When you’re looking for answers, wanting to make changes or fix something in your life, you need the right information to help you decide what to do.
But how can you ensure that you find good answers quickly and easily? The answer is to use informal research methods.
The best informal research methods include asking quality questions, drawing on prior experience and knowledge, using guesses and hunches, having conversations, conducting surveys, reading documents, searching on the internet, running mini-experiments and doing a trial run.
Let’s look at these informal research methods in more detail.
Informal research methods
Informal research is generally unplanned and unstructured, and driven by personal curiosity.
It’s good for finding quick answers and making rough judgements, and is often guided by hunches and convenience.
It doesn’t follow an exact approach, but there are some common methods that tend to be used.
1. Asking questions
All research, whether formal or informal, starts with asking questions about a topic.
Our curiosity leads us to wondering about where things are right now, how things work, why they exist, when they were created, who uses them, and what comes next.
Asking questions can be a powerful tool for research, but also sparks learning, triggers innovation and uncovers potential risks.
According to the Socractic Questioning approach, there are six main types of questions you can ask to make sure you’re thinking along the right tracks:
- Clarification e.g. What does this mean? OR Can I find an example?
- Challenging assumptions e.g. What assumptions am I making? OR What would happen if… ?
- Reasoning & evidence e.g. Do I have enough information? OR Can I back up that evidence?
- Alternative viewpoints e.g. How else could I look at this? OR How is this different from …?
- Implications & consequences e.g. How could this affect me? OR Does that data make sense?
- Questioning the question e.g. Why does this question matter? OR Can I ask this question a different way?
Using the Socratic framework or simply asking “where, what, how, who, when, why” type questions can help lead you close to the answers you need.
To demonstrate these informal research methods, we’re going to use the example of someone who is new to meditation, and wants to explore it further and decide if it’s something they want to try.
Questions they might ask:
- What is meditation
- How does meditation work?
- Is there evidence for meditation’s effects?
- What are the different types of meditation?
- Are there any drawbacks or risks of meditation?
- What alternatives are there to meditation?
The idea here is to find a place to start with your informal research, and then as you uncover more information, keep creating new questions and finding answers to those in turn.
From my life – I have been curious for as long as I can remember, and have something of a reputation for asking “pointy” questions. But all this means is that I like to understand my own thinking, and to make sure that I have the full picture of a situation before drawing conclusions and making decisions.
I don’t ever want to feel that someone else is doing my thinking for me, or making up my mind for me, because I’m the one who has to live with the consequences of my choices.
2. Drawing on prior experience or knowledge
The next thing you can do when doing informal research is to reflect on your previous experiences and existing knowledge.
You have a lifetime of “stuff” that’s happened to you, and you may very well find that as you ask questions about the topic, you’ll recall things you’ve read in the past, snippets of conversations or passing events.
You may very well already have the information you need buried in the recesses of your brain, and just need the focus that questions bring, to draw it out.
To get this working well for you, take a moment or two to reflect on:
- Similar situations you’ve encountered in the past
- Subject matters that you’re familiar with that are related to or resemble the current topic
- Conversations you’ve had with people who were more experienced in the subject than you
- Events or occasions you’ve attended where the topic came up
Going back to our meditation example, perhaps our informal researcher might remember, while reflecting:
- Spending half an hour in a flotation tank during a day spa session, ten years ago
- Enjoying finding a quiet place to hide a child and using the time to imagine all kinds of wonderful adventures
- Keeping a diary as a teenager, and find it hard to know what to write
- Going to a yoga class with friends for a few months
- Talking to a neighbour about her mindfulness practice
- Losing track of time while colouring in an adult colouring book that someone gave them as a gift
- Doing a guided meditation as part of a well-being session at work
- Feeling very relaxed during a massage, as gentle music played in the background
- Watching a documentary on people who used natural approaches to heal their illnesses, and some of them talked about meditation
Although you might initially not realise that all of this is relevant, as you ask your mind to find these moments, you’ll most likely discover all kinds of useful pieces to add to your understanding of the topic.
From my life – I tend to spend a lot of time “mulling” over things. Being an introvert, I’m quite comfortable in my own company, and like to chew over my thoughts and experiences to see what comes out.
I’m constantly surprised by the synchronicities and connections that occur to me as my thoughts, feelings and even bodily sensations roll around my brain. I also find that as I’m looking into a new subject, that old memories and experiences just pop into my head, so it’s good to practice noticing these as they happen.
3. Using guesses and hunches
Informal research is not going to be subject to peer review or intense scrutiny, so it’s OK to make wild guesses, follow your hunches and listen to your intuitive nudges.
