Delivering Fast and Flexible Exploratory Research at Scale

Know how exploratory research can help you create a bigger impact

5 min read

Table of Contents

Exploratory qualitative research is a critical part of how successful companies adapt to rapidly changing consumer behaviors and sentiments. If you are currently hiring outside agencies or using live video interviews for exploratory feedback, deploying more flexible qualitative technology could help you scale up exploratory learning and make a bigger impact. In this article, we will examine how insights teams, both large and small, can level up their exploratory qualitative research and successfully integrate it with more confirmatory survey research.

What does exploratory research at scale look like?

Before diving into details, I thought it might be helpful to share a story about a company that scaled its exploratory qualitative approaches. This company had a small team of market researchers focused on research for both the core business and innovation. Research technology included a subscription to a survey platform and dashboard access to research participants through a 3rd party sample company. They occasionally hired outside agencies for exploratory research, but the cost was too high to handle all of the new initiatives the company had.  

Given the rapidly changing product landscape, senior leadership recognized the need to get a lot closer to their target buyers to be successful. While surveys were great at testing ideas, it wasn’t giving them the exploratory capabilities they needed to really focus their efforts. After adopting agile qualitative technology, they went from a few studies a year to one to two studies each month. In the first year, they could vet 12 new opportunity areas, narrow it to 5 new product concepts and bring two concepts forward through product development. They increased the number of studies by 10X and cut their research timelines from outside agencies in half. 

Whether your company has a big research department or a small one, building in-house qualitative capabilities represent a huge opportunity to inform more decisions and increase your research impact within budget constraints. In-house capabilities may not replace hiring outside agencies for large-scale qual+quant studies like segmentation or product testing. But, if you are looking for insights to help guide stepwise decisions as you build new products, services, marketing programs or experiences, this is a must-have. 

The challenge with live video interviews

During the pandemic, everyone became comfortable with Zoom, and it became an obvious gathering place for one-on-one or even group interviews. However, the logistics of live video interviews create challenges to conducting this kind of research at scale. 

When you think of my prior example of a research department of two conducting two qualitative studies a month, you quickly see how a team can get maxed out in terms of time. Even if you outsource recruiting participants, you have hours of time conducting the interview and then reviewing transcripts or video files for analysis. Not to mention the time for your team if they observe the interviews as well. And what if there is homework like having the participant go shopping or capture usage of the product? More video and analysis. Want to know how many participants liked or disliked various concepts? You need to tally those results manually. The hours pile up and soon, you realize your team doesn’t have the bandwidth to do so this research very often. 

Technology to scale exploratory research

Just like survey research technology transformed with easier-to-use technology from a sample through reporting, qualitative research technology has gone through a similar journey. Leading platforms simplify data collection and analysis to facilitate iterative in-depth learning. And modern qualitative research platforms make it possible for client-side teams to conduct the research themselves, enabling more direct collaboration with the people they want to learn from.  

Unlike survey technology, exploratory technology needs to facilitate understanding the context surrounding decision making, observing existing behaviors through a lens of understanding “why”, and identifying factors that are important to decision making.

Here are some examples of capabilities you will find in leading qualitative platforms:

  • Recruit up to 100 consumers for research in 24-48 hours.
  • Ask unmoderated private or shared group discussion questions.
  • Capture photos and self-recorded videos of shopping or usage experiences.
  • Mark up concepts with open-ended likes, dislikes, etc.
  • Collect survey or voting responses with automated charts, filtering, and comparisons.
  • Capture structured fill-in-the-blank stories for extended open-end feedback.
  • Set up live video interviews one-on-one or with groups.
  • Chat individually or with groups of participants as you learn (moderated discussions).
  • Engage participants over multiple days or build an ongoing advisory group.
  • Dashboard and PPT reports with charts, pinned quotes, word clouds, and sentiment analysis.
  • Video analysis tools to see transcripts within 24 hours and build a searchable video library.
  • Show reel creation that lets you highlight transcript text or search based on keywords/sentiment.

