Exploratory research

Exploratory research: how to use it to drive product development

Main illustration: Luke Waller

In today’s data-driven world, the idea of using research to build great tech companies has gone from being buzzworthy to expected.

User testing is now a must-do, thanks to the lean build-measure-learn mantra that inspires modern product development. It’s also been great to see exploratory research gaining ground as a strategy for identifying product opportunities.

At Intercom, exploratory research is often the starting point of our product development process. I use it extensively to help teams get at the heart of user problems, make product development more efficient and sustain the innovative heartbeat that’s core to our DNA.

What is exploratory research?

Exploratory research is research conducted for a problem that hasn’t been studied in length yet. Exploratory research helps to design research, select variants, and collect data.

Many tech companies use quantitative and qualitative research insights to inform product decisions. Quantitative research typically uses large sample sizes and analytics data to identify patterns within specific cohorts. It helps identify what problems might be present and how frequently that problem is happening. Qualitative research often uses small sample sizes to look at a specific audience’s motivations, anxieties and thought processes to understand why something is a problem and how you might fix it.

Exploratory research is one of three types of qualitative research. The three types of exploratory research work together to shape product development:

  • Exploratory research (also commonly called formative or strategic research) should happen before product development even starts. Its aim is to help you understand the motivations of a specific audience, why something is a problem for this audience and how you might embark on solving this problem.
  • Evaluative research tests the validity of different design directions, so it’s often used in the concept and design phases of product development. It helps you evaluate how well the design is solving the problem at hand and assess whether or not the design needs to pivot before it is released.
  • Iterative research helps you identify and fix usability issues within a design by repeatedly completing similar research studies until the design is perfected. It takes place during the last phases of product development, during the build and beta stages.

How research aids product development

If you’ve previously used research only for evaluative or iterative purposes, exploratory research design is going to feel different than what you’re used to. Because it takes place before the design phase, its deliverables won’t include design directions or usability suggestions. Instead, through interviews, focus groups, or case studies, you’ll get answers to research questions like:

  • What attracts our target segment to use our product? To use competitive products?
  • How does actual use compare to expectations?
  • What needs does this target segment have when using a product like ours? What gaps, if any, are there in our offering?

From these answers, you’ll develop a much better understanding of your users and whether their needs require innovative new solutions or improvements to existing ones.

How exploratory research drives innovation and efficiency

You might be thinking, “Sure, exploratory research sounds great, but is it really worth spending 2-3 weeks on exploratory research upfront when I could be getting a jumpstart on product development?” Here’s why we think upfront investment in exploratory research pays off in the long run.

1. Understand underlying motivations

Exploratory research insights are useful even when you feel like you have a solid grasp on the problem you’re trying to tackle. Self-driven perspectives are valuable but, more often than not, they rely on assumptions that can lead to blind spots. Exploratory research can remove those blind spots to help you better understand the problem you’re trying to solve before you get started.

Exploratory research can remove blind spots to help you better understand the problem you’re trying to solve

At Intercom, we encountered these blind spots when we first started brainstorming ideas around a conversation ratings feature. From our data, we knew customers wanted something like a Customer Effort Score, Customer Satisfaction Score, or Net Promoter Score. But while we knew what customers wanted, we weren’t sure why it was important to them.

Exploratory research revealed support managers relied on this data to not just understand how end users felt about the support they were receiving, but also motivate their team members to improve. As a result, our feature uses emojis to capture end users’ feelings and lets team members know about real time positive feedback as it comes in so they receive doses of encouragement throughout their day.

2. Align cross-functional teams

With blind spots removed, teams are less likely to run into organizational alignment issues. You know you have an alignment problem when your teams start holding argumentative, circular discussions about what users need. These discussions have a real cost as they tend to derail the project and push back timelines. They occur because different teams come in with strong convictions about how to best solve the problem, based on their knowledge of one slice of the customer experience. While diverse opinions are valuable in the right time and place, without data to better inform these hypotheses, arguments can go on and on with no end in sight.

Exploratory research is an extremely useful antidote to these kinds of issues because it provides a common vocabulary and set of insights to unite siloed teams. Teams can more easily reconcile opposite viewpoints and rally around a cohesive strategy when everyone shares a 360 degree view of the customer’s motivations and priorities. With exploratory research insights in hand, people are more likely to practice good, efficient product development.

3. Save product development time

Besides eliminating inefficient meetings, exploratory research has also shortened our product development timelines. Product teams sometimes forgo exploratory research because they fear it might slow things down and push out launches.

We’ve seen 2-3 weeks of research upfront saves weeks of product development down the line

But more often than not, we’ve seen 2-3 weeks of research upfront saves weeks of product development down the line. Not only does the research cut down on the number of meetings needed to get teams aligned, it gives our team more certainty that the solution they’ve developed will actually be effective. Instead of experimenting with, say, 4-5 solutions, teams have been able to focus on the top 1-2 solutions that get at the heart of our customers’ problems.

When to use exploratory research versus your gut instincts

Now, while I’m a huge advocate for exploratory research, I am first and foremost an advocate of creating good products and good companies. Successful product development can happen in so many different ways, and it’s true starting with research isn’t always the right approach. For instance, if you find yourself in a situation where your product is missing a feature commonly seen elsewhere or your company is behind on adopting a prominent industry trend, you can often quickly validate a product solution by doing some lightweight desk research or analysis of customer feedback. It’s healthy to encourage teams to be agile and act on their gut instincts for simple problems.

But when you’re faced with a fuzzy, complex problem space, or one where the direction of innovation simply isn’t clear, exploratory research can do a lot of the heavy lifting required to turn that problem into something that’s crystal clear to solve. By doing so, you help teams that love to create, innovate, and experiment thrive.

Do you enjoy solving problems with well-grounded research? We are actively hiring – check out our openings.

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