Some of the best discoveries have been made through these types of exploration and happy accidents, like the invention of the modern sewing machine after a dream by Elias Howe or the invention of penicillin after Alexander Fleming went on holiday and a fungus killed the bacteria in his lab dishes.
To make use of your guesses and hunches as you do your informal research, you’ll need to:
- Practice noticing the quiet thoughts and gentle nudges from your brain
- Start brainstorming ideas when you get stuck and don’t know where to go next
- Never discard any idea as “too silly”, because it might just be the next step you need
- Be open to the idea that the answer you need might look nothing like what you’re expecting
- Follow any threads or ideas that interest you as you explore, and see where they take you
“We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.”
Our meditation neophyte might use this approach in their research by:
- Clicking on an ad for a local meditation studio, when it comes across their social media newsfeed
- Noticing someone’s passing mention of their experience with a new type of meditation called “Eco Meditation” and find themselves on a website reading all about it
- Reading about sun gazing in a blog post and tracking down a book about it
- Wondering if it’s possible to meditate while doing dishes or cleaning the house or eating dinner and giving it a try
Being open to speculation, guessing and intuition as valid sources of information opens us up to a wider range of possibilities, so we can be sure we’re seeing all of our options.
From my life – I love following the threads of the things that catch my mind’s “eye” as I’m learning about something new. Sometimes the best discoveries I’ve made were from tiny offhand remarks or passing references, and when I follow them, I find myself in a whole new world of possibility.
I still sometimes catch myself about to discard an idea because it seems too “out there”, even for me, but just because I think something seems strange or unlikely doesn’t make it any less valid as an idea. It just means it’s new to me.
I also found that the best way to practise hearing the nudges from my intuition is to try on small things that don’t really matter, like “which way to drive home” or “which brand of hummus to buy”. It doesn’t really matter if I get it “wrong” but it helps me get better at hearing my inner guidance.
4. Having conversations
Asking others what they think about a topic can be a great way to get new perspectives and uncover new avenues to explore.
What we’re doing is just chatting to someone who (or may not) have any experience on the subject, and seeing what light they can shed.
You have to be a little discerning, and take into account a person’s background and motivations, so you’re in a better place to know what to ignore and what to take further.
This could take the form of:
- A conversation with a friend or family member
- Talking to someone from a business in the field, whether over the phone, at a trade show or at a social event
- Informal interviews, where you find people to speak to who are likely to have something relevant to say, ask them some standard questions, and then explore the ideas further with them, taking notes as you go
The idea here is to draw on the knowledge and experiences of others to help you shape your exploration of the subject matter.
In researching meditation, our subject might do some of the following:
- Talk to a friend who’s been attending a local meditation group for the last six months
- Ring up a local yoga studio and ask them to explain the benefits of meditation, and how it all works
- Go along to an expo on spirituality and metaphysics, and speak to stallholders who offer meditation practices
- Arrange to visit a meditation class, and get permission to interview the attendees about their experiences
By speaking with people who have some experience in the area, whether personal or professional, we get first-hand accounts of their views on the topic.
From my life – Being an introvert, reaching out to people is not something I do naturally. But I certainly will ask my close friends about their experiences with something, if I think they’re likely to be familiar with the topic.
And I also really enjoy discussing new ideas and things I’m looking into with my partner, and sometimes just verbalising my thoughts about something can help me sort out my ideas and get some clarity on what I’ve learned and what I’m leaning towards.
5. Conducting surveys and polls
A more structured way of gathering information from people involves surveys, polls, quizzes and questionnaires.
It’s still quite an informal approach, because the questions may not be especially carefully designed, and the answers might be free-form or hard to quantify, but nonetheless, you can still get very helpful information this way.
Some of the methods you could use include:
- Online polls, such as on social media
- In-person questionnaires, quizzes and surveys, with specific questions and either a set of possible answers or space for free-form answers
- Focus groups, where people give generally unstructured feedback on a product or experience
Basically, you’re trying to gather slightly more organised information from people, by giving them a prompt or two as they consider the topic.
With our meditation explorer, they might use this approach like this:
- Post a poll in their Facebook group, asking people to share their favourite type of meditation
- Create a one-page questionnaire about people’s experiences with meditation and hand it out at their local community group
- Find a poll on YouTube from a channel about meditation, and look at everyone’s answers and comments
- Invite their closest friends over to hang out, and get a discussion going about meditation, asking specific questions
From my life – I probably use this approach the least, because it does more time and effort to organise. But I remember conducting a poll of my classmates in Year 7 about relationships (and drawing pretty graphs), and I’ve also used single-question surveys and quizzes to better understand my website visitors’ needs.
This kind of informal research can certainly provide some useful insights, and sometimes the structure it offers helps people more easily tap into their own knowledge and insights to provide more specific, helpful feedback.
