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# Exploratory Research Guide

Exploratory research creates a deep understanding of your customers and their everyday lives to supercharge innovation.

# Exploratory Research Defined

Whether you call it problem space, generative, or ethnographic, exploratory research is a next-level way to understand the real-life context of your fellow humans. It's a style of research that allows you to understand who a person is, what they do, and how they feel beyond the screen.

Exploratory research is the starting point when you are developing a new product or a new feature. By understanding lived experience in-depth, it's possible to understand people's habits, get a sense of new etiquette or rituals, and hear about how they frame the issue. Adding exploratory research to product development can make your process more focused and more innovative.


SoundingBox has a built-in, easy-to-customize template to get you started with your exploratory research project. Just sign up and start building your exploratory research study. No credit card required.

This guide will show you how to bring exploratory research into your design process and how to translate ethnographic-style observation, in-depth interviews, and other creative methods into the online world. Here we'll get you started and gives you resources for further reading to grow your expertise.

# The Roots of Exploratory Research

Exploratory research is grounded in the social sciences. While experimental research in psychology, like the Invisible Gorilla Experiment or the Stanford Prison Study, is more well-known, the flip side of social sciences research is exploratory. Rather than having a hypothesis and testing that through experiments, exploratory research in the social sciences collects data looking for patterns. You might hear about it in connection with grounded theory where data is collected gradually until a hypothesis takes shape.

Ethnography is another source of inspiration for exploratory research. Ethnography is a branch of anthropology that explores culture through a personal point of view using methods like participant observation and diary studies. You might think about Margaret Mead and her famous work Coming of Age in Samoa or something closer to home like danah boyd's book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

Corporate anthropologists have been around for a while, especially at big tech firms like Intel and Microsoft, but exploratory research took off in the last decade. Futures consultancies like Sparks and Honey and marketing agencies like Havas and Fjord use the technique to spot trends. In the UX world, design thinking think tanks like Stanford and IDEO adapted the approach to identify new opportunities and develop more impactful products.

Whether exploratory research is used to go deep on customer insights or to spot trends, it's a way to gain a new perspective. It's the crucial first step in the design thinking process—empathy.

# Why Exploratory Research is Essential

In today's crowded product space, it's hard to stand out. Lots of products seem to follow others. But how do you innovate?

In most organizations, evaluative research is the norm. Usability testing helps teams move from prototype to finished product. A/B testing can fine-tune the experience to balance user goals with business metrics.

Exploratory research, on the other hand, is often skipped. Perceived as time-consuming or costly, teams breeze right past it to design. That's a shame because exploratory research gives companies the edge in innovation. And, online remote research tools (like SoundingBox) make it more cost-efficient and quicker than ever.

Exploratory research has three critical goals.

  1. Define a problem

    Exploratory research gathers preliminary qualitative data, through interviews and observations, to create a better understanding of the problem and suggest a design direction.

  2. Describe the issue

    It can also be a way to gather personal stories, curious rituals, new behaviors, and analogous experiences. Exploratory research can fill in the blanks.

  3. Look for new connections

    Even when there's already a lot of in-house knowledge or background research available, exploratory research can develop new connections between what's known and what's new.

Another way to think about exploratory research is this—it's strategic. Evaluative research is tactical. Usability and A/B tests reveal changes you can make to the design to optimize the outcome, whether that's a clear message or an easy-to-use process. That's important but it can also mean that thinking outside the boxes and arrows is more difficult. Exploratory research takes on the big questions. Not just how to design a site, but why.

# How to Handle the Naysayers

Exploratory research is an unfamiliar territory For many companies. That can make it hard to convince your boss about the value of it. The best approach to getting buy-in is to have open conversations with stakeholders to understand their hesitation.

If you want to anticipate those objections and present a good counter-argument for going ahead with exploratory research, we've got you covered. Here are a few of the most common objections:

"It's too time-consuming." This is a perfectly valid objection for the days when in-person fieldwork could involve a lot of travel, securing permissions to enter people's homes or workplaces and take weeks to unfold. Now, it's not as much of an issue even if travel and meeting in-person were an option. People can self-document using a mobile recording tool like SoundingBox.

"It's too expensive." Again, in-person fieldwork was once a costly commitment. With mobile ethnography and remote interviews, the expense is comparable to user testing or other online studies.

"It's too few people." Qualitative researchers often encounter this objection. For this kind of research, it's not about generalizing to a segment of the population though. Instead, the goal is to uncover deep human truths or discover new sources of inspiration.

"The value isn't clear." We're living in a time where emotions matter, where new behaviors are emerging every day, and where there is no shortage of unknowns. The exploratory is absolutely necessary to survive and thrive in the new economy.

Once you've got the go-ahead. The next phase is to plan and conduct the research.

# Exploratory Research Step-by-Step

Exploratory research typically kicks off the design process. In design thinking, this is the "empathize" phase that's the foundation of all the work to come. Exploratory research doesn't always come first though. Anytime there's a new question about your customers, their lives, or the products they use, it can be a good fit for exploratory research.

As research goes, the process isn't much different from other kinds of research.

# 1. Deciding on a Research Objective

The first step in exploratory research is determining the goal. Just because the research is open-ended, doesn't mean you can skip this part. For any research project, think about some of the following issues:

  • What questions are you trying to answer?
  • What answers are you expecting?
  • What decisions will you make based on the research?

