"Exploratory research" is a term used to describe research on a subject that has not yet been clearly defined. It is also sometimes loosely used as a synonym for "qualitative research," although this is not strictly true. Exploratory research helps to determine whether to proceed with a research idea and how to approach it. It is often flexible and dynamic and can be rooted in pre-existing data or literature. Exploratory research techniques are applied in marketing, drug development and social sciences.
According to DJS Research Limited, the principal use of exploratory research is to increase a researcher's understanding of a subject. It should not be used to draw definite conclusions, due to its lack of statistical strength, but it can help a researcher begin to determine why and how things happen.
Flexibility of Sources
Secondary sources, such as published literature or data, are commonly used in exploratory research. Other sources of information used in exploratory studies include informal discussions, formal structured interviews, pilot studies or case studies. These might involve customers, colleagues, patients or clients. Care should be taken to select a range of unbiased sources to give a broad and well-rounded understanding of the subject.
Exploratory research can be very advantageous in directing subsequent research approaches. A greater understanding of a subject helps hone subsequent research questions and can greatly increase the usefulness of a study's conclusions. This research is also very useful in determining the best approach to achieve a researcher's objectives. For example, exploratory research findings may indicate that one variable is a more consistent indicator of a medical condition than another, indicating this as an appropriate outcome to test in a future trial.
Exploratory research in some cases can save a great deal of time and money by flagging dead ends early. For example, in drug development, exploratory Phase II clinical trials give the expected treatment effect and adverse reaction profile of a drug in a small groups of patients before moving into larger scale trials. If the treatment effect is too small or the safety profile is unacceptable --- giving a low benefit-to-risk ratio --- drug development can be shelved early, saving the company millions (if not billions) of dollars.