6. Searching through documents
Another approach to informal research is to look through any relevant documents that you have access to.
This might take the form of business files, personal letters and memos, official documents or just books.
This format of information can certainly provide more information on a topic, but does take time to go through and extract the useful pieces.
Searching documents might involve:
- Locating relevant documents amongst lots of irrelevant content
- Organising files into different categories or chronological order
- Reading through large tracts of text to find relevant sections
- Making copies or summaries of useful information
Depending on the nature of the documents, this might be quick and easy, or slow and painful, but can definitely help to flesh out your understanding of something.
Perhaps our would-be meditator could do the following:
- Visit the local library to see what books, magazines, DVDs or CDs they have on meditation
- Flip through all the meditation books and borrow the ones that look interesting
- Photocopy any helpful-looking diagrams or sections
- Highlight relevant passages, add sticky notes and write summaries in the margins
At the end of this process, they have a large body of information to refer to. Some of it they’ve read, understood and internalised, and other parts they’ll go back to later when they need more details.
From my life – I love reading, and I especially enjoy reading non-fiction books, because there’s always something to learn, and usually the information is well-organised.
Sometimes, if I need to wrap my head around something new, I’ll go to the library and borrow every book I can find on it, and immerse myself in the topic for a week or two.
I also love reading ebook samples on my ebook reader, and dipping my toe into a subject matter until I know enough to keep exploring or moving in the right direction. It’s easy to search these for keywords and make lots of notes and marks that I can refer back to later.
I love the idea that this kind of informal research and learning is going to be the classroom of the future, as outlined by Girish Gopalakrishnan in his TED talk:
7. Searching on the internet
We are blessed to be alive in the time of limitless information available to us at our fingertips, at the click of a mouse or swipe of a finger.
Doing informal research on the internet is fast, and easy, thanks to powerful search engines and countless bloggers and businesses who publish articles for us to discover.
Again, we need to exercise discretion, and consider the sources and credibility of the information we’re getting, but we can get a feel for a subject in almost no time at all. In fact, informal research is one of the main purposes of the world wide web.
Doing informal research on the internet might include:
- Searching for relevant terms in a popular search engine
- Skimming through relevant-looking results to see if they’re on-topic
- Reading through blog posts, news articles and forum discussions
- Saving relevant content to snipping tools, taking screenshots or bookmarking pages
- Printing out diagrams, lists or cheat sheets for quick and easy reference
- Searching within social media platforms, forums or reference sites for relevant posts
- Reading research papers, completing courses and watching videos
- Repeating the process for new concepts and terms unearthed along the way
- Summarising what we’ve learned in a notebook or document
Our budding meditator might decide to:
- Visit a popular meditation website and read their blog posts
- Search for “meditation tips” in Google
- Try out an online meditation course
- Save a bunch of meditation mantras to a Pinterest board
- Join a meditation forum and read past posts, and current discussions
- Use a guided meditation they found on YouTube
The possibilities are limitless with online research, so it’s also important not to get lost “down the rabbit hole” of endless information and leads to follow. Know what you want to get out of your research online, and stay focused.
From my life – Internet research is one of my favourite ways to start learning about something new. I’ll have a question, and I’ll start by doing some iterative searches until I get the right terms to give me relevant articles.
Searching well online is definitely a skill, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed, so exercising discretion and focus really helps me. I have a tool that allows me to save URLs for later reference, and I’ll often summarise what I’ve found in my OneNote file so I can remember what I found later.
I often use this to make quick decisions, but if I need more confidence or it’s a more complex issue, I’ll usually use other informal research methods as well, like reading books and talking to close friends.
8. Carrying out mini-experiments
A mini-experiment is basically a very cut-down version of a scientific experiment, but don’t let that intimidate you.
You may not realise it, but you conduct mini-experiments all the time in your day-to-day life, like trying a new shampoo or leaving the bread in the oven for a couple of extra minutes.
Any time we deliberately change one thing about our lives or a situation, and take note of the effect of that change, we’re conducting a mini-experiment. We’re testing something and seeing what happens.
We’re may not be explicitly following all the steps of the formal scientific method but that’s OK, because this is informal research.
And so you can use this approach to gather more information about your topic, which might look like:
- Wondering what would happen if you did something differently, and making some guesses about the likely outcome
- Deliberately changing one small detail about the situation or process
- Taking note of the “before” and “after” results
Back to our possible meditator, here’s some ways that they could use mini-experiments in their informal research on meditation:
- Choose three or four of the most appealing-sounding types of meditation, try each of them out, and see which one they like best
- Meditate for 10 minutes each day for a week, and note their moods, energy levels and mental state before and after
- Try journaling one week and meditation for another week, and observe the differences in their experience and the effects
- Attend a meditation class and compare it to meditating at home
The idea is to test and try out things and ideas, and use what you learn to inform your decisions or next steps.