If you preface your goals with words like "uncover" or "understand" or "learn" rather than "evaluate" or "test", you're in exploratory research territory. Once you know that your goal is exploratory, you can get more specific about what you want to learn and the questions you want to answer.

A good research objective should specify what you want to learn and how you're going to study it. Beyond that, you'll need a plan.

# 2. Create a Plan

Once you've established your objectives, you can start to fill in the details.

  • Background research and stakeholder interviews to make sure you factor in in-house competencies and previous work.
  • A breakdown of participants to recruit. Ideally, you'll want to find people who match up with your objectives. For exploratory research, it's better to focus on behaviors rather than demographics
  • A summary of research objectives that addresses what you want to learn and how you are going to go about it.
  • A statement about the methodology and why you've selected it. For example, the method could be a remote study that captures video from people's everyday lives and collects answers to open-ended questions to fill in the story behind those moments.
  • A timeline of when the research will take place, how much time will be devoted to analysis, and how results will be shared.
  • A study plan that outlines instructions, activities, and questions for participants.

# 3. Develop the Guide or Study

An interview guide and an online study share a lot in common when it comes to exploratory research. Typically, the guide is structured in three parts: an introduction, the activities and questions, and the wrap-up.

  1. Introduction

    The most important goal for the introduction is to make sure the participant is comfortable and knows what to expect. In-person, you need to introduce yourself and the topic to the participant and give the participant time to ask questions. Online, it's not much different but it does need a little more planning. Since the give-and-take of a face-to-face meeting isn't an option, you'll need to reproduce the ease of a conversation and anticipate questions. Introduce the topic, outline what the participant will discuss or do, and answer common questions.

  2. The Experience

    One way you can plan this part of the study is to go back to your research objectives. For each objective, create 3-5 questions. For each objective, make sure to include a framing question where the participant can tell you what they do or feel and an elaborating question where they can tell you a story or give you an example. Another way to structure the study is by each goal. This might be an inventory where participants list or show you everything they do related to a topic. It could be a process where they go through an activity step by step. It may also be a reflection where participants think back on an activity to explore memories and motivators. In SoundingBox, we pull together sets of questions into blocks to make it easier to create studies.

  3. Wrap-up

    The wrap-up is a time for participants to reflect back on what they've said and confirm, elaborate, or fill in any gaps. You'll want to make sure to include a few summative questions. It's also a time to make sure that they know their contribution is appreciated.

# 4. Conduct the Research

Before you put it in front of people, you'll want to pilot the study yourself and with your team to make sure you've got the flow just right. This is especially important for an online study, since there's no way to circle back to issues you missed. You can even plan to do the research in waves, where you start with a small group and then do another round with more people.

Once you're ready to launch, it's a good idea to monitor the responses as you go. One reason is to catch misunderstandings as you go along and make adjustments. Another reason is to begin immersing the team in responses, which will be rich, descriptive, and detailed. Even if you have included simple questions, the amount of video and audio or text responses takes some time to synthesize.

# 5. Analyze

Analyzing qualitative data is all about finding patterns. If you are going through in-person interviews, analysis means reviewing transcripts and tagging topics for pain points, motivations, and other themes. You may do this for online research too, but automated analysis can help do some of this work. Automated analysis on video, text transcription, or open-ended responses can be the first step to identifying themes. Once you've collected the patterns, you can develop these into "How Might We" statements. HMW statements are a technique from design thinking to move from insights to design.

# 6. Present

After the study is closed, the hardest part starts—taking action on your research. More often than not, research concludes with a report that ends up in a manager's inbox or gets covered in a short meeting. Then, that's the end of it. What you really want is to get the team excited about what comes next. The best way to present research is to make sure it's surprising, actionable, and fun.

  • Keep it short, so that people can get the gist quickly. Be sure to have in-depth information at the ready too.
  • Make it visual, include videos, images, and quotes to bring the research to life.
  • Give concrete recommendations by matching each issue with a path to address it.
  • Activate creative thinking, end with big questions that stimulates new approaches.

Make sure that the team has access to the data itself and a summary or a report to refer to later, but use the presentation as a way to move forward to design.

# Further Reading

  • Jane Fulton Suri's Little Book of Design Research Ethics is a gem of a book. Don't let the concise format fool you—it's an invaluable guide to conducting research with respect, honesty, and responsibility. The book is free on IDEO's website.

  • Global tech ethnographer Tricia Wang's TED talk, The Human Insights Missing from Big Data, considers how exploratory research can complement analytics and other big data.

  • Jan Chipchase might be best known for popularizing "What's in Your Bag?", a popular design activity that unearths insights by asking people to empty their purses and backpacks. He also gave a fascinating TED talk about The Anthropology of Mobile Phones and published The Field Study Handbook, a reference guide to running international ethnographic-style research.

  • Mixed Methods podcast, hosted by Aryel Cianfione, mixes interviews with industry experts with experiments and other stories of design research in the field.

  • If you want to dig deeper into exploratory research, Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector blends theory with practical advice. Written by corporate anthropologist, Sam Ladner's book is a great resource for the process, start to finish.

  • Ethnography Matters covers everything from practical tips for conducting exploratory research to research studies on public health and internet culture.