Exploratory Research Design: A Guide for Students

exploratory research definition and overview, explained below

Exploratory Research refers to the research methodology used when researchers have a limited understanding of the topic at hand and want to gain a broader perspective or more insights into the subject.

This type of research is conducted in the initial stages of a study when there is a lack of clarity about the problem. It may lead to subsequent studies that attempt to generate greater clarity on the findings generated in the initial, exploratory, phase, or to test hypotheses that the exploratory phase generated.

Definition of Exploratory Research

If you’re writing a research proposal, methodology, or essay in which you need to discuss exploratory research design, I recommend providing a scholarly definition of the topic.

Here are three solid scholarly definitions you could use:

  • “… research used to investigate an issue that is new, a problem which is not clearly defined, a topic on which there is little data” (Gozdziak & Chantavanich, 2022)
  • “… initial research conducted to clarify and define the nature of the problem. It is done to help diagnose the situation, allow for screening of alternatives, and discover new ideas.” (Hutchison, Allen & Macy, 2012)
  • “… the initial research into a hypothetical or theoretical idea. This is where the researcher has an idea and wishes to research a topic seeking to understand it more deeply. An exploratory research study is an attempt to lay the groundwork that could of will lead to future studies.” (Blecher, 2018)

Objectives of Exploratory Research

Exploratory research is generally conducted in order to generate initial data on a relatively unknown topic (Hammond & Wellington, 2013).

We could divide this up into a range of more specific objectives that you could state for your research project, including:

  1. Descriptive Data: Exploratory research often aims to provide a better understanding of a relatively unknown problem, phenomenon, or behavior by generating descriptive data (Cargan, 2007). This helps in establishing a clearer understanding of a topic and, consequently, gives subsequent projects the chance to dig deeper now that they have some baseline data.
  2. Generation of New Ideas: Through exploratory research, new ideas and perspectives can emerge that were not initially considered (Swedberg, 2020). An exploratory study often begins with an open mind, ready to reveal surprising, remarkable, and unexpected new ideas and insights. For example, researchers may conclude the study with a hypothesis for future research to examine.
  3. Determining the Most Appropriate Research Method: After getting a clearer idea of the topic, researchers can determine which research methods (e.g., qualitative, quantitative) would be most suitable for a subsequent, more detailed, conclusive research study.
  4. Clarifying Concepts: In generating descriptive datasets, an exploratory study can help in defining and refining ambiguous or unclear concepts, which can help to start to build foundational definitions and conceptual frameworks for the emerging body of literature on a novel topic (Tan, 2022).
  5. Establishing Importance: An exploratory study could also serve the purpose of demonstrating that a topic is worthy of larger-scale studies. So, researchers might conduct their exploratory study, and use its results to approach funding bodies. With the exploratory study complete, they will be armed with more data about the topic and informed evidence about the best way to approach it.
  6. Establishing Priorities for Future Research: By identifying key issues and questions, researchers can prioritize areas that need deeper investigation. Conclusions of exploratory studies usually provide recommendations for future studies, including by proposing hypotheses and prioritizing future projects.

Common Methods for Exploratory Research Designs

There is no one clear set of methods that must be used in exploratory design. A researcher should select the methodologies that would be most effective in meeting your research questions.

However, commonly, exploratory studies are shaped as small-scale qualitative designs. Qualitative research allows researchers to delve deep into a topic to generate high-quality, contextualized, and nuanced descriptive data. Qualitative data generally cannot create generalizable results, but it does help to create hypotheses that can be looked at with larger-scale quantitative studies.

Examples of exploratory research designs can include:

  • Expert Interviews: When exploring a relatively new phenomenon, researchers can speak to professionals or experts in the field to gain their perspectives. This perspective-taking, often taking the form of a delphi method focus group, can help researchers to better understand the key factors within a topic that will inform subsequent study designs (Raley et al., 2016).
  • Case Studies: Oftentimes, exploratory research looks at novel and rare phenomena. To begin to understand them, researchers need to look at them in depth. To do this, they may employ a case study design, which allows researchers to take a very in-depth examination of one instance (Lee & Saunders, 2017). This will, in turn, inform future studies that may look at a wider corpus that can create statistically relevant results.
  • Observational Studies: This involves observing and noting the behavior or situation of interest. There are multiple types of observational research, ranging from non-intrusive ‘fly on the wall’ observations to participant observations such as ethnographic studies.
  • Cross-Sectional Research: This is an example of a qualitative exploratory research design. Imagine researchers want to study an emerging health condition among a population. As it’s emergent, there’s no data yet, but researchers need to know how big a problem this is. To do so, they may conduct an initial cross-sectional study, which gathers statistically relevant descriptive data about how prevalent the condition is. This exploratory study won’t be able to determine cause-and-effect between variables, but it could from the basis and justification for subsequent studies.