Setting your team up for success

Scaling exploratory research requires more than technology. It requires a team ready to dig in and learn as they solve problems. And it takes involvement beyond the research itself, so all stakeholders share in the process and outcomes. When talking to companies that successfully scaled qualitative research, here are the three traits they had in common. 

  1. Commitment from senior management to involve customers in the development process
  2. Willing to commit to technology to enable efficiencies
  3. Team excitement about an agile “test and learn” approach to development that includes engaging, learning, and iterating with consumers (vs. just validating decisions)

Fitting qualitative technology into your existing research program

Scaling qualitative research doesn’t mean throwing away all traditional qualitative methods. But it may require reevaluating your current spending to determine how to maximize your return on research investment. 

Here are some examples of the types of research where savings could be achieved by scaling your exploratory research: 

  • In-depth interviews as follow-ups to customer satisfaction research
  • Focus groups done before team workshops on new initiatives
  • Concept testing during the marketing or new product development
  • In-store or virtual shopping experience research
  • Qualitative communication checks
  • Research to understand new customer/prospect targets
  • Research to optimize a product or positioning strategy
  • Research related to jobs to be done, ideation, or roadmap development
  • Employee interviews or focus groups
  • Customer or User Experience exploratory research

Adding qualitative technology can also complement your current methods. Here are some examples of traditional research that could dovetail nicely with exploratory research:

  • Social media listening or trend analysis
  • Customer Experience surveys
  • Volumetric or benchmark product testing
  • Segmentation research
  • Conjoint feature or pricing studies
  • Employee satisfaction tracking 
  • UX testing

Integrating qualitative and quantitative learning

Effective research teams are using online qualitative tools and survey platforms together to explore, build, iterate and validate. One common example is the rapid exploration and development of a new product for an existing or new target consumer. Teams start with digital qualitative to capture context and usage information from potential target audiences in preparation for a team ideation session. Based on the initial ideation discussion, several participants were selected and scheduled for live video interviews. Ideas are flushed out and taken back into a larger group for feedback and optimization. The best ideas are optimized based on the qualitative feedback and quantitatively tested and possibly benchmarked to past survey results. 

What to look for in an exploratory qualitative technology partner?

As you evaluate potential partners to help you adopt qualitative technology, there are several important considerations. First, you want to make sure the platform itself has the capabilities you need. This can be about more than checking a list, but ensuring the platform is easy to set up and use and has the reporting capabilities to help you compile and act quickly from the research. Second, you want to make sure you have a way to bring in the participants you need for research studies. Does the platform provider offer you direct recruiting capabilities? What can they do to ensure high quality research participants? And how quickly can they get them for you? Finally, you want to make sure your partner has the expertise to help you get the most out of the platform. What kind of training do they provide? Do they have a dedicated customer success team or expert research consultants to guide you? Do they offer design, moderation, and reporting services for more complex studies? 

Tips and tricks for applying exploratory research at scale

This article gave you a brief overview of why you may want to supplement live video interviews with qualitative technology to speed up your data collection, analysis, and decision-making process. Talking to organizations who have succeeded at making this transition, here are a few tips and tricks. 

  1. Start small with a single pilot project to prove the value. Choose a project with enough visibility to generate excitement but not so mission-critical people won’t consider a new approach.
  2. Get the extended team involved in the learning. Conduct daily team “stand-ups” within the Qual dashboard to discuss learning throughout your data collection and demonstrate the value of recontacting and iterating with participants.
  3. Peel off your most valuable participants for self-recorded or live video interviews to help build confidence in your sample quality and gain additional context. These are especially valuable in bringing your final report to life. 

Executive Summary

Online qualitative continues to evolve with new tools and technology. There has never been a better time to consider scaling up your qualitative capabilities. To learn more about agile research, check out this whitepaper.


  • Monika Rogers

    Monika leads a team of world-class researchers as a VP of Client Services at Illuminas, Wisconsin. She is also an Executive Advisory Board Member at the Wisconsin School of Business. She has been the CEO and Co-founder of an exploratory research platform, Digsite, recently acquired by QuestionPro. Monika has more than 20 years of marketing, innovation and market research experience, including positions at General Mills, Pillsbury and the A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.