A Guide to Exploratory Research in Product Development

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    Home / Product / A Guide to Exploratory Research in Product Development

    “We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become – like the radium – a benefit for humanity.”

    Marie Curie on Exploratory Research

    As Marie Curie would approve, good research makes a huge difference for new discoveries, or in our case; new products.

    An indispensable part of every good research undoubtedly is Exploratory Research.

    This is the research that should happen before the product development process even starts to help you understand your potential users and what they need.

    But so many product development projects skip this step and start with a preconceived idea of what their solution is going to look like. This often results in products that nobody needs, nobody wants, and nobody uses it.

    But what exactly is Exploratory Research, how do you do it, and what difference does it make to product development? We will answer these questions in this guide.

    What is Exploratory Research?

    According to the market research giant Ipsos, Exploratory Research is:

    research that is initiated to clear and explore a topic, this can be a category, market segment, or for opportunities”.

    Put another way, Exploratory Research is when you look at a problem that has not already been extensively investigated and therefore is a bit of an unknown quantity. As a result, it is generally quite open-ended with relatively fuzzy objectives and methodologies, as these evolve as researchers learn more about the topic.

    Basically, it is research when you don’t really know what exactly it is that you are trying to learn.

    In product development, Exploratory Researchers generally want to learn things about users (or potential uses), their behaviors, and motivations. They want to know what they need in a certain area or market, and which of their needs are being unmet or under-met.

    This allows for innovation and the identification of new opportunities, and so feeds into the ideation stage of product development.

    what is exploratory research

    As such, Exploratory Research should take place at the very start of a product development process, which generally contains three stages of research:

    ●     Exploratory Research - which happens at the ideation stage to give the product team an understanding of users and their pain points in order to guide ideation.

    ●     Evaluative Research - which is done once ideas have been developed to stress-test their suitability in general and delve into specific issues that have been identified.

    ●     Iterative Research - which is generally done to refine and improve features, and includes activities such as usability testing and A/B testing.

    Also called Formative Research or Strategic Research, Exploratory Research basically means looking at a topic that you don’t already know about.

    How is Exploratory Research Conducted?

    A variety of different methodologies can be used to conduct Exploratory Research, which will be outlined below.

    Researchers will often need to experiment with methodologies as they do not know what they don’t know, and therefore where and how to focus their activity.

    As such, Exploratory Research lends itself to Agile working methodologies as it is something that evolves as the researchers learn more about their topic.

    While researchers often have an initial plan for how they will gather information, as they learn, they identify other areas that require investment and research. Thus, Exploratory Research lends itself to sprints.

    Exploratory Research includes both quantitative and qualitative approaches, which serve different purposes.

    Quantitative Research

    The purpose of Quantitative Research is generally to identify patterns, events, and problems that occur frequently.

    This reveals things that can then be looked at in more depth using Qualitative Research methods.

    Quantitative Research might include looking at raw data; such as website analytics, app usage analytics, statistics, and so forth. It can also involve looking at survey data but generally focusses on quantitive findings rather than qualitative feedback produced by open-ended questions. It basically relies on large amounts of data to identify statistically significant insights, problems, and anomalies.

    All of this is primarily used as orientating data.

    Qualitative Research

    While Quantitative Research can help identify the what, Qualitative Research then concentrates on the why.

    For example, a quantitative look at the data may identify that 70 percent of users do not use a certain key app feature. Qualitative Research then focuses on why that might be.

    While Quantitative Research relies on large data sets, Qualitative Research usually works with small datasets that have been identified as potentially representative of the issues of the larger population.

    According to the Nielsen Norman Group of researchers, you only need to engage five users to identify 80 percent of the issues that you would identify from working with 1,000.

    But approaches to Qualitative Exploratory Research rarely includes interviews, as people are notoriously bad about answering questions about themselves. They tend to misremember what they actually did, and they also have a tendency to tell interviewers what they think they want to hear. This behavior is known as Response Bias.

    Better ways to gain qualitative data at the Exploratory Research phase include:

    Ethnographic Observation

    A practice taken from Anthropology, this is when a researcher goes into a community so that they can observe what they actually do first hand, rather than rely on people from the community explaining it to them.

    This is considered infinitely superior due to every individual’s tendency to misconstrue things and the problem of assumed knowledge that leads to many misunderstandings.