A Hypothetical Example

Study Title: The relationship between urban green spaces and mental well-being

Explanation: In an exploratory study examining the relationship between urban green spaces and mental well-being, researchers could survey residents from various neighborhoods about their frequency of visiting local parks and their perceived stress levels.

Design: Since, hypothetically, little prior research exists on this specific topic, the team could employ open-ended interviews, allowing participants to share detailed experiences and insights. Preliminary data might indicate a potential positive correlation between regular park visits and lower stress levels. To gain a deeper understanding, focus groups could be conducted next, where participants discuss the therapeutic effects of nature, setting the stage for more structured, quantitative studies in the future.

Recommendations: Exploratory research usually provides recommendations for more focused subsequent studies. The researchers in this study might recommend exploring the supposed positive correlation between park visits and lower stress through a statistical analysis.

See More Exploratory Research Examples

Benefits and Limitations of Exploratory Research Design

Exploratory research design is very useful for providing initial insights into a topic, describing phenomena in detail, and exploring a topic without the predetermined constraints of mere hypothesis testing.

But it’s not the best research design in all situations. For example, it might not be ideal if you were seeking to achieve clarity on well-worn topics, generate generalizable results that add to existing literature, or contribute to a specific set of existing scholarly discourse on a topic.

Below are some strengths and weaknesses of this research design:

Strengths of Exploratory ResearchWeaknesses of Exploratory Research
Provides initial insights into a new or unclear topic.Not conclusive and tentative; often requires further research for validation (Hammond & Wellington, 2013).
Allows for preliminary data collection, which can help inform the development of subsequent questionnaires, surveys, etc. (Tan, 2022)May lack a structured framework, leading to varied results (Hammond & Wellington, 2013).
Can utilize a variety of methods (interviews, observations, surveys).Data tends to be qualitative, such as via case studies, making it harder to generalize (Morrison, 2022).
Tends to be open-minded and has less tunnel vision than studies with a narrow predefined scope (Hammond & Wellington, 2013)Often not sufficient for scholarly publication (Swedberg, 2020).
Aids in the formulation of hypotheses for future research.Smaller sample sizes may not represent the broader population.
Helps in identifying potential problems or areas of interest.Does not test specific hypotheses, so results are preliminary.
Can be conducted with a smaller sample size.May not delve deeply into specific areas of the topic.


Blecher, M. (2018). Israeli Settlements: Land Politics Beyond the Geneva Convention. Hamilton Books.

Cargan, L. (2007). Doing Social Research. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Gozdziak, E. M., & Chantavanich, S. (2022). Africans in Thailand. In Gozdziak, E. M., & Chantavanich, S. (Eds.). African Migration to Thailand: Race, Mobility, and Integration. Taylor & Francis.

Hammond, M., & Wellington, J. J. (2013). Research Methods: The Key Concepts. Routledge.

Hutchison, T., Allen, P., & Macy, A. (2012). Record Label Marketing. Taylor & Francis.

Lee, B., & Saunders, M. N. K. (2017). Conducting Case Study Research for Business and Management Students. SAGE Publications.

Morrison, A. M. (2022). Tourism Marketing: In the Age of the Consumer. Taylor & Francis.

Raley, M. E., Ragona, M., Sijtsema, S. J., Fischer, A. R., & Frewer, L. J. (2016). Barriers to using consumer science information in food technology innovations: An exploratory study using Delphi methodology. International Journal of Food Studies5(1). (Source)

Swedberg, R. (2020). Exploratory Research. In Elman C, Gerring J, & Mahoney J. (Eds.) The Production of Knowledge: Enhancing Progress in Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tan, W. C. K. (2022). Research Methods: A Practical Guide For Students And Researchers (Second Edition). World Scientific Publishing Company.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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