GuidesResearch methodsA guide to exploratory research design

A guide to exploratory research design

Last updated

9 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Knowledge is power, especially when designing a new product or improving an existing one. You may have questions like who will use your product. What niche market needs this product? How will customers respond to the product? Where does the product need improving?

You can answer all of these questions through exploratory research. Learn how exploratory research can help you answer the questions leading to a satisfied customer experience.

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What is exploratory research?

When you're blazing a trail for a new concept, you need questions answered and problems solved. Exploratory research will help you better understand the problems and offer solutions you could focus on to transform the idea into reality.

What is an exploratory research design example?

When you have an idea about a new product, you're excited about the prospect that customers will be lining up at the door to purchase it. Before spending money on design and development, determine if customers will love it as much as you do.

You will want to conduct exploratory research to determine how people will respond to your product. Your data may show that your potential customers have a different opinion than you expected. Once you receive the data, your perception of how to proceed with the product's design will become more apparent.

Methods and types of exploratory research

Understanding the methods of exploratory research and how to reach potential customers can provide valuable data for product conception. There are two primary methods of conducting exploratory research: primary research and secondary research.

Primary research

Primary research involves direct interactions with your customer base. This could include conducting surveys, hosting focus groups, or one-on-one interviews. 

Primary research aims to gather first-hand information about your customers' needs, preferences, and opinions. You can gain valuable insights into their behaviors and decision-making processes by interacting directly with your target audience.

Secondary research

Secondary research involves gathering information that others have already collected. This could include conducting online searches, reviewing industry reports, or visiting the library to read books and journals. Secondary research aims to gather information that can help you better understand your target market and industry trends.

Exploratory research data collection

Gathering data about a new subject can be difficult. But exploratory research can make it easier by helping you focus on a specific topic and creating a clear hypothesis and problem statement. It also gives you an overview of the subject.

Exploratory research involves two types of data collection methods: primary and secondary research. Both methods follow the same model for data analysis.

Primary research methods

This research method involves communicating with people in different ways to gather information, including:

  • Observations

  • Interviews 

  • Focus groups

  • Surveys

You might have your product's models, drawings, or prototypes ready for testing. Then, you can gather a target sample group to interact with it. By observing their interactions and listening to their questions, answers, and comments, you can identify necessary changes to the product. This process will also give you insights into how customers will respond to it when it launches.

Exploratory research questions

Once you establish which primary research method you will use, tailor those methods to retrieve data that will answer questions about moving forward with your product. 

These questions can include the following:

  • Who will get the most benefit from using the product?

  • What features of the product will customers most likely use or not use?

  • Is the product easy to use or too complicated?

  • How can the product be improved?

Secondary research methods

This research method is limited in providing a detailed understanding of product performance among potential customers. Nevertheless, it can help you explore whether similar concepts have been tried before and their success rates. To gather such data, you can refer to these sources:

  • Case studies

  • Existing literature

  • Online sources

Characteristics of exploratory research

When exploring what type of data you require for your project, consider the characteristics of exploratory research. Check whether the following features align with your project's needs.

Difficult to quantify

It’s extremely difficult to quantify unstructured data. This data type does not typically contain common variables to compare corresponding data points to. However, quantitative data points can be pulled if studies are conducted with a large enough sample size. It just takes significantly longer to analyze. Still, unstructured data is more valuable because it's open-ended qualitative feedback that will help direct your project.

Low-cost, interactive, open-ended

Taking the time to budget for exploratory research has excellent cost-saving significance. The cost of designing and developing a product that may not do well on the market can be higher than what you spend when doing exploratory research.

And the research doesn't have to stop after one survey or one focus group. You can continue this type of interactive research with your target group or customer base throughout all phases of product development. This includes the design, manufacturing, market introduction, and customer experience phases.