    In the technology product development world, this generally means watching representative users as they use an existing product or complete related tasks in their own environment, so at home or at work.

    This kind of observation generally does not include much talking, as it is not an interview but the user might be asked to describe out loud what they are thinking or doing at the moment. Describing while doing is generally more reliable than reporting after the fact, though researchers also need to take what is said with a grain of salt and balance it against their first-hand observations.

    Participatory Design

    Better than a focus group, which also tends towards response bias, is getting people in for participatory design sessions.

    This involves getting small groups of potential users together and getting them to design potential solutions to their problems.

    The idea is not to get these users to come up with actual solutions, but to gain insights from the ideas that they come up with, and from observing the discussion between the users that led to the design solution.

    Expert Interviews

    This involves tracking down experts in the area that you are exploring and interviewing them, but not about themselves, rather about what they know of the area.

    The best example of this can be found in retail. You might have a digital product development team that is busy coming up with ideas for new instore digital tools behind the scenes. But one of their best sources of information is the front-line staff that deals with customers on a daily basis and observes them in the store.

    They have a unique insight into the area that is invaluable at the ideation stage when properly distilled.

    Extreme User Interviews

    One type of research that you may see researchers conduct interviews with users themselves is extreme user interviews.

    This involves tracking down the most extreme users in an area, such as early adopters, heavy consumers, and also laggards and those who staunchly reject adopting. The insight provided by these users is generally more useful for identifying gaps and opportunities than any insight provided by the majority user base.

    It helps you to identify the boundaries, and therefore push at them.

    how to do exploratory research

    6 Benefits of Exploratory Research

    OK, while that is how to conduct Exploratory Research, there is still the question of why? It also represents an expense at the start of the project, and a delay as you invest maybe three or four weeks in this activity. So what are the benefits?

    1- You’ll have better ideas

    In general, Exploratory Research means that you are generating better ideas, as you have a better understanding of the issues facing the market.

    That means that the ideas that you come up with are more likely to be successful, and therefore more likely to sell.

    2- You can focus your objectives

    When you know what your challenges are you are able to focus your objectives and focus on developing simple solutions that best meet needs.

    This means that you and your team are less likely to be pulled into creating expensive all-singing, all-dancing products that users often find overly burdensome.

    3- You’ll have better meetings

    Anyone who has ever been in a product development meeting knows how heated they can get with different teams and strong personalities disagreeing about what is needed and the best way to solve a problem.

    Everyone has preconceived ideas about what is going to be best. It can sometimes be hard to diffuse those discussions when it is simply one person’s word against another’s. But having Exploratory Research to draw on gives you the tools to constructively critique ideas in a way that team members are more likely to accept.

    4- You’ll reveal blind spots

    When we talk about the industry in which we work, or our pet projects, we all tend to have blind spots based on assumption.

    Exploratory Research allows us to shed light on those blind spots and check our assumptions, helping us respond better to actual user needs.

    5- You’ll avoid disastrous mistakes

    As well as revealing areas of opportunity for good ideas, Exploratory Research can help take bad ideas off the table as they are identified as non-issues or solutions that are inappropriate for what users actually need.

    This means fewer disasters further down the line when serious time and money have already been invested in the product.

    6- You’ll save time and money

    Ultimately, taking the time to do proper Exploratory Research at the start of a project actually saves time and money as the solutions that you are designing are more likely to be effective and meet a market need.

    You may able be able to narrow down your initial ideation project from four or five solutions to just one or two, focusing resources.

    Final Thought

    In a nutshell, good products fulfill a potential user’s needs in a way that is as simple and direct as possible. Exploratory Research is the key to understanding potential users and what they need.

    It can be easy to assume that some projects don’t require extensive Exploratory Research as they are within a well-understood market. But this assumption can be a mistake. If the needs of these users are so well-established, why has someone not already found a way to meet them?

    While for many projects you may have a significant headstart when it comes to understanding users, it is always a good idea to check assumptions and identify what you don’t know with Exploratory Research.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is Exploratory Research?

    Exploratory Research is where you dive into a topic without knowing what you're looking for to explore its full potential.

    When is Exploratory Research conducted?

    Exploratory Research should be conducted even before you start developing your product, to understand who your potential users are and what they want.

    Why should I conduct Exploratory Research?

    Exploratory Research is mandatory to form better ideas and reveal blind spots to reach the maximum potential of a product.

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