From my life – As a trained scientist, I tend to be very methodical in my experiments, but I also do lots of informal, mini-experiments in my life, because it’s simpler and faster that way.
For example, I might notice that I’m feeling a bit “revved up” and wonder if it’s one of the supplements I’m taking. I might try stopping one of my supplements for a few days and notice if I feel any different, and keep stopping supplements until I feel better. To be sure I’ve found the culprit, I might start taking it again for a few days, and see if the feeling returns.
I know these kinds of experiments are not rigorous or take into account every possible variable in my life, but they do help me make choices about what’s best for me. I also find it helps greatly if I write down what I discover, because I often seem to forget my mini-experiments and then have to relearn them the hard way!
9. Doing a trial run
Once we’re getting a clearer picture of the topic, and have enough information to take action, then a trial can be a good informal way to explore something further.
Basically, we’re going a little further than a mini-experiment, and actually taking the information “for a spin” to see whether it holds true for us, or if we need to go back to other forms of research.
We’re creating a draft of something, an early prototype or a “minimum viable solution”. This allows us to try out a possible option without too much commitment, and gives us more feedback on whether all the ideas we’ve collected actually work in practice.
Here’s what that might look like:
- Writing out a draft of a plan of action
- Making a small decision, and seeing if it feels right
- Creating a cut-down version of the solution, and using for a few days or weeks
- Committing to doing something for a limited period of time only
- Share our decisions and/or plans with trusted people for their feedback
This is where the rubber meets the road for our new meditator. They might:
- Decide to meditate daily for 15 minutes using their preferred method, for 30 days
- Create a mediation calendar or start a meditation journal
- Join a local meditation studio, and pay for a single term of classes
- Set up a meditation space using cushions, crystals, candles or other objects already available around the house
From my life – I use this approach all the time, especially when I’m not sure if the solution I’ve found is right for me. I might buy just one bottle of a new supplement, and see how it goes. I might decide I want to try a new online tool, and choose one that has a free plan, so I can figure out if I like it in my own time.
As a Manifesting-Generator in the Human Design system of personality, this suits me very well, as it allows me to metaphorically “stick my toe in the water” and see if something is a good fit for me before fully committing my focus and energy to it.
What is informal research?
Informal research is a way to collect information quickly and easily, usually for personal use, that begins with asking questions. It can be biased, and may involve anecdotes, guesses and intuitive hunches. It’s not generally systematic or scientific, but is good for quick judgements and decisions.
Learning to discover information independently and outside of formal structures may also be an important skill for us to develop as we move into a world bursting with information but lacking in understanding, as laid out by Raymond Rodrigues in his 1979 paper on informal research.
Formal vs informal research
Formal research is conducted and used very differently from informal research, as outlined in the table below.
|Feature||Informal Research||Formal Research|
|Usage||Personal use||General use|
|Reviews||Not typically reviewed||Peer-reviewed|
|Sources||Not always known or cited||Always known and cited|
|Biases||Subjective, may include biases||Objective, biases are minimised|
|Methods||Informal research methods||The scientific method|
|Speed||Fast and easy||Slow and laborious|
|Reporting||Casual or absent||Structured, templated|
|Hypothesis||May exist, maybe not||Must exist|
|Regulations||Unregulated||Strict rules and regulations|
Although informal research may not be as generally useful as formal research, it can be a great way to explore an idea to see if for more formal research is required, and may form the foundations of future research projects.
Ready to do some informal research?
Although informal research is generally quick and easy, it’s a good idea to have a selection of methods in your toolkit to make it better quality and more efficient.
Doing informal research can be extremely helpful when looking to better understand a problem or situation in your life, or when wanting to make changes.
Now that you have a better understanding of these nine informal research methods, you’re well placed to find the best quality information in the shortest time possible.
Let me know in the comments below which of these approaches is your favourite, and any tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way to make your research even more effective.
These resources are also included in the article above and will help you explore the topic in more depth:
- Socractic Questioning at The University of Nebraska
- Elias Howe and Invention of the Sewing Machine at Dream Social
- Science and serendipity: famous accidental discoveries at New Humanist
- the formal scientific method
- Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
- Informal Learning: The Future by Girish Gopalakrishnan
- Informal Research in the Methods Class: Toward Independent Investigators and Teachers by Raymond J. Rodrigues, 1979
- Manifesting Generators at Find Your Natural Groove
Some of the ideas and information in this article came from the following sources: