lower-quality materials, and customers believe they get less value for their money.

Research
Researchers conducted interviews with 120 customers regarding the new line of products, and many said they disliked the new products because of poor quality. Researchers also noticed that testing at a high temperature caused a decrease in material integrity. The team noted that the new materials manufacturer cut costs by using lower quality ingredients in the manufacturing process.

Conclusion
The researchers conclude that the raw materials manufacturer for the new line of products uses low-quality materials, which negatively impacts product quality and results in customer discontent.

Related: Reliability in research (definition, types and examples)

Advantages of exploratory studies

There are several benefits of exploratory studies for researchers. Some of the main benefits include:

  • Flexibility: Exploratory research offers flexibility and can adapt to accommodate any changes that may arise during the research process.

  • Research basis: A study may provide a basis for subsequent research. Researchers may choose to adopt a quantitative approach to form a more definitive conclusion.

  • Diversity: Exploratory studies allow researchers to study a more diverse data set and explore a subject or problem from various angles. This can create more opportunities for additional research and result in a more diverse and comprehensive data set.

Disclaimer: The model shown is for illustration purposes only, and may require additional formatting to meet accepted standards.

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