Although it is time-consuming to perform exploratory research, this is nothing compared to the time you could waste producing a product that the public might not receive well. Take the time to construct exploratory research designs that will reap high-quality data with steps that include: 

  • Addressing the problems that you will need to solve

  • Identifying the target sample group

  • Designing the data collection format

  • Collecting the data

  • Categorizing the data into useful information

  • Incorporating the information into the design process

Depending on how extensive your target sample group is and what formats you use to collect the data, this also may impact how long it takes to get the information you need. 

For example, a survey format may take less time than an interview structure. And if you're surveying 15,000 people rather than just 1,000, this can take a while to receive and examine the results.

When to use exploratory research

Exploratory research can be used not only for product design issues but also to determine the ideal market target and improve customer experience with your product or service.

For example, suppose your business has a website or app. In that case, you can use exploratory research to determine user experience when customers use them. 

How to conduct exploratory research

In conducting exploratory research, here are the steps you can follow:

Step 1: Identify your problem

Regarding product design, the first step is identifying what obstacles, challenges, or motivations your product will solve for your customers to become viable in the market.

Step 2: Hypothesize a solution

Conducting secondary research on products similar to yours can provide valuable insights that can help you develop a successful solution. By examining the launch and performance of these products, you can generate hypotheses about what may work for your own product.

You may want to add features to your product that were considered successful or remove features that weren't.

Step 3: Design your methodology or process

Next, determine at what points and how you want to collect feedback on your product as you design and iterate it. Perhaps, surveys adequately produce the data you need at the conceptual phase, and running a focus group could be better before the alpha release.

The processes and methodology depend on your resources, team strengths, and at which points in the development process you need direction the most.

Step 4: Collect and analyze data

Analyzing the data collected is how we make our findings actionable. Techniques such as content analysis, thematic analysis, or grounded theory help identify patterns and themes in the data.

If we identify a theme where potential customers are consistently choosing our competitor over us, it may indicate a specific feature that they prefer. To address this, we should conduct further exploration and analysis to determine the reason for this preference. Based on our findings, we may need to build and design similar features to better compete with our rivals.

Sometimes, analyzing can show what may seem like disparaging data. Data that perhaps didn’t verify our concept but proved it nonviable in the market. But this is still data that can be acted upon. In fact, many big tech companies thriving today pivoted based on early disparaging data accordingly. These include Burbn going from just another check-in app to what Instagram is today.

Step 5: Avenues for future research

If the research that you did helps the design process of your product, you now have a proven avenue for future research in product design, manufacturing, market introduction, and customer experiences for your business. 

Advantages of exploratory research

Exploratory research provides significant cost-effectiveness and time-savings on projects. If a project is unsuccessful because you did not conduct exploratory research, it will lead to much more cost and time expenditures in the future. And once you have a proven exploratory research process established, it will be easier to do further research when needed.

Challenges of exploratory research

When doing exploratory research, flexibility is key. If you're unwilling to be open to the results, bias can factor into data interpretation, rendering the data useless. Also, if you haphazardly assemble a quick study with a small sample, the sample size may not represent the target audience.

The extra effort of exploratory research is worth it

Now that you know the significance of exploratory research and its impact on successful product development and customer experience, it's time to initiate your exploratory research design. And to organize your exploratory research efforts, find a platform that helps you store customer research, feedback, and insights all in one place.


What is exploratory research vs. descriptive?

Exploratory research studies unexamined topics or problems. Descriptive research describes the characteristics of a subject to compare and contrast with other subjects observed in the same study.

Which exploratory research is the quickest and least costly?

Secondary research methods are the quickest and less costly. However, they do not offer comprehensive or specified information that will help develop a product design. Primary research methods can be more expensive than secondary ones but still possible to conduct on a budget.

Which type of research design takes the longest?

Primary research takes the longest because of the necessary steps to collect the information you need. It also depends on how wide of a net you cast to collect the data. The more people involved in surveys, focus groups, and interviews, the more time it will take to extract and analyze the data.

What is the sample size of exploratory research?

The sample size is the number of people participating in your exploratory research design. The sample size should be representative of the target audience for your product.

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