Informal Research is a research method that
- gathers data/information/evidence anecdotally or based on convenience rather than in accordance with the systematic methods prescribed by methodological communities.
- is directed by an investigator’s hunches and curiosity rather than a methodological community’s expectations and conventions.
- is unplanned, unstructured, and intuitive.
- is sometimes conducted as a trial run, a draft, a minimum viable product, with the understanding that if it produces intriguing results then the investigator(s) will commit more time, resources, and money to coduct a more robust study.
The term Informal Research is not widely used. In fact, frequently informal research is rarely covered in guides to research. Nonetheless, the practice of informal research is commonplace in our everyday lives.
Anytime we ask questions, speculate about possible causal or correlational relationships, or generalize from personal experience we are engaged in informal research. Informal research can be a fairly unconscious activity. In other words, informal research can be like breathing: We all breathe without thinking self consciously about breathing (at least most of the time). Likewise we often engage informally in research without really considering it to be research. For instance, we are engaging in informal research when we ask questions about topics and experiences, such as
- Why did this happen?
- Could I have avoided this or ameliorated it?
- How can I solve that problem?
- What’s going to happen next?
- If I do X will Y invariably happen?
We humans are inquisitive. We want to know why things are the way they are. We want to figure out if we can change things for the better. When possible, we want to be able to predict what’s next based on what’s happened in the past.
Typically, informal research is conducted for self-elucidation rather than wide dissemination. Most methodological communities dismiss informal research as too anecdotal, loosey goosey, touchy feely. Generally people conduct informal research as a way of thinking about about topics, problems, and applications we find are curious, surprising, interesting. Because we typically conduct informal research for ourselves as opposed to others, we rarely write up the results of informal research.
When we encounter a new occasion, an exigency, we may draw on our tacit knowledge, procedural and declarative knowledge to figure out if we have the knowledge we need to respond appropriately to the situation. Because we tend to be strategic about how we use our time — life is, after all, too short — we may first consider whether we’ve faced similar rhetorical situations and research questions before. We may check our knowledge about a topic (Procedural Knowledge, Tacit Knowledge, Rhetorical Knowledge) to see whether we have a hunch that might address a research question. We may access our intuition before reading what others have said about a topic or conducting our own original experiments. We ruminate. We speculate. We guess. And we reason from experience. If the occasion is fairly routine, chances are we already have the knowledge we need to respond appropriately.
Or, at times, rather than running on intuition alone, we may conduct a sort of mini-experiment. We may engage in research without fully committing to the sort of structured research methods a methodological community expects investigators to follow in order to develop valid knowledge claims.
People often conduct informal research as a trial balloon, a minimum viable product, a draft. If their intuition cannot solve the problem sufficiently, then they may engage in a full blown research study. For instance,
- an entrepreneur may asks his friends and family about an idea before engaging in real customer discovery interviews.
- to pilot survey questions, a researcher may ask a small sample to complete a survey and give feedback on the content and ordering of questions.
Yet there are occasions when we don’t have the knowledge we need, when we have to embrace a growth mindset and consciously engage in information seeking behaviors to better understand a topic or rhetorical situation.
Thanks to tools such as Google Scholar or access to databases on the Gated Web, it’s never been easier to engage in Searching as Strategic Exploration. Within moments we can access a firehose of information. Then, we can skim through scholarly conversations on a topic. Usually, that suffices: others have resolved our research questions.
Yet there are instances when the answers to our questions aren’t readily available. Sometimes, we need to do a bit of sleuthing on our own. At such times, when attempting to develop or vet a knowledge claim for an audience beyond ourselves we have two major ways of creating research: