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Exploratory research: what is it? (And 4 ways to implement it into your research!)

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 goal 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.

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 group 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 best not 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 behaviors 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 analyzing 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.

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